Long ago, when animals first appeared, the snakes had no eyes. Instead, they had beautiful voices. They could sing better than the birds!
Unfortunately, being blind, those snakes had trouble moving through the world. If they weren't very careful they would bump into things. They had trouble finding their food. And they heard from other animals about the beautiful flowers, green grass, sunlight – but could never see any of it. “I wish I had eyes,” sighed one Snake.
Meanwhile, in those days the earthworms had big eyes, but there was nothing to see in their underground homes. Instead they burrowed silently and alone in the dark, wishing that they could at least sing to themselves for company. “My eyes are no use to me,” whispered Earthworm. “I wish I had a beautiful voice, like Snake.
Mole Cricket, burrowing underground, overheard Earthworm's whisper. Mole Cricket had hardly any voice himself. “I know how you feel,” he creaked to Earthworm. “How would you like it if I arrange a trade? I think Snake would gladly swap his beautiful voice for your useless eyes.”
Earthworm agreed. And soon Mole Cricket got Snake to agree too.
Mole Cricket snipped off Earthworm's useless eyes and gave them to Snake. Snake was delighted! She sang, “Look at the sunshine! The flowers! The grass! This is wonderful. And I can see where I'm going!”
“Congratulations,” said Mole Cricket. “Now give me your singing voice. That's the other half of the bargain.”
Snake gave Mole Cricket her voice. But Mole Cricket was tricky. Instead of giving that voice to Earthworm, he kept it for himself.
Even today, earthworms are still blind and silent. Snakes can see, but if they try to sing, all that comes out is a hiss. And male mole crickets sing beautiful love songs in the spring, when they're looking for a wife.
Prairie mole crickets Gryllotalpa major can make noise indeed. And in spring, the flightless males band together to amplify their chirps by digging a horn-shaped tunnel at a “lek” (shared courtship site), the better to attract the winged females.
The amazing thing is that those females can tune out all but the chirp of one male in that din! Scientists at Nature Conservancy's Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County are studying this ability, hoping to copy it in hearing aids for human ears so that a wearer can hear one person's conversation over background noise.
But we almost lost this chance for an important acoustic breakthrough. In 1984 the prairie mole cricket was thought to be extinct due to habitat loss. Their only habitat, tallgrass and mixed-grass prairie, once covered most of the eastern Great Plains; but people had converted 99% of that to farm land and developments.
Fortunately in the late 1980's, surveys in Oklahoma found prairie mole cricket populations after all. By 1990, careful surveys had discovered small populations in OK, KS, MO and AR prairie preserves, and the crickets were re-listed as Endangered rather than Extinct. Citizen scientists are still searching for more populations.
Gryllotalpa major lives up to its species name. They are the biggest crickets in North America, sometimes as much as 2” long! Their mole-like clawed front feet are useful for their underground life, and for the males to dig horn-shaped tunnels of love in the spring.
If you visit the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, you won't hear the earthworms and may not hear any crickets but the snakes have eyes to see you. The snakes don't like to be disturbed, however, and they have no voices to warn you away (not counting the rattle snakes). Stay on the marked trails!
My Japanese friend Hiroko Fujita learned a version of this story from Takeda Kuni, the farmer who worked the field next to her childhood home in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture. (Mimizu to Hebi “Earthworm and Snake” pg 12 in Folktales from the Japanese Countrysideby Hiroko Fujita and Fran Stallings, Libraries Unlimited 2008).
But in Kuni-san's story, Earthworm and Snake arranged the swap between the two of them. And Fujita-san says that if you listen carefully, you can sometimes hear Earthworm singing underground to pass the dark hours.
But folklorist Hiroko Ikeda (motifs A2332.6.4, A2421) thinks that the traditional “song” of the earthworm was really made by a mole cricket. And Miroslav Noval's Fairy Tales from Japan (Hamlyn, 1970) has a version of the story where Mole Cricket arranged the trade and kept Snake's voice for himself. So I have included the cricket in my retelling, as a link to our science fact-tale.
“Can You Hear Me? Prairie Mole Crickets: Nature's Master Noise Cancelers” pp 4-5 The Nature Conservancy Oklahoma Update, Spring 2019. For article and videos, see https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/oklahoma/stories-in-oklahoma/praire-mole-crickets-ok/
Lost Cricket Project, https://www.wildlifedepartment.com/wildlife/wildlife-diversity/lost-cricket-project, a citizen science program, is currently recruiting participants to help find new populations of prairie mole crickets! The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the prairie mole cricket as data deficient. By participating in “The Lost Cricket Project”, you can help collect valuable scientific data that will be used to create an updated species distribution map for Oklahoma and to help develop protocols for conducting acoustic surveys of prairie mole crickets. This information will be used to help manage this rare native Oklahoma species.