Leaping Libanasidus! Johannesburg 'Burbs Invaded by Odd Bug

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

JOHANNESBURG'S leafy white suburbs are being invaded by an ugly insect, which is sowing terror by the barbeques and poolsides.

The rainy season has brought a new horror to housewives already trembling from a violent crime wave -- the advance of Libanasidus vittatus, alias The Parktown Prawn.

The creature looks like a mutant locust on steroids and is distantly related to the cricket and grasshopper. It takes its nom de guerre from its orange-pink hard shell and the suburb, Parktown, where it was first spotted several years ago.

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No one knows where the prawns first came from, although similar species have been spotted in faraway New Zealand and on the outskirts of South Africa's Kruger Park. It is certain that they are virtually indestructible, revolting to look at, and moving in on new turf.

''They are a horrible-looking but admirably resilient animal,'' says Marcus Burns, an entomologist from Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University.

The prawns are like creations from a bad, class-B movie. With bulging eyes and perpetually waving antennae, they can grow as long as four inches. The males have huge jaws. They can leap in the air. They resist normal insecticides. When feeling cornered, they spurt a foul-smelling substance and even try to attack.

Contrary to rumor, however, they do not fly and do not eat human flesh. When left alone, the prawns will quietly munch on dead leaves and snails in the garden, where they will lurk inconspicuously until the rainy season brings out their gregarious streak.

''All that erratic leaping around and stink makes them pretty frightening,'' Mr. Burns says. ''But aside from the odd nip they are pretty harmless creatures.''

Experts say the most effective method to kill a prawn is to throw it into a jar of gasoline or alcohol.

Go to any Johannesburg dinner party and the conversation will invariably turn to the dreaded prawns. Everyone seems to have a story of near-mythical proportions about the beasts. One deep-sea diver claims he took a prawn in a bottle on an underwater trip -- and it exploded, killing a school of fish. Other people recount tales of their vicious guard dogs who retreated, yelping, after encounters with prawns. A colleague tells how a prawn devoured an entire jalapeno pepper on his kitchen floor, with no app arent ill effects. Others confide they train their cats to dance nimbly around the prawns, driving the insects to distraction.

Some South Africans gloat over how prawns were found in the shoes of enemies. They shudder describing how their defenseless children slumbered while prawns lurked by the bedside.

Whether these tales are true is immaterial -- the horror is real.

Entomologists believe the bugs are a forest-dwelling species drawn to moist environments. They thus naturally congregate on the well-watered lawns and pool sides of the white affluent suburbs. Their numbers are growing at alarming rates -- females can lay up to 100 eggs a year. And their only known predator is the Hadeda Ibis, a big, loud bird with a long drill-like beak, which also resides in suburban gardens.

The prawns were once restricted to white areas. But since the demise of apartheid in last April's elections, they have been seen in racially integrated areas.

Last week a large specimen was spotted sitting menacingly in front of a house in Johannesburg's previously prawn-free trendy Yeoville district.

''There goes the neighborhood,'' sighed an African National Congress official next door.

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