Dr. Michael Wall, Curator of Entomology for TheNat
Related Story: Dr. Entomo's Palace of Exotic Wonders
ALISON ST. JOHN: The San Diego natural history Museum is asking you to step right up and see some of the creepiest crawly is mysterious and mind blowing creatures ever to walk the face of the earth predinner exhibit is called Dr. Entymo's Palace of exotic wonders. And like an old-fashioned circus sideshow, this bug zoo represent some of the most extreme and most curious and six, many of them alive. Here to speak with me about the creepiest show on earth is my guest Dr. Michael Wall who is curator of entomology for the natural history Museum. Michael, thanks so much for coming in.
MICHAEL WALL: Thanks for the invitation
ALISON ST. JOHN: This is a unique way to present this, why a circus sideshow?
MICHAEL WALL: I think for me I always tell people that there is nothing that a science fiction writer has ever thought of that insects have not done already. And so, I mean when you really start to learn more about insects and their lifestyle it really is so extreme. I mean it is capitalized with! Because there are all these amazing ways that they have found ways to fit into the ecosystems. So it just seems fitting that you would do, you use a sideshow type the that is so extreme and it is the greatest show on earth.
ALISON ST. JOHN: The kids are going to love this. All the kids will be clamoring to go. Describe what the exhibit looks like it's very bright and vivid, isn't it?
MICHAEL WALL: Absolutely it's all primary colors and it really is the from a design perspective like a sideshow. So you've got to feel like you are in there, we've got ambient sound playing in the background of the carnival, and it really does feel like you are in the middle of a carnival except that it's an insect carnival.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Tell us about some of these extreme bugs.
MICHAEL WALL: There's a variety of living and dead insects you can see in the exhibit. I think probably one of my personal favorites actually is the to do with an Egyptian mummy. So, it uses a mummy kind of as an analogy metamorphosis because as most folks know insects go through this process of metamorphosis like the very hungry Caterpillar and there is a resting stage, the pupa stage that the insect has so you get to see all of these squirmy mealworms, then you see them in the resting stage, then you see the adult they eventually end up becoming. The Egyptian tomb kind of has the same mythology associated with it. This is a passage, this is a transformation to another world, to a heavenly realm kind of thing so I thought they did a really interesting job of combining together I really lesson on metamorphosis with a lesson on spiritual metamorphosis.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Interesting, bugs in transformation. Apparently there is a bug, bird eating tarantula, does it really birds?
MICHAEL WALL: I think it is called that because it is really enormous. It is the biggest tarantula on the face of the planet. Don't have the biggest specimen, but we do have the biggest species. They take small vertebrates like birds and in fact and in fact there's not this particular there are photographs you can find on the Internet that are legitimate of spiders taking birds in their webs, or on the ground. But for the most part they just eat other invertebrates, other insects.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Getting tarantulas have a bad rap, are they really dangerous or they just looked dangerous?
MICHAEL WALL: It's the big hairiness that makes it scary for folks. But particularly we've got about two or three species of tarantulas that live in San Diego County and they are much smaller than the bird eating tarantula. All spiders have venom, so they can bite.
ALISON ST. JOHN: You would want to keep, it's not like a pet.
MICHAEL WALL: Some people keep them as pets. We have some in the museum that we bring out every once in a while that our local species. I certainly would not advise people to go grab them because actually one of the more irritating things about tarantulas is all the hearsay have on the body particularly the ones on my abdomen they can brush off and it's like a fiberglass into your skin so you can imagine if you are a skunk or some sort of rodent you saw tarantula you would think yummy, that's a lot of protein, but when you go up to it rather than trying to buy a predator, they scrape the hairs off, and it gets in the nose and mouth and it's really itchy. It's itchy and irritated. So it is their self defense mechanism and it can happen to you too if you pick them up.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Interesting comment don't be tempted no matter how free they are. You also have a large millipedes. Are they poisonous?
MICHAEL WALL: The interesting thing about millipedes is that they produce a really stinky substanceAnd so, they do not bite. But, when they are irritated, they lose out this, actually in some millipedes it's really closely related to cyanide and everybody is familiar with cyanide poisoning. Is really distasteful. I don't think you would necessarily kill you if you ate one, but it would certainly make you feel very yucky. Again, that is an anti-predator defense. There are diesel chemical factories that. The chemicals inside the bodies.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Are all of the exhibits behind glass, or do the visitors have a chance to interact?
MICHAEL WALL: In the main exhibit hall everything is behind glass. Starting in March, every Sunday we are going to do six legged Sunday's in which people could come to the museum and myself or one of the other entomologists at the Museum we will have people can handle critters if they are so adventuresome.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Would this include, we are not talking about snakes, we are talking about bugs. What does it cover?
MICHAEL WALL: Bugs is a very generalized term and for me the fancy way to say it would be to say terrestrial arthropods. He lives on land, and arthropods means jointed foot. It would include spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, every insect you can think about, all of those fall into the category of arthropods are bugs, which everyone.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Obviously these things turn you on. What got you interested in the first place?
MICHAEL WALL: This is sort of embarrassing but what got me interested was my wife. She was an entomologist working on her degree while I was working on my degree in botany which is the study of plants and I was going to lapse with her and looking at all the cool things she was doing and decided I want to take some of those classes and once I started taking those classes I got hooked.
ALISON ST. JOHN: The exhibit is what the public gets to see, the museum is also doing some things behind the scenes with bugs, I understand. What kind of collections does it have?
MICHAEL WALL: The museum has a very large collection of over 600 specimens, just like all the other collections at the natural history Museum in San Diego we focus on the region. So it's focused on San Diego County and Baja California, Southern California, we do a variety of types of projects. Particularly what we are interested in are the assemblages of species that occur in different areas as you know Southern California has so many unique habitats and we know a lot about unique plants and vertebrates that lived in the habitats but we actually knew very little about the insects in our region, and so we are trying to solve some of those mysteries.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Can you give me an example of some of the areas where you are going and collecting bags and what you would be doing the collections?
MICHAEL WALL: Most recently we've been doing some work in Baja California in an area called (inaudible) De La Libertad and what I'm particularly interested in that area is you see Palm oases there, and these palms have insects that feed on and when they feed on them they produce a bunch of honeydew just like aphids produce honeydew, so all this sugary excretion essentially is piling up under the palms and other insects come in and eat the sugary excretions of the insects that are eating the palms, and it becomes a really quite complex ecosystem of palms, things eating palms and things eating the sugary excrement of the things that he palms, and we've discovered three species that are new to science from network. That we are in a process of describing.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Presumably there are things that the food chain that depend on them.
MICHAEL WALL: Why should we care about insects, why should we care about whether or not Argentine ants come in and invade San Diego, and it really is that up the food chain impact, because just like with the Argentine ants that were introduced invasive species which we did the exhibit when they came to Southern California they decrease the diversity of our native ants, and you say who cares, but the coast horned lizards are specialized to feed on harvester ants which are much bigger than Argentine ants, so they don't even perceive Argentine ants as food so because of that we are seeing a decline in the coastal horned lizard population. Just keep stacking it keeps going up the food chain, some people often say to me man I used to hike around all the time when I was little and I see Coast Horned lizards all the time where did they go? And then you walk back and take a look at the ecosystem and you think answer really important.
ALISON ST. JOHN: You are talking about and that might beIf that might be harder to answer people are discovering now?
MICHAEL WALL: All groups of insects, I mean there's plenty of work out there for entomologists are interested or anyone who's interested in new species discovery. I think recently in England and amateur entomologist discovered three new species of beetles. A friend of mine up at the Santa Barbara natural history Museum just published a paper where I think he had 23 new species. And so new species discovery is certainly out there.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Now, who is using the collections?Is it just bug specialist, or anybody else benefiting from the research?
MICHAEL WALL: You name it. And that person is potentially using it. We have artist to come into the collection who use the collections for our work. We have research scientist obviously that we loan materials how to, but also one of the things I think people find surprising is a lot of conservation organizations and biological consultants use the data that's found within our collections as well because you have to remember that natural history collections are not just an object, they are an object associated with data, where it was collected, when it was collected and that information can be useful for us learning about the past for instance a lot of the collections predate the 1950s we could take a look at what San Diego looked at in the 1950s versus now and start to get an idea of how population growth or climate change has impacted San Diego.
ALISON ST. JOHN: My goodness, the ramifications are endless. So do you have a personally favorite bug, and if so, why?
MICHAEL WALL: I'm not sure, people often ask me what would be our mascot, if the entomology department at the natural history Museum had a mascot and for me are mascot would be the Jerusalem cricket which is local species of cricket. It gets parasitized by the horsehair worms, and that is another one that is featured in the exhibit. Ms. These Jerusalem crickets, and the story of the horsehair worm and there's a graphic novel and there. And it's definitely the one I get the most phone calls about in terms of people calling the museum and say knife found this and I usually play a game that is kind of like I can need not about it one adjective kind of like name that tune, and the one for the Jerusalem crickets is either alien, or giant termite. That is another thing that people calling and they are really weird, but they are gorgeous and interesting in their own way.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Do you end up traveling to do the research or are you pretty much staying at the museum?
MICHAEL WALL: I travel throughout the region to build collections and so on, but a lot of my time is spent at the museum and we are always happy to take people's queries.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay now why is the exhibit moving away from naturalistic settings for bugs in favor of a sideshow?
MICHAEL WALL: I think again, to give the fun feeling of wonder because that is what we want to inspire at the natural history Museum is a sense of wonder and sometimes by taking things out of their natural setting and giving us a new perspective to look at it can cause us to you know, change the way we feel and think about things. So I think when people come into perspective will be shifted a little bit in a festive way to think about insects and hopefully when they walk out they will have learned a little bit more and had a fun time in the process.
ALISON ST. JOHN: How weird you think that bugs are of their environment?Do you think the fact they are surrounded by color and lights like a festival sideshow, would affect them negatively perhaps?
MICHAEL WALL: I don't think so. They don't seem to be, they still happily eat and drink and some of them have babies, so, yeah, they are fully functioning and operating and do not seem to be any worse for wear for being inside.
ALISON ST. JOHN: What are you going to do with all the bugs when the exhibit is finished?
MICHAEL WALL: We will keep many of them and continue to use them for programs inside the museum and some will go off to the exhibits next destination.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Now a lot of people I think think of blogs as pests, that is the first thing that comes in, and bug spray. Are you hoping that this exhibit might change the attitude in some way?
MICHAEL WALL: Certainly without a doubt. I mean, over 1 million described species of insects. And, of those that are actually pests, it is an infinitely small percentage of them. So most insects that are out there are actually enhancing our world. They are doing the pollination that puts food on our table that we love to eat. They are turning the soil to get nutrients to come back up to the surface. They are involved in all sorts of aspects of our lives. I mean, I really like Thai food for instance anti-food has all these wonderful flavors of basil and lemon grass. Well the reason why a lot of the flavors exist in the first place is because the plants have tried to evolve ways to get insects not to eat them by making all these chemicals. I mean, the chemicals do not serve a purpose for the plant other than to deter insects from eating them and recent studies have shown that if you take insects out of the ecosystem, plants will quickly use, lose the trait of having defensive chemicals. So I always tell people that the world would taste much blander without insects around. Also insects have their own intrinsic worth, I think.
ALISON ST. JOHN: That is so interesting it sounds to me like that exhibit will change a lot of attitudes as well as being really fun for kids and adults. It is Dr. and Thomas Palace of exotic wonders of the natural history Museum, runs for how long?
MICHAEL WALL: It will be here for about three months.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Michael Wall who is curator of entomology for the natural history Museum, thank you.
MICHAEL WALL: Thank you.