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Entomologist Michael Wall Takes Us Behind the Scenes at TheNAT

September 23, 2013 10:27 a.m.


Dr. Michael Wall, Curator of Entomology and Vice President of Research and Public Programs

Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts and Culture Reporter

Related Story: Entomologist Gives Behind-The-Scenes Tour Of The Insect World


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The San Diego natural history Museum recently highlighted the bug world with its Dr. Entomo’s Palace of Exotic Wonders. While the exhibit has closed, the museum has an ongoing commitment to studying bugs through its entomology department and permanent collection. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes where many do not. And that includes her exploration of the insect world with the natural history museum's Dr. Michael Wall.

MICHAEL WALL: This is our entomology work lab where we got lots of microscopes and lots of vials of various types of insects that we have collected on different projects. This is mostly spiders from Baja California and over here we have got some of our living critters that we use mostly for educational purposes. So this is one of our native tarantulas. There's about 2 to 3 species of tarantulas that are native to San Diego County. There's also a scorpion hiding out back here. There's about a dozen different species of scorpions in San Diego County. So, a lot more diverse than people think and in fact Baja California is the most diverse place in the world for scorpions.

BETH ACCOMANDO: Most people think of the museum is a place you go to see things on display. Mostly not living things. So, tell us a little bit of what that man does kind of behind the scenes in terms of studying bugs, or contribute to science?

MICHAEL WALL: The insect collection house, we've got around 600,000 specimens in our insect collection. About 75% of those are from our region, so we really do focus on our region. So a lot of that is behind the scenes, so how is it used? What is the point of having all the specimens back here? Not only are they used for research like kind of your traditional university professor research type things, where they will actually come in the parent material so the way it works is kind of a little library for that type of research. One of the benefits we've created for the community I guess by focusing on our region is that we know a whole lot about life in San Diego County because of the collections in the natural history Museum and we know about that life stretching back for over 100 years. And because of that, we can provide data to land managers, the multiple species conservation plan which San Diego County is really famous for used a lot of our data to help protect and manage the wildlands of our County and our region. So, there's this combination of this really peers science type stuff like describing new species and deciding how they are related to one another and there's this very conservation science oriented work that our collections are based off of that help protect our habitats, local habitats.

BETH ACCOMANDO: So we can see some of these bugs in your collection?

MICHAEL WALL: Absolutely and then why we collect so many. It's a common question that we get.

BETH ACCOMANDO: So where we going now?

MICHAEL WALL: This is our collection. This is the 600,000 specimens that we have that I said that we have our house. So if I walk on back, so each one of these cases is filled with tons and tons and tons of insects in this case we are in the section on bees. Each one of these drawers is filled with these unit trays and every unit tray contains a different species of insect and it is a common question for us to get is why collect so many don't you need so many is one enough. The answer typically give folks about that is if you were an alien who was making a natural history collection of the work and you came, would you just pick one human out to represent all of the diversity that we have in this planet in terms of humans? If you picked me you would have a white guy with brown hair and greenish eyes about 6 foot five and I certainly without a doubt do not represent the diversity that is within the human species but the same thing happens here that there is a this morphological diversity we can see different shapes and sizes and stuff particularly when we look out from underneath a microscope but also all of these labels have data on them in the data is about where they were collected and when they were collected and by taking the information we can actually travel back in time and look at what did San Diego County look at look like say before World War II when the population boom in San Diego County really took off. And we can compare that to how San Diego County looks now. So we can actually look at the impacts of the changes, the human caused changes or other changes that have happened in our ecosystems. So, in addition to the research collections that we have, we also have an educational material that we take out and use in the community. And this is probably one of our most popular runs with the public and so this is called the Sting pain index and there was a researcher over in New Mexico actually allowed himself to be stung by a whole bunch of bees, wasps and ants in North America and he ranked them on a scale of 1 to 4 that you see here and so down at the bottom you have things like solitary bees, so they do not live in hives, life ephemeral, almost 3, said mildly alarming, so that kind of, I think all of these sound like wines, this one sounds like a Zinfandel down here, then you move up to a honeybee which most people are familiar with and they've got a bit of familiarity is rich, hearty, slightly crunchy, hot and smoky, almost irreverent. But you keep trekking up to we finally get to the tarantula Hawk which is the most painful sting in North America. Pure, intense brilliant pain blind furious and shockingly electric. I think he probably was drinking a little bit of wine as he was allowing himself to be stung to create this index.

BETH ACCOMANDO: So where are we going now?

MICHAEL WALL: So this is a case filled with various types of arachnids. So, insects have three pairs of legs, six legs in total. Arachnids and actually there are some other things in addition to arachnids that are called the (inaudible) or the centipedes and the millipedes and they have more than three pairs of legs. So we have a number of spiders and putting tarantulas in here as well as scorpions there's a lot of rule of thumb with scorpions that the bigger the cause, the less distinct because think about it as an investment in getting food. Because that's the reason why they've got to sting and closets all about food they use in self-defense as well as a rule of thumb it doesn't necessarily always the plan don't encourage people to go out and say well that's good because I can handle that, because you will get stone and it won't hurt, this will not be deadly.

BETH ACCOMANDO: Regarding tarantulas, they get used in films quite a bit there was a tarantula where it was a giant tarantula.

RECORDED VOICE: Even science was stunned, demand kinds greatest boom instead when such power to cause phenomenal growth grew dangerously unstable, man was confronted with his most shocking blunder that should have triggered the nutrient into a nightmare. The blunder that transforms a tiny insect into the hundred foot spider that was now ravaging the panic stricken countryside.

BETH ACCOMANDO: Are tarantulas really something that people should be scared of?

MICHAEL WALL: No particular the local species but tarantulas in general I think the fear stems from their size, their really big, they are hearing, they move really slow and creepily, that kind of thing all spiders are venomous so if you got bit by one it would hurt, but they are rarely deadly and our local species are not at all. And probably the most irritating thing about them is that those hairs that they have on their abdomens, they can actually make those, off on you and it's like fiberglass. So it is really a cheap. Again, they use this as a defense. Is not necessarily meant to subdue prey. Which is really what the things are about, is subduing prey.

BETH ACCOMANDO: So what got you interested in bugs?

MICHAEL WALL: My bachelors and Masters are actually in botany but my wife was working in her undergraduate, she was not my wife at the time, in entomology, so she kind of got me a little bit interested in that, because I would go study with her in the lab when she was studying but then I started getting really interesting in plant animal interactions, so the week that insects and plants would interact with each other so pollination is a really good interaction, also her bravery, in succeeding plan so once I finish my masters degree I figured I've got the plain side down I think of going to go for the insect

BETH ACCOMANDO: What was it about the kind of interaction between bugs and plants caught your interest and made you decide you wanted to explore further what bugs were doing

MICHAEL WALL: Interactions in nature always fascinating to me interactions and species can be in a positive way or negative way, in some cases it's positive for one but inconsequential to the other. I took a class in what is called chemical ecology which is about how chemicals can be the interaction between those two different species. And I think that is what really kind of grabbed me by the horns because there's all these incredible crazy interactions that go on between two different species of insects, between insects and plants, that are all mediated by these chemicals, either pheromones or almonds, and I think it's fascinating to see how the world works.

BETH ACCOMANDO: When you work you did you ever read the science fiction stories or watch movies like tarantula?

MICHAEL WALL: Definitely. I'm a big fan of bad science fiction movies. So them, and it seems like there's a ton about ants coming in and taking over places. But, them is probably the class a giant ant story.

RECORDED VOICE: We may be witnesses to biblical prophecy come true and destruction and darkness, (inaudible) upon creation and the beasts will reign over the earth. Yes, the earth, the skies above and the seas below, infested by swarms of nightmare creatures, crueler, deadlier than the giant prehistoric ants and (inaudible) fight of terror is the desert around to the grim battle for survival.

MICHAEL WALL: There is something innate that makes people fearful of insects and I understand that but I also find the things really entertaining.

BETH ACCOMANDO: A lot of people have fears and phobias about bugs. Why should we be concerned with bugs and be concerned if some of them are becoming extinct or are endangered in some ways, so what's important about them, what are they contributing?

MICHAEL WALL: One thing is that insects make food taste good, not because they taste good but because when they are eating plants the plans don't necessarily want to be eaten and so over time plants have evolved these chemical defenses. While the chemical defenses make it taste good to you and me. The flavor that Basil has to it, the flavor that lemongrass have stood, Thai food would be horribly planned if insects had not over evolutionary time selected for these chemical defenses that we find it taste so good. Also, insects pollinated between the pollination, the fact that they make life taste good in my opinion, they are also really involved in nutrient cycling. They are key components of the ecosystem, they are food for lots of other creatures that we like and enjoy. So, life without insects, I'm not sure how we would exist to be honest with you. They are crucial.

BETH ACCOMANDO: I have to confess, I'm a big fan of zombies and there have been a number of times in the insect world where you see this sense of like a zombifying another bug will zombify another bug,

MICHAEL WALL: Yeah some of the most fascinating stories to me are the stories of parasites because the level of interaction, or the specificity of interaction can just be incredible and one that I heard very recently has to do with a wasp that parisitizes these cockroaches. What it does is it finds a cockroach, it quickly stings it twice in the brain, it's very specific places, and when it does that, the cockroach loses its free will. So, it can still move, it's not paralyzed, it can still move, but it just stands there. Then, the wasp will leave it, go off and find a borough, meanwhile the cockroaches just sitting there, hanging out, waiting for you know, the wasp to come back essentially. The wasp will come back, actually buy it by its antenna, lead it back to the borough, where it will then lay an egg on the outside of it. Parasites have a tendency to do this. They will eventually take over the know, the brains, I don't know if it is the prince, but they take over their behavior and cause them to do things that they normally wouldn't do.

BETH ACCOMANDO: In your studies when you come across stories like this has it ever occurred to you to want to write something like a science fiction story?

MICHAEL WALL: Definitely because I do, we have a pretty active Facebook page that we are constantly posting things that we discover and there are so many cool stories. I mean one of the things that really got me into entomology, you asked that earlier, there are these things called (Berlasy) samples, essentially take leaf litter, you put it into a funnel that has a screen, you put a screen, and a light above and the heat starts to cry the leaf litter you've collected out from under a tree or bush. It starts to dry out and the insects say it's getting dry up there we want to go down. They go down and eventually drop into the funnel and you have a container to collect him underneath. I looked at one of the samples and it looks like when you just looked at it with your eyes. There is just a bunch of Sands sand other you might be able to see a worm or a tiny beetle, but then when you actually looked at it underneath the microscope, the diversity, like all that stuff that I thought was sand were these little lights are things called Springdales or tiny tiny beetles. When you just start looking at things under a microscope and you realize these things are incredibly complex. That is what got me really into entomology, is that there is this whole other world that is out there. You know, we kind of don't pay attention to it because it is really really small. But it does drive all of these things that are so important to us and also it's just fascinating. It's intrinsically fascinating.

[Music playing]

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaking with Dr. Michael Wall curator of entomology at the Nat.