Thursday, March 7, 2013
KPBS arts and culture reporter Beth Accomando checks out the entomology department at TheNAT.
The San Diego Natural History Museum just opened a new bug exhibit called Dr. Entomo’s Palace of Exotic Wonders. I spoke with the museum’s curator of entomology, Dr.Michael Wall to go beyond the exhibit to find out more about the insect world.
Horror and science fiction frequently turn to bugs and the insect world to scare people.
From 50s sci-fi like "Tarantula" to "Them!" to more recent films like "Night of the Creeps" and "Slither," Hollywood has been giving us not just giant bugs but stories about parasitic creatures that can enter your body and control your mind... even after your dead! But none of those scenarios surprise Dr. Michael Wall.
"Science fiction writers might have thought they came up with an original idea but insects did it first."
If I wanted to write a scary movie, I’d consult with Wall, Curator of Entomology at the San Diego Natural History Museum, also known as TheNat.
"So the Alien movies, that’s straight out of the world of insects."
A classic case of parasitic behavior. And it’s those kind of interactions that got Wall hooked on bugs and eventually landed him a job at the TheNAT.
"This is our entomology work lab," Wall explains as he gives me a tour of the entomology department, "We have lots of microscopes, lots of vials of various types of insects we’ve collected on different projects. The museum has about 600,000 specimens in its insect collection. So each one of these cases is filled with tons and tons of insects we’re in the section with bees. And each one of these drawers is filled with these unit trays and every unit tray contains a different species of insect."
The majority are dead but a few are alive, like the Jerusalem cricket. The Jerusalem cricket looks like something out of a horror movie with its alien-like exoskeleton. It’s also featured in a part of the museum’s new bug exhibit, Dr. Entomo’s Palace of Exotic Wonders. The Jerusalem cricket is found in San Diego and is part of what the museum is calling Cricket Zombies.
"Because they can get parasitized by things called horse hair worms that eventually they take over the chemistry of the cricket and cause them to feel like they are thirsty, like they are insatiably thirsty and so that drives the crickets to water and then they actually drown themselves and then the horse hair worm comes out."
Wow! It is like a horror film.
Wall adds, "And parasites have a tendency to do this, they will eventually take over the brains… I don’t know if it’s the brains but they will take over their behaviors and cause them to do things that they normally wouldn’t do."
Like a fungus that zombifies ants in order to make them climb high atop plants so the fungus can release its spores. Then there’s a wasp that stings a cockroach.
"And when it does that the cockroach loses its free will," says Wall, "The wasp will come back, bite it by its antenna, lead it back to the burrow where it will then lay an egg on the inside of it."
That too is the stuff of horror. But Wall says we have only scratched the surface of the bug world.
"There’s a little over a million species of described insects and the estimates range up to like 10 million more. Just in terms of knowing what’s out there, there’s so much we have to discover and that doesn’t even begin to get into the interactions of how all those things interact with one another."
If you’re still asking why should you care about the insect world, consider this Thai food wouldn’t be nearly as flavorful without bugs.
"Insects make food taste good and not because they taste good but because when they are eating plants, the plants don’t necessarily want to be eaten so they over time plants have evolved these chemical defenses, well those chemical defenses make it taste good to you and me."
Or take the glorious and iridescent butterflies whose wings don’t contain pigment but rather tiny scales that are little prisms that reflect back light. That’s a kind of technology Wall says Qualcomm is interested in.
"They are using the same sort of technology inside these butterfly wings to create color displays for electronic devices that do not require backlight."
So from tiny, terrifying parasites to inspiring innovators, the insect world serves up far more than the annoying pests we might see in our kitchen. It’s a world of wonder that Wall and the museum hope to open up for everyone to appreciate.