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Flesh-Eating Bugs At The Nat's New Living Lab Exhibit

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando petting a rosy boa constrictor at San Diego Natural History Museum's Living Lab Exhibit.
Roland Lizarondo
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando petting a rosy boa constrictor at San Diego Natural History Museum's Living Lab Exhibit.

San Diego Natural History Museum showcases live specimens

Flesh-Eating Bugs At The Nat's Living Lab

Companion viewing

"The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971)

"Microcosmos" (1996)

"Life in the Undergrowth" (2005, BBC documentary series)

Have you ever wanted to see flesh-eating beetles at work? You now have your chance as the San Diego Natural History Museum serves up the Living Lab where the public can meet the creepy and the crawly, the slimy and slithery up close.

Flesh-Eating Bugs At The Nat's New Living Lab Exhibit
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

When I went to McKamey Manor’s extreme haunt in 2014, I felt confident that I could let a tarantula named Mary walk on my face because The Nat’s entomologist Michael Wall had told me they were not dangerous. I had nothing to fear, right?


"Well it depends on what level of fear and danger you are worried about," Wall explained to me as we talked about the new exhibit at The Nat. "They're not dangerous in the sense of that they're very unlikely to bite you. You really have to like stick your finger up in their mouth to get them to bite you and even if they bit you it would be very painful but very unlikely to make you sick and even less likely to cause you to die or anything like that. But where they do become a little bit dangerous is that they've got these little hairs on their rear end that when they're agitated they'll brush off in those hairs are kind of like fiberglass they get into your skin and they make you super itchy and certainly if you had one on your face then the potential of getting those hairs in your eyes or around your mucous membranes it could be irritating but again it would disappear and everything would be fine again."

That’s a relief. And I was delighted to see one of our local tarantulas at the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Living Lab Exhibit. Wall and exhibit developer Bradley Tsalyuk gave me a tour starting with a large enclosure featuring two local lizards: a desert iguana and a granite spiny lizard. As we walked by the spiny lizard started doing push ups.

"The spiny lizard will do push ups as a threat to other males," Wall said. "It's a territorial display to say, 'Hey I'm big and tough. You better stay out of my territory.'"

As we moved deeper into the exhibit Tsalyuk pointed out some large, beautiful snakes.

"These are some of our venomous animals that we have in the exhibition including this large red diamond rattlesnake," Tsalyuk said. "We want to start breaking down the misconceptions that people have about some of these animals. We want to build empathy around them."


That tends to happen when visitors see these live critters in an interactive environment designed to educate them. One of the best examples of this is the observation beehive.

"These are western honeybees," Tsalyuk explained. "Common bees that you'll see that have been introduced to North America. And this hive is specially designed for them to live right here inside the building. But they have access to Balboa Park and the bees are just allowed to do their thing. They've got an entry and exit tube that takes them outside of the building and they get to pollinate our beautiful park for us."

Wall pointed to the bees and said, "You can see some of them cruising around in there with what looks like little yellow bundles on their back legs and that is the pollen baskets. So they're out there actively foraging right now collecting pollen and nectar and they bring it back and will store it in the hive to later feed to the to the larvae."

Living Lab remainds visitors that the San Diego Natural History Museum is not just a place where you take kids to look at dinosaur skeletons. It’s also a research facility that houses millions of specimens as well as live animals. This new exhibit places the largest number of its living specimens from our region on display for visitors.

"The museum has a substantial research and conservation division," Tsalyuk stated. " And that's part of the goal that this exhibition is working towards. Right. We want to educate people about the unique biodiversity of our region and we want them to fall in love with that biodiversity. So ultimately they care about it enough to save it. And so that really aligns with our research and conservation goals our educational goals."

At the exhibit visitors can find information on all the creatures on display, and if they are lucky, can possibly view the snakes being fed or get to see one of the handlers bring out a rosy boa constrictor or a tarantula.

My favorite part of the exhibit is the flesh-eating beetles.

"These are our dermestid beetles also called hide or skin beetles," Tsalyuk said. "These beetles are unique because they're doing a job for us here at the museum. They're actually helping to clean and prepare our skeletal specimens for our collection."

"This isn't the only specimen that's being prepared for the entire museum right now," Wall explained as we looked at the single Eurasian lynx skeleton the beetles were slowly and methodically cleaning. We actually have a large container down next to our warehouse like a shipping container that's filled with all these and all the different specimens that are being processed right now."

Wall has a favorite at the exhibit too: the stink beetle.

"If you get a little too close to them they have this characteristic behavior of raising their rear end up in the air and that is a threat to you that if you get too close you might get the stink side of the stink beetle. But there is one mammal that sort of figured them out and it's this mouse called the grasshopper mouse and when a grasshopper mouse encounters a stink beetle they'll run up and grab them and they'll flip them over and plant their butts down into the ground and then they just eat them from the top down like an ice cream cone leaving the stinky bits behind them."

Wall always has the tastiest bits of information to share. But as vice president of science and conservation for the museum, Wall also hopes that the exhibit has a positive impact.

"We're really just hoping to get people to start thinking about the biodiversity of our region, start maybe falling on love with some of these slimy slithering things and hopefully they'll develop a little bit more of a conservation ethic or at least they won't be scared and squish things," Wall said.

Thanks to Wall and The Nat, I’m feeling a little more warm and fuzzy toward our slithering slimies and creepy crawlies.

Living Lab will be on view through at least September 1, 2020, this exhibition is free for members and included with general admission.

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