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Entomologist On Scary Bugs And Sci-Fi

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Horror and science fiction frequently turn to bugs and the insect world to scare people and this podcast features theNAT's entomologist Dr. Michael Wall talking about the interplay of science and pop culture.

Show transcript

I am Beth Accomando, your resident cinema Junky. Today from the achieves I am pulling out my interview with NAT’s curator of entomology, Dr. Michael Wall. He will be introducing the new giant bug movie Stung, tonight at 9:00 PM, at the Digital Gym Cinema. So, if you are wondering if he is worth coming out to hear, or if you can’t make the show, this interview will give a taste of how much fun entomology can be, and how scary the inset world really is. I begin my interview with behind the scene tour of NAT’s entomology department, where Dr. Michel Wall let a scorpion get away from him and run around on the floor. My videographer, [indiscernible] [00:00:36] asked if it was dangerous, Michel laughed and said “No! It’s not lethal; you won’t die from it, oh! But yeah! But it would hurt if you got stung.” wish I had video of that, but I don’t, sorry. So, let’s just start out tour behind the scenes at NAT's entomology department with Dr. Michael Wall.

Interviewee: Behind the scenes tour into the entomology department. This is our entomology work lab; we have got lots of microscopes and lots of veils of various types of insects we have collected on different project. This is mostly spiders from Baja, California, and over here, we have got some of our living creatures that we use mostly for educational purposes, this is one of our native tarantulas, this is about two to three species of tarantulas, that are made in Santiago County; there is also a scorpion hide now, at back here. There is about a dozen different species of scorpions in Santiago County, so lot more diversified than people think, in fact Baja, California is more diverse place in the world for scorpions.

Interviewer: Most people think of a museum as place you go to see things on display, mostly not living things, so tell us a little bit of what NAT does kind of behind the scenes, in terms of studying bugs or contributing to science.

Interviewee: This insect collection has, we have got around six hundred thousand specimens in our insect collection, about 75% of those are from our region, so we really do focus on our region. So, lot of that behind the scenes, and so how is that, what is the point of having all these specimens back here, not only are they used for research, like kind of your traditional university professor research type things, where they actually come borrow material from us. Way our collections are kind of learn library for that type of research. But one of the benefit that we have created for the community, I guess by focusing on our region is that, we get a whole lot about life in Santiago County, because of the collections in the natural history museum. And we know about life stretching back for over a hundred years, and because of that we can provide data to land managers, the multiple species conservation plan which Santiago County is really famous for, use lot of our data to help protect and manage the wild lands of our County, in our region. So, there is combination of this really peer science type stuff, like describing new species and figuring out how they are related to one another, and there is very conservation science oriented work that our collections are based off of that help protect our habitats, wild life habitats.

Interviewer: And we can see, some of these bugs in your collection.

Interviewee: Absolutely, we can talk more about why we collect so many? [laughter]. It’s a common question we get.

Interviewer: So where are we going now?

Interviewee: This is our collection; this is where those six hundred thousand specimens that I said we have at our house, we walk on that. So, each one of these cases is filled with tons and tons of insects, in this case we are in the section on bees, each one of these drawers is filled with this unit trays and every unit tray contains a different species of insect and it is a pretty common question for us to get, is why do you collect so many? why do you need this many? Isn’t one enough? The answer I typically give folks about that is that you know if you were an alien who is making a natural history collection of the earth, and you came would you just pick one human out to represent all of the diversity that we have on this planet in terms of humans. If you picked me out, you would have white guy with brown hair and greenish eyes, about six foot five and I certainly without a doubt do not represent the diversity that is within the human species. The same thing happens here, there is all this morphological diversity, and we can see differences in shapes and sizes and stuffs, particular when we look underneath the microscope, but then also all these labels have data on them, in that data is about the where there were collected, when they were collected and by taking that information then we can travel back in time and we can look at what did Santiago County look like, say before the World War II, before the pollution boom in Santiago Country really took off and we can compare that to how Santiago County looks now, so we can actually look at impacts of the changes, human cost changes or other changes that have happened in our eco systems. So in addition to the research collections that we have, we also have educational material but we take out and use in the community, this one is probably one of our popular ones with public, and say this is sting pain index, and there was researcher over new Mexico, who actually allowed himself to be stung by whole bunch of bees, was from north America, we ranked on the scale of one to four, that you see here and so, down at the bottom you have things like solitary bees, they don’t live in [indiscernible] [00:06:03] sudden and mildly alarming, so that kind of, I think all these sound like wines, this one’s sounds little bit like Zinfandel, down here. And then you move up, to a honey bee, which most people are familiar with, so there you have got little bit of familiarity in it, its rich hardly, slightly crunchy, hot and smoky, almost irreverent,[chuckle] and then you keep tracking up until you finally get to the [indiscernible] [00:06:26], which is the most painful sting in North America, here intense really in pain, blinding fears, and shockingly electric, and so I think he probably was drinking a little bit of wine and he was allowing himself to be stung to create this index.

Interviewer: So, where are we going now?

Interviewee: So, this is a case filled with various types of arachnoids, and so insets have 3 pairs of legs, six legs in total, arachnoids, and actually there is some other things in here in addition to arachnoids that are myriapods or the centipedes or millipedes, and they have more than 3 pairs of legs [chuckle]. So we have got number of spiders including tarantulas in here as well as scorpions, there is little bit of rule of thumb with scorpions, that is bigger the claws, the less the sting, because think about it as investment in getting food. Because that is the reason, they have a sting and claws, it’s all about food, they use in self defenses well, so it is a rule of thumb, doesn’t necessarily always fly and I don’t encourage people to go out, and go “that’s got big claws I can handle that,” it will get stung, and it will hurt, it just won’t be you know deadly.

Interviewer: Regarding to tarantulas, they get used in films quite a bit, there were tarantula where it was a giant tarantula.

“Even science was stunned, when new atomic miracle should have been mankind’s greatest boon, instead when such power to cause phenomenal growth proved dangerously unstable, Man was confronted with shocking blunder, the isotope figured out nutrients into a nightmare. A blunder that transformed a tiny insect into the hundred bug spider that was now ravaging the panic stricken country side”

Are tarantulas really something people should be scared off?

Interviewee: No particularly our local species but tarantulas in general, I think the fear stems from their size, they are really big, they are hairy, they move really slow and creepily kind of thing, all spiders are venomous so, if you got bit by one, it would hurt, but they rarely deadly in our local species are not at all and probably the most irritating thing about them is that those hair’s they have on their abdomens they get actually make those come off on you, and it’s like fiber glass, so it’s really itchy, didn’t evolve because humans harassed them, it evolved because you know they probably had scams and different types carnivorous trying to eat them, and you can imagine if you got a little blast of fiber glass up into your nose when that would be a big deterrent and so again they use this as a defense its not necessarily subdue prey, which is really what their flings about, is subdue prey.

Interviewer: So, What gets you interested in bugs?

Interviewee: My bachelors and masters degree actually in Botany. My wife was working and undergraduate, she was my wife at the time in entomology, she kind of got me little bit interested in bugs, just because I would go and study with her at the lab, when she was studying, but then I started really getting interested in plant-animal interactions, way the insects and plants would interact with one another, pollination is a common example of that, also insects eating plants. So, once I finished my masters degree, I figured well I have got the plant side down, I think we are going go for the insects side now, so I wasn’t those one of the kids that grow up with the butterfly net, though I totally grew up in the woods trumping around, but I didn’t grow up as an entomologist. One of things that really got me into to entomology is, there are these things called burl lazy samples, I can share you guys the stuff that we deal with, essentially take leaf letter and you put into a funnel that has a screen on it, and you put up a light above it and heat starts to dry out the leaf letter, that you have collected from the underneath the tree or a bush or something like that. And it starts to dry out and all the insects go, “Oh! It’s getting dry up there, we want to go down.” When they go down eventually they drop into the funnel and you have container and you can collect them underneath and when my wife was taking entomology and I was still on botany, I looked at one these samples that her class had collected and it looks like, when you just looked at it with your eyes, there was just a bunch of sand down there, you might not been able to see, like a little one here, a tinny beetle there, and then when you actually looked at the microscope the diversity, like all that stuff that I thought was sand was this little mites or these things called spring tales or tinny, tinny beetles, and when you just start looking at things in a microscope, and you realize that these things are incredibly complex, I mean that’s what got me really into entomology, is that there is this whole other world it’s out there and you know we kind of don’t pay attention to it, because it is really, really small. But it does drive all these things that are so important to us, also it is just fascinating, it is just intrinsically fascinating.

Interviewer: And what was it about the kind of interaction between bugs and plants that got you interest, and made to decide that you wanted to explore further what bugs were doing?

Interviewee: Interactions in nature have always been fascinating to me, I mean, you know, how two different species, you know, either interact in a positive way or it can be in a negative way or in some cases it’s positive for one, but its inconsequential to the other and I took a class in what’s called chemical ecology which is about how chemicals can like be the interaction between those two different species and I think that what really kind of grabbed me by the horns, because there 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 elements and, I think it’s fascinating to see how world works.

Interviewer: When you were a kid did you ever really agree these science fiction stories or watch movies like tarantula? or..

Interviewee: Oh! Yeah, definitely know, I am big fan of that science fiction movies [laughter], saw them. It seems there is turn about ants coming in and taking our places but them is probably the classic giant ant story.

“We made these witnesses to a biblical prophecy come true! And the big destruction and darkness come up in creation. And the beasts will reign over the earth”.

“Yeah, sky is above and sea is below, infested by forms of nightmare creatures, who are deadlier than armed giants of pre-historic era’s. Here is a wild head long fight into terror as the desert rumps with the grim battle for survival.”

There is something that I think in a makes people somewhat fearful of insects, and I understand that, but I also find those things really entertaining.

Interviewer: A lot of people do have fears and phobias about bugs. Why should we be concerned with bugs and be concerned if some of them are becoming extinct or endangered in some ways? So, what’s important about them? What are they contributing?

Interviewee: One thing is that insects make food taste good. [laughter] Not because they taste good, because when they are eating plants, the plants necessarily over time, plants have evolved these chemical defenses. Well those chemical defenses make it taste good to you and me. You know the flavor that basil has to, the flavor the lemon grass has to it, Thai food would be horribly bland, if insects hadn’t over evolutionary time selected for these chemical defenses that we find taste so good. Also insects pollinate, so between the pollination in fact they make life taste good, in my opinion they are also really involved in nutrient cycling, their key components of the eco systems, they are food for lots of other creatures that we like and enjoy. So, life without insects I am not sure how it would exist to be honest with you.[laughter]. They are crucial.

Interviewer: I have taken best. I am big fan of Zombies. And there had been number times in the insect world where you see this sense of like Zombify another, one bug zombifying another bug.

Interviewee: Yeah. In parasite habitant and see they do this, they will eventually take over, you know the brains, I don’t know if it’s the brains but they will take over their behavior and cause them to do things that they normally wouldn’t do and, another great example of that is there are some fungus, related to mushrooms right, that can, the spores get on to the insect eventually, they start to creep inside of the insect again changing the chemistry of this insect, causing adulterous behavior to climb up really high, so they will do with ants, it might be an ant that normally forces around the ground, at least wouldn’t go to tip top of the plant where it would be easy prey for aerial predator of some kind. Will cause him to climb up really high and just stand there until the fungus takes over their entire body and blooms with these, like fingers of fungus that come off in, whether they need to pile while, now the wind blows the pores away so that it can infect the next potential zombie, you know that kind of thing. There are tons of stories like that, that are crazy.

Interviewer: I am waiting for the next Zombie film to have some bug come.

Interviewee: Yeah. The fungus [indiscernible] [00:16:01] agent of infection; I mean, some of the most fascinating stories to me are the stories of parasites. Because the level of the interaction are the specificity of the interaction can just be incredible and one that I heard very recently has to do with wasp that parasitizes these cockroaches, what it does is, it finds a cockroach and it quickly stings it twice in the brain [chuckle]. It’s very specific places, when it does that, the cockroach loses its free will [chuckle], it can still move, it is not paralyzed, but it just stands there, then the wasp finally leave it, go often find a barrow, meanwhile the cockroach just sitting there, hanging out waiting for something you know the wasp to come back eventually. The wasp will come back actually bitted by antenna leaded back to the barrow, where it will then lay an egg on the outside of it, and the cockroach just stays there, it can move, it’s just wasp is talking it on a walk, it’s just blows my mind there. When we do surgery on humans, you know, in such things if we have got to be so incredibly careful, like these wasp can quickly like go beep-beep and sting this thing in the two exact places because it loses its free will. It’s amazing to me.

Interviewer: You mentioned that this wasp and cockroach combination that something you have learnt recently, so do you find that there is still so much out there to learn?

Interviewee: Oh! Yeah, totally. There is so much. I mean, insects are so poorly known; there is little over a million species of described insects and the estimates range up to like ten million more. There was a study published fairly recently that things the number is probably around four million, but either way I mean, just in terms of knowing what’s out there, there is so much more that we have left to discover. And that doesn’t even get into the interactions, and how those things interact with one another and it can be really important to understand those things. Because when you have the origin team coming to southern California and really impacting like not just not just other insects, but birds as well, like cloze-fun-lizard, you know, we can use what we know about the ecology of those ants to help control them here. Right? The more we know about these things about that we can kind of make life on planet not just, for ourselves but for the insects as well.

Interviewer: When you come across stories like this, I mean, has is it ever occurred to you that want to write something like a science fiction story?

Interviewee: It definitely yeah. We have a pretty active Facebook page that we are constantly posting the things that we discover, you know on the web in the literature and stuff like that. And there are so many cool stories that end, and I do like to write, it’s somewhere back there on my to do list.

Interviewer: Oh! that’s amazing to see some of these photographs of insects. I mean it’s a big range from spectacularly beautiful to almost terrifying when you see something like above.

Interviewee: One of the insects that it would on our wall was not a insect, it is actually related to a spider, they are called sun scorpions, that’s going to be on our wall of wonder. When you look at the jaws up close on those guys, they are horrifying, I always refer to them as the lions of the, you know, the insect world, kind of thing, they cruse around, they don’t have venom even though they are related to scorpions and spiders, they don’t have venom; it’s all just about raw power and tearing things apart, and that’s what they do, they are brutal.

Interviewer: Did you when you are growing up, did you ever keep pet bugs?

Interviewee: We kept pet everything, that we encounter, I lived in a neighborhood where lots of woods around it and stuff like that so we would go down to the stream and get crabs, box turtles and insects and anything that you could try to keep inside of the box. We would try to keep inside of the box of the little while. Definitely I did wander around a lot.

Interviewer: Do you encourage that in kids; do you think that’s something that’s been beneficial?

Interviewee: Without a doubt, I think it’s great for kids to be getting out in to nature and having opportunity to explore and discover for themselves, so anyway that you can get your kids explore towards nature, I think is a positive thing for their growth.

Interviewer: I am Bertha Commando, your resident cinema junky, you have been listing to my interview with the NAT's curator of entomology Dr. Michael Wall, I also spoke with him, when last of the video game came out, the designers of that game were inspired by David Attenborough documentary, were explained with - this let them to imagine what would happen if virus jumped from bugs to human beings. The result was a terrifying strain of a Zombie like creature. Here a clip from Attenborough documentary, followed by my interview with Dr. Wall.

“These bullet ants are showing some worrying symptoms, suppose from a parasitic fungus called Cordyceps have infiltrated their bodies and their minds. It's infected brain directs this ant upwards, then utterly disorientated it grips a stem with its mandibles, those affected have discovered by the workers are quickly taken away and dumped far away from the colony. It seems extreme but this is the reason why? Like something out of science fiction, the fruiting body of the Cordyceps erupts from the ants head.”

Interviewee: Insect world I think very often inspires science fiction writers and move makers and clearly in this case with video game producers.

Interviewer: You also looked at the trailer that kind of showed some of these infected people in the game. So what are you seeing kind of in those designs that is tapping into the real world, of what happens to these ants?

Interviewee: [chuckle] They are definitely getting at this, the alteration of behavior, because it’s not just like the weird fleshy growths or you know fungal growth that are coming out of their head and stuff, but they talk in the trailer about the changes in behavior, it not like all of a sudden these are normal folks who just happened to have just really weird fungal growth coming out of their body. I mean there are, you know, they are looking around there, I mean, they are talking about them now using eco location to find a other people and so they are definitely tapping into this idea that parasites can change the behavior of their hosts and make their hosts do things to the benefit of the parasite.

Interviewer: Does this make sense to you, to find inspiration there? I mean, what kind things in the insect world are they tapping into, is there a particular kind of fear or particular kind of notion that you think makes it particularly…these things.

Interviewee: The insect world and the natural world in general. But particularly the inset world really, it allows for us to tap into something that seems out of this world, or not of this world, or supernatural in a way, but it is really based in this world and so if you are having trouble coming up with the idea for something to do, burry yourself in a few interesting insect behavior bugs, you are often going to find these incredible things that won’t seem, as you said, they seem like science fiction, they don’t seem like honestly be true.

Interviewer: But the game designer’s talks about, that they were inspired by seeing what happens to these insects and then they make this jump of saying, what if it jumped to humans. So, what are our chances of something like jumping from the insect world to humans?

Interviewee: Jumping from the insect world to the human world is highly unlikely, you have, I think several thousand of these species of this fungus that infect are variety of different types of insects and some individual species can occur on lots of different insects. You might think like “Oh! Wow! then it couldn’t have jumped over to us” But in terms of the evolutionary family tree, humans and insects are really far apart.

Interviewer: And do you get enjoyment seeing like the insect world being used in this way. Do you feel like maybe, this will somehow get more information out there get peaks and kids interest in the insect world?

Interviewee: I think, for me what is cool about the use of insects like behavior in science fiction, it does give me as a educator, a point in which to grab on to people because they are familiar with it. So, I can start talking about something and say, you know, it’s like aliens, and people will go ‘Oh! Yeah!” and so because it is popular media right, more people are familiar with it then the stories I may be trying to educate them about in terms of entomology. See, you can latch, hang your hat on that popular media piece. And say hey this isn’t science fiction; this is real life you know.

Interviewer: If you could suggest something to gamers or to Hollywood or something, is there a particular thing, behavior or incident in the bug world that you think is really cool, or interesting that might be..

Interviewee: I mean, there is whole bunch. [laughter]. But one that I think about very often, because I am very interested in specialization, so how insects can occupy this really incredibly small, you know the niches in the eco systems and there are groups of flies where the adults will only feed on like the hemoglobin of the insect blood of another insect, only it has been killed by another insect. So, they require something to be killed, you will see these insects got assassin bugs, you will see them with a beaks got into another insect, they are sucking the, you know, juices out of it, and there will be all these little flies on the outside of the body that are you know essentially cooperating with this killers. You have got the assassin bug and then you have got this other little things that are off to the side that are waiting for the assassination to happen, so they can scoop in. So, in a sense they are sort of like scavengers I guess. That level of specialization is really cool to me.

Interviewer: When you first got interested in bugs, was it these kind of things that first draw your attention, the most buzzard aspect of it?

Interviewee: Yeah, I would say the buzzard aspect of it. Not so much the buzzard behavior, but the buzzard morphology. Mean when you look at insects again they are really alien like, when you watch movies lot of our inspiration for what aliens look like are insect bound, and since they are so many species of insects, I mean there is well over one million describes species and they are countless millions on top of that. They remain to be described, there is so much diversity of morphology there, when you start looking at them and that’s what got me interested, just like the many shapes, fashions and forms, every little bit of them can vary between species.

Interviewer: And one of the other things that they showed in the BBC video, the thing going out of its head, but talking little bit about how long that takes whether the insect is alive or dead or..

Interviewee: Right, so, in this particular case what happens is the fungus is growing inside of the ant and then it will eventually alter the behavior so they climbs up the leaf and locks on to a plant. And then the process of this weird fruiting body growing out of the back of its head can take up to about three weeks and is it alive during that time? at some point no, because that’s the whole reason why the parasite in this case the fungus alters the behavior of the ant to clamp its jaws on to the plant, and dig in essentially to the plant, because if it died it would just fall down, so at some point between that one and three week period that’s it for the ant.

Interviewer: There are lots of well known films that use insects like Vamp, Tarantula, but could you mention a science fiction film where it is not overtly an insect and where you think it is taken something from the insect world.

Interviewee: I mean, without the doubt the aliens. The whole alien series is definitely grabbing from the insect world. This idea of, instead of calling it a parasite we call it a parasitoid. Because a parasite like you know it takes a parasite, you can get a tick but you are not going to die but you know in aliens and in the case lot of these different types of these insects what happens is that, you are getting the injection of a lot of inside of you, lot of it develops and it bursts out and you die, just like you know in the natural world. I am trying to think, actually a lot of all most all of the Zombie films, there is this element of the mindless herd that ants and termites and all sorts of set, like the social insects kind of about same sort of idea of a mindless herd because you know there are numbers are huge and they seem to not have any free will because they are all driven by this queen of some kind, I mean, that’s a kind of reoccurring theme that Zombie movies and some other, you know, the body snatches would fall into that category.

Interviewer: So, would you be inspired as a work related thing to now play this thing.

Interviewee: [laughter] I definitely check it out, mostly what is interesting to me is, there is some really some cool aspects of this relationship between this fungus and the ant in terms of how the fungus drives the behavior of these ants, and I would be interested to see, you know, if the writers of this video game, like how far did they take that, like what are the behaviors that are adaptive for the fungus that it makes human do, like they climb to the top of the buildings, their spores can you know go further, are there you know, what sort of interesting kind of adaptations is the fungus forcing humans to do that normally humans wouldn’t do. Because that’s the really the cool thing, is that another organism is altering the behavior of you in this case.

Interviewer: So, do you think that this opens up some moon landing opportunities for you?

Interviewee: [laughter] Sounds great!

Interviewer: Lots of ideas.

Interviewee: Exactly. Call me. Another cool insect story along the lines of if I could choose any one that wonder cell or movie company or something like that is that there are these wasp that infect spider, so they lay eggs on the outside of the spiders and the waspf is again sucking the juice out of the spider, very slowly, but the spider is still alive and there you classic war webbing spider with it typical spider web right, and when it gets to the point where it is ready to like okay, the wasp blood puppet and turn into an adult, again it does something, and it seems to be chemically based that causes the spider no longer create this typical spider webs but instead it does, it creates a very strong set of guidelines I guess, that in the middle of it, begin making the cocoon for the spider, so it creates that this little webbing packet then the larva itself puppets within and it does a sticky web, because in spiders you have both sticky web and you have non sticky web and so, very much so like altering the behavior of this spider and they have taken and done things, they have taken the wasp off of the spider and it will continue to making normal webs, but after certain point it does something to the spider, that even if you take it off of it, it will still make that weird, you know little bad for the baby kind of thing indefinitely.

(Playing song)

Interviewer: I am Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie. Thanks for listening to my podcast.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place