Buggin’ Out

[dcwsb inline="true"]

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school student juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures her

This week we met with Page Howorth, an animal care manager in the Entomology Department at the San Diego Zoo. The goal of the Entomology department is to educate people on how important insects and arachnids are to the environment.  Invertebrates represent about 96% of animals on earth!

Ms. Howorth showed us the leaf-cutter ant exhibit. Leaf-cutter ants are actually the most advanced species of invertebrate. The ants do not eat the leaves they harvest. Instead, they feed the leaves to the fungi, which is their main food source.

Leaf-cutter ants are highly developed in their breeding habits. The one queen will start a colony by herself. In this picture you can see the range of sizes in the ants. The queen has the ability to produce certain ants for specific jobs. The harvesters are outside of the tunnels getting food, while other smaller ants are inside taking care of the fungi harvest. After the queen, the next largest ants are the soldiers, who protect the colony from opposing colonies.

Behind-the-scenes at Entomology there are even more invertebrates. As you can see, each one has to have their own mini-climate. These ideal climates are created by either the type of enclosure they live in or by the addition of heat lamps.

In this photo, Ms. Howorth is explaining how they keep the leaf-cutter ants from escaping and running all over the place. They actually use oil at the edges of the exhibit, preventing the ants from holding on. This allows the ants to have as natural an exhibit as possible without putting them or the outside environment at risk. In the top of the photo, you can see the cameras that stream the live video feed of the ants at work to the public.

This building is actually controlled by the federal government to make sure no invasive invertebrates get in or out. Because of this, there is a staging room where we all have to check ourselves to make sure we don’t have any hitchhikers on us. We also had to leave any bags or extra items behind. All of these procedures protect the local ecosystem from invaders.

This smaller room contains all of the arachnids. The zoo has acquired their specimens in a variety of ways including trading with other zoos. Many of the spiders were donated by the Department of Fish and Game after they were confiscated from a spider smuggler a few years ago.

One way you can tell how venomous a scorpion or spider is by their size. These baby scorpions are perfect examples. The bigger their palps or pinchers, the less venomous they are likely to be. By using their palps, they will be able to overpower most of their prey without that much venom. It’s the little ones you have to watch out for! 

This goliath bird-eating spider is about four years old. In this picture, she is eating a cockroach and laying a light mat with her silk. They create this may to set their food on while they eat. Their venom turns the inside of her meal into a soup and the spider drinks its prey. 

Ms. Howorth is showing us a molt from a goliath bird-eating spider. They shed as they grow, almost like a snake or lizard. If they did not have this capability to molt, they wouldn’t be able to grow anymore after birth. It’s a lot like having to buy new clothes as you get older. As you can see, it still looks like a live spider. This is because when it is time for them to molt they actually split their back open and slowly crawl out. Unlike a snake or lizard, when they do this it leaves behind an almost perfect exoskeleton. 

Even with all the excitement we can’t stop ourselves from having some fun with the educational signs and activities that are set up outside of the Insect House. We loved it! 

Scott, Photo Team
Fall 2012, week five