Creepy Crawly Conservation

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school 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 here on the Zoo’s Website!

sabrina_W2_picBugs make me nervous. I know in my mind that the ants in my backyard won’t eat me and that maggots are just baby flies, but I still get that squirmy feeling in my stomach when I see them. So it’s weird for me to find myself in the creepiest, crawliest place in the Zoo, the Spineless Marvels Insect House, to meet an entomologist, Ester Chang, a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. She told us that she’s loved insects and other buggy-looking things since she was a kid. I can’t say I understand her, but I can’t help but admire her passion for her job and for the incredible creatures she cares for.

I was most impressed with the leaf-cutter ants and their bizarre behavior. As their name suggests, they slice pieces out of leaves and take those pieces back to their colony, but they don’t actually eat the leaves. Instead, they use the leaves as fertilizer to grow a certain species of fungus. These little guys actually farm their own food! Their agriculture is not the only intriguing thing about leaf-cutter ants. Most of them were about the size of the ants in my yard, but some of them were nearly three times that size, with gigantic heads and muscular jaws. Ms. Chang told us that these are the soldier ants, specialized to protect the colony but also able to collect leaves like the ordinary workers. She then retrieved a young queen ant from inside the freezer and showed her to us. She was huge, at least ten times the size of a mere worker! I found her reddish-brown color, creamy stripes, and translucent wings strangely beautiful. The spectacular queens are (unsurprisingly) the only ants that are given names. The queen of the colony on display is named Bonnie, and the queen of a colony living “behind the scenes” is named Ursula. But why do these ants matter? Sure, they might have a fascinating social structure and impressive agricultural capabilities, but why do we need them? Well, leaf-cutter ants keep the plants in the rainforests where they live in check. Like any other herbivore, the ants are nature’s gardeners, keeping the plants in their domain from overrunning the environment by utilizing and then recycling plants’ nutrients. Ants in general have many roles in their local ecosystems, from predators such as army ants to decomposers like the black ants that mount an invasion of my house every summer.

Far stranger than any ant were the other peculiar creatures Ms. Chang introduced us to. There was the dead-leaf mantis, which ate a cricket whole, and the ghost mantis, which looked so much like a small and spiky plant that even its eyes were difficult to discern. The endangered dragon-headed katydid, with its spiny head and strange face, was Ms. Chang’s favorite. The San Diego Zoo is actually the first institution to figure out how to breed these Malaysian bugs, which isn’t surprising, since scientists don’t even know how some insect species copulate (um… get the sperm to the eggs) in the first place! Another katydid from Malaysia – and my personal favorite – was the long-legged katydid. This big guy was four inches long and his body looked exactly like a leaf, down to the brown coloration along the edges of his wings. We encountered many other creatures as well—endangered checkerspot butterflies being raised in the Nursery, dozens of tarantulas seized from a smuggler and adopted by the Zoo, and a coconut crab from Guam headed to the Reptile House, just to name a few.

Some of the most important bugs in the world, however, are the ones that weren’t even on exhibit at the Zoo when we were there. Bees—common, ordinary European honeybees—are perhaps the most important bug in America. Thanks to the work of these pollinators, one-third of the food we eat is pollinated and able to continue to feed the human population. Not to mention the delicious honey! Bees are vital to both humans and the environment as a whole, but unfortunately, the bee population in the U.S. is declining. The phenomenon is called “colony collapse disorder” and no one really knows why it is happening, although theories exist. Maybe it’s pollution from pesticides? Maybe it’s a disease? Maybe bees are being turned into zombies by fly larvae (no, seriously). The experts have ruled out cell phone towers as a cause, but that’s about it. We don’t know how to stop colony collapse disorder, but there are ways to help: try a natural alternative to pesticides, and don’t squish bees. Don’t even get near them, because they might think you’re a threat, try to sting you, and eventually die from doing so.

Actually, this policy applies to all bugs and bug-ish critters. Take spiders or flies outside instead of killing them on the spot. Use natural deterrents like diatomaceous earth (dirt made from the skeletons of dead plankton) instead of pesticides to get rid of ants, which can harm cool insects like praying mantises as well as bothersome ants. Don’t destroy creepy-crawlies! As freaky and weird as bugs can be, we need ‘em. Let’s try and keep them around so they can continue to work their pollinating, nutrient-recycling magic.

Sabrina, Conservation Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2014