Insects: The Super Organisms

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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!

eric_W2_picWhat’s entomology? Many people don’t quite know. We all know what a zookeeper is or a veterinarian is, but what exactly is an entomologist? Unlike studying gigantic elephants or slithering snakes, entomologists study the minuscule world of insects and other arthropods, developing a better understand of their crucial importance to the environment. This week we met Ester Chang, Senior Entomology Keeper, who works in the Insect House at the San Diego Zoo. 

Now, why would anyone choose a career that involves insects and bugs? Unlike most Zoo employees who were interested in mammals or reptiles as children, Ms Chang’s childhood interest lay in the miniature world of insects. She spent an enormous amount of her youth catching bugs, especially flies, and observing them in their natural habitat. It was the small, seemingly insignificant world that she had always admired and enjoyed. Because insects were always a hobby, Ms. Chang majored in English at the University of California, Berkeley with a minor in Entomology. She also received a master’ degrees in Museum Studies from San Francisco State University. Eventually she decided to focus more on entomology and gained experience working at the San Francisco Zoo, the San Francisco Natural History Museum and a few other non-profit organizations. She finally got a job in the Entomology Department at the San Diego Zoo, where she’s been for over six years.

Working at the Insect House, Ms. Chang enjoys handling the various exotic insects, giving presentations and talking to the public. One of her favorite insects to work with is the dragon-headed katydid, which is closely related to grasshoppers and found within the tropical regions of Malaysia. Because the San Diego Zoo has become the first zoo to raise katydids, Ms. Chang has had the remarkable opportunity of learning more about them. Another unique animal that Ms. Chang works with are the dead leaf and ghost leaf mantises, which are found in Southeast Asia. Ms. Chang showed us that although mantises have bad eyesight, they rely more on their other senses such as smell or touch to catch their prey. These mantises are extremely important to the environment as they control otherwise invasive bug populations in their native habitat and are therefore definitely worth protecting.

Ms. Chang showed us the famous leaf-cutter ants from South America that are on display at the Insect House. Leaf-cutter ants live in colonies of up to nine million ants with a queen that can live up to twenty years. Ants can be considered a “super organism” due to the fact that individuals in a colony work almost like the cells of one larger organism, with each individual ant performing specific job. Leaf-cutter ants are also the largest decomposers of plant material in their ecosystems. Rather than eat plants, they use leaf fragments to produce a fungus that makes up their diet. In order to deal with these particular insects, keepers provide a constant supply of plants and clean the overabundance of fungus. Since there is no particular way to completely contain ants, the edge of the ants’ habitat is a series of open glass terrarium walls covered with a thin layer of oil that stops them from escaping or crawling away. Found almost everywhere in the world, ants act as the gardeners of the environment, controlling the plant population and helping to circulate ecosystem’s nutrients. Ants also enrich the soil by unlocking the nutrient of plants and quickly replacing it back into the environment.

Although it’s not the largest exhibit at the San Diego Zoo, the Insect House, also known as the Spineless Marvels exhibit or simply the “Bug House,” contains about 35 species of insects and bugs like the Madagascar hissing cockroach, giant katydid, spiders, and the always popular leaf-cutter ants. Now why would the Zoo have an exhibit for creatures you could find almost anywhere, even sometimes your own backyard? Insects are commonly undermined as creepy, terrifying and even annoying pests that are only there to irritate and scare us, but that’s not true at all. The San Diego Zoo has five entomology keepers that work daily with these awesome creatures in order to learn more about them and provide awareness to the public about their importance to the ecosystem. Keepers focus a majority of their time on cleaning exhibits and feeding the various animals, ensuring that the temperature and humidity for each terrarium is adjusted to suit each species. Since many species in the Insect House aren’t native, a permit is often necessary due to the agricultural challenges that may occur if a creature was to escape. In order to avoid this situation, the back room in the Insect House has two doors, creating a safety zone complete with “bug check” mirrors and specialized plastic curtains. This ensures that no insect will escape. Opposing full length mirrors allow keepers to examine their entire body to make sure there are no bugs hitching a ride on their uniforms. Even more surprising is that all trash from the Bug House is placed into a deep freezer for a few days to also ensure that nothing alive leaves the room.

Although the Insect House is a somewhat hidden treasure at the Zoo, insects are a main attraction on earth. These small creatures have an enormous impact on the planet and all five entomology keepers, including Ms. Chang, spend every day focusing on showing the public how each species of insect is important.  Entomologists like Ms. Chang want to ensure that after they leave the Insect House, their first instinct is no longer to kill these creatures, but instead glorify their significance in the world’s ecosystems.

The world is so big, but even the smallest animal can have the greatest impact onto the planet. So, if you’re ever around the Insect House, go ahead inside. These creatures have been on this planet for so long, and for a reason. Small and exotic, insects are still super organisms of the animal kingdom.

Eric, Career Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2014