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 jobs, and the blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!
Insects… are they intriguing or nightmarish? Whatever side you’re on in this debate, bugs are undeniably complex and puzzling. Ester Chang, a Senior Entomology Keeper at San Diego Zoo, led us through the back of the Insect House and talked about current projects she and her colleagues are working on. Ms. Chang has worked inside the Zoo’s Insect House, which resembles a museum, for six years. She told us that she’s always loved bugs, and that we should really make an effort to keep them around because they keep the environment stable.
This exhibit houses one of the most complex social insects in the world, the leafcutter ant. These ants are essentially the gardeners of the forest, restricting surplus foliage by trimming down the overgrowth. Most of this gardening work is done by the worker ants, one of the several kinds of ants in a colony. Each type of ant helps the colony grow and are able to be harmonious in their own way. For instance, the soldier ants keep the colony safe, and male and female drones begin their own colonies. Estimates say that there are over nine million leafcutter ants worldwide, and all of them are keeping their gardens neat.
In the back room of the Insect House, two glass containers also house ants. This allows keepers to both feed the ants and give them a more spacious environment that mimics a real tunnel system. The twisting branch also gives off a more natural feeling for the ants as it suspends them in the air. Leafcutter ants in the wild also travel up into trees in order to tear off bits from leaves. The camera to the left of the case allows keepers to take video of the ants.
Ms. Chang showed us what a queen leafcutter ant looks like. This little bug is responsible for populating the entire colony, including soldier ants, worker ants, or drones that can become queen ants for new colonies.
This dead leaf mantis demonstrated one of the ways to eat a cricket—from the bottom up. The dead leaf mantis’ camouflage is its namesake, as it looks almost exactly like a dead leaf, the only giveaway being its thin legs. This is a female mantis, and male mantises are even skinnier and smaller in comparison. Mantises are known for having peculiar mating habits that usually involve the male’s head getting ripped off and then eaten. This mantis is eating the cricket similarly, except this time, the leg first.
We were also shown another species of mantis, the Ghost mantis. It’s much smaller than the dead leaf mantis, but it also comes in different colors from dark brown to a light green. No matter what color it is, it will be able to blend in perfectly to its forest environment.
The San Diego Zoo is the only place that houses some rare species of katydids. Senior Entomology Keeper Ester Chang held this long-legged katydid up for us, allowing us to touch its soft and leaf-like wings. This one in particular is very old, and it shows! As the katydid grows older, its camouflage grows more impeccable with time.
Ms. Chang took us to the room where the Zoo houses their arachnids. Every single container had either a spider or a scorpion in it. These ones, however, only have tarantulas in them. There are two kinds of tarantulas, New World and Old World. The Old World tarantulas have built silk webs in their enclosures. They do this so their young don’t touch the forest floor where dangerous predators may be.
Some of the individual enclosures have these brightly colored tags on them, pointing out which animals are venomous. If a keeper is bitten, the tag states which animal bit them so the keeper can be given the specific care they need.
Quino Checkerspot butterflies have become endangered within the last century, and the San Diego Zoo has come to their aid. Here, this room has been turned into an area for the butterflies, allowing them to produce more offspring. This conservation project is relatively new, but the prospects for it are high. With projects like these, the Zoo hopes that the butterflies will be able to rise up to their previous numbers, one of the Zoo’s overall goals for all animals.
Emily, Photography Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2014