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Public outreach: Promoting the appreciation of arthropods

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in an outreach event, Guelph Bug Day, at the University of Guelph Arboretum. Bug days are public events, usually free of any admission fees, which promote the appreciation and admiration of insects and arachnids, and set out to educate anyone who is fascinated by arthropods.

Held a super cool whip spider at #guelphbugday 🕷 🐜 🦋

A post shared by 🌻🌎T E S S A 🌎🌻 (@tessa.spaghetti) on

This is not the first time I participate in such an event. Last year I presented arachnids at Bug Day Ottawa. In fact, ever since I became interested in insects and their natural history, I have been involved in presenting them to whoever was interested: I brought live insects to lab sessions in high school, I led my mates in outdoor excursions to find spiders and scorpions during my military service, I collaborated with operating museums and insectariums as a consultant on exhibitions, and I incorporated the use of live insects in biology studies at universities to help students gain a better understanding of the courses material. More recently though, I have been more active in events aimed at the general public, in order to bring arthropods into the mainstream and help people overcome their fears. And so far, it has been a blast. Take this recent bug day in Guelph for example: I found myself smiling from ear to ear the whole time, and my table was always busy with no moment to rest, not that I am complaining. This was the first time Guelph holds a bug day event and to be honest, it was the best one I have ever been to. It was that good. But before I talk about the bug day, let me elaborate a little about public outreach and why I think it is important.

When working in science, especially when you acquire some expertise, it becomes difficult to expose the public to your subject of research and communicate about it. The more knowledge you gain about your study system, the harder it gets to explain it to people with little or no science background and get them to care about it. I am happy to say that this is changing thanks to the engagement of researchers and science communicators with the public on social media. Yet there is still a long way to go.

More specifically, nowadays most people go about their daily lives with little or no exposure to the wonders of nature. I once brought velvet worms to a public outreach event at the Toronto Zoo and the response was phenomenal. It was not surprising – the majority of people, biologists included, will live through their lives without even knowing these majestic animals exist, let alone see a live one. So in my opinion this exposure is critical, it can influence the public’s opinion and later have implications for nature conservation. I do think people should familiarize themselves with whatever is found in their area, both plants and animals. After all, insects and spiders are everywhere, and most of them are not out to get anyone. They are harmless and usually mind their own business.

When I present live arthropods, I love interacting with children and let them handle the animals, but I am even more interested in getting the parents into the game. You see, the reality is that the majority of kids already like bugs. They are curious about the diverse world of invertebrates, those common animals that are so different from mammals and birds, and have the appearance of small toys. Unfortunately, at some point children lose their interest in invertebrates, and sometimes even worse, replace it with fear and hate. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why that stage occurs. But it is most likely due to an environmental influence – succumbing to peer-pressure from friends or parents, and witnessing a shift in cultural appreciation as technology takes nature’s place. Parents have a huge role in preserving the view of the natural world in young people’s minds by encouraging them and nurturing their curiosity. Many times I have seen an excited kid holding an insect turn to their parents in hopes for affirmation. However, sometimes the kids are uninterested in insects, in which case I try to work directly with the parents and get them to handle the animals. Some children just need to see their parents doing something a bit unconventional to get confirmation that they are cool!

It just so happens that I stumbled upon this beautiful artwork by Tiana Cabana, a lovely composite image (inspired by another artwork) depicting my burning passion and mission –

Give small critters some room in your heart. Embrace them.
It will make you a better person, and they will appreciate it too.

https://twitter.com/spoodersNsuch/status/902678547638218752

Going back to Guelph Bug Day, I was astonished by the sheer amount of positivity expressed by the visitors attending. Even those who confessed their fears gave the arachnids a chance after listening to some facts about them and realizing that they do not pose a threat. I find this level of open-mindness incredible, and it is in great part thanks to the amazing organizers and volunteers who put so much of their energy into making this event a reality. Such a talented group of people.

I returned home from the bug day with such a “high”, almost intoxicated, feeling. At first I didn’t know what it was. Sure, the event was fun, but was it that fun? What is this smile smeared all over my face? Why am I so restless, why can’t I just sit down? And it finally dawned on me what it is that I was feeling. It was love. I was in love.
So yeah, I can get pretty emotional at times, but the important take home message for me here is that I can see myself doing this every single day, for the rest of my life. Thank you, Guelph Bug Day. You have a special place in my heart.

One lesson learned from doing these events – I need to bring a camera…

Insect art: Framed whip spiders (Amblypygi)

I have been covering a lot of insect-inspired art on this blog recently. It makes me excited; there are so many beautiful examples of artwork that incorporate insects and other arthropods into their theme. Just by reading some of the comments on the previous posts I got a gazillion new ideas for topics to write about (thank you). This time, however, I want to take the opportunity to tell you about something that I have been working on. The title for this post is a little misleading, because this is not really ”insect art”, but more like “arachnid art”.

One of the first presents I got from my parents when they realized their kid was fascinated with insects was a frame with several tropical butterflies. This frame, along with others that joined in subsequent years, decorated the wall of my room for many years. They became a part of my identity, telling every visitor what I was all about. Throughout the years my focus shifted from butterflies to spiders and scorpions, and then to beetles and other arthropod groups. Yet those framed insects remained on the wall, and even though I left that house many years ago they are still hung there to this very day.

Framed arachnids, whip spiders and a tarantula. Read on to learn what is so special about these.

Framed arachnids, whip spiders and a tarantula. Read on to learn what is so special about these.

I got so used to hearing wows every time someone noticed the spectacular sunset moth, the blue morpho butterfly, or even the less colorful dobsonfly, that when one day a friend told me she didn’t like those frames, it caught me by surprise. I asked her why, and she replied, “An animal had to die so you can enjoy this”. And by all accounts, she was right.
That reply stuck with me. I do not consider myself much of a collector, but when I do collect there is always a conflict. Is this necessary? Is this going to help anyone in the future? In my travels I have seen many dead insects, tarantulas and scorpions being offered as home decor for sale in city markets. It is shocking to realize these animals are probably harvested from their natural habitats by the hundreds for this purpose. To be fair, some butterfly and beetle species are being farmed and thus the ecological impact on their natural populations is insignificant. However, insect frames still require a dead specimen to begin with.

A framed rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracilicornis) that I made. You might not believe it, but this specimen was in very poor condition when I received it.

A framed rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracilicornis) that I made. You might not believe it, but this specimen was in very poor condition when I received it.

In the past I have sinned in trying to make my own version of such frames. In all honesty, when done correctly, they do look nice and add some character to a room. Almost like an old natural history lithograph. I did this with dead insects from my own cultures, or with specimens I already had in my collection. But recently I was wondering if there is another way to achieve the same result, one that does not require dead specimens. Something more sustainable.

Me presenting whip spiders to the general public at Bug Day Ottawa 2016. Framed specimens can be used for education along with live ones.

Me presenting whip spiders to the general public at Bug Day Ottawa 2016. Framed specimens can be used for education along with live ones.

Whip spiders, or amblypygids, are rarely offered as framed specimens, but when they do, they usually look very bad and have an unflattering, unnatural pose. I mean, look at this one for example. It looks horrible. Now look at how much this specimen costs. It makes no sense to me that an animal gave its life to be preserved in such a horrendous way, accompanied with such a hefty price tag. This is also coming from a company that claims to farm its framed specimens, however I highly doubt they farm any of their arachnid specimens. Large arachnids take years to reach their adult size, and it would not be very profitable to farm them just for the purpose of framing them later. Moreover, dead arachnids (and many insects too) often lose their vibrant colors. There has to be a different way to do this. And there is: during my time keeping amblypygids, I noticed that their empty molts retain their appearance even after many years, and when arranged properly they look like a copy of the living animal. I made some exemplars for use in public outreach and the response was phenomenal. When I presented the prepared molt next to its still-living parent, people refused to believe they are both the very same specimen.

Whip spider (Heterophrynus batesii) fresh after molting in the wild. The molt (on the left) is a hollow empty shell, but looks just like the live arachnid.

Whip spider (Heterophrynus batesii) fresh after molting in the wild. The molt (on the left) is a hollow empty shell, but looks just like the live arachnid.

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

Whip spiders molts, work in progress before framing. Oh, and that tarantula? That is a molt too.

Whip spiders molts, work in progress before framing. Oh, and that tarantula? That is a molt too.

Working with molts is not easy and resembles taxidermy in many ways. It requires deep understanding of the animal’s natural appearance, as well as how to stabilize its now-empty limbs. It took me many months of practicing until I finally mastered the technique of making a hollow arachnid look alive. The best thing about it – no animal was sacrificed during the preparation, and in fact the very same animal that produced the molt is still alive and kicking.

Framed whip spider (Paraphrynus raptator). In the background, framed molts of two additional species (Heterphrynus spp).

Framed whip spider (Paraphrynus raptator). In the background, framed molts of two additional species (Heterphrynus spp).

Now this begs the question – what am I going to do with these frames? I enjoy looking at them a lot actually. They add something authentic to my living space. I thought about putting up a page to offer them for sale at some point (update: that page is now up!). The only problem seems to be availability, because whip spiders usually molt only once a year. I will need to salvage every single molt if I want to continue making more of these.

Framed whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). This is probably my favorite work so far. Small. Simple. Perfect.

Framed whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). This is probably my favorite work so far. Small. Simple. Perfect.

By the way, if you want to hear more about whip spiders and you happen to be in Toronto this weekend, the Toronto Entomology Association and the Royal Ontario Museum are organizing “Bug Day”, an event dedicated to the keeping live arthropods. I will give a short talk on Sunday April 23rd at noon, so please come and say hi.

Giving birth to a botfly

Sitting at my dentist chair for 40 minutes and suffering through the shrill sound of the ultrasonic cleaner, I suddenly started to feel contractions from my chest. Oh, no. Not now. Is it really happening? If it happens now this will be a visit I will never forget. Am I getting into labor?

2014 hit me hard in the face with all its goodies, that it was difficult for me to pinpoint the best moments. I still have one more story to share before I bid farewell and move on. For me, 2014 ended with a blast.

The story actually begins in fall 2013. Shortly after returning from BugShot Belize, I noticed that three mosquito bites on my chest were not going away. They became red, started to feel even itchier, and occasionally there was a slight pinprick sensation. I immediately suspected they harbored botfly larvae, and indeed confirmed this after a couple of days when the sensation became more intense.

Hypoderma bovis is a species of botfly that attacks cattle. The resemblance to a bumblebee is not incidental. Upper Galilee, Israel.

 

Botflies belong to the family Oestridae, whose larvae develop in the body of mammals as endoparasites. They are mostly known as pests of cattle, but also of rodents and other small mammals. At least one species, Dermatobia hominis, attacks primates and, as I learned the hard way, humans. And it does this in the most incredible way: the female botfly waits in ambush for a female mosquito to pass by, and when the blood-sucking insect shows up, a chase ensues between the two. The botfly grabs the mosquito in mid-air and takes her captive to the ground level, where she proceeds to do something unique to Dermatobia botflies – she starts to lay eggs under the abdomen of the now-immobilized mosquito. When she is done, she releases the mosquito from her grasp. Now the botfly has a carrier, a vessel to transport the eggs to a suitable host, preferably a mammal. Once the female mosquito locates a bloodmeal and lands in order to bite, the mammal’s body heat triggers the botfly eggs to hatch, and tiny larvae drop to the mammal’s skin. They quickly start to burrow into the skin, head in first. Some take advantage of existing pores, such as hair folicules or even the mosquito bite itself. The small larvae have several rings of curved hooks pointing backwards; these hooks assist in anchoring the larva inside the host’s tissue and prevent removal. After fully embedded into the mammal’s flesh, the larva (which is a foreign object) excites the body’s immune system, and feeds on the inflammation response and white blood cells that arrive to the area. Its only connection to the outer world is through the entrance hole, now called punctum, from which it extends its spiracles for breathing air.

This beautiful mosquito (Psorophora sp.) is known to be one of the vectors for D. hominis eggs. Photographed in Belize, in the same location where I got my botfly larvae.

 

When I first learned about Dermatobia hominis in Intro to Entomology course back in 2004, I could not help but wonder how it feels to have an insect living inside one’s body; whether it is painful; and does it show on the outside? Little did I know that I would become a host for the same species 10 years after. Well, it was painful indeed. Sharp, ticking pains that came and went in cycles. I immediately sought medical advice and came across a medical paper describing a method for removing botfly larvae using a suction pump. Fortunately for me, the leading author of the paper was a bus drive away. There was much excitement at the Tropical Diseases Clinic, when several doctors and medical students gathered to see my botflies. We removed three tiny larvae, and I was released home. Then, in the evening of the same day, I felt that sharp pain again from all three locations. Over the next days, the pain became worse, think of chest-stabbing, or corkscrewing in pulses with heated iron and you get the idea. There were larvae still in there. And it seemed they were growing faster because there was no competitor in there with them (the larvae we already removed). To make a long story short, I managed to remove one of these larvae (on Halloween Eve nonetheless!), accidentally killed another at the clinic (only to be removed later by me), and failed to remove the third one. It continued to remind me of its existence with pseudo heart attacks several times every night until it finally died and the punctum sealed over it.

This was quite the experience, and we even published a report of the case in a medical paper. Originally, I wanted to keep one of these larvae until completion of its development. As an Entomologist, I was eager to see the adult fly, let alone this might be the only chance I could give something in return after collecting and killing many insects for my scientific work. However, I was not lucky, and I started to accept the possibility that I will not get another botfly larva, surely not in such a convenient location again. And so, a year later I returned to Belize, not even considering the option that it might happen again. Remembering the lancinating pain that I experienced, I tried to be careful and well-protected from mosquitoes this time. So you can imagine my surprise after I returned home, when I found a new botfly larva in my chest, almost in the same location as last year!

At first I repeated the “routine” of visiting the Tropical Diseases Clinic, but the larva was still too small to be removed. Then I decided to leave the area as is and give the larva the space it needs. I was amazed to find out this larva was not even slightly painful. The feeling was completely different, I could easily feel it moving, but there was no discomfort about it. This is it. I am keeping it.
Maybe I should pause here and say that a botfly is probably the “friendliest” parasite one can wish for. It does not transmit any diseases, does not cause any significant damage to the body, does not leave any scars, keeps its area clean from infections by antibiotic secretions and most importantly – unlike other parasites, once it finishes doing its thing, it leaves on its own!

Portrait of human botfly (<em>Dermatobia hominis</em>) larva. The resemblance to a walrus is incidental.

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva. The resemblance to a walrus is incidental.

 

For more than two months I nurtured the larva, patiently observing while it was growing inside me. Photographing it was not easy, and essentially could only be done facing a mirror, but I learned the trick and eventually got used to operating the gear backwards. It allowed me to take this photo of the larva’s spiracles as it is breathing from the punctum (this might be graphic to some people, so you can view it here). But like I said my real goal was to see the adult fly, and I was restless in the final two weeks of the larval development in fear that I will miss the event. The botfly larva does not pupate inside the host. It first has to leave its host’s body, drops off to the ground and then quickly looks for a suitable place for pupation. In the end, the contractions I felt at the dentist were a false alarm, and I could not feel anything when the larva emerged eventually.

Human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva after emergence from its host, searching for a place to pupate.

Human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva after emergence from its host, searching for a place to pupate.

 

Incubating the puparium has to be the hardest part in keeping a human botfly. In a fascinating paper from 1930, Lawrence H. Dunn describes how he deliberately allowed two botfly larvae enter his arm to document their development. Only later he found out that prior to his actions he was already infected with four additional larvae (on his other arm and leg). The paper is not an easy read, as it spans through the various sensations and types of pain the author experienced during this period. Eventually he had all his six larvae emerging as late third-instars, pupating and turning into adult flies. Unfortunately, this last part of the paper is poorly written and lack details. How moist was the pupation substrate and what was its composition? Did the larvae burrow or stayed on its surface? How long after emergence the adult flies started activity? And were there any losses during the pupation period? That last question is extremely important because I have heard of many failures in keeping Dermatobia hominis for the purpose of getting adults, and they mainly happened during the pupal stage. This is why I was so thrilled to find the adult fly one afternoon waiting in the container. What a great ending to 2014. And what a magnificent fly it is! Glowing red eyes, a pointy head with a bright silvery “face”, and the most dazzling blue abdomen, striking with metallic gloss. For me, this was literally the miracle of birth. No matter how I look at it, this fly is my own flesh and blood.

Human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) adult, fresh after emergence from its puparium (left)

Human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) adult, fresh after emergence from its puparium (left)

 

Larva and adult of the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Hard to believe this is the same animal.

Larva and adult of the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Hard to believe this is the same animal.

 

Totally worth it.

 

In this day and age, even a fly can take a selfie.

 

Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Piotr Naskrecki had his own personal experience bringing (two!) botflies to adulthood. You can read his blog post here. And do not miss the postscript!

UPDATE (12 Jan, 2015): Piotr has just posted a video about his botfly. Please go to his blog and watch it. I cannot recommend it enough; this is most likely the only filmed documentation that follows the botfly throughout its development to adulthood in a human host:
http://thesmallermajority.com/2015/01/12/dermatobia-redux/
Thank you everyone for the positive response to this story!

Killing in the name of

About two weeks ago, Piotr Naskrecki, whose blog The Smaller Majority I routinely follow (and you should too), posted a nice story about his encounter with the world’s biggest and heaviest living spider, the South American Goliath Birdeater (Theraphosa blondi), while surveying a rainforest in Guyana. The blogpost gained respectable attention from everyone who appreciates a good natural history piece, but only when picked up by a “viral-content-spreading” website it started getting the full public attention it deserved. Or did it? To be honest, I do not know which website was first in line to spread the story of a “puppy-sized spider with foot-long legs” but it wasn’t long before the internet and the media snatched the story and made it spread like wildfire. The result was interesting but also horrifying to watch – almost within a day the internet was flooded with various reports and interpretations of the original blogpost, some of which were poorly written and included embarrassing inaccuracies. The story quickly climbed up in popularity and a few days ago was ranked #14 in the fastest spreading online news, along with other “popular” news stories such as the Ebola outbreak. Needless to say, the majority of those reports shamelessly used Piotr’s photographs on their own websites without permission.

A small insert about content turning viral: One simply cannot predict what will become viral on the internet. I have tried to do this myself and failed, when photographs that I thought were decent received no attention at all, whereas crappy photos that I took out of laziness just before I went to bed were instantly favored and shared. Want an example? Here are two:

Mother amblypygid (Paraphrynus raptator) protecting her babies

Mother amblypygid (Paraphrynus raptator) protecting her babies

 

Small-scaled Godzilla - baby ambush bug (Phymata monstrosa)

Small-scaled Godzilla – baby ambush bug (Phymata monstrosa)

 

When comments started pouring in on the tarantula article, the usual mix of positive (“amazing animal!”) and negative (“kill it with fire!”) responses could be seen. But among those there was a strong stream of comments calling for justice, as it was revealed that the spider was eventually collected for research and deposited in a museum collection. At first I did not know where this information originated from, after all the original post by Piotr did not include any statement about collecting the spider. Later that day I found it, in the closing paragraph of this report.

Not a South American Goliath Birdeater, but close enough; an adorable Ecuadorian Pinktoe Tarantula (Avicularia huriana)

Not a South American Goliath Birdeater, but close enough; an adorable Ecuadorian Pinktoe Tarantula (Avicularia huriana)

 

Spiders are sweet, I agree. This bashing response, however, points to an alarming problem. First, I do believe these comments truly come from people who care about nature and the environment. So why am I writing this? Because I think it is unclear to the public what scientists actually do, and in the case of biologists, why they collect data and specimens in the field and what happens to such specimens further along the road. The funny thing is that there are many blogs out there, run by scientists, trying to take a public outreach approach by explaining the routine and difficulties scientists face in their daily work. Among these blogs there are quite a few that discuss the topic of collecting insect specimens for research, like Biodiversity in Focus and Beetles in the Bush to name a few. However, I do not see people submitting the same type of preaching comments (promoting the insects’ rights to live) in these blogs. The reason is quite depressing: the general public, the same people who were exposed to the Goliath Birdeater story via the various viral news websites, do not read blogs about scientific research, even though these blogs are there for the public in the first place. Here is where Piotr’s blog is doing so well; it brings easily digestible information about the wonders of earth, in a language that can be understood by any person, without excessive technical details or jargon. The same can be said about his books. In addition, everyone loves a good photograph, and Piotr’s photos are nothing short of stunning.

So why bash a scientist for killing a single spider for research?

Piotr gave an excellent response to this issue in his subsequent post (now integrated within the original Goliath Birdeater post), I really could not have said it better myself, so make sure you head over to his blog to read it. I will just add a few things. For start, I do not think the accusing commenters are aware of Piotr’s significant contributions to nature conservation. Unfortunately, the finger is fast on the trigger keyboard, and it has become extremely easy to criticize any person one does not agree with on the internet. But the problem is much worse than trolling. Most people do not realize that the only reason they know what they know about nature, whether it is related to animals, plants or their environment, is because some scientist spent a lot of time in remote areas collecting this information, and then took the liberty of publishing it for the greater good. Without scientific knowledge no one would even know the spider in Piotr’s post is a Goliath Birdeater, it would just pass as a legendary giant arachnid. The only way to properly identify a species or describe a new one is to collect it and compare it to related species that were… also collected and killed previously. You see, from a scientific point of view, this work will never end. There are so many species out there, with many of them undescribed or unknown. Be thankful and considerate towards those who sacrifice so much of themselves not only to deliver these majestic creatures all the way to your computer screen at the comfort of your home or office, but also invest enormously towards protection of their natural habitat from destruction.