Feature

Meeting Danielle the Tarantula

And other adventures behind the scenes at the insect zoo

By
12:32pm, February 4, 2002
Sponsor Message

Heres how good these people are. Ive had no coffee and not much sleep, but at a bit after 8 a.m., Im already convinced that its fun to hold a cockroach so big I need both hands. The entomologist who just eased the Madagascar hissing cockroach into my bare hands is Faith Deering, who coordinates education here at the Smithsonians O. Orkin Insect Zoo in Washington, D.C. Im far from the first person whos talked to her a little while and then been suddenly struck by the notion that it might be interesting to touch a giant cockroach.

The mahogany-colored roach stretches several inches across my palms. Its waxy back glows softly, like oiled leather. This isnt a frantic, tickling creature, thank goodness, but more the time-tested petting-zoo pony. Visitors who choose to forgo roaches can still have a close encounter with chubby caterpillars or huge lubber grasshoppers the color of a sunrise.

Temperament plays a big part in making a good arthropod ambassador, explains the insect zoo director Nathan Erwin, watching nearby. We have another big roach species, and theyre beautiful, but theyre skittery, he says. He scampers his fingers up his arm toward his head and notes, We display them behind glass.

Thats just one of the lessons entomologists are learning as they invent the science and art of insect zoos.

The first permanent one in North America, this facility within the National Museum of Natural History, opened in 1976, and the idea caught on. Tallies vary today, but at least several dozen exhibits around the country feature live arthropods, and theres even an annual meeting for insect zookeepers. To honor their zoos first 25 years here, Deering, Erwin, and some other veterans offered Science News a behind-the-scenes look at what its like to devote your life to the care and display of cockroaches, beetles, ants, monarch butterflies, and their kin.

Forgotten majority

North American insect zoos started spottily, says Steve Prchal, whose Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute in Tucson sponsors Invertebrates in Captivity, the professions annual meeting. Two years after the Smithsonian opened its insect zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo dedicated a separate building to a World of the Insect exhibit. The San Francisco Zoo likewise added arthropod displays. Then, says Prchal, all hell broke loose.

He traces that burst of new insect displays to zookeepers realization that traditional animal collections had ignored the creatures that people encounter most commonly. After all, over 90 percent of all animals on the planet are arthropods. Also, says Prchal, theyre a lot easier and less expensive to keep than lions and tigers and bears.

Thats not to say that keeping an insect alive is easy, especially if no one has succeeded with that particular species before. Prchal has done wonderful things with ants, such as setting the record for keeping a Mexican leaf-cutter ant queen alive–15 years and counting. However, he says, Randy Morgans definitely the trendsetter in bringing species into captivity.

Morgan arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1980 with an entomology degree and a résumé of insect care beginning when he was 5 years old. Early ant farming led to keeping colonies of termites, though that was a tougher sell to my parents, he says. Even now, with his workday full of insects, he nails boards to the eaves of his house to attract paper wasps.

The challenge of rearing insects, he says, comes from the huge differences in their requirements at different stages in their lives. The keeper has to get every one of the stages just right.

Take Goliath beetles. Years ago, Morgan tried to raise some of these fist-size scarabs from Africa. Working by analogy to Goliath relatives already in captivity, he fed the adults fruit, mostly ripe bananas.

For most of the time, no problem, says Morgan. His charges fed, mated, and laid eggs, and the larvae grew.

Then they stalled, just when they should have been pupating. Their failure to form a protective shell in which to metamorphose stopped the project. Now, Morgan says, keepers elsewhere have realized that unlike their relatives, Goliath larvae pupate only if they consume extra protein, such as dog food.

Morgan has managed to grow an equally big beetle, the Hercules, which is native to South and Central America. It takes 2 years to reach adulthood, and Morgan and his colleagues routinely raise exceptional male specimens. The secret, he says, is to give the older boys plenty of room and food. Morgan puts two at most in a 10-gallon container. Every 2 months, even if the current food still looks fine, Morgan and the staff rummage through zoo grounds and their own homes for ingredients and mix up a fresh batch of compost and rotting wood. Its a real pain, he says, but its worth it to have a beetle pop out thats 5 inches long and calling you Dad.

Morgan also worked out the way to raise 3-inch-long insects called Peruvian firesticks. Their red and yellow patches flaunt the general walking stick rule of blending in with the foliage and, incidentally, make them desirable for exhibiting. Because Morgan had observed some of the insects feeding before he caught them, he realized that theyre among the rare walking sticks that eat ferns. Fortunately, they were willing to eat the ferns of Cincinnati as well as those of the Amazon.

Another colorful Amazon insect turned out to be easy enough to feed but ultimately not a good inhabitant of exhibits. Morgan brought home some Costa Rican cockroaches with bright backs. They adapted to zoo life admirably, but they were just so fast, Morgan says. You couldnt open the case without most of them nearly getting out.

His latest project looks promising despite a string of difficulties. In Peru several years ago, Morgan caught one of the grasshoppers in the family Proscopiidae. Pencil-thick and up to 61⁄2 inches long, theyre sometimes known as jumping sticks. Morgan refers to them as Nixon grasshoppers because they have these great-big jowls.

Back in Cincinnati, Morgan spent a bad week offering the grasshopper every kind of food he could think of. Finally, it started chewing on the popular garden bush pyracantha, a plant that it had spurned a few days earlier. The giant thrived and eventually laid eggs, although they didnt develop.

The grasshopper, renamed Mrs. Nixon, laid a last clutch just before she died. Morgan optimistically moved them to moist peat. Nine months later, the eggs did hatch. As the little grasshoppers grew up, Morgan made the first descriptions of their molts and other lifestyle basics. In mid-January, Morgan had another thrill. Our new generation of Nixons were mating all day, he says.

Behind the glass

Figuring out the basics of insect care is only the first step to setting up an exhibit. Creating an entire zoo takes much more.

To visit the Smithsonians live insect hall, go west from the big elephant in the museums rotunda, straight through the vertebrates, and left at the marine iguanas. Each year, more than a million visitors take that route.

The zoos design has changed since the pictures Science News (SN: 8/28/76, p. 139) printed of the museums opening. Gone is the big glass-fronted landscape mixing several kinds of ecosystems. It was not a great idea, Erwin says. The forest insects drowned in the pond.

Designers revamped the hall in 1993, retaining the theme of ecosystems but separating them and making viewing easier. The Orkin Pest Control Company funded the remodeling, and the halls name commemorates the companys founder, O. Orkin.

The zoos first display presents a delegate from each of the five big groups of arthropods: spiders, centipedes, millipedes, crustaceans, and insects. This is really the Arthropod Zoo, but Erwin doesnt think that name would have caught on.

As we walk down the hall, its hard to pick favorites. The zoo displays little water striders that zip around on ponds without sinking, tiny ants that raise families inside thorns on acacia trees, and southwestern ants that store honey in the bodies of special sisters that swell into amber-colored beads hanging from their nests ceiling.

Erwin typically keeps on hand seven species of tarantulas, including the Mexican redkneed species.

Thats the one you see crawling up James Bonds arm, Erwin says, not sounding too impressed. He notes that its a famously even-tempered creature and popular as a pet.

In a neighboring case, one of the so-called bird-eating tarantulas sits in her water dish. Erwin looks pained as I mention her name. She cuts an impressive figure, with a hairy body the size of a small sparrow and legs that would spill off a dessert plate. However, the zoo staff spends an inordinate amount of time explaining that the tarantulas catch mostly lizards and other terrestrial prey and hardly ever encounter a bird.

I ask about pictures of the old Insect Zoo that showed clusters of display cases in the middle of the floor.

Those were fine exhibit-wise, Erwin explains, but the Department of Agriculture didnt like them. To keep non-native insects contained, the USDA now requires that cases open only from the rear and only into secure areas. Erwin pushes through a series of doors, taps out a code on a touch pad, and we step into one of those areas.

Im nose-to-whatever with a tarantula. Shes at eye level just inside the door in a clear plastic container resembling a square shoebox. According to the attached label, Im staring at Miss Piggy. Along a tall bank of wire shelves, Persephone, Acme, Spencer, and 31 of their friends sit one to a box. The zoo offers a tarantula food only once a week, so the staff needs to keep a full stable for its demonstrations, held three times a day. Erwin tells me that Miss Piggy still takes her turn in these shows even though shes near her 30th birthday.

Behind the shelves, Deering and animal-care specialist Liesel McCurry slide by each other with the practiced speed of chefs in a narrow kitchen. However, what I thought was a refrigerator is an incubator full of caterpillars, and the gray garbage can turns out to be a rearing bin for the weekly supply of crickets.

An insect zoo requires as much scrubbing as a kitchen, Erwin says, since curators have to safeguard the animals health. A few years ago, for example, they improved the survival of their hawkmoth caterpillars just by tightening up cleanliness in preparing the weekly lump of doughy caterpillar food. Erwin adds, just think what would happen if the insect zoo developed a bug problem.

Of course, hes serious. Local insects zipping through the zoo might expose his charges to disease or might catch something exotic themselves. Many curators of the other displays in this vast building could give him tips on protecting collections from pests, but Erwin would have to find one that wouldnt kill his own bugs.

The zoo has to keep pesticides out of the insects food, too, a challenge for a place that needs more than a dozen branches of pyracantha a week. Plenty of landscapers have planted the shrub, but once a week, one of the staff makes a trip across Washington to the National Arboretum to cut foliage from a group of pyracanthas the horticulturists dont spray.

To feed that pyracantha to the New Guinea stick insects, McCurry dons heavy leather gloves and lowers a flask of branches into a case. The hard part, though, is getting the old branches out. She removes a few twigs at a time, and she and Erwin scrutinize each for any insect pretending to be part of the foliage. They focus intently on the job but assure me theres a last defense against escapes. We freeze all our garbage, Erwin says.

The zoos hive of honeybees, already an established species in the region, has the USDAs blessing to buzz out through a special bee door in a window and forage for themselves. Erwin is creating a map of this part of the city with concentric circles rippling out from the museum to show bee-foraging distances.

The circles cover the Internal Revenue Service across the street, many other federal agency headquarters, the White House with its rose garden, and the Capitol. Honey from such foraging gets eaten only by the bees themselves.

Danielle does lunch

When we reemerge into the exhibit hall shortly after 10 a.m., visitors are starting to amble in. Felecia Olson, the first volunteer docent of the day, has wheeled out a sturdy metal cart that looks as if it began its career in a restaurant. Now it holds, in a series of deli containers, this mornings choice of insects for the guests to handle. Also on the cart, in her plastic box, Danielle the tarantula waits for lunch.

Being a good docent here requires a passion for both insects and people, and Deering has pointed out that the combination isnt common. The zoos current 36 docents include a wide mix of people, from ages 17 to 80. A few work as entomologists, but most enjoy a break from an unrelated job, such as working for the FBI or performing modern dance. Olsons background is in accounting.

A ring of visitors, one of them waist high to the others and very solemn, gathers around Olsons cart for the 10:30 tarantula feeding. Olson asks us not to move around once she takes the top off Danielles box.

Its not that the tarantula is really dangerous. Instead, a disturbance might make her lose her appetite.

The top comes off the box, and Olson points out Danielles charms, such as the pinkish-violet tint to her dark hairy body and the silk rug shes spun over the sand at one end of her box.

After Olson has talked about tarantulas, she uncorks a vial containing a cricket. She advises us to watch closely because if Danielle has an appetite today, the action is likely to be brief. Danielles a good eater, Olson says as she empties the cricket onto the sand about an inch to Danielles left.

For a few seconds, nothing happens. Then Danielle shifts a bit on her big hairy legs, and the cricket is in her grip. Not a flashy pounce, the motion was stunning for its perfect economy. Danielle has expended not a spark more energy than necessary, as if picking up a sandwich. Now, Danielle injects venom to paralyze the cricket. The tarantula will regurgitate liquefying enzymes into the crickets body so she can suck out the nutritious innards. The audience stands perfectly still.

Moments like these–watching up close as a predator pounces or handling some big insect–are what make insect zoos so compelling. The insects themselves are beautiful and interesting, but their approachable size offers unique thrills. You cant hold an elephant in your hands, Erwin says, but you can hold a hissing cockroach.

More from Science News