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!
Last Thursday, interns got the chance to see the Entomology department of the Zoo! Our guide for the experience was Ms. Esther Chang, a sweet and smart keeper, who has worked with insects her whole career. Interns visited multiple places in the Zoo that are dedicated entirely to insects, and by the end of the trip we had seen more amazing species than I could count! Though I began the trip rather skeptical of the real benefits of insects, I ended it with a profound sense of their importance and where they all fit in the ecosystem.
Our first stop of the day was the Insect House, located in the Children’s Zoo just beyond the Petting Paddock. The Insect House is relatively new in comparison to the rest of the Zoo, since it’s only seven years old! Although it is a more recent installation, it already boasts an impressive collection of insects and is a vital component in conservation for many fascinating species.
Ms. Chang, a senior keeper who has worked at the Zoo for about 8 years, led our visit. Ms. Chang is pictured here with one of the many species of stick insect at the Zoo; this particular specimen is a female. One of the coolest things about stick insects is their amazing form of camouflage. When threatened, females curl their ovipositors over their heads to mimic scorpions, and have even been known to accidentally fling eggs at attackers if startled during hatching season!
One of the most fascinating insects Ms. Chang showed us was the leaf-cutter ant, a Central and South American rainforest species renowned for their unique diet. These ants are essentially farmers, in that they grow an edible fungus in their tunnels using bits of chewed-up leaf as fuel! Pictured above is one of the fungus caverns located in the Zoo’s leaf-cutter ant exhibit. The mushroom-colored spongy substance is the fungus, and the little brown specks are the ants carrying new leaves to fertilize.
This giant green insect is a jungle nymph! Jungle nymphs are Malaysian leaf-eaters with a distinct method of self-defense. When threatened they snap their thorny legs together in an attempt to impale their attacker, a reaction shared by stick insects and some other bugs.
One of the more colorful insects at the Insect House is the jade-headed buffalo beetle. This insect is a tropical-forest dweller that is attracted to fermenting fruits, and the males have a tiny set of horns on their heads.
Ms. Chang’s favorite animal is the dragon-headed katydid. Despite its fearsome appearance, this South American insect is actually a peaceful gardener that eats leaves, seeds, fruits and tree bark. It literally wouldn’t harm a fly! Ms. Chang’s love for this bug is because of the breakthroughs the Zoo has made in its care. Before the Zoo acquired these insects, little was known about these secretive animals. Through trial and error, the Insect House solved the mystery of why these bugs wouldn’t reproduce in captivity: keepers installed live banana plants in their exhibits and within a few weeks, katydid eggs appeared!
After we had finished with the Insect House, Ms. Chang took us behind-the-scenes to the arachnid room near the duck pond in Children’s Zoo. Before the Insect House, this facility was used as a temporary residence for the Zoo’s then-small insect collection. Now, it is used to house the arachnids- mostly various spiders, but some scorpions too- in the humid environment they require to thrive.
The first thing we noticed stepping into the Arachnid Room, besides the spiders, was the humidity! Ms. Chang told us that most of the arachnids were from tropical climates, so it was necessary to keep it humid in order to mimic their natural environment, but that didn’t make it any easier for us…
This agile spider is a male Brazilian black tarantula, a predatory arachnid that eats crickets and other small insects. The tag is yellow, which shows it is a venomous insect; the tag has the species’ name and individual’s gender indicated on it as well. This specimen’s giant jaws- which look like eyes in this picture- hold two hollow venomous fangs.
Ms. Chang brought out a tiny water scorpion to show us! These little insects are actually only distantly related to scorpions, but their tiny pincer-like front legs and aquatic lifestyle earn them their common name. Their broad front legs are used to catch the small invertebrates they eat, and their thin tails are actually used like snorkels for breathing while in the water!
These African millipedes are one of the biggest species of millipedes and have over 250 legs! The specimen at the bottom right-hand corner is exhibiting one of the ways these insects defend themselves, by curling into a tight ball so only their hard exoskeleton shows. Millipedes are decomposers and are vital to the food chain- like the “garbage collectors” of the world.
This New River red-rump tarantula is a non-venomous spider as indicated by its tag, which is white instead of yellow. This particular spider is a female who, like other tarantula species, possesses a surprising mode of self-defense. Threatened tarantulas protect themselves by flicking their barbed abdomen hairs at their attackers, and as Ms. Chang can attest, even keepers are targeted if the spiders are surprised!
The New Guinea Stick Insect that Ms. Chang holds here is markedly different than the paler stick insect she previously showed us. For one thing, this species has a harder exoskeleton, and its back is dotted with tiny armor-like spikes. The interesting thing about this particular species is that it lives on the ground, unlike most other stick insects that are arboreal living in bushes and trees. Like the earlier species, it defends itself by snapping its spiked legs together.
Katie, Photo Team
Week One, Winter Session 2015