June 19, 2007

Hidden Pleasures

A Washington Post article about the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History Insect Zoo - quoting my brother Matthew.

Hidden Pleasures
Whether you decide to go or just enjoy reading about them, we guarantee there's something here you didn't already know about

Washington Post Magazine, Sunday, June 17, 2007; Page W12

By Christina Ianzito

Probably the most transfixing few seconds you can offer a kid in Washington can be found at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. At a recent tarantula feeding in the museum's Bug Corner -- soon to be back in the refurbished O. Orkin Insect Zoo on the second floor -- a crowd of families huddles around a small rug, where a museum volunteer places a clear plastic box featuring a very hairy, black five-inch Mexican redknee tarantula named Olivia next to a vial containing a large cricket. In the box with Olivia is what looks like her twin, but is actually her molted old skin, volunteer Matthew Kweskin explains. Just then a girl of about 10 interrupts.

"That cricket has no idea its life is gonna end!" she exclaims.

"No idea," Kweskin agrees. He proceeds to dump the ignorant bug in front of Olivia, who senses its movement -- tarantulas have eight eyes but can hardly see -- and, in a flash, uses her front legs to reach out and pull the cricket to her mouth. Her bite injects a toxin that turns the inside of the cricket to liquid, we learn. "It's like a cricket Slurpee," another bug-savvy volunteer explains, eliciting a few "eewwws" and a sarcastic "yummy!" from the audience.

Of course, if an expert weren't on hand to explain the biological back story here, and if you'd blinked, it would look as though the spider had remained immobile and the cricket had magically evaporated. The younger kids, including my 2- and 4-year-olds, are too young to appreciate how fascinatingly gross the spider's digestive process really is, but a handful of older boys gather around Olivia's box for 10 or 15 minutes afterward to marvel at the cricket's thin legs still poking from the tarantula's jaws. After a half-hour or so, a small, brown pea -- what's left of the cricket -- is ejected.

Olivia is just one of the museum's roughly 35 tarantulas, whose bite isn't usually deadly to humans, says the insect zoo manager, Nathan Erwin, but they have venom and long fangs, "so if you were bit, I think it would hurt." And, as with a bee's sting, some people are highly allergic.

Bug Corner rotates the spiders for the thrice-daily public feedings, as each tarantula is fed only once a week. (Upon hearing this, one woman exclaims wryly to a friend, "Imagine going an hour without food?!") Sometimes the tarantula isn't hungry and will ignore the cricket or flick it away, Erwin reports -- not too exciting for observers. And the mostly motionless spiders seem to have no other perceptible tricks in their repertoires. But the staff offers visitors other live enticements, such as the chance to feel the soft skin of a bright-green tomato worm or rub the back of a walnut-size Madagascar hissing cockroach.