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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

(Don't) Grow a Backbone!

"If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for beetles."

- J. B. S. Haldane

This week, I heard some news that was as unexpected as it was disappointing: the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC announced the closure of its Invertebrate House, effective the end of the week.  The shuttering of its doors deprives the zoo community of one its most original exhibits - one of the few buildings at any zoo in the world devoted to the diversity of invertebrate life, both terrestrial and aquatic.  The Pacific octopus and sea anemones, the blue crabs and goliath bird-eaters and all of the other occupants, will have to find new homes at other institutions.

When we think of the typical zoo animals, we think of big mammals - bears, big cats, monkeys, giraffes.  Birds and reptiles might be added to the list as well, especially the most familiar, eye-catching species, such as flamingos, penguins, and crocodiles.  The fact is, however, is that these animals are not representative of the real animal kingdom.  The vast majority of animal life on earth are invertebrates.  One-quarter of all animal species (40% of all insects) are beetles.  When did you last see a beetle exhibit at a zoo?

To be fair, some zoos have devoted insect exhibits - Cincinnati and St. Louis come to mind - but there are also hordes of aquatic invertebrates.  Jellyfish, mollusks, urchins, anemones, corals... what about them?

Education is (or at least should be) one of the most important missions of a zoo or aquarium.  If the goal is to educate visitors about animal life, it doesn't make sense to ignore the 99% of the animal kingdom that forms the spineless majority.  Invertebrates are essential to life on earth - they drive many ecosystems and shape our planet.  They've had amazingly important roles in our culture, history, and economies.  Furthermore, there are endangered invertebrates - the Partula snails and the American burying beetle, to give some examples - that can benefit from captive breeding programs.  Some of these species zoos and aquariums are currently working with.  More could be saved, with more support and interest.

Some people may say that a tarantula doesn't have the glamour and appeal of a tiger.  True.  But don't sell the spider short - those zoos and aquariums which have opened invertebrate displays have found them to be enormously popular with the public.  Butterfly gardens are immensely popular, and have popped up at zoos and museums around the world.  Leaf-cutter ants are fascinating to watch as they march through display tubes, their leafy prizes hoisted over their heads.  Jellyfish are hauntingly beautiful as they drift through black-lit aquariums.

As it so happens, one of my favorite zoo memories ever concerns an invertebrate.  I was just a small child, visiting the zoo with my father and my best friend.  We arrived at the octopus exhibit just in time for a feeding demonstration.  I was amazed as the giant orange octopus unfolded itself from the crevice where it had been hiding and descended to the bottom of the tank, where a sealed jar of shrimp had been placed.  With effortless ease, the mollusk unscrewed the lid and helped itself to a snack.  The entire crowd was spellbound.

That feeding demonstration, it so happens, took place at the Invertebrate House at the National Zoo.

PS:  Just so I don't end on too glum of a note, there will still be one place to see invertebrates in DC after the zoo's exhibit closes next week... no, not Congress.  The Smithsonian Institute also maintains a collection of insects and other arthropods in the Orkin Insect Zoo, located on the National Mall in the National Museum of Natural History.

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