Bugs are Amazing!

Well, it’s officially summer here in Texas and Houston is literally buzzing with insect activity! I don’t know about you, but I have about 18 mosquito bites and I’m sure there will be many more to come. Bugs are everywhere now and this is the best time of year for them.

People always ask me why I’m so interested in bugs and why would I want to work with them for a living. Most people are so concerned with how gross or weird they are to see how amazing they can be. The more I get to know them, the more I want to know – they just blow me away! Hopefully you will feel the same. I wanted to share some amazing insect facts with ya’ll so maybe while you’re out and about this summer, you’ll think a little differently about our little friends!

First thing’s first, Arthropods are the phylum that insects belong to and includes all of their close relatives like arachnids, crustaceans, and myriapods. There are an estimated 1,170,000 known species on earth. Those are only the ones we know about; there are probably millions more waiting to be discovered!

Of these, about 1,000,000 species are insects, which account for more than half of all known living species on earth…that’s amazing! Scientists believe that there are up to 9,000,000 more species that have yet to be discovered, OMG.

So lets compare that with some other animals shall we? There are 5400 species of mammals, 10,000 species of birds, 8200 species of reptiles, and somewhere around 6000 species of amphibians.

3 - Hi YA YA!
Creative Commons License photo credit: robstephaustralia

The largest order of insects are the beetles with 350,000 species making them the most abundant animal on earth. In fact, 1 in every 4 animals is a beetle! Coming in second are butterflies and moths, with 170,000 species. The largest insect (heaviest) is a beetle called the Goliath Beetle. They can weigh 4 ounces, which is as much as a quarter pound burger (meat only.) The longest is a walking stick from Southeast Asia measuring 22 inches.

Think insects all have short lifespans? Think again. Cicadas can live 17 years underground before becoming adults, ant and bee queens can live for decades and one type of wood boring beetle emerged as an adult after being in a bookcase for 40 years, yikes!

The loudest insect is an African cicada. We are used to hearing cicadas during the hot summer days. I heard cicadas in Costa Rica that were so loud I thought they were birds at first! The African cicada can produce sounds that have been recorded at 106.7 decibels. In comparison, a jackhammer produces about 100 decibels.

grasshopper chomping on my leg hair
Creative Commons License photo credit: slopjop

Most people know that Monarch butterflies migrate pretty far, but did you know that locusts travel much further? They have them beat by a couple thousand miles. They have been known to travel nearly 3000 miles one way! One species even flew from Africa, across the Atlantic ocean to South America; now that’s amazing! They also win in terms of the largest swarms. The largest swarm was recorded in Africa in 1954. It was so huge it covered an area of 77 square miles. That’s kind of scary.

Insects are pretty amazing fliers. They were the first animals to take to the air, about 200 million years before the first birds. Dragonflies are up there, having been clocked at 36 miles per hour, but the horsefly can reach speeds of more than 90 miles per hour! A hummingbird can beat its wings about 60-80 times per second,  pretty impressive. A tiny fly called a midge can beat its wings up to 1000 times per SECOND, that’s unbelievable.

When it comes to foot racing, we do have a super star, right here in Houston. The American cockroach(big one with wings) can reach speeds of 3.4 miles per hour. Now that doesn’t sound fast, but in human terms, it would be like one of us running 400 miles per hour. The Australian tiger beetle is the fastest clocking in at 5.6 mph, which is the equivalent of 720 mph for a human.

European rhino beetle taking a walk on a concrete mixer
Creative Commons License photo credit: e³°°°

All insects are of course very strong, being able to carry or move things many many times their own body weight. A well known beetle, the rhino beetle can carry up to 850 times its own weight. That would be like an average guy, maybe 175 pounds, being able to lift 150,000 pounds. Good luck with that!

So see, insects are pretty darn incredible. It may even make you feel better to know that out of the million species of insects that exist on earth, less than 1 percent are considered to be pests or harmful to humans. The vast majority live in tropical regions like Asia, Africa, and South America, with the highest concentration in rainforests. I could go on and on about the feats of insects, but I’ll save some  for another time. Until then, I hope you all can learn to appreciate the most incredible, beautiful, and diverse life forms on our planet. Happy bug watching!

This is a test…

This is a test…


And so is this…

No really – the skeleton of a sea urchin is called a test. Sea urchins are one kind of Echinoderm. And “echinoderm” is not some new spa skin treatment; it means “spiny skin” and refers to the phylum name for sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and all of their salt-water buddies.

At HMNS, we maintain a few living sea urchins in addition to the ones we have preserved for class use. If you haven’t been to the Museum lately (or maybe you have, but didn’t notice the tank), there is a salt water tank in the Grand Hall that houses the sea urchins, lightning whelks and horseshoe crabs we use in our Outreach program, Wildlife on Wheels. The sea urchins we currently have are of two kinds: Variegated or Short-spined Urchins (Lytechinus variegatus) and Pencil Urchins (Eucidaris tribuloides). While they are related, they are very different in appearance. The Short-spined looks more like a pin cushion and the Pencil Urchin looks more like pretzel sticks stuck to a ping-pong ball.

Live Short-spined Urchin

Their different appearances give us clues to their behavior and lifestyles. You will often see our Short-spined Urchin clinging to the side of the tank with shells and bits of rubble stuck to it. These urchins are more active during the daytime, and the most favored theory is that they use the small pieces of shell or rock as sun protection (like a hat to prevent excessive UV exposure.) Their spines are rather sharp and a great defense. Not that there are predators in the tank, but the horseshoe crabs have been known to roll the urchins around, sort of exploring the other occupants of the tank. We keep telling them the urchins are not toys, but they haven’t really caught on yet.

Live Pencil Urchin The Pencil Urchins move very little, so if you visit the tank on your way in and stop by on your way out, they are likely to be in the same place. They often go unnoticed in the tank. These urchins have very blunt spines (hence the “pencil,” though I’d like to see one named the Pretzel Urchin). More active at night, they spend their days holed up in rocks to avoid predators. Once they wedge themselves in, it is very difficult to remove them; far easier to move the rocks in our case.

If you want to learn more about sea urchins and their fellow echinoderms, check out your local aquarium or library!

What kingdom are you from?

We’ve seen how Carl Linnaeus’s system classifies Lucy. How is the classification that refers to her different from the one that refers to us?

Applied to humans, a Linnaean chart could be filled out in the following way. (Notice the prevalence of Greek and Latin terminology.)

Domain: Eukaryota – containing all organisms which have cells with a nucleus.

Kingdom: Animalia – including organisms with eukaryotic cells that have a cell membrane but lack a cell wall, are multicellular, and heterotrophic (meaning that they cannot synthesize their own food, as plants do.)

Phylum: Chordata – including animals with a notochord, dorsal nerve cord, and pharyngeal gill slits.

Subphylum: Vertebrata – animals possessing a backbone, which may be made of cartilage, to protect the dorsal nerve cord.

Class: Mammaliaendothermic vertebrates with hair and mammary glands which, in females, secrete milk to nourish the young.

Subclass: Placentalia – including animals that give birth to live young after a full, internal gestation period.

Order: Primates – including animals with a collar bone, eyes that face forward, grasping hands with fingers, and two types of teeth: incisors and molars. 

Family: Hominidae – including primates with upright posture, a large brain, stereoscopic vision, a flat face, and hands and feet with different specializations (such as grasping and walking).

Genus: Homo – having an s-curved spine, “man.”

Species: Homo sapiens – characterized by a high forehead, well-developed chin, and thin skull bones.

While Latin and Greek are no longer used when scientists write or e-mail each other, these languages continue to survive in the names given to plants and animals. For those few among us who did study Latin and Greek, here is one practical application of hours and hours of learning vocabulary and conjugating verbs: it allows one to more easily see the origins of the terms used and thus facilitates our understanding of what is meant.

For all those others who did not study these ancient languages, consider the old saying “The more it changes…”