Pinchers, stingers and claws, oh my.

Scorpion in Question
Creative Commons License photo credit: furryscaly

“How do you count scorpions?” Well, carefully is the best answer. The same can be said for any animals with either pinchers, claws, or really sharp teeth. That pretty much covers the majority of our animal collection here (except for the amphibians).

The next question that pops to mind is: why would you count scorpions? Like many institutions that maintain animal collections, an inventory is essential and often required by law. Check out this article from the Seattle Times on the London Zoo, when they were taking inventory of their collection.

While our collection is much smaller, we still have to keep proper notes and update our inventory list. It just seems a bit tedious when you are trying to count roaches. Prolific, fast-moving roaches. See how many you count in the picture below and then imagine what happens when you scare them.


Roaches! by gifninja

Aerial shots of our Roach Dome – a simulated
home environment exhibit in the Butterfly Center,
where we house numerous cockroaches for display.

Poisoning Pesky Pests

mosquito
 © Photo credit: Gerald Yuvallos

April showers bring flowers – and mosquitoes!!!  The one good thing about our prolonged dry spell is that we have had almost no mosquitoes for months…but that is about to change.  Truly, mosquitoes are some of the most pestilential insects on this earth – not only is their bite unpleasant, but some species have the capacity to transmit diseases.  People will do almost anything to get rid of them.  And pest control companies prey on this urge, and will sell you just about anything. 

The device the pest companies are pushing these days – the “mosquito misting system” – costs several thousand dollars to install, but it does actually kill mosquitoes.  These systems use a series of nozzles, usually placed around the periphery of the homeowner’s yard, which emit a fine mist at intervals (many have programmable timers).  The mist, which contains water mixed with a pyrethroid insecticide, kills mosquitoes on contact.  Pyrethroids are widely used, generalist insecticides touted as “safe” for humans and pets such as dogs and cats, because they are derived from plants (learn more about these “safe” chemicals by clicking here.)

foxglove
  © Photo credit: Foxypar4

Some pest control companies boast right up front that these misting systems also kill “spiders, ticks, fleas, wasps, gnats, and roaches” as well as mosquitoes.  Of course, they don’t mention that along with these “undesirables,” the mist also destroys butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, praying mantids (and some of us consider spiders to be beneficial), etc., and is toxic to fish and amphibians.  In other words, although the chemicals used in these systems may be relatively safe for humans (but check out this link for some sobering information)  I wouldn’t want my child or dog or cat to be directly exposed to them.  Yes, pyrethroids are derived from plants, but they are generalist poisons that are bad news for many creatures.  And just because something comes from a plant doesn’t mean it is safe – would you want to be sprayed with extracts of oleander, foxglove, or poison ivy???

We frequently receive calls from butterfly gardeners around town who worry when their neighbors install one of these systems that it will impact their gardening efforts.  We don’t have good news for them – yes, it will.  Gardening for butterflies with one of these systems next door (since the mist can drift, and flying insects don’t stay put) is like putting out bird food if you have an outdoor cat.  You are luring butterflies and other beneficials to their death. 

The companies installing these systems will assure you that since you can use the spray just at night, day-flying insects will not be affected.  But think about it:  first, many beneficial insects are active at night, and many larval insects (e.g., butterfly caterpillars) are not able to fly away from areas that are sprayed.  Furthermore, plants or other objects near the spray nozzles build up a residue of the poison that is certainly not good for anything eating them or living in or on them.

mosquito-spray
 Mosquito Misting System

You may be surprised to learn that scientists working on mosquito control do not like these home misting systems any better than I do.  A couple of years ago, while doing research on mosquitoes and careers in entomology for the new insect wing, I talked at length to Dr. Rudy Bueno, head of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division (part of Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services, www.hcphes.org ).  I was impressed (and frankly surprised) by the conservative nature of their spraying programs.  For Dr. Bueno’s crew, spraying is a last resort, done in specific areas where their field workers have identified large populations of mosquitoes that may vector diseases such as West Nile virus (not all mosquitoes transmit disease), and where they cannot use other treatment methods such as getting rid of the standing water or treating with mosquito dunks.  They only spray when an outbreak cannot be controlled with more benign methods, and – here’s the rub – the sprays they use contain the same chemicals as the home mosquito misting systems.  Dr. Bueno’s concern is that through constant exposure to these chemicals that mosquitoes get through the home systems helps mosquitoes to evolve resistance to the chemicals – making the county’s spraying efforts much less effective, and meaning that more potent and dangerous chemicals may have to be used to control outbreaks.

gutter
 © Photo credit: akeg

I asked Dr. Bueno what he would recommend to the homeowner concerned about mosquitoes.  Their mantra in HCPHES is “reduce the source” – in other words, eliminate as much as possible any place around your home where mosquitoes might breed.  Some mosquitoes can breed in less than a tablespoon of water, or even in wet leaves, and can complete their life cycle in less than a week.  Most homeowners are fairly careless about leaving potential breeding spots on their property.  Clogged gutters, plant saucers, bird baths, dog or cat water bowls, and many other containers that hold water are all potential breeding sites.  So clean out those gutters and change the water regularly in bird baths and drinking bowls, and turn wheelbarrows or pots or buckets upside down so they don’t hold water.  Put mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis, a small native fish species that eats mosquito larvae) into any outdoor ponds.  In areas of standing water that can’t be drained you can use “mosquito dunks” – floating “donuts” that release a bacterium (Bacillus thuringensis israelensis,) that infects only mosquitoes.  One of the main places mosquitoes breed in Houston is in clogged storm sewers, so be sure not to put leaves or other debris into these sewers.  Of course, if you live next to a salt marsh or other area with shallow standing water, you may still be plagued by mosquitoes from time to time.  But there is a lot we as homeowners and good citizens can do to reduce the number of mosquito breeding areas right in our own neighborhoods.  Click here for more information on mosquito prevention

In my opinion, these home misting systems should be outlawed!  Yet to date they are almost completely unregulated, and people are so eager to rid their surroundings of mosquitoes that they don’t think about the consequences of the widespread use of these poisons.  Please do your research, and some thinking, before you spend any money on mosquito control.  One thing you can do is check out information in the lower level of the Butterfly Center – a computer kiosk rates a variety of potential mosquito control methods.  You’ll learn that in addition to “reducing the source,” using repellent with 33% DEET (more is overkill) and/or wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when outdoors in mosquito-infested areas are the best ways to prevent bites.  And in your backyard, a simple fan can keep mosquitoes away during outdoor activities, and in fact is as at least as effective, and much safer, than any of the candles or coils on the market.

I hope one day the Environmental Protection Agency will ban the use of home mosquito misting systems and other supposedly “benign” poisons that may make our lives more comfortable but that on closer examination have deleterious effects.  It would be nice if pest control companies would voluntarily stop installing these systems, but as long as the public demands (and shells out money for) them, why should they?  In the meantime, I’ll be trying to educate as many people as I can – and I hope you will too.  Butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, frogs, fish, and many other wonderful creatures would join in the chorus, if only they could!   

Because One Roach Post Just Isn’t Enough

texas sized cockroach
Creative Commons License photo credit: sirtrentalot

In my previous post about roaches, I let you know that roaches are helpful to man even if you don’t want to snuggle with them. Now I would like to give you a few fun facts to let you know why they are kinda awesome. In no particular order:

  • Roaches are 340 million years old. That means that they were around even before the dinosaurs.
  • Roaches have amazing little bodies.  The antennae of a cockroach have more than 130 segments each and act as sensory organs for measuring temperature, motion and scent.  Each of their eyes has more than 2,000 compound lenses in addition to a simple eye spot.  Their ears are located in their knee joints.  Their blood is pigment-less and they have no veins or arteries.  Their blood simply flows through their body cavity.
  • Roaches can live several weeks without a head (if proper measures are taken to keep them from bleeding out) because they have two separate and distinct brains.  The first brain is in their head and is the “major” brain.  It deals with complex issues.  The second brain is in the tail and is a simple and “minor” brain.  This brain mostly deals with “RUN!” The nerves of roaches are also 10x faster than ordinary nerves.  This, in conjunction with their minor brain, keeps them several centimeters in front of your foot.
  • Speaking of brains… Roaches are slightly less smart than an octopus.  If you have ever met an octopus, that is saying quite a bit.
  • All of the 5 families of roaches have 4 things in common. 1) They have thick leathery forewings, 2) grasshopper like mouth parts designed for chewing, 3) simple life cycles (no caterpillar or cocoon, 4) and they all make ootheca – hard shelled capsules in which females deposit their eggs.
  • Roaches are in all 50 states and found on every land mass that falls 30 degrees north or south of the Equator.
  • Approximately 40 new species of roach are discovered each year.  The current number of roach species know hovers around 3,500.  Out of those 3,500, about 1.5% are considered domestic pests. For comparison, there are about 4,700 know species of mammals. 
  • There are 5 species of cockroach in the United States – the American, German, Smoky Brown, Oriental, and Brown Banned.  None of these is native to North America.
  • What’s in a name? Cockroach comes from the Greek blattae meaning “domestic pests.” The Romans changed things up slightly when they translated it to mean “pests that flee from light.”  But in fairness, the term included mice and other critters too. Also of note, until WWII, the German cockroach was called the French cockroach.  Hmm.
  • Aggressive behavior in male cockroaches, and I am not making this up, include “stilt walking,” body jerking, biting and kicking (much like the teenager of today).
  • Roaches can stand an obscene amount of radiation.  In humans, 300 rads can cause cellular level change.  400 to 1,000 rads over a 2- to 3-week period is lethal.  Experiments conducted in the 1960s showed adult, German cockroaches could survive a 6,400 rad dose. 
  • And finally, roaches don’t like cucumbers or tomatoes for some reason.  Check that out next time you are at your favorite buffet.
Roach
Creative Commons License photo credit: telethon



Living Fossils Living Large

Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches

Frances and I were asked if we would set up a living fossils table for the HMNS’s annual Dino Days celebration that took place here last week. Not having had any history or paleontology classes I was a little clueless as to which of our living animals would fit into the category of living fossils, other than our alligator.

We did some research and what we read lead us in several directions for what it means to be a living fossil. Some animals, like the echidna and platypus, are nicknamed living fossils because they exhibit “primitive” characteristics – like oviparity, or egg-laying, in mammals. The overall consensus is that a living fossil is an organism that originally lived during the time of the dinosaurs (or even predates them), has remained unchanged morphologically and appears the same as a species otherwise only known from the fossil record, has no close living relatives and has survived major extinction events.

Chambered Nautilus

There are several examples that fit this description: the crocodilians, horseshoe crabs, turtles, opossums, salamanders, roaches, millipedes, dragonflies, and the nautilus. These are some of the critters we have in our collection and you can also add ferns, ginkgos, gar fish and the coelacanth to the list. There remains a healthy debate over which plants or animals can and should be included. I have included some pictures of our fossils, both living and non-living at the end of this entry.

All in all, we had a great time in sharing our casts, skins, skulls and live animals with everyone who came up to the table during Dino Days. Hope to see you there next November!

Dino Days Baby Gator

Tiger Salamander - too cute

Fossilized crocodilian scute and modern scutes

Volunteers manned the Touch Tank giving visitors a chance to touch these little fellows - Horseshoe Crabs.

Cast of fossil turtle shell