Monday, November 30, 2009

On why I like Arthropods

In science... or in any job/career for that matter, it is important to work in a field that you enjoy. You never know when a particular field will pique your interest!

I didn’t always like arthropods. In fact, as a child, I was pretty afraid of them. At the sight of a spider, I would get my dad to come into the room and kill it for me. Even as a teenager, the idea of creepy multi-legged creatures would make my skin crawl. It wasn’t until university that I began to change my mind about arthropods.

Left: Jenn holding a giant millipede and a giant hissing cockroach.

You may be wondering, what are arthropods? Well, they can be one of very many things. They can be arachnids, such as the little house spiders that terrified me as a little girl. They can be millipedes or centipedes, those speedy little many legged, multi-segmented creatures. They can also be crustaceans, like lobsters, crabs and shrimp, which may end up on our dinner plates. But my favourite type of arthropods is the insects, such as the hard-working honeybees, and beautiful butterflies.

The transition from fear of arthropods to liking them didn’t occur quickly. It started with a second-year university class on the ‘Biology of Plant Pests’. That was my fist introduction into insect life, and I learned mostly about insects that we call pests: the highly adaptive Colorado potato beetle, the invasive gypsy moth, and the destructive cotton bollworm. Although the course generally put a negative spin about insects, it did enlighten me about insect life stages, and I gained a new understanding about this category of creatures.

In my fourth year of university, I had the opportunity to take another course about insects. It was called ‘Behaviour of Insects’, and the prof was always full of energy and enthusiasm in his teaching. This course really introduced me to the cool things about insects: cannibalism, mating rituals, and the roles of insects in the environment.

There is a famous quotation from biophilosopher Dr. Jonas Salk: "If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end.” My professor for ‘Behaviour of Insects’ really hit that point home, in teaching the class all about the roles of insects for decomposing waste matter, pollinating flowers and crops, and producing useful materials such as silk and honey.

Shortly after taking my fourth year insects course, I worked as a research assistant for an entomologist. She entrusted me with the job of feeding, watering, and cleaning her ‘pets’. These consisted of giant African millipedes, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and Indian walking sticks. At this point, I was only comfortable handling the walking sticks, because they look (and are) absolutely harmless: they look just like sticks. More importantly, they don’t feel like much: a gentle tickle as their feet move across your palm. That summer, I only ever summoned up the courage to hold the walking sticks, but it was a start.

Right: A Giant millipede in Jenn's hand.

Now, however, I am working at Science North in the Nature Exchange. This is the epicentre for touchable arthropods at Science North. Among the arthropods, there is the massive, harmless atlas beetle, giant African snails, and my two nemeses from the summer of 2008: Madagascar hissing cockroaches and giant millipedes (these ones happen to be from Malaysia, though). By interacting with my fellow Nature Exchange staff, who are wonderful people, and by taking out arthropods for visitors to see, I have gained the courage to pick up and hold all of the above creatures.

I think I can now declare myself fully initiated into the world of arthropods. The two methods that worked for me to get to this stage were: education and exposure. My advice to you would be, that if you would like to become more comfortable with arthropods, you must do two things. First, you must learn more about them, and secondly, you must force yourself to go see them. Perhaps you will summon up the courage to touch their exoskeleton. Maybe one day, you’ll even feel ready to hold an arthropod.

- Jenn McCallum, B.Sc.

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