Friday, August 23, 2013

Las Cruces, New Mexico: Arthropod Museum

Beetle, Arthropod Museum, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Joshua, a Living Rootless reader, recommended that I visit the Arthropod Museum on the New Mexico State University campus in Las Cruces.

I did and it exceeded my expectations.

When I walked in, I expected the museum to be museum-ish, with display cases and museum lighting, but in reality, it is a room with wooden cabinets, and when you open the cabinet doors there are wooden drawers with glass tops, and inside these are the insects.

There are also some live specimens, which are kept variously in small aquaria or plastic Gladware containers.

Giant African millipede, Arthropod Museum, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Graeme is the curator of the museum. Also present on the day I visited were staffers Ryan and Randall. All three educated and entertained me.

Madagascar roach

There were a couple of live Madagascar hissing roaches and Graeme was willing for me to hold one in my hands. I wanted to be willing, but I couldn't guarantee that once it was placed in my hand, I wouldn't immediately fling it across the room in squealy fear. Ryan had the good idea for me to place my hand on the table and let the roach creep crawl walk on it. I did do this, all the while giggling in the way one does when one is actually scared and not amused.

Madagascar hissing roach, Arthropod Museum, Las Cruces, New Mexico

I also touched the roach's back while Grame held it, even though it took a few tries for me to get my finger to actually make contact.

Giant African millipede

I could have done Ryan's trick again with the giant African millipede, but I couldn't abide the thought of those hundreds of tiny feet crawling on my skin. I am grimacing now just writing about it.  Ew.

Giant African millipede, Arthropod Museum, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Graeme telling me that millipedes excrete a toxic ooze didn't encourage me, either. But I did feel OK about touching the back of the millipede while he held it.

 Red ants

It happens that Ryan is an ant expert, and I asked him about fire ants in New Mexico and about the tiny red ants that manage a super-highway of traffic in front of my apartment. I don't remember which ant I have, but it's not fire ants. Ryan told me that if I were to squash some of the ants, and then smell them, I'd detect a lemon-lime aroma.

There are fire ants in New Mexico, but they're different than the more aggressive and invasive fire ants (RIFA - red invasive fire ants) we hear about in the media, which are migrating north from South America.

Scariest arthropods

I asked the guys what they thought were the scariest arthropods.

Graeme put forth the bot fly, which, through various vectors, implants eggs just beneath a host's skin, and they grow and .... you can actually see these things moving just under your skin and .... ewwwwwww. Graeme actually experienced being infected by a bot fly.

Randall noted that he was creeped out by a long-ago donation from an unknown person who had pubic lice. Yes, said pubic lice are at the museum. He showed me some really scary disgusting long worm things floating in formaldehyde from the sea that are kind of in the shrimp family, but aren't shrimp like we think of shrimp.

Ryan noted that "mosquitoes have killed more humans than any other animal." And then he later modified that to say, "It's not even the mosquito, it's what's in the mosquito" [that kills us]. That is, the parasites that have hijacked the mosquitoes. Parasites carried by mosquitoes cause, among other things:

Dengue fever
Yellow fever
Japanese encephalitis

If you want to be freaked out some more, check this out: The 5 Most Horrifying Bugs in the World.

Hummingbird-like moth with very long tongue, Arthropod Museum, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Insects in war

Randall's first area of study was history, and when I asked him for any connection between history and insects, he mentioned that in the Civil War, the north used insects to destroy crops in the South. In looking into this further, it seems this story may be apocryphal, but nevertheless, it opened up our conversation into a whole new avenue re: insects.

The Japanese, in the 1930s and 1940s, waged an egregious "study" of entomological warfare, and used their Holocaust-like research to kill an estimated half million Chinese via the deposit of cholera-infected fleas.  This was the doing of  Unit 731, which executed a monstrous project.   

Indeed, insects (in addition to parasites, viruses, et al) have been used for millennia as a tool against enemies. This doesn't count the myriad ways insects have plagued soldiers as a byproduct of war. (Getting back to the Civil War, there is a thought that insect-borne disease killed more soldiers than battle wounds.) In addition to the aforementioned mosquitoes as death carriers, flies and fleas also wreaked havoc on soldiers' health.    

There's a book the three gentlemen referred me to - Bugs in the System: Insects and Their Impact on Human Affairs, by May Berenbaum (who has a connection with the X Files). Unfortunately, this isn't in my current or future local library, so I've bought it online and await its surprises.

Vinegaroon, Arthropod Museum, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Can insects make us zombies?

Maybe, kind of, and we kicked that around for awhile, conjecturing (well, I was) on whether or not we humans might be susceptible to such zombification by tiny critters. .... Last year, I had read this provocative article, about how some of us are infected with a parasite found in cat feces, which can affect our mental processes and behaviors.   

Here's how one parasite takes over the brains of ants to ensure its propagation.

And there's more!

...well, there was more interesting stuff we talked about, and I could have stayed at the Arthropod Museum all day just picking these guys' brains like a parasite, but I tore myself away.

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