Thursday, August 4, 2011

I Whip My Net Back and Forth*

By Brianna Todd, Lead Animal Caretaker

Last week I was lucky to attend the 2011 Invertebrates in Education and Conservation Conference in Rio Rico, Arizona. Life Sciences Department Manager Sarah Moore usually attends this conference, and every year that she goes, I wonder, “Who would want to go to southern Arizona at the end of July?” I was still wondering this same question as I boarded the plane to Tucson.

It turns out this is the best time of year for seeing and catching bugs. Every summer Arizona goes through a monsoon season. Torrential downpours arrive almost every afternoon, last for about 30 minutes or so, and then disappear as the temperature creeps back up into the 100’s. These rains are vital to the Sonoran desert ecosystem, and they’re also helpful for entomologists looking for cool bugs that have been washed out of their hiding places. Although I work with bugs pretty much every day, I am not an entomologist, nor would I identify myself as a “bug geek”. So I was a little trepidatious heading into this conference, but I thought at least it would be a good learning experience.

The first evening of the conference included a welcoming reception, with a keynote address by Dr. Mark Moffett. If you have not heard of Dr. Moffett, you might recognize him by his alter ego, Dr. Bugs. He is a research associate for the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, as well as a contract photographer for National Geographic. In his career he has written over 20 articles for National Geographic and published more than 500 images in that magazine. I was lucky to see Dr. Moffett speak a couple of years ago when he was a part of the National Geographic Lecture Series. On that occasion, I saw him speak to a crowd of about 2000 people at the home of the Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall. I was definitely excited to see him in this much more intimate venue of about 120 people, and he didn’t disappoint.

After the reception, the conference was in full swing. Each day began with a series of paper sessions presented by conference attendees. Presentation topics ran the gamut from how to create cage labels that catch visitors’ attention, to the husbandry of Tanzanian tailless whip scorpions (Damon variegatus), to the effort to reintroduce the American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) to portions of its former habitat. All of the presentations that I saw were excellent. They gave me plenty of new ideas for ways to improve our invertebrate cages, and they provided me with some insight into the way similar institutions operate on a day-to-day basis.

In the afternoons, we had a variety of activities to choose from depending on the day. On the first afternoon, I attended a field trip, organized by Jim Melli of the San Diego Natural History Museum. This field trip was called, “Border Bugs”, and as the name suggests, we hovered right around (but not over) the Mexican border. Rio Rico is just 10 miles from the border, directly north of Nogales. Coming from the complete opposite side of the country, it was definitely an otherworldly experience to find myself wandering about in this ecological and political environment. As we roamed the deserts and the scrubs, far out in the middle of nowhere, the Border Patrol pickups and planted water jugs gave the expedition a totally eerie vibe.

In addition to the field trip, I also attended a couple of workshops on different afternoons. In one of these workshops Wade Harrell from Phylum Studios gave us some great ideas for designing cage props out of recycled Styrofoam. This was probably one of the most useful things I learned throughout the conference and I’m excited to start making some new props for our cages here.

On the final day of the conference, I was scheduled to give my own presentation for the morning paper sessions. After a few days of observing other folks’ impeccable work, I was more than a little nervous. The topic of my presentation was our Saltwater Tide Pool. Although much of the talk at the conference centered around terrestrial invertebrates, many people were excited to hear about their marine cousins. In my presentation, I talked mainly about the Ocean Acidification Cart, which is a new interactive floor component that lets cart performers tie together some important neighboring exhibits, including the tide pool, the carbon monitoring station, and the Science on a Sphere . By learning about the processes of ocean acidification, visitors can start to understand how different components of our world rely on and affect each other. The presentation was a success and I received a lot of compliments and interest in our curriculum after it was over. I was also happy to be done with it.

After the conference, just before flying back home, I was lucky enough to see the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, and even luckier to be able to go on a behind the scenes tour. They have a ton of animals at this museum (all of them local)! I could have stayed there for hours, but I had a flight to catch (and it was 110 degrees). Although this was part of an invertebrate conference, I have to say the highlight of the museum trip for me was definitely the rattlesnakes. I have a healthy fear of these animals, but it was still very exciting to see some of these beautiful and dangerous creatures up close.

As I boarded the plane to head back to Seattle, I couldn’t help thinking about coming back next year. I am a newbie to the world of professional conferences, but this one offered plenty of good people, great animals, and beautiful scenery. I might be a bug geek after all.

*A line from the pop song (“I Whip My Hair Back And Forth”) that was parodied by a pair of rapping entomologists in a performance they made on the last night of the conference.

1 comment:

  1. It was very beautiful experience, I wish I could do the same because it was my ambition to be there in Spain for I know it made me feel wonder.