Answers can be found under rocks—and scurrying around at 2 a.m.
I used to trap mosquitoes. Some people think that sounds strange. We set our traps to catch adult mosquitoes so we could count how many mosquitoes were out, what kinds, and where they were. This provided us with information about where we needed to focus control efforts.
We always set at least one trap out of the district to serve as a comparison with our district success. One year I approached my brother to ask if I could set a trap in his back yard. He looked at me rather strangely, and then said that he supposed that would be all right, if he could have the pelts. That’s when I realized that trapping mosquitoes might sound strange to people who aren’t in the business.
But I learned another really interesting thing while setting a mosquito trap. I was teaching a class at the college, and we set out a mosquito trap and collected the contents every hour for 24 hours. We did this to see when mosquitoes were out feeding, and what kinds were out at different times. Everyone signed up for a turn checking the trap. When the schedule was complete I discovered that no one had signed up for the 2-in-the-morning time slot. Big surprise!
That is how I found myself, at 2 in the morning, trying to make my way through dense foliage, on uneven ground, to a remote trap, by flashlight. As I stumbled along, shining the light on the ground so I wouldn’t trip, I became aware that there were thousands of Isopods (usually called pill bugs or rolly pollies) scurrying around on the open ground.
I was pretty familiar with pill bugs, but had usually discovered them under rocks, logs and foliage in the garden. These were right out in the open on bare ground, and they were very busy. I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me. They have to make a living sometime, someway. You can’t spend all your life under a rock.
But because of what I thought was an odd behavior, I decided to collect a few and take them back to the lab to see if they were some unusual kind. Now, everyone knows what pill bugs do when you try to pick them up. They roll up into a little ball. That’s where their nicknames come from. Well, these didn’t curl up. If I didn’t get a good grip and dropped them, they sort of put on their after-burners and scurried away twice as fast as they had been moving, which I had already decided was surprisingly fast. If I did manage to catch one and dropped it into my palm for transfer to a little vial, it would quickly dart off the side of my hand and fall back to the ground where it would again put on a burst of speed. Only if I persistently tried to pick the same pill bug up several times in a row, would it eventually roll up into its proverbial little pill.
None of this behavior should have been surprising. I had never seen pill bugs behave in that manner, but, then, that was probably because I hadn’t bothered to watch them at 2 in the morning before. The whole experience made me wonder what else I thought I knew that isn’t so.
After 10 or more years of school, it probably seems to students that they know everything. But the simple truth is that there are over a million described animals, and we know very little about most of them. There are more chemical secrets than there are known chemical facts. The field of physics has not found a grand, unified theory. Geological knowledge is still way back in some zoic period or another. The immensity of our ignorance is actually staggering.
We just need to be up at 2 a.m. to discover what it is that we don’t know.
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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.