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Mar 11, 2014

What have invertebrates ever done for us?

Mike Bungard, Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates

Paignton Zoo 2014 is the Year of the Invertebrate! Investigate, the striking new invertebrate exhibit in the heart of Paignton Zoo, opens in April. It’s a fitting tribute to Dr David Stradling, the late Chairman of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, an entomologist and ecologist who specialised in leaf-cutter ants and tarantulas.

Inverts are vital; in pure numbers of species they far outstrip the vertebrates and even plants. They are not a group that has been particularly well represented at Paignton Zoo to date, so this is a wonderful opportunity to highlight this group, often overlooked amongst the mammals, birds and plants.  

Investigate will occupy the Hub, which stands on one of the major thoroughfares in the Zoo. The design process has been interesting. We didn’t want to repeat exhibits done elsewhere, we really wanted to ‘do different’. How do you approach such an exhibit from a fresh perspective? Most collections take the traditional approach, talk about the animal’s role in the ecosystem, conservation issues and generally set the exhibit in the framework of the natural world. But making an exhibit educationally important is about making it relevant. We decided to show the species in a different light and relate them to the visitor’s everyday life; in this way we stand a better chance of engaging and inspiring.  

The initial inspiration came, of all places, from B movies and computer games. From there it developed into a science orientated exhibit. In a nutshell, the new exhibit asks ‘how has research into invertebrates changed our world’? What have invertebrates ever done for us?   The answer to that is – plenty. You begin to realise how many things in our everyday lives – from Facebook to mobile ‘phones – have some roots in invertebrate studies. Algorithms developed from the decision-making of social insects are responsible for many data mining and internet based applications. Desert irrigation techniques have been inspired by how the bodies of beetles collect dew droplets. Faster computers are coming, based upon the light reflectance of beetles’ bodies.  

Airless tyres are being modelled from the hexagonal forms found in bee and wasp nests. Incredibly, robotics also draws on invertebrate studies; the behaviour and locomotion (including flight) of search and rescue robots is being based on spiders and species with no exo-skeleton, allowing them to search for survivors in previously inaccessible spaces in collapsed buildings. As for medical advancement, the list (involving spiders, scorpions and other venomous beasties) is endless – but invertebrates hold the promise of cures for some of the major diseases of our time.  

The exhibit itself will be fun and interactive with a strong education emphasis. There will be five live exhibits, each representing one of the major inspirational groups. They are leaf cutter ants (demonstrating algorithms), beetles (dewdrop collection), giant spiders (their thread is being used in nano-scale medical applications), scorpions (the use of bioluminescence is being studied, while venom can help make beneficial medicines) and stick insects (their resistance to pathogens may help develop new antibiotics).  

To go along with the opening of the exhibit there will be invertebrate inspired events, such as the Invertebrate Festival during May half term, a butterfly release in Crocodile Swamp at Easter, photography workshops and a native species BioBlitz in September. We hope everybody will learn something new about invertebrates when they visit the Zoo in 2014 – and be inspired to look at this misunderstood group in a new light.


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