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Aliens Among Us: A Visit to the Montreal Botanical Gardens & Insectarium

Aliens Among Us

A Visit to the Montreal Botanical Gardens & Insectarium

By Ken Aiken

Photos by the author

Click here for a link to more photos from this article

Beetle mania: The diversity of their color makes beetles the jewels of the insect kingdom

We have only a vague idea about whom we share this planet with.  Unknown creatures live among us from the equator to Arctic regions, in remote wilderness areas as well as our biggest metropolitan centers.  Gaze at almost every depiction of extraterrestrials and there’s an uneasy feeling of the almost familiar, while sci-fi movies of the last half century have shown aliens with features we’ve been taught to fear.  Yet fact is indeed stranger than fiction, and life is more bizarre than even the most ardent sci-fi fan can imagine.

Over five million species – that’s 80% of all animals on our planet–are arthropods, creatures with external skeletons, segmented bodies, and jointed appendages.  Seventy-two new species of arthropods—including 20 of spiders and 43 of ants—were officially identified in 2011 alone.  One of these newly identified creatures is a cockroach that can jump like a grasshopper, but relax: it lives in South Africa. A recent expedition to the remote Mekongga Mountain region in Indonesia netted what is now known as the Garuda wasp plus numerous other flies and wasps that are in the process of being identified.  In contrast, four new species of bees were discovered in New York City this last year.  A bumblebee first discovered in 1913 and last identified in 1956 was rediscovered in 2011 while a six-year-old Normal School student in New Zealand found a “living fossil” legged worm in a park.  These are the easy to find arthropods, insects and arachnids—who knows what lurks in the depths of the world’s oceans?

There is no doubt that insects are strange.  They lay eggs—a concept we readily grasp—but then go through a larval stage of growth before metamorphosing into radically different forms as adults.  At an early age we learn that caterpillars make cocoons then turn into butterflies or moths.  In reality the growth cycle is far more complex and varied, but this is about as much as most people ever learn about insects.  Furthermore, how many people even know what the “woolly bear caterpillar” becomes as an adult? (Isabella Tiger Moth) or that in Arctic regions the woolly bear lives for up to 14 years, freezing solid and thawing out each year? (go ahead: experiment at home).  Some 15,000 -20,000 species of butterflies are known, but there are between 150,000 to 250,000 species of moths.  The vagueness of these numbers suggests how little we actually know.

One way to learn more is by attending the annual “Butterflies Go Free” event at the Montreal Botanical Gardens from February 16 to April 29.  The Insectarium rears numerous species of butterflies and moths in their breeding program and acquires eggs from others.  The eggs are hatched and the caterpillars reared during the winter.  The chrysalis and cocoons are then moved to one of the large public greenhouses during the depths of winter.  When the butterflies and moths emerge flowers are in bloom and the public is invited to attend this harbinger of spring.

The Monarch is one of the longest-lived butterflies and its epic yearly migration is one of the wonders of the natural world

The Insectarium is part of the Montreal Botanical Gardens and the day I visited it was swarming with preschool children.  Bugs aren’t scary to young children and a large group was completely engaged with a staff member who was talking about spiders.  I hung around just to see if she was going to present one of their live tarantulas, but she abstained–it probably would have been too much for the parents.

Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) or Cobra moth is the world’s largest moth with wing span of 10 inches

Portions of the Insectarium’s collection of 150,000 mounted specimens are showcased, but the terrariums with living creatures proved to be far more interesting.  Phasmatodea–the name comes from the Greek meaning apparition–is an order of insects with camouflage so good they actually look like leaves or twigs.  The Indian or Laboratory walking stick grows to almost 20 inches and even knowing that the large terrarium contains these creatures it takes a few minutes to discern one, then a couple more to recognize that over a dozen of these creatures are within three feet of my face.  While most of the 2,500 known species live in Asia, the “walking stick” is common to oak forests in the eastern United States and can be found at least as far north as southern Vermont—but only if you have very sharp eyes and considerable patience.  Little is known about wild species, however over 300 kinds are reared in captivity and frequently are kept as pets with numerous websites providing instructions for their care and handling.

Another extraterrestrial-looking creature is the praying mantis.  I can testify that wild ones will stay with you for two or three days if you feed them.  Scott Cromwell, a photographer from Oklahoma has taken this even further by placing his pet Dead Leaf, Violin, and Ghost mantises among dollhouse miniatures and photographing a series he calls “The Day in the Life of Mantis.” Easy to rear in captivity the Insectarium has several species of mantis—and of course even more as mounted specimens.

A mantis lying in ambush

There’s a hive of honeybees and a rather large ant farm.  Both exhibits are set up so colony behavior can be safely viewed without disturbing their labors.  The hive also has the additional purpose of pollinating acres of flowers in the botanical gardens.  Honeybees are the most obvious of the ecological/symbiotic relationships we have with insects.  Without them we would be unable to raise the crops that provide food for our daily tables.  However, most insects don’t thrive in captivity and so myth and mystery surround even the most common ones.

Dragonflies don’t sting, nor can they stitch a person’s mouth closed, and I’ve rescued dozens of large ones using bare hands. They’re voracious carnivores with huge mandibles so I assume that they can bite or at least pinch, but none have ever done so. The bulk of their diet is mosquitoes so I wonder why haven’t humans nominated them for insect of the year?  Perhaps, because ignorance begets fear.

In truth, very little is known about most of the insects—or arachnids– we think we know.  It has recently been discovered that in some spiders the central nervous system comprises up to 80% of their body weight (compared to 2-3% for humans).  Also paper wasps—hornets to most of us—have the ability to recognize individual faces of hive members as well as their own species. Both wasps and spiders are armed with toxic poisons and neither looks anything like our own kind so we tend to kill them before they can hurt us.

Scorpions are thought to be among the first land creatures. This one, with a spider visible in the background, was trapped in amber 40 million years ago

There are over 100,00 species of arachnids, which also includes scorpions, ticks, and mites.  Nine species of Dolomedes—fishing spiders– exist in North America.  In New England we call them “dock,” “wharf,” and “water” spiders and they are common along streams and lakes.  I don’t wear eyeglasses when swimming so my contact with these exceptionally large spiders –with huge fangs–frequently occurs at arms’ distance.  Good thing they aren’t aggressive!  Literature lists them as having a body up to two inches long, but I frequently encounter larger specimens.  Unlike many species of tarantulas, fishing spiders don’t flourish in captivity and they are very quick so despite being much more common they actually are far less familiar.

Despite our nightmarish fears, most spiders pose no threat. Yes, there are Black widows, Brown recluses, and Hobos but then again some of the largest and scariest tarantulas actually make good pets. I do allow a small number of spiders to live with me unless they build webs, reside in my bedroom, or grow to large for piece of mind.  You might say I’ve accepted the inevitable since most of us are never more than 10 feet from a spider regardless of where we live or how frequently we vacuum or spray insecticide.  I’m not extremely comfortable around them but most people tend to be arachnophobic so it was fascinating for me to witness the Insectarium staff introducing them to very young children.

Arthropods populated Earth’s seas 550 million years ago (MYA).  Some of the earliest creatures to venture from the seas onto dry land are thought to be scorpions, centipedes, and millipedes with the earliest known insect fossil dating to 396 – 407 million MYA.  Advanced insects–including dragonflies with wingspans of up to 3 feet–appear in the fossil record during the Carboniferous 362-290 MYA and beetles show up 318-299 MYA. The earliest dinosaurs and first mammals come along during the Triassic 245-208 MYA.  By the time Tyrannosaurus Rex appeared dragonflies had been flitting about for almost 300 million years and virtually unchanged by evolution they are still doing so!

Arthropods have been around for over 550 million years while the earliest known humanoid fragment has been dated at a mere 5.2 MYA. Homo erectus doesn’t appear 1.8 MYA and the earliest Homo sapiens (not even “modern man”) dates back only 500,000 years or less than 1/100th of a percent as long as arthropods have been on this planet.

The next time you see a dragonfly doing its aeronautic magic or look into its big multi-faceted eyes, recognize it as being a true earthling.  If you want to see an alien, all you have to do is gaze at your own reflection.


Montreal Botanical Gardens and Insectarium,

401 rue Sherbrook Est —at the corner of Sherbrook East and Pie-IX facing the Olympic Stadium.  Pie-IX Metro station (green line) and follow the signs to Jardin botanique and Insectarium.  (514) 872-1400

Open: to May 14th, 9-5, Tues.-Sun.   May 15 – Sept. 6, 9-6, every day.

Admission includes gardens, greenhouses, and Insectarium:  spring/summer, Adults $14/$16.50; Seniors & students $10.50/$12.50; Ages 5-17 $7/$8.25; and Ages 2-4 $2/$2.50

Butterflies Go Free:  Feb. 16-April 29, 2012

Montreal Biodôme

Four great North American ecological systems under one roof.

4777 ave. Pierre-De-Coubertin – across from the botanical gardens and at the foot of the Olympic Stadium tower (just walk from the gardens).  Viau Metro station (green line).     (514) 868-3000

Open:  same schedule as the gardens and Insectarium.

Admission: similar to summer season above BUT special package combinations that include the Botanical Gardens and Insectarium or the Olympic Tower are also offered.

Olympic Tower Observatory – the tallest inclined tower in the world.  You can’t miss it.

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