I’ve been fortunate enough to see some interesting things over the last couple years working in the Amazon, and two of them in particular have managed to garner a lot of public attention. Let’s see what the magic formula is (if there is one) to making bugs a hit.
First up, the decoy-building spider. When I found it, I thought “Holy sh*t!” But honestly, I’ve said that a lot of times in the field. There are heaps of really interesting things out there, which is what makes working in the field so fun and exciting. But beyond research, part of the trick of science education is to find the species or interactions that can get the public utterly fascinated when they normally wouldn’t, and slip in some knowledge about nature and passion for nature without them knowing.
The article on the spider in Wired got the discovery listed as the number two science story of the year for Wired Science, ahead of Mars Curiosity and the Higgs Boson. I had live interviews in the UK, and sent images of the spider to journalists in every continent (except Antarctica).
What made the spider such a hit? I’d say a combination of a few things. For one, it’s a spider, which ups the attention ante as many have a fear of spiders opposed to, say, wood lice. Secondly, it seems at first glance like an intelligent, self-aware spider. Not only are they scary, but now they are self aware! Of course, we know that is not true. It is simply a very well evolved behavioral system that has yet to be totally figured out.
My main point regarding being fascinated with the spider’s constructed design is this: imagine if we had never seen any spider web before until now. We would be just as fascinated with a simple orb-weaver design, and marvel at the clever way that these seemingly simple arthropods can capture and wrap up their prey! There are incredible animal interactions around us all of the time, it just some times takes a rather spectacular one like this spider to make us look around and realize that.
Second up, this fuzzy megalopygid caterpillar. The internet swept this picture up, quickly giving it a meme status as being Donal Trump’s toupee in the wild. The image was shared on facebook upwards of 20,000 or so times (that I know of) and has ‘front-paged’ on reddit three times (at one point causing 30,000 hits to my first post on it in one night).
What makes this caterpillar such a hit? My guess is this- when I would show tourists in Peru this image and ask “what is it?” the answers were:
A fish, a fruit, a bird, a chicken, a baby chicken, a plant, a moth, a squid (yes, squid), a monkey, a fish, a mammal, a mouse, a hat, a seed, and (occasionally) a caterpillar.
It is such an odd form with bright color, comedic hair-like appearance, generally cuteness/fuzziness, and characteristics of many different organisms that it inspires a curiosity and instant reaction. “What is it really!?” I would get asked, and finally reveal its identity as a caterpillar much to everyone’s gasps. People love these strange things that they can’t believe actually exist.
Between the two, there is one common formula: wonder. How does something like that exist? Why does something like that exist? How many other strange things are out there yet to be discovered? These take us back to our wonder we had as children when almost everyone loves digging up and catching bugs of all sorts.
Somewhere along the way, that wonder can get a bit shadowed by getting accustomed to the ‘norm,’ or outside pressures, or focus on other aspects of life. But it just takes one photo, and one strange animal, to bring us right back.
It’s important for scientists to work together to better discover how to reach the public and educate the next generation. I would love to hear your thoughts on what makes these images and stories so popular, please comment!