Complete 1,100 word article


By Pam Hobbs

"If people were not so impressed by size alone, they would consider an ant more wonderful than a rhinoceros." Edward O. Wilson, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University .

London: In truth I had never given a lot of thought to ants. Like every good grandmother I was coerced into seeing the movie Antz two or three times, and I get a chuckle from the new Visa commercial on t.v., but that was about it. And then I came face to face with a small colony of them at London Zoo's Millennium Conservation Centre. Here, in a permanent exhibition known as Web of Life, I became so enamoured by these industrious creatures I can now toss around pertinent stastics if anyone should ask. Important things like there being 9,500 species of ants in the world. The combined weight of the entire human population is less than that of all the ants added together. That a colony of leaf-cutting ants may number as many as 5-8 million individuals, and how leaf-cutters consume over l5% of all leaf production in the rainforests...

I can also urge that when next in town you come to see them for yourself, marching purposefully in line along a rope, each carrying a leaf umbrella to its destination. Not one of them strays from the line, stops to scratch or look at visitors mere inches away. Instead they deposit their cargo with fellow ants to mulch into a compost heap, which then grows a fungus for the colony to feed on. From here our diligent leaf-cutters plod back along a second rope bridge to start all over.

Built with millennium funds, corporate and private donations to the tune of $l0 million dollars, and opened by Her Majesty the Queen last June, the Web of Life is designed to get us thinking about the enormous diversity of life on earth. Its stunning building alone teaches conservation, since it uses warmth from the exhibits and visitors' bodies as the primary source of heat. In particular the exhibition allows us to study invertebrates, through videos, pictures, interactives, animal smells and sounds. Most of its live creatures are invertebrates, while others here are in danger of extinction.

Inconsequential though they may appear, invertebrates - as I now learn - are essential to life on earth. 97% of the world's animals are invertebrates. They form a vital part of food webs by pollenating plants, providing food for birds, reptiles, fish, spiders, even the mighty Blue Whale. They also recycle dung and decaying plant matter. What's that ? Spineless creatures aren't particularly high on your list of things to worry about? Perhaps they should be. If they were wiped out, the natural world would never recover.

Reluctantly I leave the ants and move on to be told that of the world's 790,000 insect species, over 300,000 are beetles. Some here are so beautifully marked they'd make great brooches. Others, like the cockroaches, are spectacularly ugly. Not that they seem to mind, living contentedly in a mock-up of the dark damp area beneath the sink of a dingy old kitchen. African dung beetles reside happily in a pile of elephant manure provided by zoo residents. Locusts swarm around a military jeep stuck in the desert. There are giant centipedes, jewel wasps, naked mole rats snuggled together and red-kneed bird-eating spiders. Fabulous butterflies and colourfully decorated spiders look like escapees from a Disney movie. Some, such as the scorpions, have been confiscated from returning vacationers attempting to smuggle them into Britain as pets.

Spiders have definitely gained my respect since I've learned they are out there working for us by keeping down the insect population. For example, one acre of British meadow may contain two million spiders. Each of their webs can trap up to 500 insects a day. On the other side of the equation, it takes only a week for a female greenfly to give birth to 50 offspring. Seven days later they produce their own babies, and by the end of summer the original female could have as many as 6 billion descendants.

Like our ants, bees here are not contained. In fact they leave their home via a tunnel, flit about the zoo's flower gardens gathering pollen, then bring it back to the hive where we can watch honey in the making.

As you might expect, school-children have loads of fun at the centre. Primed on movies like A Bug's Life, Antz, and even The Lion King, they recognize many of the invertebrates displayed. A group of schoolboys ahead of me delight in pressing buttons to sample animal sounds and smells. They compete to see if they have inherited a certain gene which allows them to roll their tongues, and when they electronically mate animals from the stud books the resultant offspring produce howls of laughter.

Volunteers wander through the building offering invertebrates for closer inspection. During my visit I meet Burton Benedict from San Francisco who quite obviously enjoys visitors' questions. A retired Berkeley University professor, Benedict comes to London for three months every year primarily to volunteer at the zoo. Today he holds a stick insect, dangling from a twig like a huge caterpillar.

The live animals, the computer games, the statistics are all presented in entertaining and often amusing ways. More sobering are displays showing the devastating impact we have on the world's smallest inhabitants. Reality is that while most of us agree to get by without ivory souvenirs and exotic furs, it's hard to get worked up over possible extinction of the Partula snail. But the people here care. The London Zoo has long been applauded for its conservation programmes and now, in collaboration with partners around the world, its Invertebrate Conservation Unit staff is working with these smaller endangered species.

Pollution, habitat loss, climate change, the pet trade and introduction of non-native species have all taken their toll. Here, posters aimed at children urge them to "take a leaf out of the ant's book" by walking more, recycling and generally caring about the environment. They are asked not to eat strawberries in winter because energy is wasted in heating greenhouses. They are urged to buy recycled unbleached "loo" paper, and to wear a jumper instead of turning up the heat indoors. How many young visitors will act on these suggestions, it is too early to say. One thing is certain though. Nobody who visits the Web of Life will purposely stamp on an insect again.

IF YOU GO: London Zoo, Regent's Park, is reached by bus and tube. Nearest Underground Station is Camden Town. Open daily l0 - 5.30, and 4 pm in winter. Admission is approx. $20, less for children and families.