Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Making plans for Nigel

When you work in an entomological laboratory, people send you bugs. That's a given, but sometimes things have a way of surpassing all expectations. Take, for instance, this one. (Click on the photo below for an enlarged view, and look just below the bottle of banana ketchup.)

This Caribbean-born beauty arrived in Kalamazoo, Michigan in November of 2001. He (or she -- we never actually knew) had somehow managed to find his way into a festive souvenir gift basket at some stage between the packing and the shrink-wrapping stages. The basket was purchased by an unsuspecting American tourist in St. Lucia, who gave the basket to his parents, who were about to open it in their Kalamazoo home when they noticed something wriggling under the shrink wrap. They quickly made a phone call to the biology department at nearby Western Michigan University; the secretary who took the call immediately referred it to general entomologist Dr. David Cowan. I was Dave's Ph.D. student at the time, and Dave knew me well enough to anticipate that the question "Julie, do you want a centipede?" would be answered in the affirmative.

Nigel, named for my favorite XTC tune, quickly became a major conversation piece in our lab. During the 14 months he lived there (in a terrarium whose lid was weighted down with heavy books), he grew from five to eight inches long on a diet of fresh and thawed whole crickets. Occasionally, a small snail would hatch out of the greenhouse potting soil that we provided for Nigel's burrowing pleasure. In fact, I saw quite a few small snails in the cage. Funny thing was, I never saw a large one.

Centipedes (phylum Arthropoda, class Chilopoda) are fast, aggressive predators that subdue and kill their prey by injecting venom, and a unique, derived character that marks a centipede as a centipede is the presence of a pair of poison claws, or forcipules, just behind the head. Although these structures look like mouthparts, they're separate from the true mouthparts that are used for chewing; forcipules are a specialized pair of appendages more similar to legs, and are used to inject a venom that kills prey. Of course, centipedes are also pretty well fixed for fully functional walking legs, having one pair per segment. The actual number of segments, and thus legs, varies by taxonomic subgroup; Nigel, as a representative of the family Scolopendridae, had 42 legs and could make excellent use of them to zoom after any potential prey in his vicinity.

The centipedes that most of us encounter here in the temperate regions don't pose any real danger to humans, but a bite from a large tropical centipede is reputed to be impressive. (I was extremely careful not to find this out first-hand, or even first-finger, but one of my classmates, who grew up in Trinidad, once endured several days of malaise and a painfully swollen leg after discovering the hard way that one of Nigel's relatives was lurking in his pajama bottoms.) Fortunately, a centipede envenomation is generally not considered life-threatening to humans. Even more fortunately, the typical human who encounters a large centipede is devoid of any desire to pick up the critter and cheerfully chuck it under the forcipules.

I had to give my tropical prize away to an arthropod exhibitor when I graduated from Western Michigan, and after that, Nigel and I sort of fell out of touch with each other. (I use the word "touch" only in the figurative sense.) I miss the clanking sound he used to make against the 12-inch steel forceps that I used to introduce food into his cage. I miss the groups of undergrads who used to troop in to visit Nigel when their TAs brought them to the lab to see exactly what an adult chilopod on the hoof (times 42) looked like. But most of all, I wish that Nigel hadn't left me without answering one puzzling question: Does Caribbean-style banana ketchup really go well with crickets?

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