Zoo: Garden Fest Tweet-Up

Zookeeper Kelli balances a female New Guinea stick insect while pointing out the males on display.

The Garden Festival was a recent weekend-long event at the San Diego Zoo to bring the flora and fauna of our backyard into the spotlight, hosted over Mother’s Day weekend. There where many booths lined up along Front Street that were offering gardening tips, hands-on demonstrations and special sales. Special behind-the-scenes experiences offered tours of the zoo’s extensive collection of vegetation from around the globe. The zoo also decided to organize a tweet-up for their loyal Twitter followers, but what was the subject matter?

Read on to find out.

The Garden Fest Tweet-Up was all about insects, of course. Insects are an integral part of the Earth’s ecosystem and without the work they do our plants, as well as our planet, would die off. To mark the occasion, the insect house zookeepers introduced us a to few of their most fascinating specimen.

The tweet-up naturally took place in the Spineless Marvels insect house in the Children’s Zoo. To avoid repetition, this post will also count as the promised final part of the comprehensive guide to the Children’s Zoo that I began late last year. Click to read Pt. 1 – Animals and Pt. 2 – Activities.

Yours truly temporarily hijacks the zoo’s Tweet-Up sign.

Spineless Marvels is tucked along the far edge of the Children’s Zoo, which is located in the southeast corner of the zoo, and the bottom left corner of your zoo map.

One of the best things about the insect house is the tank design. The hardscapes are finely handcrafted and detailed, while the accompanying plant life is varied and nicely conceived. You will notice a big difference between these modern environments and the older tanks in the nearby reptile and amphibian houses. (Similar work is also on display in Elephant Odyssey.) Another great feature of the insect house is its constant evolution. New species are frequently rotated in, with the latest example (as of press time) being the colorful Gecarcinus quadrates, or red land crab, a terrestrial crustacean native to Central American rain forests.

Fun fact: The African whip spiders (Damon variegatus) on display are featured in the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which Mad-Eye Moody uses to demonstrate the three unforgivable curses.

A jumping stick from Peru makes its home in Spineless Marvels.

Among the many residents of Spineless Marvels is a honeybee colony, katydids, mantises, beetles and a very large bird-eating spider. The inhabitants are broken into four different categories based on their behaviors and tendencies: decomposers, gardeners, pollinators and predators. Surprisingly, the most numerous category is predators, which includes the mantises, white-spotted assassin bugs, a few aquatic species and more.

Due to the amount of tweet-up attendees, we were split into two groups to allow the two keepers, Kelli and Paige, to work with smaller groups. First up for us was Kelli, who was handling two species of walking sticks. One was a larger green jungle nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata) from Malaysia. The second was a smaller brown New Guinea stick insect (Eurycantha calcarata) from Papua New Guinea. Both were females, she explained, because the males are unsavory little creatures that will spray an odor similar to a skunk. I’ll pass on that, thanks. Kelli allowed them to climb around on her hands and arms and let interested parties feel their spiny exoskeletons while she explained their natural camouflage techniques.

Zookeeper Paige explains the complex social interactions of the San Diego Zoo’s leaf-cutter ants.

Next up was Paige, who gave us the intriguing low-down on the impressive leaf-cutter ant (Atta cephalotes) display. The zoo’s colony of leaf-cutters is completely self-sustaining, save for emptying the waste area and providing vegetation for harvesting. The colony started in 2006 with only a queen and few hundred worker ants and has since grown into the hundreds of thousands. What I found most interesting was that the television screens on both sides of the glass are actually live behind-the-scenes video feeds of the colony. I always assumed they were taped loops.

Both Kelli and Paige gave us a ton more information about each species and the zoo’s insect operations in general, but I’m keeping that for us Garden Fest Tweet-Up attendees.

As ever, follow me on Twitter, as well as the zoo and Safari Park for info about upcoming tweet-ups. If you’re green with envy about missing out on this, or any tweet-up, you’ll just have to start attending. They are free with the price of admission.

Also, you can like me on Facebook.

Here is a list of my previous tweet-up recaps:

Cheetah Run

Animal Superstars videophotos

Festival of Flight

Butterfly Jungle

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