By Pat Foster-Turley
November 25, 2022
Some of you readers may remember that Bucko and I brought back souvenirs from Belize: botfly larvae living in our flesh. Bucko’s was killed when he took a dose of Ivermectin and then worked the dead maggot out of his skin, in perfect shape. So, being a biologist, I immediately put Boris, as we named it, in alcohol and contacted the Entomology and Nematology Department of the University of Florida. Yes, they wanted it! I carefully made notes on when and where Boris was collected (where the mosquito transferring the botfly eggs probably bit Bucko) and the age it was when it was killed and removed.
Recently I made the trek to Gainesville to deliver Boris, but not before having some fun with it. My friend Karen Brown and I took Boris on a night on the town. Boris and Karen and I visited a farmers market, listened to an outdoor band, and ate at a Mexican restaurant. Well, Boris didn’t actually eat, but he was soaked in alcohol so it must have been fun.
At the university the next day, I was at first unhappy to learn that the faculty member who said he wanted Boris was not there to accept it, despite a number of emails back and forth and an appointment. But no problem, I made the best of it. In the Entomology and Nematode research campus I soon latched onto a student in the medical entomology lab who accepted the vial, but had to rush off to his class.
“What class are you going to?” I asked.
“The spider lab,” he replied.
“Wow, can I come too?”
Soon enough I was in a biology lab complete with work tables, dissection scopes, and bottles of specimens lined up for observation. It evoked my long ago memories of identifying mammal skulls and pelts in a similar room back when I was getting my Ph.D. in zoology at UF. But now the specimens were all things spider. Lisa Taylor the professor and lab assistant Anthony Auleytta were happy to let me sit in. In our introductions Anthony said, “I live in bug world,” and soon enough so did I, at least for an hour or so.
The students filed in to take their seats, some with brightly colored hair, nose rings, tattoos, all the trappings of the current student body. Each student came with their own collection of bottles and jars of specimens to add to the mix. I settled myself in a corner of the room and enjoyed the vibe.
The lecture preceding the lab that day was focused on one particular group of spiders – those that do not make webs. The class started with a slide show by Dr. Taylor illustrating some main categories of these spiders, like wolf spiders, jumping spiders, cannibal spiders, crab spiders, and, Anthony’s favorites, the “flatties” that squeeze themselves behind walls and in other tight spaces. Along with the students I learned some key characteristics to help identify these spiders, like the placement of their eyes, length of their legs, various markings and body shapes. I’m glad I don’t have to remember all this, but it was fun to learn along with the younger cohort.
At the end of the slide show, students had some questions before spreading out to the lab tables to look at the specimens. One question in particular caught my attention, “Are we going to boil any spiders today?” Boiling spiders! Now that’s something! I had to find out more, so I sought out Anthony for clarification. It turns out that when live spiders are put directly in preservatives they close up their legs, forming a tight mass. But then it is hard, if not impossible, to see the distinct markings and structures of their legs which are key to their identification. But when you put a live spider in boiling water for just 10 seconds for a tiny one or maybe even 40 or more seconds for a big one, their legs flail out for all to see. Often they don’t boil them in class. Some students have humane concerns about this process, but really I’m not sure putting a spider directly in alcohol is humane either. It is right up there with boiling crabs, something I do often, for a quick death I hope.
It really turned out great that the original professor I hoped to see was not there and instead I got myself included in this spider lab. And now, with strong apologies I have been reassured that Boris has a rightful place in the medical entomology collection where he will help train new students in the “botfly lab” or whatever other duties it is called to perform. Boris and his legacy will now live on, the best souvenir from Belize ever!
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. firstname.lastname@example.org