Insect Astronauts: Eclipse Watchers Learn About Entomology in Orbit

insect astronauts display

Insects that have been studied in experiments in outer space were featured at an entomology booth hosted by the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at an eclipse-watching event on August 21, 2017. (Photo credit: Tanya Josek)

By Tanya Josek

On August 21 in Goreville, Illinois, hundreds of people from the Midwest gathered at the town’s village park to witness a breathtaking event—a total solar eclipse. While there were lawn chairs, cameras, and telescopes scattered throughout the park—as you’d expect—the gathering also featured a group of outreach tables for pre-eclipse activities hosted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). The Astronomy Department had a booth for visitors to make their own viewing devices, the Geology Department had an informational display about meteoroids, and the School of Integrative Biology discussed how animals change behavior during eclipses. But that’s not all: The Entomology Department was there, too, discussing insects in space.

Yes, you read that correctly: insects in space. Three graduate students from UIUC—Brenna Decker, Katie Dana and Tanya Josek—hosted a booth to highlight the important, if not widely known, connections between astronomy and entomology.

UIUC entomology students at eclipse

Brenna Decker, Katie Dana and Tanya Josek (left to right), all graduate students in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, hosted a booth about space-related entomology at a park in Goreville, Illinois, where members of the public gathered to witness the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. (Photo credit: Tanya Josek)

Right in the middle of the table was a collection of dung beetles belonging to both Scarabaeidae (scarab beetles) and Geotropidae (earth-boring dung beetles). Dung beetles are a group of insects that are well known for rolling big balls of dung, but they are less known for their ability to utilize the Milky Way and the moon to navigate with great precision here on earth. Recently, Jennifer Harrison (@GeneticJen) posted a long thread on Twitter discussing the research conducted on this phenomenon

In addition to the dung beetle display was a Cornell drawer filled with “Insect Astronauts,” insects that have gone in to space on NASA space missions. Among these insects were the common house fly (Musca domestica), the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), and the velvetbean moth (Anticarsia gemmatalis). All three of these insects have provided spectacular insights on the effects of zero gravity on flight.

Flies have a variety of physiological adaptations that help them interpret gravitational forces (e.g., their halteres). Maybe somewhat surprisingly, though, in space flies ceased normal flying behavior and merely crawled around their terrarium. The European honey bee, on the other hand, was able to learn how to fly short distances after being in space for six days.

dung beetles display

At a booth about space-related entomology hosted by the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at an eclipse-watching event on August 21, 2017, one display featured dung beetles, which have been found to use light from the Milky Way at night for navigation. (Photo credit: Tanya Josek)

For the velvetbean moth, scientists compared adult flight among moths reared on Earth and moths reared for part of their lifecycle in space, and their findings were fascinating. Moths hatched from eggs on Earth and brought to space as adults struggled to adapt in their new environment; they flapped their wings frantically and were able to fly but had trouble controlling parameters such as pitch. The velvetbean moths that eclosed in space, however, barely flapped their wings at all, instead spreading their wings flat and using them as gliders rather than for powered flight.

Since no entomology booth would be complete without a petting zoo, the table also consisted of live tobacco hornworms (Manduca sexta), Madagascar hissing cockroaches (Gromphadorhina portentosa), and a variety of local cicada species. Both tobacco hornworms and Madagascar hissing cockroaches were paired with the “Insect Astronauts” section, as both these species have been taken up to space to be studied for varying reasons. Tobacco hornworms were used to study the effects of gravity on insect development, and G. portentosa  cockroaches were occupants of the first mini-inflatable space hotel.

entomology table at eclipse

Katie Dana, a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, speaks with visitors to a booth about space-related entomology at a park in Goreville, Illinois, where members of the public gathered to witness the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. (Photo credit: Tanya Josek)

The cicadas, meanwhile, were there to act as an experiment during the eclipse. Prior to the eclipse, visitors could come to hear the alarm call of these cicadas; during the eclipse, they could come to see if the eclipse-induced nighttime would induce the cicadas to start calling. Unfortunately, come 1:22 p.m. (the start of the total solar eclipse), despite being surrounded by other (confused) calling cicadas in the park, the cicadas at the table did not call.

It’s interesting that entomology and astronomy have a strong connection, and the insects’ presence at the eclipse made the whole experience a little more extraordinary. Totality in Southern Illinois lasted 2 minutes, 40 seconds and was an incredible sight to behold. We cannot wait for the next total eclipse. Hopefully we will see you and a large variety of insects on April 8, 2024, when Goreville will again be in the path of totality.

Tanya Josek is a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Email: josek1@illinois.edu

total solar eclipse

The total solar eclipse as viewed from Illinois on August 21, 2017. (Photo credit: Dr. Paul M. Ricker, Department of Astronomy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Comments

  1. Diligent Oboho says:

    It’s educating and historic indeed. Am glad to be part of this research group.

  2. Reblogged this on Project ENGAGE.

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