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Science & Environment

Meet Your Aquatic Swimming Mates: Invertebrates

ELISE HU, HOST:

In the middle of a hot summer, there's almost nothing better than a quick dip in a pond or maybe a barefoot walk through a creek. But you have to share those bodies of water with a lot of other creatures - fish, frogs, bugs - plenty of bugs. Paige Howorth is the curator of invertebrates at the San Diego Zoo. And as part of our summer series What's Bugging You, she guides us through that aquatic menagerie. First up, water striders.

PAIGE HOWORTH: Those maintain surface tension on the water with water-repellent hairs that are present on the bottoms of their legs. They're also called Jesus bugs. They have a biblical term even because they walk on water.

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HOWORTH: And you see these very symmetrical, round depressions that are casting a shadow on the bottom of the pond or the stream, you know you've seen a water strider.

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HOWORTH: Whirligig beetles are the coolest little beetles. They're like little bumper cars. And they get their names because they have this really erratic swimming behavior where they really are just kind of thrashing around on the surface of the water - kind of almost running into each other, changing course, moving around quickly.

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HOWORTH: And they have a really interesting vision system where they have two sets of eyes, one for the top, above the surface of the water, and another set for below the surface of the water so that they can see what's going on at all times.

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HU: And then there are water scorpions.

HOWORTH: The reason they're called water scorpions is because the end of their abdomen tapers into about a half-inch long or longer breathing tube, which is really just a snorkel.

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HOWORTH: So it's a very cool adaptation. But because they have something sort of extending from their abdomen, they look like scorpions. And you don't expect to see a scorpion underwater, so it can be a little scary for people (laughter).

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HOWORTH: Toe-biters are such interesting bugs. And they can be probably up to about 3 or 4 inches long. And they'll wait in the margins of streams or ponds. And they wait for a small tadpole or a fish to swim by. And if you happen to maybe step on it, or if you handle them carelessly, they could inflict a bite on you. So I think the term toe-biter is a pretty compelling name. And they are way more scared of you (laughter).

HU: Paige Howorth loves all her aquatic invertebrate friends, but she does have a favorite.

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HOWORTH: It's called a ferocious water bug. And the cool thing about these bugs is their reproductive behavior. Basically, the female mates with a male, and then she proceeds to glue about 150 eggs to the back of the male. And the male does all the parental care.

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HOWORTH: So he has these eggs glued to his back for three weeks. He basically does pushups so that he can get the right amount of water hydrating them, swirling around them. He basks to keep them free from mold. And then once they start hatching off of his back, the entire piece that has been glued to his back falls off and then he swims off to find another female.

HU: That's Paige Howorth, curator of invertebrates at the San Diego Zoo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the introduction an earlier Web version of this story, Paige Howorth's name was misspelled as Page Howarth.