We love invertebrates – animals without backbones – from the prickly, squiggly and heebie-jeebie-inducing to the colorful, intricately evolved and delicate. Above and below sea level, they make up over 95 percent of Earth’s species. The title of this blog features a fish, but invertebrate sightings – cuttlefish, octopuses, corals, worms, nudibranchs – are often the highlights of our dives. Last week, when the news arrived that the Smithsonian’s National Zoo Invertebrate Exhibit was closing, we were shocked and saddened. Adding to the sting, the closing date, June 22, was less than a week after the June 16 announcement, affording no time for the public to launch any kind of campaign to save the exhibit. We learned about it through two of our favorite blogs, Echinoblog and Charismatic Minifauna and it has since been covered in many other news stories and heartfelt opinion pieces. Reading many of the online comment streams, including those on Facebook and Twitter, it appears most are not supportive of Zoo director Dennis Kelly’s decision. We’ve signed the online petition at Change.org and wish more people would do so. Even though the closing seems engineered to leave no room for reversal, we who care should still speak up. (You can sign the petition here or comment on Facebook here)
This is our National Zoo, with a mission to “provide engaging experiences with animals and create and share knowledge to save wildlife and habitats.” Since invertebrates make up the vast majority of species, this means the mission will now include only five percent of the animals on Earth. In 2009, President Bush created the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument. Last week, President Obama proposed a plan to expand it, making it the largest marine sanctuary in the world. A sanctuary that includes cuttlefishes, nautiluses, starfishes, corals, giant clams, shrimps – invertebrates that were represented in the now closed exhibit.
It’s a shame that visitors to the National Zoo will not only miss out on the opportunity to learn about those ocean creatures but terrestrial representatives like leaf-cutter ants and orb weaving spiders. We could walk through a butterfly garden, watch a working bee colony through glass and learn about the importance of pollinators and the crisis of declining honeybee and bumblebee populations. I saw my first (and likely only) giant hissing cockroach there. While I dream of visiting its native island of Madagascar, I may never get there, so how wonderful to have had the opportunity to see one in person. I don’t know what it says about me that I preferred a cockroach to the sleeping panda…
The news affected us personally. Just three weeks ago, we had the pleasure of diving with one of the Invertebrate Exhibit’s biologists, our friend Tamie DeWitt. Although she and husband Bob were on vacation, her enthusiasm for all things spineless was endless. Between dives, she regaled us with stories about her Chambered Nautilus research, tagging Monarch Butterflies, and the spider exhibit. One evening, for an assembled group of international hotel guests, she gave a presentation about cuttlefish mating, complete with photos and video. She spoke of the Invertebrate Exhibit’s wonderful team of biologists and dedicated volunteers. I remember thinking how lucky we were to have such passionate ambassadors at the zoo. The announcement said the team will not lose their jobs at the zoo; they’ll be transferred to other positions but how sad to be forced to dismantle something you love so much.
It is not lost on Ned and me how very fortunate we are to be able to scuba dive and visit reefs and rainforests around the world. But for the majority of people, institutions like the National Zoo provide the only opportunity to see and learn firsthand about the biodiversity of our world or to be inspired to seek it out one day. There are plenty of attractions that play to charismatic, moneymaking animals like pandas and lions but this is the Smithsonian – an institution committed to education. It is shameful that the executives of the zoo seem to think that education should exclude the spineless.