Outdoors, Thursday was unexpectedly sunny, lovely and calm after an early-spring blast of snow and sleet; I strolled the Northern Trail for half an hour, camera in hand, with an eye to updating my blog banner. Indoors, my day got a little more down and dirty: I did a roach-and-millipede demo, then saw and sniffed the voodoo lily. This cousin of the corpse flower has been attracting tons of local publicity since it was planted Tuesday in the Tropics trail.
A hilarious guide to the smelly plant was posted in the volunteer lounge, including a frank definition of “Amorphophallus” (its Latin name) for any volunteer who needed help translating that. When fully unfurled, the flower’s rotting-flesh aroma is said to permeate a five-foot radius; at this early stage, I had to stand within a foot of it, downwind, to catch the scent. Crowds milled around the proud purple spire, across the aisle from the Komodo dragon (which like the voodoo lily itself can be found in Indonesia). A single fly buzzed around the expanding bud, as if browsing a garbage pit.
By then, I was already somewhat desensitized to ick, thanks to my earlier bug demo. I rarely get assigned to present the giant African millipede and the Madagascar hissing cockroach to zoo guests, and I always have to gather my courage a bit beforehand. Last time, I had a male demo partner who was happy to hold the millipede.
This time, fellow volunteer Belva and I had a large terra-cotta planter-saucer to contain the crawly critters, although the millipede kept trying to escape, and I had to keep nudging it back within bounds with a tentative finger.
Surprisingly, most of the many kids who stopped by were willing, even eager, to touch the millipede (the roach was a bit too skittish). For some reason, the zoo’s docile, nonvenomous snakes seem to scare people more. And these bugs are fun to talk about. They live on the floor of the African rainforest, nibbling away at the decaying plant matter that might otherwise pile up to unmanageable heights. Of the 3,500 roach species, the hissing cockroach (not “kissing,” as one girl initially misheard it), is one of the few with wings. Millipedes (about 8,000 species worldwide, 800 in the U.S.) give me the excuse to use an awesome word, “diplosegment,” and explain the unusual way they grow: Each segment has two legs per side (centipedes have one), and the total number of legs depends on the millipede’s length, or how many segments it has grown. Unlike centipedes, these guys don’t move fast, and Belva likened this one to a “railroad train” chugging along. The more you know about such a creature, the more fascinating it becomes, and the less power the “ick” factor holds.