It goes without saying that some things in nature are simply frightening. Coming across a snake in the wild will definitely overheat your fight or flight (mostly flight) response in no time!
Just because something seems scary, however, doesn’t mean that it is harmful! Celebrate the fall season in a different way by learning about the science behind the things in nature that may scare you but are essential to their environment.
Temple University Ambler EarthFest Presents: The Science of Scary will go live online beginning Monday, October 12, providing resources, information and activities about everything from natural disasters to the importance of pollinators to monsters of the deep to the weird and wonderfully diverse world of plants!
“We held our first Science of Scary events in 2018 and 2019 and they proved to be among of our most successful events. Science of Scary directly ties into EarthFest’s mission as a whole — helping people build connections to the world around them and promoting a greater understanding of the environment and the role we play in protecting and preserving the planet,” said Susan Sacks, EarthFest Co-Coordinator and Manager of Research and Grants for Temple University Ambler. “All animals and insects, no matter how odd or icky, serve an essential purpose in their ecosystems and increase biodiversity!”
Temple Ambler, through its expanded EarthFest programs, has built partnerships with organizations throughout the region “that share the common goal of helping people learn how to make a positive impact within their communities while exposing them to some truly amazing science, research and, of course, critters!” said Sacks.
“Where else are you going to learn about snakes, tarantulas, owls and sharks or learn about the science behind earthquakes all in one place? This event is definitely geared toward families,” she said. “We hope that what they see, experience and learn will start conversations that will continue well after they’ve visited our virtual event. It’s connecting people to nature in fun and exciting ways; it’s providing knowledge that they can use at home or in the classroom.”
The Science of Scary is being held in partnership with the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University, the Temple Ambler Field Station, the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, the Academy of Natural Sciences, Temple's College of Science and Technology and a variety of other Temple University and Philadelphia-region content partners.
“In addition to our wonderful partner organizations, we also have some other Temple experts — in addition to the Ambler Arboretum — who will be sharing their personal passions for creatures that might send others running,” said Sacks. “Sarah Naughton, Certified Investigator Trainer at Temple University Harrisburg, has a whole collection of tarantulas! Vincent Aloyo maintains several of the honeybee hives in the Ambler Arboretum and can share information about the importance of bees and beekeeping.”
Honeybees pollinate a full one third of all of the food crops that we consume in the United States, according to Dr. Aloyo, an apiculture educator and master beekeeper.
“Honeybees are an essential part of our ecological sustainability, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate,” said Aloyo, who teaches non-credit courses in beekeeping on campus. “We need bees to pollinate the fruits and vegetables that we eat every day. Honey bees also pollinate wildflowers, which are essential to birds and other animals. One way to help honeybees make a comeback is through ‘backyard beekeeping.’”
Laura Houston, Director of Education at the Elmwood Park Zoo, said many animals get a bad rap simply because of misinformation or through “urban legends” whispered down the lane.
“Fear is often learned. A child isn’t afraid of a snake until they hear their parent scream and they make that connection — ‘Oh, I’m supposed to be afraid,’” she said. “With an animal like an opossum, I think a lot of it is simply how they look; they look a bit like a giant rat. But they are the most docile creatures and they serve an important purpose in nature — they eat a large number of insects, including thousands of ticks, every year.”
Of course, with a skunk, it’s their stinky potential that sends people running, said Houston.
“A skunk walking across your yard is looking to get away from you. A skunk will not spray you unless they really feel threatened,” she said. "I think the wonderful thing about an event like this is that it helps us build empathy — you can’t love something that you don’t know about. And if you don’t care about animals, you’ll never learn to respect and protect them.”
For Chrissy Rzepnicki, Director of Operations at the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, it’s her mission to get people out of a kill first, ask questions later mindset when it comes to insects and arachnids.
“There is a definite ‘otherness’ to insects and spiders. When looking at a tarantula, it’s huge and hairy and hard to tell where the face is; they can seem very alien to people and for some that triggers a fear response,” she said. “With cockroaches, people equate them to dirtiness and trash and decay, but that’s their job — to get rid of decaying material. Insects are essential to our ecosystems — without them, most ecosystems simply collapse.”
In addition to the fabulous array of animals, the Ambler Arboretum and Ambler Campus Greenhouse will also share some examples of fascinating, and freaky, plants including the Amorphophallus titanum, the largest "unbranched inflorescence” in the world. The tallest flowers grow to about seven feet in height while the leaves spread a full 12 feet and the tuber weighs in at a monster 150 pounds — “Feed me Seymour!” indeed. Ambler Campus Greenhouse Education and Research Complex Manager Ben Snyder is currently growing several of them.
"You have to be patient with these plants as it typically takes seven to 10 years for them to flower and, in some instances, it can take up to 15 years,” Snyder said. “When they bloom, it’s truly an event because it’s still quite rare in cultivation and the bloom only lasts a couple of days. You will have huge crowds come to see an Amorphophallus bloom.”
The fact that it attracts so much in-person interest runs counter to its other most well-known trait — when blooming it smells like death to an eye-watering degree. It’s not called a corpse flower for nothing!
“The stench, the speckled maroon and pink coloring, it is this flower’s way of attracting pollinators,” Snyder said. “Rather than bees and butterflies, it attracts anything that would naturally be attracted to rotting meat, such as beetles and flies.”
Part of Temple Ambler’s EarthFest Presents series of events, the Science of Scary is designed to help learners and citizen scientists of all ages gain a deeper understanding of the wonders of nature and the amazing things that may be found right in their own backyards. What will you discover?