Bug splatter on your car bumper may be more than just messy gunk. Mark Hostetler, a wildlife biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, has made a small science of studying insect road kill. He talks with host Steve Curwood about the fine distinctions between green and yellow smears.
CURWOOD: If you've just come back from a long road trip, chances are you picked up a few thousand squished hitchhikers. But before you take a squeegee to clean those insects off your windshield, consider that you can learn a thing or two from bug splats.
That's what Mark Hostetler would tell you. He's a professor and wildlife biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who has been studying windshield splatter as a hobby. The result is his book, That Gunk on Your Car: A Unique Guide to Insects of North America. Mark Hostetler joins me now from his primary research location, the Greyhound bus station. Welcome, sir.
[SOUND OF BUS ENGINES]
HOSTETLER: Glad to be here.
CURWOOD: So why are you down at the bus station?
HOSTETLER: While we're here, there's a few buses that will be coming in from Jacksonville and Tallahassee. And given the weather – it's pretty humid out – they're going to be covered in insects. And we're going to check out some of the remains of these insects and see if we can identify a few of them.
CURWOOD: Now how do you identify an insect from just a smear? What do you look for?
HOSTETLER: Well, its color, texture, size. I did not do taste or smell for people. But many of the insects you can tell by, what we call, different families or orders of insects. So I can tell the difference between, let's say, a dragonfly versus a butterfly.
CURWOOD: What exactly is the difference between a dragonfly splat and, say, a butterfly splat?
HOSTETLER: Well, the butterfly splat tends to be much more yellow. That's the combination of the inside portions of the insect and also the pollen that it's carrying. So those tend to be much more yellow, creamier than a dragonfly splat that tends to be a little bit gunkier. It tends to be more three-dimensional, with parts of the dragonfly in there. And it tends to be more of a gray, creamy color.
CURWOOD: What's the strangest insect splat that you've ever found?
HOSTETLER: Probably the one that's the most fascinating is, if you ever hit a firefly or a lightning bug, as they call those up north, when you hit them, it's like going through a time warp because they actually leave a glowing residue for a split second on your windshield. So as you drive through a batch of them, you actually have a bunch of glowing residues going off your windshield.
[SOUND OF BUS APPROACHING]
HOSTETLER: Here comes a bus right now. Let's go over there and take a look at it. This bus is from – I believe it's from Jacksonville. And we're in Gainesville. So it's gone across maybe about 70, 80 miles. And we're looking at the front. It is pretty much covered full of those very specimens here. There's a lot of mosquitoes and midges because it's been a cloudy day. And they've come out even during a cloudy day, the mosquitoes do.
CURWOOD: How can you tell it's a mosquito versus a midge? Isn't it just sort of muck or yuck?
HOSTETLER: Well, with the buses, this is the way I identify them for the book, actually collect the data, is that when they hit the flat surface, they stick. So you have portions of the bodies along with the splat there. So I can look at the bodies and determine what they are.
When you hit them on your windshield on your passenger car, your windshield is sloped, and usually they'll ricochet up over your car. So you won't see the insect again. And, there's actually a couple of – what is that? It's a ladybug, upside down ladybug that's stuck on the bumper here.
CURWOOD: What's the easiest insect splat to identify? And what's the hardest?
HOSTETLER: Well, probably the smaller insects are the hardest. Like, we have a chapter in the book called No-See-Ums. And these are just little watery smears. And you don't know which no-see-um, or is it a small fly, et cetera. So the smaller the insect, the harder it is to identify.
But the easiest ones are definitely the moths and butterflies. Those tend to be the largest splats. And the way their wings are structured when they hit, they actually drag up your windshield. So it's not usually a compact splat. It's strung out for a number of centimeters.
CURWOOD: What do you find on motorcycle helmets?
HOSTETLER: I have not checked motorcycle helmets. Now that's an up close and personal encounter with a splat!
CURWOOD: Mark Hostetler is a wildlife biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He's also author of the insect guide That Gunk on Your Car: A Unique Guide to Insects of North America. Thanks for speaking with me today and happy hunting.
HOSTETLER: Yeah. Have fun. Thanks a lot.
CURWOOD: You can hear our program anytime on our website. The address is livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org. You can send your comments to us at email@example.com. Once again, firstname.lastname@example.org. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Masaachusetts, 02144. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That’s 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15 dollars. Just ahead, how to keep the family down on the farm. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
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