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.
Thats what Mark Hostetler would tell you. Hes 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 were here, theres a few buses that will be coming in from Jacksonville and Tallahassee. And given the weather – its pretty humid out – theyre going to be covered in insects. And were 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, lets 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. Thats the combination of the inside portions of the insect and also the pollen that its 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: Whats the strangest insect splat that youve ever found?
HOSTETLER: Probably the one thats the most fascinating is, if you ever hit a firefly or a lightning bug, as they call those up north, when you hit them, its 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. Lets go over there and take a look at it. This bus is from – I believe its from Jacksonville. And were in Gainesville. So its gone across maybe about 70, 80 miles. And were looking at the front. It is pretty much covered full of those very specimens here. Theres a lot of mosquitoes and midges because its been a cloudy day. And theyve come out even during a cloudy day, the mosquitoes do.
CURWOOD: How can you tell its a mosquito versus a midge? Isnt 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 theyll ricochet up over your car. So you wont see the insect again. And, theres actually a couple of – what is that? Its a ladybug, upside down ladybug thats stuck on the bumper here.
CURWOOD: Whats the easiest insect splat to identify? And whats 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 dont 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 its not usually a compact splat. Its strung out for a number of centimeters.
CURWOOD: What do you find on motorcycle helmets?
HOSTETLER: I have not checked motorcycle helmets. Now thats an up close and personal encounter with a splat!
CURWOOD: Mark Hostetler is a wildlife biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Hes 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.
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