While it's doubtful you'd want to come face-to-face with a Madagascar hissing cockroach in real life, the desire to move closer to the 12-foot-long one on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is hard to fight.
It's one of nearly 20 massive — and moving — critters in the museum's newest animatronic exhibition, Xtreme Bugs, opening over Memorial Day weekend. The eight-month-long exhibition, running May 26 through Jan. 21, 2019, invites visitors to explore the fascinating behaviors of some of the world's most "extreme" bugs.
"These are bugs that have really great natural-history stories," says Jennifer Sontchi, director of exhibits and public spaces at the Academy of Natural Sciences. "They're bugs that fly thousands of miles during migration, insects like the orchid mantis that have evolved to camouflage into the petals of orchids, and other species that exhibit incredible survival techniques and behaviors."
Beyond the cockroach, other seemingly uninviting spectacles include a 5-foot-long bloodsucking bedbug, a very hairy bumblebee, and deadly red scorpions. There are also monarch butterflies, cicadas, and other perhaps more approachable creatures. All of them house internal speakers that imitate the sounds of the insect. Their exaggerated size helps visitors see details that would often go unnoticed in nature.
"We want to show a new perspective from the insect's point of view," says Sontchi. "This helps people to gain a bit more appreciation of bugs' place in nature and the vital role that they play in the ecosystem."
The exhibition is divided into four themes that help to expose the interesting lives of insects, a subset of the animal world that outnumbers humans 2 million to one.
The first theme centers on superorganisms, animals such as ants and bees that act in cohesion as a single organism. Next is the theme of hibernation, featuring insects such as ladybugs — which stack by the thousands on top of one another during winter — that work together to survive extreme weather conditions.
Then there's a focus on migration, showcasing animals such as the monarch butterfly, a species that can travel more than 9,000 miles in a season. Finally, the exhibition explores swarming and the complex communication systems that draw masses of insects together, such as cockroaches, which use chemical signals to indicate when they've found food.
Hands-on opportunities are scattered throughout — to explore critter calls, dig for ancient arthropods, and solve insect-related trivia questions, for example.
Plus, every Tuesday and Sunday, a variety of significantly smaller but very much alive insects can be found on a roaming microscope cart, including several insects that visitors can touch. The museum's adjacent Butterflies! exhibition and the Outside In children's discovery center will host daily opportunities to interact with live bugs. On Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 11:45 a.m., experts will be on-site to present a live insect or two and deliver short insect talks.
"We hope people walk away saying 'Ahhh' rather than 'Ewww' the next time they come across a bug," says Sontchi.