NOVEMBER
2004

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

11-24-04

Some Insects Make Leftovers the Main Feast

My dictionary has several definitions of the word feast. The word is based on something joyful, a festival. So, we have religious festivals, which are joyful, as compared to a fast, which is generally not a thing of joy. Feasts are also defined as elaborate meals or banquets. For most of us, the mention of the word feast conjures up visions of vittles in ample supply.

The spreads prepared for annual Thanksgiving celebrations would easily qualify as feasts. Thanksgiving is an official U.S. holiday. The word holiday comes from holyday, a religious feast day. So, the traditional Thanksgiving feast with the overflowing food table certainly justifies the name holiday.

Thanksgiving feasts with the traditional items of roast turkey and dressing, glazed ham, sweet potato casseroles and salads of all kinds guarantees at least two things. The first of which is that some folks will overeat. Try as we might, those tempting delicious dishes of the holiday meal are tough to resist. But, overeating aside, such gigantic spreads also assure the presence of leftovers for days to come. Turkey sandwiches and microwaved creamed corn are sure to be on the menu for several days after the main feast.

As a biologist watching people choose food items from the Thanksgiving table, I am reminded of animals in nature. Not because of the jostling for position in the food line. Or even the massive food consumption, as if the participants were about to hibernate for the upcoming winter. I am reminded of the process called foraging by biologists. Foraging is finding and acquiring ample amounts of suitable food. Humans around the table could certainly be compared to optimum foragers in nature as they heap their plates with their favorite food items.

Based on their food habits, ecologists classify animals according to the type of food they eat. For example, creatures that eat plant material are called herbivores. Humans that are herbivores are generally known as vegetarians. Some animals called carnivores eat only flesh of other animals. Omnivores eat both plant and animal material. Most humans foraging around the Thanksgiving feast are omnivores, but there are a few herbivores.

Mother Nature and the cook for the Thanksgiving dinner have a similar problem when the feasting is done. The problem is that when those herbivores, carnivores and omnivores have stopped jostling for one more piece of pie and have settled down for some serious digestion, some food remains. The human cook saves it for another day.

Mother Nature, on the other hand, has a separate group of eaters that specialize in leftovers. These creatures are nature's cleaner-uppers and, scientifically, are called saprophagous animals. This literally means they eat dead stuff. Such creatures include the familiar vultures. There are a lot of species of insects that fill this role in nature. These include flies, burying beetles, dung beetles, hide beetles and cockroaches.

Take the carcass of the Thanksgiving turkey, for instance. Such a carcass, if tossed outside in warm weather, would immediately attract flies and burying beetles. The flies would lay eggs that hatch into maggots. The maggots would devour the remaining flesh. If the carcass were small enough, the burying beetles would bury it and feed it to their offspring. Then, hide beetles would show up, and their larvae would feed on skin and connective tissues that remain. Finally, beetles known as mealworms would arrive, and their immatures would feed on the bones. In nature, there are no leftovers.

Even the crumbs that fall off the Thanksgiving table might find their way into the stomach of some hungry insect. It might be a meal moth larvae feeding on flour in the crack of a cabinet. Or it might be cockroaches behind the cabinet. Not a very comforting thought for some people. But, remember, everything has to eat -- and Thanksgiving is a season for sharing!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox