Science on the SPOT: The Glowing Millipedes of Alcatraz
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Last March, one of our QUEST contributors, Thibault Worth, wrote a piece about the fluorescent millipedes that were unexpectedly discovered on Alcatraz during a survey of the rat population on the island. As we were eager to learn more about these fascinating arthropods, I and my several of my KQED Science colleagues headed to Alcatraz with forensic entomologist Dr. Robert Kimsey, the National Park Service's Integrated Pest Manager Bruce Badzik and the UC Davis Entomology Club.
This was my first visit to Alcatraz, and my general impression of the island was as Badzik described it to me during our interview: “Most people are fascinated with the history of the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz because of the well-known criminals such as Al Capone, “Creepy” Karpis, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” and Machine Gun Kelly. There were also a lot of movies made about Alcatraz: Murder In The First, The Rock, Escape From Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood. So people love to come out to see where those films were filmed and see what they can see of it.”
I didn’t realize it also has a thriving water bird population and serves as a sanctuary to a diverse number of species.
“Folks who may not be interested in the prison love to come out here and see the large quantities of birds that we have that inhabit the island, such as the pelicans, the Brandt’s cormorants, the black-crowned night herons, the snowy white egret, mallards and a whole host of other sea birds that call this place home,” says Badzik.
“Other people talk about it meaning strange white bird, but Alcatraz basically means pelican,” says Badzik. “This island, before it became a federal institution, was just covered with pelicans. Folks talked about how this was just covered in guano. Some folks actually called this 'White Island', just because of all the guano out here.”
Dr. Kimsey adds, “When the National Park Service got the island assigned to them, water bird rookeries began to develop and so now for a large part of the year, a large fraction of the island is closed because these rookeries are protected by federal law. And so the ecology of the island [over time] has changed rather considerably.”
Unfortunately, I didn't have time to get a tour of Alcatraz while we were there, so I'll have to go back to check out the penitentiary. But it was a real privilege to be able to gain access to the more restricted portions of the island. We filmed our interviews in one of the private gardens created by its previous military residents.
As we shot most of our footage at night, filming in the darkness posed some technical challenges for the crew and evolved into a "hunting-the-hunter-with-lights" scenario.
Alex Nguyen, the UC Davis undergraduate student who originally found the millipedes last winter, would shine his UV flashlight on the ground in search of millipedes and we'd closely track him with a high-powered portable LED light. When he finally found his first millipede, we were just as enthralled as he was when it glowed a brilliant turquoise blue under the UV light.
Want to learn a few more basic facts about millipedes? Check out this Popcorn Maker-enhanced web extra featuring Dr. Kimsey.