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With venom and vigor bugs vie to be crowned ‘ugliest’

A paper wasp whose sting can cause anaphylactic shock and a scorpion that crushes its prey with pincers and injects them with a neurotoxic venom, are just two of the 10 contenders in this year's Ugly Bug Contest.

The champion will be determined by how passionately the public appreciates the atrociousness of their traits and uniqueness of their attributes. The ability to inject enemies with poison, suck the blood of innocent bystanders, or crawl under the skin of unsuspecting hikers are some of the characteristics that could earn one bug the crown and title: 2009 Ugliest Bug.

Until Dec. 15, insect enthusiasts around the world have the opportunity to vote and learn more about some of the planet's most creepy creatures, including "The Hammer," a carpenter bee and "La Cucaracha," a cockroach.

To cast a vote or gain insight into the lives of these cuticle-covered organisms visit the contest's Web site at Arizona State University: http://askabiologist.asu.edu/ugly... creatures on this year's roster of repugnant gladiators are "The Blade," an aphid; "Stretch," a snakefly; "The Ringleader," Jerdon's jumping ant; "Sweetness," a honey bee; "The Leaf Foot," a coreidae; and "The Gollywopper," a crane fly.

Each has a photo and a bio on the Web site, with details including their size, weight and Latin genus names. Most of the bugs in this year's contest weigh less than 3 grams – the weight of 10 average grains of table salt.

The images of the bugs are made possible by a scanning electron microscope, providing a view of the bugs unattainable with the human eye. The colorful close-ups allow students and teachers an intriguing new level of intimacy with creatures often dismissed as detestable.

There's also a YouTube video that imitates an Ultimate Fighting Championship® bout, with each bug emerging into the octagon at the sound of a bell.

In addition to serving as the contest's voting hub, the "Ask A Biologist" Web site is a scientific sanctuary for students and teachers alike. Complete with downloadable wallpapers, a poster and pages to color, and inter-active reasoning modules designed to improve student's skills, the site is laden with material aimed at introducing students of all ages to the capacious field of biology.

The Ugly Bug Contest was started in Flagstaff, Ariz., by Marilee Sellers of Northern Arizona University. For 10 years, it was a local fixture – part of the Flagstaff Festival of Science and the Mount Campus Science Day.

Last year, she teamed up with Charles Kazilek to bring the contest to the Web. Kazilek, a senior research professional in ASU's School of Life Sciences, sports the moniker "Dr. Biology" to host the popular children's podcast "Ask a Biologist."

In its first year on the Ask a Biologist Web site the contest accumulated more than 3,000 votes.

"We are talking about bugs here," Kazilek says when asked why kids are attracted to the contest." You are either excited by them or scared to have one next to you. They certainly can get under your skin. It is fun to see these really tiny animals in a way that just is not possible with the unaided eye."

Last year, the winner was "The Tick" with 1,056 votes – more than twice the amount any other bug received.

"I think it was the blood sucking ability that gave it the edge," Kazilek says.

"There is a lot of science hidden in the contest, but maybe the best part is people get to participate by looking and reading about each of the bugs before they vote," he says. "It is also a fun way to get up close and personal with the bug that might be walking, crawling or flying next to you."

Pointing out that many of the bugs contending for the crown are far from ugly, Kazilek adds: "In fact, they are very elegant and often quite beautiful. Somehow calling it the Beautiful Bug Contest seemed contrary to most people's idea of bugs."

Other sponsors for this years contest include Dow AgroSciences, NAU's Imaging and Histology Core Facility, and ASU's W.M Keck Bioimaging Laboratory and International Institute for Species Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

 

Written by Dan Moore (dhmoore@asu.edu) for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences