Out There Guy Gets SASI.
By Kevin Franklin
ANTS CRAWL ON every corner of the room. Numerous scouts roam across the floor while an entire column marches across the ceiling, creeping ever onward, deeper inside the building.
The ants are breeding in this room. In fact, several colonies of ants live here, representing several different species. Most people would consider the place infested. Steve Prchal thinks it's just right. Prchal, founder and director of the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI), uses this room as a living laboratory.
Where your average homemaker might direct the business end of a can of Raid, Prchal expends a great amount of energy to ensure the well-being of his segmented housemates.
For the most part, the ants are contained within their glass cages. A clear cylinder winds its way across the ceiling, allowing Prchal's leaf-cutter ants (Atta mexicana) access to the outside world.
At one point, the colony manages to bridge the coating of oil Prchal uses to keep them in their modified fish tank. The ants climb out and over to the edge of the counter. There they begin hurling their garbage off into space. Prchal allows their freedom, and the ants never make a break for it. Nor do they swarm all over the building. Instead, they go about their daily routine, with the exception of using the new garbage can--as Prchal expected they would.
Once you understand what drives insects, often you can avoid conflict with them, Prchal explains. Filling the world with pesticides in a vain attempt to exterminate all the insects will get us nowhere but a chemotherapy ward in a hospital. Coming to terms with the insects around us and learning to live with them is one of the driving forces behind Prchal's creating SASI.
Prchal, who cut his teeth working in the small animals department at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for 16 years, established the organization in 1986 on a shoestring and a dream. He left the Desert Museum over a philosophical feud. He saw the museum becoming less of a place to learn about the desert and its hidden wonders and more of a zoo to go look at bears. Prchal and a handful of volunteers took it upon themselves to help introduce Tucson to the animals that keep our desert alive--the arthropods.
Arthropods include most everything people call bugs, like spiders, millipedes, beetles, ants, crustaceans and other jointed-limb critters.
Since its founding, SASI has helped train docents and teachers at institutions throughout Tucson. Now a multitude of groups are spreading the message about how critical bugs are to our survival. Arthropods do everything from pollinate the plants we eat to break down the waste we produce. Under new leadership, the Desert Museum has refocused its entomological message; and with everyone from Tohono Chul Park, the University of Arizona and even the Humane Society creating their own outreach programs, Prchal believes SASI now may have to redefine its mission.
"We were training their docents free of charge," Prchal says, "and in a sense created our own competition."
Always on the financial brink, Prchal and his organization are faced with an age-old biological dilemma--evolve or die. The $25 membership fee fails to cover costs, much less generate extra funds (or an income) for Prchal. With others carrying his message to the public, Prchal feels the Institute needs to become more focused on research and less on outreach.
SASI has a couple of aces up its sleeve. With a beautiful 320-acre facility nestled in the Tucson Mountains (not open to the public), Prchal feels SASI could become a first-class research station for entomology students and researchers. There scientists could set up long-term study plots and conduct their work just outside the front door. The other card SASI holds is its annual Invertebrates in Captivity Conference, a bridge between ivory tower and desert floor.
Prchal's vision for SASI's future does not ensure that scientists will answer his call...and if they do, will much-needed financial support follow?
Like his determined leaf-cutter ants, Prchal can only continue his labors and hope they come to fruition.
Want to become a SASI member, go on field trips, have access to their library and receive their annual publication, Backyard Bugwatching? Send $25 (or more) to SASI, P.O. Box 5624, Tucson, AZ 85703. Call (520) 883-3945, fax (520) 883-2578 or send e-mail to ArthroStud@ADL.COM.
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