Smithsonian’s National Zoo closes invertebrate exhibit

The US National Zoo stunned butterfly, cuttlefish, coral, and giant clam fans when it announced Monday, June 16, that the zoo’s Invertebrate Exhibit, a zoo staple since 1987, would close within the week. The $1 million-a-year Invertebrate Exhibit needs a $5 million injection of cash to upgrade interpretive signs and diagrams, the facility, and equipment supporting the animals. The zoo has struggled to adapt activities and programs to its current budget, and has found itself stretched too thin in many areas.

A common cuttlefish at the Invertebrate Exhibit. Credit, Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian's National Zoo.

A common cuttlefish at the Invertebrate Exhibit. Credit, Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

“This difficult decision is not a reflection of the importance of invertebrates or how we feel about them,” said Zoo Director Dennis Kelly in a press release Monday.  “The exhibit has been a hidden gem cared for by passionate and expert staff. But this was a necessary decision for the financial and operational health of our organization.”

The zoo’s annual budget is about $50 million for FY2014, with $30 million from the federal government and the remainder from the Friends of the National Zoo and other philanthropic organizations.

Kelly told Gwen Pearson (aka Bug Girl) in an interview for Wired that he chose a sudden announcement in order to avoid a slow decline, and to allow the staff enough time to send animals to new homes and, presumably, grieve the loss of their exhibit. “The short notice was my judgment that once an exhibit is scheduled for closure, it’s difficult to maintain it to our standard of quality,” he said.

The zoo has said that invertebrates will have a future home at the zoo in a planned “Hall of Biodiversity.” All Invertebrates Exhibit staff will be retained and reassigned to other exhibits.

Invertebrate” describes all animals without spines (vertebral columns), encompassing a great variety of species. Spiders, starfish, sponges, jellies, earthworms, and flatworms all fall this grouping – in fact, almost all animals are invertebrate. Of the million known species, an estimated 95% lack spines.

Many invertebrates are microscopic, but the largest, the giant squid, can weigh close to a ton. Invertebrates are predators, herbivores, parasites, and decomposers. They are essential to all ecosystems and economically valuable. But, on the whole, invertebrate species are little known, and often disregarded in conservation management.

More a category of exclusion (from backbone-having animals like humans) than a practical taxonomic grouping, invertebrates are greatly diverse and do not share a significant evolutionary innovation that would naturally lump them together, but the category has an established place in the history and culture of zoology.

Invertebrate science will continue at the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology, including cooperative breeding programs for coral and the Golden Orb Weaver spider (Nephila spp.), Kelly said.

The last day to visit the Invertebrate Exhibit is Saturday, June 21.



Featured image: Smithsonian’s National Zoo Invertebrate Exhibit, home to dozens of small aquatic and terrestrial species without backbones, on June 13, 2014. Credit, Smithsonian’s National Zoo.