The beautiful, the other, the mutant? Insects from nuclear power plants


Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's
beautiful book Heteroptera is one of my most treasured natural illustration collections. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print now, but Wired recently compiled a gallery of her work, and I highly recommend a visit.

The subtle and not-so-subtle asymmetries on Hesse-Honegger's specimens, like the cyst-eyed cicada above, are latently sinister: these are insects collected near Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, nuclear plants, and sites downwind of nuclear test grounds. Are the defects Hesse-Honegger catalogs a telltale sign of environmental contamination? Or is she finding the defects she expects, simply because she's looking so hard? Are her findings scientifically significant, or just powerful symbols of our anxiety about technology?

It's a question I certainly can't answer. But it's worth asking yourself how closely you've ever observed your environment, and whether you'd notice anything unusual, if even nine out of ten insects around you were monstrosities whose developmental processes had gone utterly haywire. I think few of us would notice anything of the kind until it was nearly ubiquitous - and maybe not even then. Let's hope somebody's watching.

Explore more of Hesse-Honegger's provocative illustrations at Wired.

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You ask if she found the mutations she was looking to find. I'm reminded of 2005. I was sitting in a hallway of a residential treatment facility. Reading a book of the best Science writing of the year. I read of Dr. Tyrone Hayes. He was studying frogs. Because of the way it was written, I got the impression that the Dr. was kind of a half wild savant. Then I saw him on PBS. A very intelligent, literate and articulate human being pointing out the mutations he had found. To wrap this up, I've noticed that whether it is the right wing fundamentalism of evangelicals or the born again paganism of Avatar...many folks see themselves as absolutely correct about what they believe and no one really wants to believe "science." Doc, I gotta tell ya, I believe their are more mutations around nuke plants and in water run off of fields treated with a multitude of chemicals. What makes scientists both better and worse than other human beings is that they are not glamorous, not sure, but point out what they see....others then turn it into a political football. Much to the detriment of humanity. I also really realized I missed my call in a big way...applied psych is very laudable...but science cuts straight to the reality.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 16 May 2010 #permalink

Ah, Mike, but the irony is that the causes of frog deformities (both reproductive deformities like Hayes focuses on, and the more well-publicized leg deformites) are far from settled - in part because once the more grotesquely obvious deformities were hyped in the media, everyone started looking for and finding them everywhere, so there was no sense of whether in many collection locations the deformities were significantly above historical baseline, or whether the deformities correlated temporally with the introduction of pesticides. The same problem occurs with less obvious, internal deformities, only worse. Lack of a quantified baseline prior to recent environmental disturbances poses a major problem when trying to determine whether it's introduction of a pesticide, or infection with parasites, or both in combination, that triggers developmental errors. BTW, you may be interested in reading A Plague of Frogs: Unraveling an Environmental Mystery (Reptiles & Amphibians) - I used to assign it to my students as a dev bio detective story. It's a book-length treatment of the field researchers and government researchers who initially responded to the reports of the frog leg deformities, and the red tape, scientific politics, and other practical issues that hindered their progress.

Thanks, Doc! As it happens I'm sitting in a library and have been looking for a good read. I'll check it out. I also was unaware that further observation had changed the potential explanations. Thank you.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink

those mutation are interesting but why you finish all this in 3 paragraphs

not good