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February 6, 2007

All praise the dung beetle: Science Center’s ‘Grossology’ exhibit offers a new spin on slime, blood and poo

Sylvia Branzei: finds the common housefly the most disgusting creature on the planet.Sylvia Branzei’s favorite insect is the dung beetle — and not because it so magnanimously cleans up the world’s shit, but for its ability to complete a task. “They’re so agile, determined and persistent,” the former science teacher says as she explains how it can take days for one beetle to collect a ball of feces and roll it to a desired location to become a nursery. “They just don’t get the appreciation they should.”Branzei’s love of the insect and animal world can be seen in her latest project — the “Animal Grossology” exhibit featured at science museums across the country. Author of the popular “Grossology” series of books, calendars and CD-ROMs for children, Branzei stresses that examining the unpleasant aspects of nature isn’t the hook, it’s simply a way to get children and adults alike to appreciate the world around them. “My goal isn’t to be gross or disgusting, it’s a way to make things interesting, to learn something,” she says.And learn we do. And gross we do. The exhibit, now up at the Louisville Science Center through April, features more than 14 interactive stations covering the world’s slimiest creatures (sans Donald Trump), creatures that suck blood (sans Anna Nicole Smith) and creatures that eat their own vomit (sans Nicole Richie). One of the funniest stations challenges you to match up poo piles with the species that left it. Another has you shooting baby frogs out of the mother’s mouth, dodging snakes and other predators. And in another you have to take a whiff of a mystery scent and figure out where it’s from and what it’s used for (defense, attraction or recognition). Spoiler alert: The Florida Woods cockroach oddly emits a maraschino cherry-flavored scent. And if you’ve ever wanted to know what fox urine smells like, get thee to the Science Center.Another exhibit worth a mention is the owl pellet investigation and dissection (owls eat prey whole but can’t digest bones, so up it all comes in pellet form, bones and “stuff” usually intact). It is actually possible to reconstruct a mouse or chipmunk from the bones found in one owl pellet.Branzei says her ultimate goal with “Animal Grossology” is to foster an understanding of why animals need to be gross. By creating an experience that appeals to all ages, she aims to entertain while providing information at the same time. “Seventy percent of what people remember is how they felt about something,” she says.So what grosses her out? “The housefly is one of the most disgusting creatures,” Branzei admits. “After I learned how it eats its food (by vomiting on it and then lapping it up with a long tongue), I have trouble finishing my meal if one lands on my food … unless it’s a cookie, of course, then I’ll just tear off the piece where it landed.” Contact the writer at shavens@leoweekly.com