Silence deafened the laboratory. The raging spring storm outside finally penetrated the transformers powering the west side of campus, stealing life from inside the science complex. In one instance, the monotonous sounds of motors, fans, and compressors were hushed. The professor rose from his slumped form, his laptop screen now blank. The incubators serving as nurseries to his beloved flies were quiet but still warm. “Any minute,” he thought, “the emergency generators should kick in.” But there was no sound on the roof, other than the muffled cries of wind racing across the flat surface, to indicate that backup power was imminent. The room was silent. Only the storm outside provided relief from the denseness of the dark, eerily silent, laboratory. Scrittle scrattle. “What was that?” Scrittle scrattle. There it is again. And closer this time. “Is someone there,” the professor said as he moved slowly toward the open laboratory door leading to the hallway. No response. Maybe it was just a tree branch scraping against the side of the building. Of course he immediately knew that was impossible. All of the nearby trees were still just infants; none were tall enough to peer into the second floor window that adorned his laboratory. Scrittle scrattle. Scrittle scrattle. The sounds were coming from multiple directions. Scrittle scrattle. Scrittle scrattle. “Who’s there?” Still no response. Scrittle scrattle. The noise came from just behind him. He turned quickly, but nothing was there. Scrittle scrattle. “Someone is in the lab,” he thought, but “where?” At that instance, he heard a loud crack. It was the sound of a fly cage smacking his skull. The professor’s body crashed to the ground and his mind went blank.
When he awoke, the professor tried to reach for his throbbing cranium, but could not. His arms and legs were bound tight. The professor was positioned in a lab chair. Scrittle scrattle. Scrittle scrattle. “Who is there? Untie me now,” yelled the professor. His voice cracked. His heart was racing. Death, the very subject that he lectured on so frequently, was near. Then suddenly a blindly light breached the blackness in front of him. It was from that damn flashlight app that his daughter installed on his iPhone. Up to this point, the professor could never figure out how to use it. Someone else obviously had. Correction, something else was making use of his data plan. Out of the darkness of the lab walked a creature; pale white in complexion with fur, smoothed flat against its frame. Two distinctly pointed ears serving as distant outposts on a round, pudgy face towered above its head. And that face. Two beady, blood-filled eyes, subdued by an awning-like brow, met the gaze of the professor. As the creature moved in front of the iPhone, the professor realized that he had been seized by a short, fat, laboratory rat, with a disproportionately large head. His mind tried to process what he was seeing. He closed his eyes and looked again. Yep. It was a white rat, standing, with its arms (though rats only have legs) crossed, staring motionlessly at him. “This cannot be real,” a thought he kept repeating to himself.
Scrittle scrattle. A second rat scampered next to the first. This one tall, for a rat, and skinny, with an elongate snout, accented at the tip by a cherry colored nose. Its eyes were softer and vacant. And to the professor’s utter surprise, rat number two spoke, an English accent no less, to the pudgy rodent. “Whatta we do now, Brain”? The professor’s fear turned to shock. His brain tried to process the events that were unfolding. He had been knocked out and tied up. Apparently by two laboratory rats, with one capable of speaking in Cockney English.
Now his assailants were standing; that's right standing right in front of him. Blinding him at the same time by using his own iPhone. Just as he thought the night could not get much more unbelievable, the silence was broken once again. This time the pudgy rodent turned toward the other. “Same thing we do every night, Pinky, try to take over the world.”
And thus a glimpse into the mind of one entomologist. The true inspiration for Insects. That’s right, two genetically enhanced cartoon rats, Pinky and the Brain—creations of Acme Laboratories by movie mogul Steven Spielberg—who starred in two self-titled animated series that aired in the United States during the 1990’s, are the source that fueled my textbook. But why, you ask, do they deserve such an honor? Quite simple. In every episode, the two rats would begin pondering the same theme, world domination.
BRAIN: We must prepare for tomorrow night.
PINKY: Why? What are we going to do tomorrow night?
BRAIN: The same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world!
This seems apropos to me for what insects do. The major difference is that unlike Brain, insects are innocent in their conquests, achieving world domination of the planet with no conscious drive to do so.
And thus begins our journey into the world I call home, one in which inspiration is derived from cartoon rats and six-legged creatures.
David B. Rivers is a professor of biology and the director of forensic studies at Loyola University Maryland. He is the coauthor of The Science of Forensic Entomology. His latest textbook, Insects: Evolutionary Success, Unrivaled Diversity, and World Domination, is available now.