June 20

One of Washington’s hidden gems is the invertebrate exhibit at the National Zoo. It was conceived by visionary zoo director Michael Robinson in 1987 as the only major invertebrate exhibit in the United States and it has been one of the few such permanent exhibits in the world . This highly popular but modest exhibit is dedicated to learning about invertebrates — terrestrial animals such as leaf cutter ants, bees, butterflies, spiders and praying mantis; and marine animals including the Giant Pacific Octopus, anemones, cuttlefish, crabs and mantis shrimp — which experts estimate make up more than 90 percent of the world’s animal life.

Sadly, budget challenges have led Smithsonian leaders to conclude that this area must be sacrificed to preserve funds for exhibits that feature large terrestrial animals, principally mammals and reptiles. The invertebrate exhibit’s public closure is scheduled for today, followed by the decommissioning of most exhibit animals and the realignment of some into a much smaller presence in other zoo exhibits.

This exhibit is usually teeming with children and parents learning about these creatures, attended to by committed staff and volunteers. This helps children become excited about science and the importance of invertebrate ecosystems (some of these exist in our own back yards or are critical to our food chains). Perhaps some corporate and philanthropic leaders will recognize this benefit and work to save the exhibit. Many scientific and commercial applications and technologies have resulted from the study of invertebrates including advanced fibers, robotics and medical discoveries.

I am struck by the irony that this decision coincides with President Obama’s proposal to expand Pacific Ocean sanctuaries . These important marine ecosystems, which most Americans will never have the opportunity to visit, might be better understood if exhibits explaining them, such as the one at the National Zoo’s invertebrate exhibit, remained accessible to the average citizen. After all, education is part of the zoo’s mission statement.

As the zoo acknowledged in its announcement of the closure, invertebrates are “nature’s unsung heroes, quietly playing vital roles in Earth’s ecosystems.”


The National Zoo’s giant Pacific octopus explores its tank at the Invertebrate Exhibit. (Joe Elbert/The Washington Post)

I hope the occasion will arise to reexamine this unfortunate decision and the budget realities associated with it.