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European Animal Planet TV Show Films in UT Chemistry Lab

Published: April 15, 2008
From behind a crawling beetle a large spider carefully approaches, the span of its spindly legs spreading and hovering over the tiny bug as its hooked fangs lower in for a quick kill. Suddenly, the spider recoils as an explosion of hot irritant is shot at it. The beetle then scurries away to safety.

The peculiar and unique defense mechanism of the bombardier beetle – which has been a subject of much interest to scientists and scholars – was what brought Jamie Crawford and a TV film crew from Animal Planet Europe to The University of Tampa campus on a recent afternoon.

Producers from the British-based TV network sent Crawford, host of a new program titled “In Too Deep” to UT in order to recreate in a laboratory the chemical reaction the bombardier beetle employs when threatened.

“My job is to explain what takes place in an easily understandable way,” Crawford said. “It makes so much difference to do something visual rather than just talk about the reaction that takes place.”

With the help of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Thomas Jackman and Lab Coordinator Ellyn Bender, the crew set up shop in UT’s Cass Lab to conduct the experiment. Two student assistants were also on-hand to help with the experiment. 

“The way that Professor Bender explained it, she said they wanted to make an explosion inside the lab,” said Lisa Ladany, a senior biochemistry major. “I thought I was going to be in danger, but it turned out it wasn’t as explosive as it sounded like it was going to be.”

Working under a fume hood, Crawford used a flask containing hydrogen peroxide to demonstrate the reaction. The bombardier beetle, he explained for the camera, carries hydrogen peroxide inside a compartment in its abdomen, which is mixed with a catalase – an enzyme common to most living organisms - when it is threatened. The mixture of the two creates an explosive, heat-producing reaction that brings the mixture to a boil and sends the substances out through an opening in the beetle’s abdomen.

A tiny drop of the catalase fell from a small syringe into the flask, and the camera rolled as the same reaction the beetle employs to defend itself took place underneath the lab hood. Afterward, Crawford used a thermometer to show that the temperature inside the beaker had increased by 20 degrees; a demonstration of how much heat was produced.

Later, he set the end of a wooden stick aflame and quickly blew it out, before lowering it into the flask.

“To show you just how much oxygen is being produced, it’s enough to relight this stick,” he told viewers as the stick reignited.

After filming at UT, Crawford and the film crew left to locate the bombardier beetle in Florida’s Everglades. The entire segment on the bombardier beetle will account for about 1/5 of an episode, Crawford said.

Still in production, “In Too Deep” is scheduled to make its debut on Animal Planet Europe in several weeks, according to the show’s producers. The series will be shown overseas first before it is determined whether it will be shown in the U.S.