One of the best first days I’ve had in years was due to the sewer lice I introduced to my biology class this year. Once they saw the little critters in action, they insisted we share them with the rest of the school. Even the teachers and principal were impressed!
I began by telling the class the story about how I obtained these new bugs after hearing about them on my summer vacation to Victoria, British Columbia. I told them how the sanitation workers in Victoria discovered this new species while installing new equipment in the city’s sewer system. Because this unnamed species resemble head lice, the workers began calling them sewer lice and sent samples to the Marine Biology school at the University of Victoria for study. Many times larger than a head louse, a sewer louse also has shorter legs. They dive down into sewer water until they need more oxygen, then they swim up to the surface for more. Meanwhile, they expel bubbles of carbon dioxide gas and ingest the impurities in the city’s sewer drainage.
I explained that the interesting thing about these lice is that researchers at the University of Victoria think they can actually help solve two serious global problems at the same time. First, they clean contaminated sewer water remarkably well, which can help provide clean water to people around the world. In addition, they’re a great source of high-quality protein and are quite edible. To prove it, I picked one out of the jar of sewer water my sample lice were swimming in and ate it! Of course, my students were horrified, but I’ve always felt that I should be willing to go the extra mile to instill good science practice in my classroom. I’m that kind of teacher.
It’s especially rewarding to be able to share the excitement of a new biological organism with my students and my colleagues, but I have to admit that I get a greater charge out of sucking them all in to this scientific implausability. It’s my love of fiction, and my satisfaction at pulling my audience into a great story. It was so much fun seeing their reaction to eating one that it was almost– almost–a let-down to finally disclose that the sewer lice were actually plumped-up raisins in a jar of Mountain Dew!