The zoological wonders of childhood – ant farms, tadpoles, bug catchers and the mystery of Sea-Monkeys

Mar 22, 2024
From Sea-Monkeys to ant farms: A nostalgic dive into childhood curiosities of nature's wonders.Source: Getty Images.

Way, way back in the day when a kid’s curiosity about the world was not restricted to notifications, reposts, and follower stats, the call of the wild was a command few children could resist.

A visit to the zoo, the local pet shop, or even the blooming bushes and weeds in your own yard was enough to incite an all-consuming impulse to bring the wonders of nature into the home.

The strongest wish by far was to have a large tropical fish tank filled with brightly coloured sea creatures lazily swimming through an obstacle course of small plaster bridges, castles, treasure chests and sunken pirate ships.

If the idea came from your parents, no problem. They’d take care of all the tedious upkeep: the feeding; the changing of the water; the cleaning of the tank; the maintenance of the filter. All you had to do was watch the fish.

If, however, the home aquarium was your idea – well, that was a whole other deal.

Sure, you could have a little fish tank in your room if you really wanted it, but it was going to be your responsibility and yours alone.

Few goldfish ever survived long in this scenario, dying either from being under-fed, being over-fed or falling victim to the hunting instincts of the family feline. You’d come home from school to find the tank free of fish and the see the cat sitting in the corner, smiling to itself.

Every kid had, at some point, a deep fascination with tadpoles and how they magically transformed into frogs.

Scouring the local creek – a cherished childhood adventure largely lost today – we’d scoop up the eggs in a re-purposed jam jar, take them home and watch them slowly change.

It was a true miracle of nature – all taking place at the bottom of a household bucket.

But what to do with the frogs once they’d fully developed? Returning them to the creek was one option.

A far more entertaining choice was to take them to school and do something creative, such as letting them loose in the classroom and enjoying the ensuing chaos.

All the girls would jump up on their desks, shrieking like banshees while the teacher frantically ran about trying to swat them with a broom. Ahh, such childhood innocence.

The phenomenon of Sea-Monkeys enthralled and mystified us all. You poured dry powder from a packet into a bottle, added water and – presto! – instant aquarium.

How was this marvel of dehydrated life possible?

Google “sea-monkeys” and all the answers are there. But as a six-year old brat in the 1960s the idea of bringing something to life by just adding water filled you both with wonder and fears about a future composed of dehydrated people.

Anyone remember ant farms? Only a genius could come up with the idea of turning common household pests into a hobby.

And the ants didn’t come with the farm. There it was, printed in large letters on the box: ANTS NOT INCLUDED. We had to go into the garden and catch the blighters ourselves.

Encased between two plastic sheets filled with dirt, we watched as the little diggers burrowed away.

But rather than obediently creating a network of see-through tunnels, as illustrated on the box, they instead invited their ant friends into the ant farm, transforming the shelf on which the ant farm stood into a thriving ant metropolis serviced by bustling multi-lane freeways of ants as they streamed out of tiny cracks in the wall.

They were fun to watch until the entire colony was annihilated by a deadly spray of insecticide brandished by a merciless, and very annoyed, mother.

Bug catchers – still available in stores today – had us quietly creeping up on all manner of garden dwellers and capturing them in specially ventilated observation chambers.

This lead to all sorts of wonderful discoveries.

One was that a grasshopper trapped in a small circular plastic prison will only hop so many times before it realises that its efforts to break out aren’t going anywhere.

It will then just sit there waiting either to be granted its freedom back by its bored captors or to slowly pass away. We usually released them before that happened.

Butterflies, too, did not appreciate being confined for the sake of scientific inquiry.

They would fly in frenzied, pointless circles until it expired through exhaustion or was set free, its captors realising the futility of the exercise.

Easily the biggest revelation was seeing how crickets made that very loud high-pitched chirping sound. Turned out they weren’t singing, they were rubbing their wings together. How fascinating.

Slightly less fascinating was learning how crickets especially liked making this very loud high-pitched sound late at night when everyone in the house was trying to sleep.

But the noise was only ever a short-term problem, brought to a decisive end by a well-aimed and resolutely lethal blast from mum and her can of trusty insect spray.

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