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That Gunk on Your Car? There’s an App for That

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — You’re driving down the highway, and all of a sudden — splat — a bug smacks your windshield, leaving gooey smear on the glass.

They might be a little gross, but University of Florida professor Mark Hostetler sees these close encounters as a chance to learn about the natural world around us.

Hostetler and his son, Jámm Hostetler, have created a mobile app to help people identify bug splats on their cars. Called “That Gunk on Your Car,” the app helps users figure out which bug made a particular splat.

For example, according to the app, a splat that’s long, yellow and relatively large is probably a grasshopper. If you’re not sure, just click on the name to get a more detail description and color images.

“Once they have identified the splat, they can learn more about the insect itself. The app has lots of natural history information, conservation and science related to each insect,” said Hostetler, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“With the app, these bugs don’t have to die in vain. We can learn something about them,” Hostetler said.

“That Gunk on Your Car: A Unique Guide to the Insects of North America” is also the title of a book Hostetler published in 1997. Like the app, the book also allowed people to identify bug splats. Hostetler got the idea for the book when he took a cross-country trip in the mid-1990s.

“I was at a gas station, and a guy pulled up next to me, looking exasperated about all the lovebug splats on his car. He turned to me and said, “What is all this anyway,” Hostetler remembers. “Well, he asked the right person. I spent several minutes talking about insects, insect ecology and conservation. The idea for the book was born there.”

Mixing science, fun and ick-factor, the book got Hostetler invited to the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in October of 1997. True to his role as an urban wildlife ecologist, Hostetler brought live Florida wood cockroaches to the show, which led the comedian Drew Carey, who was also on the show at the time, to jump out of his chair and away from Hostetler.

More than two decades later, his son, Jámm Hostetler, now an engineering student at UF, would work to convert the information in the book into an interactive app, now available for free in the iTunes store. In addition to splat identification, the app also includes game where players match splats to their corresponding insects.

“As a wildlife biologist, I had no programming skill but my son learned the programming platform and converted the book into an app,” said Mark Hostetler. “As a Dad, I was very proud of my boy. It was a great father-son project.”

“In the future, I might add some new games and support for a user database of photos and identifications,” Jámm Hostetler said.

While the app is a fun way to pass the time on long road trips, its creators hope it also sparks curiosity about insects.

“I think many people only think about insects when they bother them. However, insects play a very important role in our environment,” Mark Hostetler said. “They are part of the food chain and they are important pollinators. I hope this app helps people learn more about insects and their importance to our way of life.”

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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