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For summer road trips, a new app turns insect splats into a detective game

A new app, That Gunk on Your Car, with illustrations by Rebekah McClean, allows users to quiz themselves on how well they can match a bug to its splat. (Samantha Grenrock, UF/IFAS / Handout photo)
A new app, That Gunk on Your Car, with illustrations by Rebekah McClean, allows users to quiz themselves on how well they can match a bug to its splat. (Samantha Grenrock, UF/IFAS / Handout photo)
By Andrea Sachs Washington Post

For this summer’s road trips, skip the license plate game and 100th viewing of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and try a new diversion we’ll call Name That Splat. All you need is a windshield, some unlucky bugs and the app created by University of Florida professor Mark Hostetler and his son, Bryce, a college student. Last fall, the pair released That Gunk on Your Car, a free iOS app that helps amateur etymologists identify the bugs killed on their windshields. The app contains several features, including an illustrated guide to identifying bug splats, a glossary and car games, such as My Side/Your Side (each player claims a section of windshield and accumulates points) and Insect Art (plastic wrap required). We recently spoke with the inventors about the app, collecting bugs and the largest splat. Here is an edited version of the conversation.

Q: What was the inspiration for the app?

Mark: It came from a book I wrote years ago about how to identify insect splats on windshields. It was a way to hook people into reading about insects. The book was done in 1996 and is currently out of print. But I was on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

Q: How does the app work?

Bryce: The idea was to make it as easy as possible to use if you suddenly came across a splat and to give you a quick idea of what [the insect] could be. You are presented with various splats and a thumbnail for each one. You can search them by different characteristics. Content from the book is interspersed throughout the app.

Mark: You can select the shape, the size and the color, and it will limit the broad category.

Q: How many bugs do you list?

Bryce: We have 24 broad categories.

Q: How did you compile the information?

Mark: I collected the data years ago by hanging out at Greyhound bus stations. When the buses came in, the splats were flat and straight, so I could look at them and see a part of the insect. They were pretty amused that I was asking permission to clean the insects off their windshields. With a [smaller] vehicle, the insects ricochet up over the top. I put a net over my car and drove cross-country. Whenever I had a splat, I would pull over to the side of the road and look in my net to see what it was. The net was quite the conversation piece at the gas stations.

Q: How did you choose the bugs featured in the app?

Mark: I picked the ones that were most numerous.

Bryce: We have general categories of bugs that you will find across all the different states and are not specific to one state.

Mark: Lovebugs are only in the southeast; you won’t find them up north. Lovebugs are attracted to roads and vehicles during the day. The females are looking for a place to lay their eggs. There was a study that showed that the UV light that goes through automobile exhaust releases compounds that mimic decaying organic matter, and that’s where lovebugs lay their eggs.

Q: Are splats consistent or do they vary by the car’s speed or windshield shape?

Mark: Butterflies and moths have a typical color and can be strung out. Flies tend to be like little dots. Even though there is a lot of variability among each splat, you can narrow it down to a couple of different options. You can also look at distribution and time of the year to get a better idea of what it probably was.

Q: What is the peak season for splats?

Mark: The warm months, spring and summer, and at night.

Q: Do you typically see one kind of bug splat or a potpourri?

Mark: If it is lovebug season, then you tend to get a lot of the same kind. But you will typically get mosquitoes and flies, some butterflies and moths, and beetles and dragonflies. You get quite a mixture.

Q: What if the app user is stumped? Can he or she send you an image of the splat?

Mark: We just got one yesterday. Someone found a moth.

Q: Do you have plans to expand the app?

Mark: In the future, we might add a database of different images from each user. So if you are stumped by the illustrations, you can try to look at other people’s splats. And we are working on adding another game. The general idea is that you are a little car at the bottom of the screen driving along and you’re trying to avoid the insect. If you hit one, the game ends. But if you can correctly identify the insect, you can keep going.

Q: Insect populations are declining. Should we try to avoid hitting them, if that’s even possible?

Mark: I have been getting a lot of emails from people saying they don’t get as much gunk on their cars as they used to when they were younger. The cars aren’t really having an impact. It’s habitat and pesticides.

Bryce: Don’t go swerving around them.

Q: What’s the best way to remove bug gunk?

Mark: You gotta clean them off before they dry. Sometimes I put a product on the windshield like Rain-X. But soap, water and a mesh sponge work. Don’t wait till they get baked on.

Q: What elevates a splat from a smudge to science?

Mark: Each splat has all of these little unique properties. For example, if you have a bit of red in the splat, it’s an insect that just fed on a mammal or bird – typically a horsefly or mosquito. With most species, save a few, the female bites because she needs the blood for the eggs to mature and develop. So if you are getting mosquito splats and one has a touch of red in it, you know that it’s a female mosquito.

Bryce: In the app, if you turn the color picker to red, you’ll get blackflies, house and deer flies, mosquitoes and muscid flies, which are insects that feed on blood.

Mark: Lightning bugs actually glow when they splat.

Q: What is the largest splat you have ever encountered?

Mark: A large female moth full of eggs. Because the moth has wings, when it hits the windshield, it gets dragged up, which is kind of gross but at the same time interesting to see this quite large splat on your windshield.

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