The ninja warrior entomologist
As a youngster, Eric Middleton used to tag along with his mom on her field trips as a geologist to southern Utah. There, he remembers “climbing on rocks and hopping over stuff” until, as always happens with kids, he got bored.
Then he turned his gaze downward to discover the wide world of insects, and he figuratively caught a bug that’s been dominating his life ever since.
“They’re so ubiquitous but they’re also so alien,” says Middleton, who gets animated talking shop about things that crawl and fly. “They live absolutely everywhere but they’re so different from us.”
After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Utah, Middleton sought a top-notch graduate program in entomology and found the University of Minnesota.
Among other topics, he’s studying how pollinator plantings at the margins of agricultural fields might attract insects that are beneficial to the crops. He’s says he’s trying to combine researching insects, “which I think are really cool on their own merits, with something that can hopefully be impactful to the world,” like more sustainable agriculture.
Once settled in the Twin Cities, Middleton began looking for a physical outlet. He had seen the popular show American Ninja Warrior (ANW), and found a local gym with ANW’s equipment where he could again climb all over things. Realizing his strength and agility, he auditioned for and appeared on the show for the first time in 2016.
Middleton made it to the ANW finals in Las Vegas in both 2016 and 2017 and competed again this year, with the completed results a guarded secret.
As his fame grew in the ninja space, so did his renown as a lover of insects. At some point he reportedly became known as the “human dung beetle,” which he says is not quite true. Not that Middleton resents the comparison, since the male onthophagus taurus can pull about 1,100 times its body weight. In fact, he and his supporters now sport T-shirts that say “Dung Beetle Strong.”
In a video shown to the TV audience during the recent Minneapolis qualifying round, Middleton got to share a bit of his entomophagous (insect-eating) side, whipping up an Instagram-worthy plate of food that included a bed of cabbage, Manduca caterpillars, giant water bugs, red-pepper crickets, and tempura-fried tarantulas.
He even prepared a tempura-fried tarantula for the show’s emcees, Matt and Akbar, daring them to eat it if he made it to the top of the wall. While taunting them along his route, Middleton became the first contestant of the evening to make it to the top, and the emcees had an unexpected snack.
When he finishes his Ph.D., he hopes to continue in research and work in conservation and food sustainability. And he’ll continue his youthful “climbing all over things” on American Ninja Warrior as long as he can, even capitalizing on his status as an unexpected minor celebrity.
“It is very weird,” he says, “to have kids non-facetiously ask you for your autograph.”