A Study in Patience

Written by Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

This summer I bring dimetrodons back to life.

No, life has not found a way, I’m not extracting DNA from inclusions found in amber; I work in the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land. It’s a small brick building with a splendid collection of history both recent and prehistoric whose residents stand 30 feet tall and have razor sharp teeth.

Every weekday from 9 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon I sit behind a large table, stare through a lit magnifying glass, and with implements of dentistry I carefully extract the bones of Diego, a 280 million year old dimetrodon, from the hard north Texas rock.

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I am an exhibit.

Visitors of the museum who meander all the way back to the Paleozoic section have the opportunity to watch me work and to ask me questions about anything they please, thankfully usually pertaining to my work. One of the most common questions and comments I get deal with patience. “Wow, that seems really tedious” or “How do you have the patience for that? I certainly couldn’t do it” to which I grin and laugh politely with a “yes it is detailed work for sure”.

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After a few weeks of these comments I would like to make a few comments on the work myself and let you in on some of my secrets on being patient.

My first task upon arriving as the new Paleontology intern for the summer was to sift through the context dirt that once surrounded Diego and now filled a half dozen catering trays stored in a small closet in the museum. I would pick out a pile of dirt half the size of a golf ball and search for the microscopic bones hidden among the dirt often spending hours without finding anything. Now you may be saying “How could you keep your focus and stay patient when you had so much work to do?” To which I answer now “one rock at a time”.

I never thought about the amount of dirt in the tray nor in the closet, I just focused on my little pile, combing through it as if I might find a diamond or some other jewel (being an unpaid intern, this seemed like the greatest outcome) and after just a couple weeks I had finished looking through every single tray in the closet. This early lesson in discipline set me up perfectly for my real job, fossil prep. Now when I attack a bone I don’t think about trying to get all the rock off and reveal the entire bone. No, that would drive me insane. Instead I focus on pushing back the rock a micrometer at a time. Under intense magnification I watch flakes the size of a grain of sand that appear to me to be the size of paving stones come off in bunches. In rare cases large flakes of rock that covered half the bone come flying off in a single touch of my tools and I am filled with such elation that may surpass ever seeing the Texans win a Super Bowl from the sideline. My first lesson in patience is to focus on the little things, take small victories, microscopic even, so that when something big happens you are surprised and filled with joy.

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Now I would be a liar if I said my neck never ached and I never got frustrated with lack of progress, so this is my second lesson. When I begin to feel weary from hunching over the desk or when I become irate at the stubborn rock encrusting my precious Diego, I change my pace. I get up and stretch; I walk around the room and study the fossils on display. I get a drink of water, or I simply rotate the bone and take a different perspective on the situation, attacking at a different and hopefully more prosperous angle. I chuckle to myself every time I change the angle of the rock and where it was once impossible to cut through, large chips start to fly off the bone. Lesson two is when the impatience starts to creep in just take a deep breath, stretch, then change your perspective and you’ll be amazed at the result.

Four hours a day, that’s how long I work. It’s not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but those 360 minutes can feel like 3,000 if you get impatient and watch the clock. During my workday I try not to look at the time more than 4 times because nothing will drive you more insane than watching time slowly crawl onward. They say a watched pot never boils, well a watched clock never ticks. I have come to believe that a minute spent staring at the clock feels slower than an hour spent doing something. So next time it’s 4:30 on a Friday and you’re caught up with all your work don’t just sit at your desk and watch the little clock in the corner of your monitor, don’t even sit around, go clean the break room, go talk to someone in your office who is also done with their work, do something productive and engaging that you normally don’t do and next thing you know it’ll be 5 o’clock and your weekend has started.

Anyone can be patient and everyone can be impatient, patience isn’t something you’re born with its just something you do, like a sport you have to practice to get better. So next time you start to feel impatient just focus on the little things, change your perspective, and don’t look at the clock and you’ll start to notice life get just a little easier.

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Butterfly Chrysalises

The chrysalis can be considered the most mysterious stage in the metamorphosis of a butterfly. Chrysalises are the pupal form of the butterfly that follows directly after the larval (caterpillar) stage. Chrysalises are often mistakenly referred to as “cocoons.” Cocoons are actually the silk casing that some moths (and a few other insects) construct around their naked pupa.

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When a caterpillar pupates, it sheds its skin to reveal the chrysalis (pupa) underneath.

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A cocoon is the silk covering a moth creates around its pupa. In this photo the cocoon is cut away to reveal the pupa inside.

The word chrysalis originates from the greek word, chrysós (χρυσός) for gold. The term is derived from the metallic or gold coloration found on many chrysalises. Some are even completely gold! 

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Tithorea tarricina butterflies have a chrysalis that is almost entirely gold.

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Mechanitis polymnia also have very gold chrysalises.

Although the chrysalis may seem like a “resting” stage, it is not that at all. A lot is happening! As the caterpillar molts its final time to form the chrysalis, it releases enzymes that essentially cause its body to “melt” into a butterfly goo. Inside the chrysalis, specific clumps of cells called imaginal discs remain intact and direct the formation of specific tissues and body parts such as wings, antennae, and certain organs using the protein and nutrient-rich goo all around them. Slowly, the butterfly goo is transformed into the complete body of an adult butterfly.

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National Geographic scanned chrysalises to observe the development of butterflies.

Although the pupal stage is a non-mobile stage in the process of metamorphosis, many chrysalises can in fact wiggle and move. Certain species have a jointed abdominal segment that allows the chrysalis to wiggle in response to touch or movement. It is thought to be an instinctive response to repel or discourage predators or parasitoids.  

One of the most spectacular aspects of chrysalises is the huge variance in appearance. Some have wildly effective camouflage, others are bright and eye-catching, some are smooth and glassy while others are sharp and spiky. 

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Vindula dejone have a bright elaborate chrysalis with gold spots.

Nympahlis antiopa has a sharp, spiky chrysalis.

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Acraea violae has a smooth, slim, contrasting chrysalis.  Photo © Horace Tan

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Papilio zelicaon have two color morphs to better camouflage their chrysalis.

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Euploea mulciber is another butterfly with a beautiful, metallic chrysalis. Photo © Horace Tan

Some butterflies will use a silk girdle to attach the chrysalis to a twig like this Pachliopta aristolochiae.  Photo © Horace Tan

At the Cockrell Butterfly Center we receive hundreds of chrysalises from around the world weekly. Opening the boxes to reveal the variety of pupae nestled in cotton is akin to Christmas. Each chrysalis will be carefully glued up in a natural hanging position. After a few days the adult butterfly will make its appearance and leave only the dry, shriveled shell of the chrysalis behind marking the end of the pupal stage. 

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The shell of an empty chrysalis after the butterfly has emerged.

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 7/25-7/31

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Brianna (age: 8): 

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Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Behind-the-Scenes – Cabinet of Curiosities
Tuesday, July 26
6:00 p.m.
Cabinets of curiosities were collections of extraordinary objects which attempted to categorise and tell stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world. These collections of extraordinary natural and manmade objects were displayed in cabinets with many compartments, each filled with “treasures” reflecting man’s desire to find his place within the larger context of nature and the divine. Many of these collections eventually became the first public museums. In this special after-hours event, master docents with colorful commentary and extraordinary stories will guide you through this exhibit, which contains thousands of extraordinary natural and manmade objects nestled in countless nooks and crannies, just waiting to be discovered. Ignite your curiosity with a tour of the wonder-filled Cabinets of Curiosities exhibit, and discover the treasures that await.

Behind-the-Scenes – Terrestrial Life Debuts
Tuesday, July 26
6:00 p.m.
Because the Morian Hall of Paleontology is too large to tour in one evening, we are debuting a new series that will cover the hall section by section. Led by HMNS staff trainer, James Washington, each tour will include a hands-on fossil experience or short classroom presentation. When life came out of the water and conquered land, our witnesses are the armor-headed amphibians like “boomerang-headed” Diplocaulus. You’ll meet the root of our own human family tree in the fabulous fin-backed reptile, Dimetrodon, apex predator of the Texas Permian, 300 million years ago. Catastrophic die-offs at the end of the Permian Period (250 million years ago) exterminated most of the dominant life forms-but the empty niches welcomed new clans of dynamic creatures. Reptiles seized control of the terrestrial realm. Giant croc-oids dug tubers, munched leaves and attacked each other. By 200 million years ago, crocodile descendants-the first dinosaurs-were expanding their influence.

Lecture – Prehistorical Perspectives on Amazonian Life by Dirk Van Tuerenhout
Wednesday, July 27
6:30 p.m.
When we think of the Amazon region, we imagine dense forest, exotic animal life, and sweltering temperatures. We also assume that this landscape has been around for thousands of years. Recent discoveries, made from the air and on the ground, now suggest that portions of the Amazonian rainforest looked very different just 500 years ago. HMNS curator of anthropology Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout will review some of these discoveries and what they tell us about the scope and impact of prehistoric human presence in the Amazon region.

Summer Cockrell Butterfly Center Events 
Summer Cockrell Butterfly Center events continue through Aug. 19.

  • Wing It | Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m.
    Come fly away into the world of butterflies at the Cockrell Butterfly Center with Wing it! Introduce yourself to your favorite winged wonders and watch the release of hundreds of new butterflies into the rainforest.
  • Small Talk | Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
    Join our Cockrell Butterfly Center team as they take their live collection of insects out “for a walk” during Small Talk. Our experts will entertain and educate with all types of insects and arachnids.
  • Friday Feeding Frenzy | Fridays at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. & 11:30 a.m.
    Join us this morning in the Cockrell Butterfly Center for our Friday Feeding Frenzy! See science in action as snakes, spiders and centipedes enjoy a meal right in front of you!
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Summer Trunk Shows: A Touch of Sparkle from Lankford and Tummino

One of our favorite things about summer has arrived — Summer Trunk Shows! This year we’re keeping it simple and local, featuring Rebecca Lankford July 22 and Mirta Tummino on Aug. 5, both from 12 to 4 p.m.

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Locally-renowned Houston artist Rebecca Lankford uses hand-cast metals, fine leathers, and a casual take on precious and semi-precious gems to create effortlessly stylish jewels. Her delicate styles are perfect alone and for layering and stacking.

Rebecca has also created an exclusive museum collection for HMNS using gems hand-picked by our buyers. Each piece is one-of-a-kind or limited in production.

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Leaving corporate America behind, native Texan Mirta Tummino realized her true calling when she began designing jewelry. With an eye for color, Mirta combines unusual gemstones to create her signature wire-wrapped designs.

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If that alone doesn’t convince you to attend our trunk show here are three reasons why you should:

1. Locally-made, handcrafted jewelry. Handmade pieces make unique gifts for others or yourself, all while supporting local artists.

2. A chance to meet the designer and team. Learn all about the gems, materials, and the creative process directly from the artist. Rebecca and Mirta are both inspired by the museum’s gem and mineral collection.

3. Jewelry with savings! Shop with a 20 percent discount in addition to your membership discount. Feel good about looking great knowing that 100 percent of museum store and trunk show proceeds benefits HMNS’s educational programs.

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