The Great Sweet Potato Mystery!

The holidays are a time to be with family, to re-prioritize your life, rediscover yourself and your road to inner peace…they’re also a time to eat lots of sweet potatoes! That’s right, nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a big, fat turkey with a side of sweet potatoes. The little guys have been trying to break out of their typecast role as turkey’s trusty sidekick—and yeah their fries are pretty delicious—but I will always associate them with dinnertime at my grandparent’s farm on Thanksgiving. 

baked sweet potatoes

But did you ever wonder where those little, orange tubers come from? Well, they are actually from the Americas! Which of course should come as no surprise, because all of the best foods come from the Americas. And no… I don’t just mean burgers, fries and milkshakes! I mean corn (the most prolific crop in the world) beans, squash, chocolate, tomatoes, and lot’s of other really important stuff! The significance of the Columbian Exchange to to world’s diet cannot be overstated.

So, what’s the mystery? Well, the thing is that although sweet potatoes were domesticated in the Americas around 5,000 years ago, they have also been an important crop in the Pacific Islands for hundreds of years. This is quite strange because as far as archaeologist and historians know, Polynesians never made it to the Americas and there was never a Native American seafaring culture.

Image from page 379 of "Man upon the sea : or, a history of maritime adventure, exploration, and discovery, from the earliest ages to the present time ..." (1858)

So how did sweet potatoes make it all the way to New Guinea by the time the first Europeans were exploring the island’s interior? Nobody knows for sure…. It could be that first contact between the Old World and New World happened from the East centuries before Europeans arrived. However, at this time archaeologists have not been able to provide a sure date on the earliest use of domesticated sweet potatoes in the South Pacific, and many have suggested that it is entirely possible that the Spanish introduced the vegetable in the sixteenth century and the crop spread rapidly ahead of European exploration of many Pacific Islands.

thoughts over sweet potato

So next time you’re enjoying those delectable little globs, just remember that somewhere out there, academics are arguing about how significant your present meal is to world history.

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Bell peppers, bananas and beer: the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Grocery List

Take a look at this list. You are probably thinking, “ok, someone’s shopping list, so what?“. What if I told you that most of these things are not even for human consumption, but for butterflies, reptiles, and other various insects? You’d probably think I’m crazy! Well, you’re not alone.


Have you ever bought Guinness at 8:00 am on a weekday? Or had a ton of produce rung up leading the cashier to comment “wow, aren’t you healthy!“, only to reply, “oh, it’s not for me, it’s for bugs.” Yeah, they all think we’re crazy! These are the realities of our weekly grocery shopping for the Cockrell Butterfly Center

The truth is that it costs us $150-$200 a month at the local HEB to keep our butterflies, bugs, iguanas, and tortoises well fed and happy. And yes, our butterflies drink beer, and not just your run of the mill pilsner, it’s gotta be the good stuff! Actually, we feed our butterflies an appetizing mixture of overripe bananas, brown sugar, and dark beer. We use Guinness because it’s not pasteurized, so it contains the bacteria goodness that ensures the butterflies’ preferred level of fermentation. Yummy! Our nectar feeding butterflies get pumped up on Amino Fuel, which is a supplement that can be found on the health food/vitamin isle. We add it to our nectar bowls (a mixture of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar) to give the butterflies a little more protein. Many of them would feed on pollen, or even feces in the wild to get additional protein in their diet. 

Oh, and butterflies are so high maintenance. The laundry detergent, it’s mostly to wash our “butterfly diapers”. When our butterflies emerge, they squirt out the remains of their last meal as a caterpillar. It’s called meconium and it’s quite messy. We use white towels to soak it up and they have to be laundered every week!

We have a lot of vegetarians around here too. Two iguanas, 3 tortoises, and A LOT of bugs. Grasshoppers, millipedes, beetles, and tons of cockroaches! I wonder how the people at the store would look at me if I told them that at least 50% of that produce is going to feed cockroaches. 

Finally, there are SOME humans in our office that do require just a few things to keep us going while we’re running around feeding all of these animals. Also, all of those humans are females, so we need to keep the coffee and chocolate well stocked!

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HMNS Weekly Happenings

Christmas Astronomy Lecture


“The Star of Bethlehem: Mystery, History and Science”

Carolyn Sumners, Ed.D.

Thursday, December 8, 6 p.m.

Learn the science behind the Star of Bethlehem– star, planet, comet or miracle? Explore the leading theories of the heavenly light that might have guided the wise men from the east to Bethlehem. Using the new Tru-8K system’s star Field simulator, Dr. Carolyn Sumners will recreate the night sky at the date and time of Christ’s birth to see what the wise men could have seen and to discover if the Star of Bethlehem was a celestial event or a miracle. Includes showing of “Mystery of the Christmas Star.” Click here to learn more.

Members $12, Tickets $18

You can purchase your tickets here

Photo credit: Evans & Sutherland Digital Theater


Holiday Special Tour


“Trains Over Texas”

Glen Rosenbaum and David Temple, Conductors

Tuesday, December 13, 6 p.m.

Glen Rosenbaum and David Temple, our conductors for this evening, will take you on a voyage to unique places in our great state’s geology and physiography via HMNS new 2,500 square foot train exhibit – the largest indoor O scale model railroad in Texas. Destinations include oil country salt domes, prairies and wetlands of the Texas coast, and state and national monuments such as Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, The Balcones Escarpment and Big Bend. Click here to learn more.

Members $15, Tickets $23

Purchase your tickets here


Photo credit: HMNS


Behind-The-Scenes Tour


“Mummies of the World: The Exhibition”

Tuesday, December 13, 6 p.m.

Mummies of the World: The Exhibition presents a collection of mummies from Europe, South America and ancient Egypt-some 4,500 years old.

Go behind-the-scenes and learn about mummies and mummification through state-of-the-art multimedia, interactive stations and 3D animation, highlighting advances in the scientific methods used to study mummies, including computed tomography (CT), ancient DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating, all of which allows us to know who these mummified individuals were, where they came from and where they lived. Click here to learn more.

Members $22, Tickets $39

Purchase your tickets here

Mummies Exhibition:

Photo credit: HMNS

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Archie the Wandering T.rex has a Heartland Thanksgiving


Hey friends! It is me again- Archie the Wandering T. rex! I have been all over this amazing world, but nothing compares to good old fashion Midwestern hospitality. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I traveled to central Iowa for some down-home fun!



As many of you know I love science! So of course my first stop on my adventure would be to check out the local science scene at Science Center of Iowa.  My travel companions and I had a blast exploring the museum. When we first arrived at the museum we all had fun with the giant pin screen, I even left my mark and told the world, “Archie the Wandering T. rex was here!”


I also got to test my meteorology skills and inform all of central Iowa about the impending storm that was headed their way. As many Midwesterners know, weather can change quickly across the plains, especially in Iowa because the state intersects with multiple weather producing systems and when two of these weather systems collide, it creates the perfect conditions for extreme weather, including tornadoes in the spring and summer and blizzards in the winter.

Many pioneer farmers that settled in Iowa quickly learned about Iowa’s changing weather and needed to learn to look for clues to ensure they didn’t get trapped when the weather changed rapidly. They would watch the sky, use their other senses and would look for changes in their animals’ behavior.  Today Iowans rely on expert meteorologists to help them plan ahead and keep them informed.


Next stop on my Iowa adventure was picking out the perfect Christmas tree. With over 100 registered tree farms in Iowa, cutting down the family Christmas tree has become a tradition for many Iowans. There are nine varieties of pine tree that grow well in Iowa, including Scotch and Douglas fir two of the most popular Christmas trees in the United States. We decided on a Fraser fir. The strong branches of a Fraser fir turn slightly upward; perfect for hanging heavy ornaments. The Fraser fir was named after John Fraser, a botanist that explored the Appalachian Mountains in the late 18th century.  It is also very similar in appearance to the balsam fir. The species’ geographical ranges do not overlap, but they are so similar that many scientists believe that they were once a single species that split off from each other and evolved into their present day forms.

All of that exploring on the farm made me hungry, so my travel companions and I headed to downtown Des Moines for some much needed dinner!


While I was downtown, I went and checked out the state’s impressive capitol building. The beautiful building sits on the top of a hill downtown and overlook’s Des Moines’ river valley. What makes this capitol unique is the large gilded dome that shines in the sun. At night the whole capitol is lit in gold lights with the dome being the lights’ focal point. It is definitely a sight to behold!


Courtesy of wiki commons (I was so in awe I forgot to take a picture!)

After a long trip home, I was excited to get back to HMNS for the holidays. I got home just in time to see all of the beautiful Christmas trees go up in the Grand Hall! Look for more information on these trees in an upcoming Beyond Bones Blog!

This has been a great year and I have learned so much! I can’t wait to find out where my next adventure will take me! Until then, you will find me checking out some of the great new exhibits at HMNS, including Trains Over Texas, Houston’s newest holiday tradition!

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