Lucy, Out of Africa. Not!

Lucy is the most famous of the Australopithecine Clan – that’s about a half dozen species all together, maybe more. The Clan was long-lived and successful…at least in Africa. They spread from the edge of the Sahara Desert in the north all the way to Cape Province near the southern tip of the continent.

Dig anywhere in this huge area and find bones between 5.8 and 2.5 million years old – and you’ll find australopithecines.

But….Lucy’s entire clan never, EVER got out of Africa.  That’s weird. Lucy was surrounded by mammals that went globe-trotting. Big predators and even bigger herbivores traveled in and out of Africa, and then over Europe, Asia, North America – even South America.

World MapLucyCheck out our World Map for Lucy.  It shows the land and sea when ocean levels went down some 500 feet lower than today. That happened several times during the epoch of australopithecine evolution. With sea-levels down, there were dry land bridges many places – especially where Siberia connected to Alaska at the Bering Strait.

The map helps us analyze animal travelers….

Example of Globe-Trotter I: Rhinos Shaped like Hippos.

Here’s an unlikely world-traveler – the short-legged hippo-rhinos. If you saw them alive, you might be fooled into thinking they were bona fide hippos. The body form was hippo-esque: rotund belly, wide hips, low-slung chest and rump. But they were genuine members of the rhino family, close kin of the Indian Rhino of today.

s-rhino-hippo copy

Hippo-rhinos ate grass just as Indian Rhinos do in the modern Indian ecosystem. But hippo-rhinos (also known as Teleocerines) weren’t content to graze the meadows of the Brahmaputra. They went north and east and north and west. They invaded Europe and turned down into Africa. Hippo-rhinos must have chased Lucy when they were in bad moods.

Hippo-rhinos dared to cross the Bering land Bridge connecting Siberia to North America, and so they are the commonest rhino fossils in Nebraska, Wyoming and Texas.

Example of Globe-Trotter II: Hippos Shaped like Hippos.

Hippopotamuses today frolic in the rivers of Africa. Back in Lucy’s day, hippos went much farther. They waddled north and west over Europe and made it to the Thames River in England. Going the other way, hippos trotted through Eurasia and invaded India.

World MapHipRhinoHippos failed to cross the Bering Land Bridge though – they never could follow hippo-rhinos to Texas. (Think about that – why?)

Meanwhile, as hippo-shaped rhinos and real hippos went thousands of miles across four or five continents, Lucy’s relations stayed put in Africa.

Example of Globe-Trotter III: Saber-tooth Cats.

sHomothereBig plant-eaters should have been followed by big meat-eaters. And they were.

Chasing Lucy in Africa were many kinds of saber-tooth cats. Semi-saber-tooths (Dinofelines,)  Sword-tooths (Smilodonts,) And dagger-tooths (homotheres).  All three kinds of saber-cats had evolutionary wanderlust. They spread over Europe and Asia, from Siberia to Indonesia.

Bering Land Bridge? No problem. All three saber-cats invaded North America. And one group – the sword-tooth smilodonts – just kept on going, down through Brazil and all the way to Argentina.


What was wrong with our Lucy?

What sort of anti-australopithecine barrier was put up to keep all the Lucy-oids in Africa??

Birthplace: Pennsylvania? US Oil Turns 150 Today

Today’s guest blogger is Julian Lamborn. He is a volunteer at the museum and has been leading tours as a docent since March of 2004. He is an engineer, and loves to study and talk about energy. Today, Julian gives us a history lesson about the start of the oil industry in the United States – 150 years ago today.

On today’s date in 1859, oil was first extracted from the ground in this country by a drilling process. The place where this occurred was NOT in Texas but in the small Pennsylvania town of Titusville. The man who made it all happen was “Colonel” Edwin Drake, a New York-born inventor whose business career had begun as a conductor on a brand new, sometimes dangerous, conveyance known as the railroad.

In the late 1850s, a New Haven speculator hired Drake to investigate Titusville for oil deposits. He had seen a Yale chemistry professor’s report that the “rock oil” that seeped from the ground could be refined and employed for illumination, lubrication, and other uses. When Drake arrived in Titusville, the locals laughed at his futile methods, particularly his initial efforts to find oil by digging trenches at seepage sites.

Although the modern oil industry began in the mid 1800s, what we know as “crude” oil has been around since the dawn of history. Great pressures that exist under sedimentary rock systems containing oil continuously drive some of the oil to the surface through strata faults. This oil seeps out of the earth’s surface and has been used for a variety of purposes for thousands of years. One of the earliest uses for heavy oil seepages is spoken of in the book of Genesis (Genesis 11:3) where it mentions using bitumen (sometimes known as pitch or asphalt) for mortar in building the Tower of Babel.

Bamboo Detail
Creative Commons License photo credit: geishaboy500

There were many early attempts to hasten the flow of these oil seeps by drilling holes into the seepage zones. The earliest known oil wells were drilled in China around the middle of the 4th century. These wells had depths of up to 800 feet (240 m) and were drilled using bits attached to bamboo poles. The oil that came to the surface, known as “burning water” in China and Japan, was burned to evaporate brine to produce crystalline salt. By the 10th century, extensive bamboo pipelines connected oil wells with salt springs to facilitate the business.

The Middle East’s petroleum industry was well established by the 8th century, when the streets of Baghdad were paved with tar derived from petroleum from natural seepage in the region. Petroleum was distilled in Persian (Iran) in the 9th century, producing flammable products for military purposes. After Spain was conquered by Moors in the 8th century, the Islamic world’s oil distillation technologies became known and available in Western Europe.

Some sources claim that, beginning in the 9th century, oil fields were exploited in the area around modern Baku, Azerbaijan, to produce naphtha for heating. When Marco Polo visited Baku, which is on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in 1264, he saw oil being collected from seeps. He wrote that “there is a fountain from which oil springs in great abundance, inasmuch as a hundred shiploads might be taken from it a one time.”

At Baku seeps, shallow pits were dug to facilitate the collection of the oil. By 1594, hand-dud holes up to 115 feet (35 meters) deep were in use. Essentially oil wells, 116 of the holes produced about 28,000 barrels of oil, about 80 barrels/day (a barrel of contains 42 U.S. or 35 Imperial gallons) by 1830.  In 1849, Russian engineer F.N. Semyenov used a cable tool to drill an oil well on the Apsheron Peninsula near Baku, ten years before Drakes famous well in Pennsylvania.

There is much discussion as to exactly when and how the oil industry itself started; however, Polish pharmacist, Ignacy Lukasiewicz (1822-1882), is generally credited with developing the first industrial-scale process for refining seepage oil in 1853, distilling it to create kerosene. He intended his process to supplement the rapidly diminishing (and therefore, increasingly expensive) supply of whale oil, which was burned for illumination.

Lantern shadow
Creative Commons License photo credit: Valerie Everett

Besides kerosene, early refineries produced asphalt, machine oil and lubricants while products not needed (such as gasoline) were burned in open pits. At this time, there was a growing demand for better lighting in homes, factories, and streets; kerosene was seen as the answer to this need. Additionally, a thriving industry developed where early oil finds and distillates were put to some rather unusual uses for both internal and external purposes in the medial field. By the mid 19th century in the U.S., crude oil was bottled and sold unabashedly, promising a cure for just about everything from rheumatism, gout, and blindness to the common cold!

In 1854, Benjamin Silliman, Sr., father of the science professor at Yale whose report on oil seepage launched Drake’s investigation, was the first to fractionate petroleum by distillation. This discovery, together with that of Ignacy Lukasiewicz’s, ignited the petroleum industry. By the early1860s, when Baku was producing about 90% of the world’s oil, refineries began springing up in many other parts of the globe, particularly in the U.S. where crude oil from drilled wells had been available since August 27, 1859, when Edwin Drake finally found oil at 69 feet into the ground on Oil Creek near Titusville (see picture below).

Drake’s well was drilled for Seneca Oil Company, and it originally yielded 25 barrels/day. By the end of 1859, output was down to only 15 barrels/day, but by then, many other wells had been established in the area. To utilize this oil, the U.S. refining industry grew rapidly with the first refinery in the area being commissioned in 1862, driven initially by the demand for kerosene lighting.

By 1865, in Cleveland, Ohio, where a great deal of the crude from Titusvillewas taken, 30 simple-batch still refineries operated witha total capacity of 1,500/barrels/day. This capacity far eclipsed the size of the Baku oil industry. Standard oil built the largest refinery in Cleveland in 1870 witha capacity of 1,500/barrels/day. At the end of late 19th century, both crude oil and refined products were major exports of the U.S.  In the early part of the 20th century, with the introduction of the internal combustion engine, the demand for refined products, which still sustains the industry, was created. Early oil finds like those in Pennsylvania and Ohio were quickly outpaced by demand, and this led to oil booms and refinery construction in Texas, Oklahoma, and California as well as in other parts of the world such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

From the early, heady, Edwin Drake days, the oil industry has grown to the point where, worldwide, up to 84 million barrels/oil are produced and refined every day in some 717 refineries. Of these, 132 are in the U.S., where 17.6 million barrels/day of crude oil are refined.  In 150 years, the U.S. has swung from being the world’s largest exporter of crude oil to being the world’s largest importer of crude oil. The world’s largest refining complex exists not in the U.S. but in Venezuela, where more than 956,000 barrels/day of crude oil are refined by PDVSA on one site—a far cry from Standard’s 1,500 barrels/day Cleveland refinery in 1870!

Drilling rig
Creative Commons License photo credit: eMaringolo

The Greek roots of the word “petroleum” are simple: petra, meaning “rock” and olemum, meaning “oil,” but there the simplicity ends. Edwin Drake, on August 27, 1859, had no idea that he was in on the birth of the world’s new energy era. He never patented his drilling techniques and died a poor man in 1880, having lost his money on Wall Street. For the last seven years of his life, he lived on a $1500/year annuity granted to him by the State of Pennsylvania for services rendered to the oil industry. Yet, as a successful entrepreneurial wildcatter, he paved the way for many others to make the oil industry what it is today—a complex potpourri of applied science, ingenuity, engineering design, unit operations, and marketing systems that have become a political forced throughout the entire world.

Steamy salsa night closes out the summer

The time has finally come to close out this summer’s Mixers & Elixirs series. But we’re going out with a bang! End this summer right with one last steaming salsa night before summertime is gone.

 We talked to lead singer Rudy Rincon from Grupo Ka-Che to see what makes their performance at Mixers and Elixirs so spectacular.

What is the best thing about playing at Mixers?

Mixers25Being around the dinosaurs is definitely one of the best things. Another great aspect is being in a location that gives you the opportunity to be outside the normal standardization of a club. It is something really new and innovated that gives you another taste of both themes: a museum and a show.

How would you describe your band’s overall music and performance?

We are the most energetic Latin performance in town. Our show is completely live and it is well established. We got together in ’98.

What started you out in music?

We all started as musicians. We share Latin music as our connection even though we come from different countries. By communicating with the local audience we felt the need to polish and professionalize our music. Our group presents Latin music that delivers our culture as well as an exciting show for our audience.

What was it like performing under a giant dinosaur in past years?

 It was an adventure. Everyone at the beginning wasn’t sure what the response would be. As a band we really appreciate the work that the museum has been putting behind Mixers. We are pleased to be a part of the most exciting events. It integrates the museum aspect as well as an opportunity for young business professionals to network, dance, and mingle.

This is your last chance to see and be seen at Mixers & Elixirs! Don’t let the opportunity to salsa under the dinosaurs pass you by for another year. The party starts at 6 p.m. with our live DJ and cash bars. The dancing begins with Grupo Ka-Che at 7 p.m. Be sure to catch this fantastic night before it summer slips away.

Meet Charro, our new resident iguana!

The Butterfly Center recently acquired a new iguana.  His name is Charro (which means “cowboy” – as in “charro beans”) and we believe he is between 5 and 10 years old.  For the time being, he is housed in a cage in the rainforest area.  We may eventually let him loose to wander freely in the Center, once he is thoroughly acclimated – but for now, he seems to be content (and is particularly visible to patrons) in his cage.  Keeping him confined does allow us to find him easily in order to take him outside for some exercise and sunshine on a daily basis. 

We’ve had several free-ranging iguanas in the Center over the years.  It is a perfect place for them – much better than the situations in which pet iguanas are typically found.  Indeed, all of our resident iguanas have been pets that outgrew the space and/or time their owners could provide them.  I think it is unfortunate that these creatures continue to be sold as pets:  what starts as a cute little green lizard ends up as a small dinosaur – and most people are not prepared to handle the latter.

But as a result of all the iguanas we’ve had, I’ve learned more about them than I ever expected to know.  They are actually very interesting and personable creatures!  If you’d like to learn more yourself, read on – or check out the excellent information at the website of the Green Iguana Society.

iguana of sea
Galapagos Island Iguana
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ansgar Berhorn

Iguanas are in the same family (Iguanidae) as the little green or brown anole lizards we see in our gardens here in the southern USA.  The most common species available through the pet trade is the common or green iguana.  Green iguanas (the scientific name is Iguana iguana) are common in tropical areas from Mexico to South America.  In their native habitat, they often sit sunning themselves high up in trees, especially along rivers.  If a hawk or eagle flies over (both are major predators of iguanas) they will fling themselves into the river below.  They are excellent swimmers!   There are several other species of iguana, including the spiny or black iguana (also common in Central America, especially near the coast), and of course the famous marine iguanas and land iguanas of the Galapagos Islands (both species believed to have evolved from green iguanas). 

summer-09-042Baby iguanas are about 8 inches or so long and bright green.  But they soon get much larger, some growing to over 6 feet long.  As they mature, they lose their bright green color, and males in particular gain “secondary sexual characteristics.”  People often ask about Charro’s large jowls (the big lumps on either side of his head).  We like to say that they are like biceps on men – enticing to females and intimidating to other males!  The jowls, large dewlap (flap of skin below the chin), and the orangish skin color are all characters seen in mature male iguanas.  Male iguanas also develop fatty deposits on top of their head.  Mature females are slimmer and duller colored, with smaller jowls and dewlap and no head lumps. 

Although much less colorful than the babies, adult iguanas can change color up to a point.  We’ve noticed that Charro gets darker when he is taken out into the sunshine, and lighter when he’s back in his cage.  Iguanas use their color to regulate their body temperature – they darken up to absorb more heat.  An iguana’s color can also indicate its mood or stress levels (sometimes their colors become more contrasting when threatened or frightened).  Male iguanas in particular become more colorful when they are in their breeding season.  The orange becomes brighter, and the black stripes on the tail, etc., more pronounced.

Iguanas apparently have excellent vision, and can see colors as well as we do.  They also have a “third eye” (called the parietal eye), a clear scale on the top of their head.  This organ senses light and dark, and alerts them to aerial predators.  

Male iguanas in particular develop pointed “tubercular scales” on the back of the neck, and have a ridge of flexible spines along the back.  I have not been able to find any known function for these, beyond ornament.  Quite a few of Charro’s ridge spines have been broken off, and we are not sure whether they will grow back.  Iguanas do molt their skin periodically – unlike snakes, which shed their entire skin at once, iguanas lose theirs in patches over several weeks. 

Iguanas can live for over 15 years, but usually don’t make it that long in the wild because other animals (including humans) love to eat them!  In fact, they are sometimes called “chicken of the trees” or “bamboo chicken.” Their eggs are also eaten, and their skin is sometimes used for belts or boots, etc.

summer-09-040Iguanas themselves are strict vegetarians, which is rather unusual among lizards (most eat insects or other small animals).  For us, of course, it is fortunate that iguanas have no interest in eating butterflies!  We feed Charro healthy salads of vegetables and fruits.  Greeny leafy vegetables such as collard greens are especially good for him.   According to the Green Iguana Society website, although iguanas will eat almost anything you offer them, they should not be given any animal protein!

Because iguanas, especially the males, are quite territorial, we have been advised (by none less than the director of the Houston Zoo) to keep only one iguana at a time.  Indeed, many years ago when we had a male and female, they had a tremendous battle and the male was badly injured.  Although in nature you may see several iguanas in close proximity, they are not social creatures and really only get together to mate. 

Long-time patrons of the Butterfly Center will remember some of our previous iguanas.  Sidney died in 2004 at the age of 14, after more than three years in the Center.  A large, stocky and colorful iguana, he acted more like a dog than a lizard; he was so friendly that he would crawl into people’s laps to be petted.  When Sidney died, we had an autopsy done; the vet told us he died of a heart attack (apparently a common cause of death in older, captive, male iguanas!) 

Gandalf was not quite as friendly as Sidney, but was a truly magnificent specimen.  Unlike Sidney and Charro, he had a complete, unbroken tail that was exceedingly long (Gandalf was about 6 feet long including the tail.)  Unfortunately, after several years of climbing all over the Center, he made an unfortunate misstep.  We believe he slipped off one of the planters on the second floor and crashed onto the cement floor around the cenote.   This undoubtedly happens in nature as well: during one field season in Costa Rica I used to admire a large iguana that sunned himself every day on a high and slender branch of a cecropia tree along the Puerto Viejo river.  One day I noticed that the branch had broken off…I never saw that particular iguana again. 

Stretch immediately preceded Charro.  He was never a happy or friendly iguana, and died of old age/ill health earlier this year (2009), less than two years after he came to us.   Charro was acquired for us earlier this summer by Olga, one of the visitor services staff who has a friend at the Brownsville Zoo, Charro’s previous home.
From our previous experiences we’ve learned that individual iguanas, once you get to know them, definitely have personalities!  So far Charro seems to be a very laid-back, tolerant, and well-behaved iguana.  However, we always impress upon visitors that iguanas can bite, although it is usually a last resort and they usually give plenty of warning.  However, when it happens, an iguana bite can be serious.  They have lots of very sharp little teeth – it’s like getting slashed with a hacksaw.

Fortunately, we have learned to read the signs:  iguanas typically give behavioral clues about their mood.  When an iguana is comfortable and happy (for example when we pour water over Charro’s head, something he seems to particularly enjoy) it will stand up on its front legs, raising its head in the air.  Most iguanas also enjoy being petted, particularly behind the head, or under the chin and jowls, or along the back.  Sometimes they close their eyes in pleasure, leaning into the caress just like a dog or cat, and even look as if they are smiling!

An angry iguana, however, is quite fearsome.  If frightened or seriously irritated, it will typically turn its side to whatever is bothering it and stand up on all four legs, apparently trying to maximize its size.  It may also walk forward in a stiff-legged manner, sometimes opening its mouth and wagging its tail.  This is not a friendly wag – it means the iguana may whip with its tail or even bite!  At this point it’s time to back off and give the iguana some space.

People sometimes voice concerns about iguanas and salmonella.  Yes, some iguanas can carry it.  So after handling Charro or any other reptile, for that matter, it is a good idea to wash one’s hands thoroughly, especially before eating.

summer-09-043If you don’t see Charro in the Butterfly Center when you visit, check outside by the Kugel Ball.  A number of docents have volunteered to take him out for a “sunbath” on sunny days.  Iguanas need the heat, as well as the UV A and B wavelengths provided by the sun’s rays (or the simulated sunshine provided by a UV lamp), to get warm enough to move and to eat/digest food, as well as to manufacture vitamin D (just like humans).  We try to get Charro outside for at least half an hour, several times a week.  It’s also a good way to let people see him up close!

Any of you iguana experts out there – I’d be happy to hear feedback about any aspect of iguanas and their care.  We’re always learning about them!