New Addition to the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

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Phyllium giganteum
Creative Commons License
photo credit: emills1

Today was an exciting day here at the Butterfly Center, as we welcomed a new species, Phyllium giganteum. This is a type of walking stick or phasmid that is native to Southeast Asia. We have a relative here already, Phyllium celebicum. We have enjoyed them immensely as they are very attractive on display and calm enough to go out with our Bugs on Wheels program and visit children. People are absolutely taken aback by how much they resemble a leaf, and most visitors are drawn to this particular insect since it resembles such a harmless object.

Well, if you were blown away by our original leaf mimics, hold on to your hats and meet Phyllium gigateum! While celebicum can reach a modest 2-3 inches, giganteum is an impressive 4-5 inches long! The flaps on skin surrounding their legs and abdomen are very broad with brown edges that match a dying leaf.  You really need to meet these guys in person!

Well, I should say girls. This species is parthenogenic in captivity, meaning they don’t need to mate to have babies. Males are rarely seen, even in the wild. Each female can lay a couple hundred eggs which take about 5 -6 months to develop.  The eggs are dropped to the ground by the female who dares not leave the safety of the canopy. When the nymphs hatch, they scurry up the tree, hopefully fast enough to avoid being on someone’s menu.

You may be wondering why these phasmids have such a camo-advantage while other harmless insects are much easier to spot. If an insect is lacking in the camo department, you can bet it has one of many other safety features including: being able to run or fly very quickly (cockroach), having  a very hard exoskeleton or one covered in spines (beetle), being poisonous or distasteful to predators (lubber grasshopper), having the ability to emit or even project a noxious chemical (swallowtail caterpillar), or the ability to mimic something dangerous or show a scary display(giant prickly stick). An insect’s life is pretty much all about escaping predators among other dangers of the natural world! Phyllium can do nothing else mentioned above, so it’s all about the camouflage for them!

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a giganteum nymph
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Caring for these insects is easy. I only have to meet their basic needs of food, warm temperature, and high humidity. Luckily, they will eat a variety of plants that can easily be found right here in Houston. Since these insects are parthenogenic, raising them should be a snap! We hope to have them as a permanent fixture at the Butterfly Center for years to come.

I hope you will come see them on display or be excited to have one visit your child’s classroom in the very near future. Fall is upon us now and winter will be here before you know it, so bugs everywhere will be chilling out for the season, not to be seen again until spring. So if you want to see some great bugs, native and exotic, pay us a visit! Until next time, happy bug watching!

What Galileo Saw

Recently, we passed the anniversary of Galileo‘s trial before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Inquisition) for teaching that the Earth orbits the Sun. As the current International Year of Astronomy honors Galileo’s observations and how they transformed astronomy, now is a good time to consider just what he saw through his telescope and why it was so revolutionary.

Loch Duich from Eilean Donan
Creative Commons License photo credit: atomicjeep

From November 30 to December 17, 1609, Galileo observed the Moon.  For a long time, medieval scholars had accepted the view of Aristotle, who  had taught that the heavens were perfect, unblemished, and unchanging.  This belief also dovetailed with the religious view of the heavens as the eternal abode of God.   Galileo’s telescope, however, revealed the mountains and valleys on the Moon’s surface.  Galileo could even see the shadows cast by lunar mountains.

In January 1610, Galileo turned his attention to Jupiter, the brightest object in the evening sky at the time, aside from the Moon.  Also, Jupiter was just past opposition and therefore high in the sky for much of the night.  On January 7, Galileo observed three ‘stars’ in a straight line with Jupiter, two to the left and one to the right like so:

**                            O                                                       *

Galileo knew that Jupiter was just past opposition and was therefore in retrograde motion.  (Earth had just passed between the Sun and Jupiter, and Earth’s faster orbit was making Jupiter seem to drift backwards against the background stars).  Thus, Galileo expected Jupiter to have shifted to the west, or to the right in his telescopic view, by the following night.  Instead, on January 8, Galileo saw this in his telescope:

O           *             *              *

Jupiter seemed to have gone the wrong way! Thus intrigued, Galileo continued observing Jupiter for the following week.  He saw that the ‘stars’ always appeared in line with Jupiter and to its left or right, but not in exactly the same place night to night. Although Jupiter was changing position against the background stars, it never left these companions behind.

Jupiter
Creative Commons License photo credit: ComputerHotline

Galileo also began to notice  fourth ‘star’, which had been too far from Jupiter and thus out of the field of view on January 7 and 8.  These ‘stars’, Galileo realized, were in fact satellites of Jupiter.   He published his findings in his book Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”) in March 1610.  Galileo called the moons the ‘Medicean Stars’ in honor of his patron Cosimo II of Medici and numbered them  1 to 4 in his observing notebooks.  It wasn’t until the 19th century that astronomers, following a suggestion made by Johannes Kepler to Simon Marius, began using names from Greek myth.  Thus, today we know the Galilean moons of Jupiter as Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

That there were moons orbiting Jupiter did not disprove the idea that the Sun, Moon and all planets orbit Earth.  However, this observation answered one of the main objections to accepting the Sun as the center of the solar system.  When Nikolai Copernicus proposed (correctly) that the Moon orbits Earth while Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun, philosophers objected that there could not possibly be two centers of motion in the solar system.  Galileo’s observation that Jupiter is a center of motion with moons orbiting it made this objection moot.

Two antique goddesses
Creative Commons License photo credit: fdecomite

Towards the end of 1610, Venus reappeared in the evening sky.  Turning his telescope on it, Galileo observed that Venus, when magnified, can show phases like the Moon.   Observing the moons of Jupiter convinced Galileo that not everything orbits the Earth, but it was these observations which convinced him that planets orbit the Sun.

The dominant view of the solar system at the time, based on Claudius Ptolemy’s views, placed the Earth at the center of the system with ‘planets’ orbiting it in this order:

Moon–Mercury–Venus–Sun–Mars–Jupiter–Saturn

The order is based on how quickly the planets change position against the background stars.  (The Moon and the Sun were ‘planets’ because we see them change position against the background stars).  Based on this model, Venus should have to be virtually opposite the Sun in our sky in order for its full day side to face us.  Given that Venus never appears more than 47 degrees from the Sun, a ‘full’ phase should be impossible.  Galileo observed a full set of phases, including a full phase (the whole day side facing us) and a crescent phase (most of the night side facing us), all with Venus roughly in the Sun’s direction.  This was impossible, according to the prevailing model of his day.

In his telescope, Galileo also observed that Venus’ disk was much bigger when in crescent phase than in full phase.  Thus, he surmised that Venus was orbiting the Sun, not Earth.  When Venus enters our evening sky, we’re seeing it emerge from behind the Sun.  Venus is then smaller in our telescopes, because it is farther from Earth.  During  its evening apparition, Venus is coming around to our side of the Sun.  It therefore looms a bit larger in our telescope each day.

Also, we begin seeing Venus more from the ‘side’, with the day/night terminator in view–Venus goes from ‘full’ phase to ‘gibbous’ phase to ‘quarter’ phase. Venus appears largest when it is about to pass between the Sun and the Earth.  At that time it shows a crescent phase, as most of the sunlit side faces away from the Earth.  We can’t observe Venus when it is directly in line with the Sun (unless it also transits the Sun), but it soon reappears in the morning sky, again as a large crescent.  As the ‘morning star’, Venus goes from crescent to full and gets smaller in our telescopes as it recedes to the far side of the Sun.   In fall 2009, Venus is nearing the end of an appearance as the morning star.  It therefore shows a small, nearly full disk in telescopes now.  It will pass behind the Sun in January 2010.

And if you want to observe Jupiter tonight, look southeast at dusk for the brightest thing there.  Towards the end of the year, Jupiter will have shifted to the southwest.  With Venus in the morning sky, only the Moon can outshine Jupiter on an evening this fall.

Any observing equipment you have today is better than what Galileo was using in 1610, so even the smallest telescopes today will show you the Galilean moons of Jupiter.  If you can’t see all four, keep in mind that sometimes moons are behind Jupiter, in Jupiter’s shadow, or passing in front of Jupiter (and thus lost in its glare).  The outermost of the four moons, Callisto, is often much farther from the planet than the others–this is why Galileo couldn’t see it on January 7-8, 1610.  As you watch Jupiter’s moons orbit, you’ll be repeating one of the observations that changed astronomy. 

100 Years – 100 Objects: Feather Poncho

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org - throughout the year.

Pre-Columbian feather poncho, Nazca culture (400- 500 AD)

Feather PonchoThis centuries-old poncho from Nazca, Peru is incredibly well preserved. Dated to 400- 500 AD, it provides an excellent teaching tool to illustrate the role of climate in preserving perishable items like these.

Feather work of this nature may have existed in the Gulf region of the US. Hot and humid conditions prevalent in this region ensured that none of these items would have preserved like this poncho. Low humidity and great climatic stability along the coastal zone of Peru, like the Nazca region, resulted in incredible preservation rates as seen here.

The poncho also reflects the long distance trade routes in existence in Pre-Columbian South America, bringing feathers across the Andes from the Amazon basin.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org

Book List: Imaginary Places

Imaginary Places can be anywhere your imagination takes you—sometimes happy places, sometimes to the future or sometimes to worlds unknown.  Children know about the Wizard and the Land of Oz, some of the unusual characters Alice met when she fell down the rabbit hole or what happened when Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie venture through the wardrobe into the land of Narnia where it is always winter but never Christmas. But one of the most popular imaginary places for children is Peter Pan’s Neverland.

TIPOYOCK LIFE PICTURE Tinkerbell PETER PAN
Creative Commons License photo credit: tipoyock

James Barrie first published Peter Pan in the early 20th century, and the book remains a classic over one hundred years later.

All children are probably familiar with Peter, Wendy, John, and Michael Darling and their dog Nana.  Interestingly, all of these characters were based on real children and a real dog.  Three of the boys were named after three of the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies—Peter, John and Michael.  The name “Wendy” was first introduced in Peter Pan. A young girl named Margaret Henley called Barrie “Friendy,” but when she pronounced the name it came out “Fwendy”.  And, Nana, the Newfoundland, was inspired by a St. Bernard puppy Barrie and his wife Mary bought on their honeymoon in Switzerland.

Peter Pan is often referred to as the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.  Is it possible the character was also based on Barrie’s brother Daniel, Barrie’s mother’s favorite, who died at age thirteen?  Barrie’s mother is said to have found comfort in the fact that Daniel would never grow up and leave her.  The first sentence of the book reads, “All children, except one, grow up.”  Hmmmm.

Peter Pan features the adventures the Darling children share in Neverland with Peter, Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, the pirates, the mermaids and the lost boys (who desperately want a mother.)

One of Barrie’s last wishes was for future royalties from Peter Pan be awarded to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London.  Seventy-two years after his death sick children in London continue to benefit from Barrie’s generosity, and children everywhere benefit from being exposed to this wonderful storyteller.

Children often fear being different, but reading The Araboolies of Liberty Street could help them understand that different often means unique, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Liberty Street is an imaginary street where all the houses look alike—all painted white.  The children of Liberty Street would love to have fun, but when anything fun begins to happen General Pinch grabs his bullhorn and yells, “I’ll call in the army!”  So, Joy cannot hang upside down from a maple tree, Katie cannot creep around like a tiger and Jack cannot spin around until he becomes dizzy.  As you might imagine, Liberty Street is a very quiet street.

Then one day the Araboolies move next door to General Pinch.  There are dozens and dozens of Araboolies.  They have colorful skin that changes color each night and they glow in the dark!  The Araboolies paint their house with red and white zigzags and hang colored lights and toys everywhere.  They paint the sidewalk and pour sand on the grass. The Araboolies have lots of pets who live indoors while the Araboolies live and sleep outdoors—all in the same bed. 
When General Pinch threatens to call in the army, the Araboolies pay no attention because they do not speak English, so they have no idea what the general is yelling.

When Joy kicks a boolanoola ball through the Pinch’s window and hits General Pinch’s stomach, the general tells the army to attack Liberty Street at dawn and get rid of the house that is different. That night Joy devises a plan, and all the children of Liberty Street spring into action.  They spend the entire night decorating all the houses—except the Pinch’s house—to match the Araboolies’ house.

At dawn when the army comes to follow General Pinch’s orders, they waste little time in identifying the Pinches’ house as different.  They yank the house off its foundation and drag it far away.  The Pinches are never seen again, and you are left with the feeling that fun will now be allowed on Liberty Street.

On the adult level, this book is said to be a satire against a system which believes that the strong survive by bullying the weak. (General Pinch vs. the children.)  But through the Araboolies children learn about tolerance, fair play and even poetic justice, and the Araboolies are just plain fun.

The future is another imaginary place, and few futuristic stories for young adults are more compelling than Among the Hidden, the first in a seven book series, by Margaret Haddix Peterson.  In order to limit the growth of the population, the Population Police decree that families may only have two children.  The problem is that twelve-year-old Luke is a third child.  Luke’s family lives in a wooded area, and because of this Luke has been able to play outside.  However, when the government begins to develop the land near his house, Luke is confined to the attic.

Patience
Creative Commons License photo credit: Nicholas_T

One day Luke is carefully looking outside when he sees a shadow of a child in a window of a house that already has two children.  When he runs to the house he meets Jen, another third child. Jen plans a rally in support of third children, and it ends tragically when all the participants are killed.  Luckily for Luke, he had not attended.

Luke becomes friends with Jen’s father, George Talbot, a Population Police official who opposes the population law.  While they are talking the Population Police break into the house, and Luke is forced to hide in the closet.

When the police have gone, Luke wants to talk, but Mr. Talbot motions for him to remain silent.  He writes a note saying that the Population Police have placed listening devices around the house and are listening for evidence.

Mr. Talbot is able to provide Luke with a fake I.D. to make it possible for him to live as a real person, but this identity comes at a huge cost for Luke and his family.

This is a great book to read and discuss such issues as population growth, the allocation of the world’s resources, the distribution of agricultural products, the right to privacy, censorship and the use of propaganda.

Among the Hidden is the first in the Shadow Children series.  Other titles in the series are Among the Imposters, Among the Betrayed, Among the Barons, Among the Brave, Among the Enemy and Among the Free.  On the journey from Among the Hidden to Among the Free, readers watch Luke adjust, change and grow.  This is a trip worth taking.