Dead Man’s Party – Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos artwork by one of our hmns bloggers!

Halloween is this Saturday and everyone is scrambling to put together their costumes and figuring out what parties to go to Friday and Saturday. But what are your plans for Dia de los Muertos on November 2nd!?

The education department here at HMNS offered an encore event to last year’s very popular Dia de los Muertos Educator Overnight and teachers came from all over the greater Houston area to learn about this incredible holiday and how to do some activities with their own students so that they may learn more about the culture. If you want to learn how to make sugar skulls check out this guide online – it has some great tips on how to make some incredible shaped sugar treasures!

Above you’ll see an artwork that references La Calavera Catrina, an etching done by Mexican printmaker Jose Guadelupe Posada in 1913. La Catrina and some of Posada’s other artwork is reproduced and can be seen around town available on book bags, t-shirts and in jewelry – especially around Dia de los Muertos. This piece pictured here is composed completely out of dyed eggshells by one of our very own hmns bloggers!

Below are some of the fun hands on activities and projects the teachers did at the Overnight this year and don’t worry – we’re already thinking up some cool ideas for “Dia de los Muertos II – the Overnight Sequel for Educators” – next October! Drop me a line if you want to receive notice when we start accepting registrations for this Overnight in 2010 – overnights@hmns.org.

Decorating sugar skulls
Decorating sugar skulls
Calacas puppet in progress
Calacas puppet in progress
Cigar box altar
Cigar box altar
This tiny clay skull is perfect for a tiny cigar box altar table!
This tiny clay skull
is perfect for a tiny cigar box altar table!
Completed sugar skulls!
Completed sugar skulls!

The Monster Mash, IS a Museum Smash!

BOO! Halloween PLAYMOBIL scary!!!!
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Banana Donuts ~ Half Baked Photography

When you were young, did you ever call someone into your room at night to make sure there were no monsters hiding under the bed or in the closet, only to be told “there’s no such thing as monsters?” Well, I’m here to say phooey to all those non-believers. The following is a compilation of modern and marvelous Museum Monsters! Let’s just jump right in with both feet.

Seemingly mythical creatures have always fascinated mankind, but a special few have remained and live on in legends. One of the most popular is the Loch Ness monster. Fondly known as Nessie, this creature has eluded identification and in-focus photography for years. Yet people from all walks of life claim to see a creature with a long, serpentine neck leaving ripples in its wake as it swims through the Loch Ness. Well…want to see what everyone says she looks like for yourself??? The animal described above most resembles a now extinct marine reptile you can see in the Museum’s hall of Paleontology, a plesiosaur! Plesiosaurs have elongated necks and four flipper-like appendages which helped them swim easily through the ancient seas.

ZombieWalk Asbury Park NJ
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bob Jagendorf

Now let’s play a game. What dwells underground, lying dead but not dead, needing brains to be complete, waiting for its nest victim to unknowingly pass by? You thought zombie, right? Wrong! It’s Clostridium tetani, the bacteria that causes tetanus, which is a must-have specimen for some types of research institutions. This bacteria and a handful of others can produce endospores, which are dormant, environmentally-resistant survival structures. These spores don’t need oxygen (are anaerobic) and germinate when in contact with tissues to produce a potent neurotoxin. This toxin affects the brain and many of its primary functions, and, if left untreated, eventually leads to death in part by causing paralysis of respiratory muscles.

Maggots, London Zoo, London.JPG
Creative Commons License photo credit: gruntzooki

…Speaking of feasting on flesh, did you know that maggots, fly larvae, are necrophagous (meaning they eat dead tissue?) Sounds terrible, right?  The thought of a roiling, squirming mass of wormy things devouring a rotting carcass is more than some people can handle. Actually, they are quite helpful little things, especially in treating wounds that won’t heal like diabetic ulcers. Still grossed out? Just remember, bugs are our friends! In fact, you can come by and check our bugs out at the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Giants are not something we are accustomed to in this day and age, the closest thing we have is an elephant and, while quite large by our standards, they don’t even hold a candle to Indricotherium, the largest mammal ever to walk the earth. Herbivorous, it stood over 16 feet tall and weighed more than 4 elephants. To put it into perspective, a person around 6 feet tall would just come to its KNEE. Now that’s a giant mammal I’d like to see!

Smile for the Camera
Creative Commons License photo credit: Furryscaly

Moving on to the next monster, I want you to consider this phrase: “I vant to suck your blood!” Sound familiar? Vampires are the “in” monster of the moment, but they owe their stardom to the misunderstood, hemoglobin loving vampire bat. In fact, this bat is in part responsible for some of the vampire characteristics we are all familiar with today! Look at the parallels, nocturnal creatures ‘turning into’ a bat and sneaking up on unsuspecting victims, drinking their blood to survive. Vampire bats, however, don’t usually bleed their meals dry. That’s just plain vampire folklore.

Do you remember the classic horror film “The Blob?” Well, blobs actually exist! A mucilage is a gelatinous mass of deadly bacteria and detritus accumulated into huge swaths a jelly-like goo! Sounds appetizing, I know. These have most recently been spotted off the Mediterranean coastline. But beware, this is no benign blob. Mucilages large enough can cause entire beaches to be closed because of their virally and bacterially born lethality.

Punkin, my Halloween spider

Today’s guest blogger is Cletus Lee. Mr. Lee is a native of Virginia and received a BS in Geology from Virginia Tech.  He tells us that, after an interesting career in the Oil & Gas industry, followed by another in information sciences, he retired in 2008 and is pursuing nature photography, cycling and other long time hobbies.  He is an amateur arachnologist and resides in Bellaire, TX, just a few blocks from the Nature Discovery Center – his photos of spiders are fascinating and we thought we’d share them – along with Lee’s thoughts on the subjects of his photos – with you.

punkin 2
Click to view large: Spinybacked Orbweaer
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

It was Punkin’s “grandmother” that started my current interest in spiders.  One morning in May 2007, while opening the blinds in our den, I noticed a spider building a web just outside our den window in a corner between the den and the dining room.  From that point on, each day, I would eagerly open the blinds to greet the sun and my new little friend.

Spinybacked Orbweavers (Gasteracantha cancriformis) have long been one of my favorite spiders because they are colorful and decorate a neat orb web. Smaller than a dime, they can be found in the Houston area in shades of white, yellow and orange.   Their most prominent feature is the abdomen, which sports spike-like spines around its edge and a series of spots that create a smiley face pattern across the back.

punkin 3
Click to view large: Yellow Orbweaver
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

I continued watching the spider outside my window through the rest of May and into June.  One morning in late June, I was saddened to find the web and spider gone. I was disappointed to have my daily spider-watch ritual come to an end, but I was not disappointed for long.  A few days later, I was working outside near the old web’s location and saw two very small orb webs nearby.  A closer inspection revealed two tiny Spinybacked Orbweavers. As they grew, they molted and built larger webs. One spiderling disappeared and the other gradually moved over to the same corner of the house formerly occupied by her parent. I watched this spider, probably the daughter of the first, for about two months.  Near the end of August, she also disappeared during the night.

Once I knew the routine, I began searching the nearby bushes looking for the next generation.  Early in September, I found another Spinybacked Orbweaver. Unlike her mother and grandmother, she was orange and had a perfect jack-o-lantern face. With Halloween approaching, I decided to name my new spider Punkin.

"Punkin"
Click to view large: Punkin
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

Late in September 2007, Punkin set up housekeeping in the same spot previously occupied by her mother and grandmother.  I was not certain how long spiders lived, but those earlier spiders seemed to last about two months as adults.  October came and went.  So did November and December.  To encourage Punkin to stay, I caught live bugs and tossed them onto the web.  She was one well-fed spider.  During the winter, Punkin received a lot of care and attention and stayed around my den window until late February 2008.

Observing three generations of spiders during the summer and fall of 2007 was an education.  Being able to see nature up close, right outside my window, was a treasured experience which has broadened my horizons and fostered a new respect for spiders.  With a flashlight, I now explore my backyard and the grounds of the neighborhood Nature Center nightly to check on my little friends and make some new ones.

100 years – 100 Objects: Okapia johnstoni

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 Dan, the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating animals in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

CHI_5405 resizeThis is one of a handful of Okapis (Okapia johnstoni) exhibited in a U.S. museum, and this particular specimen was donated by Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo.

The Congo Basin of Africa, which is the region Okapis are restricted to, is characterized by civil unrest and political instability, with rural people often unsure of what tomorrow will bring, let alone where their next meal will come from.  Consequently, wildlife of this region is highly threatened due to the bush meat trade, where wildlife is harvested unsustainably for European markets in order to make ends meet in an otherwise destitute economy.

Range across seven biomes to explore the entire continent of Africa in the Evelyn and Herbert Frensley Hall of African Wildlife and Graham Family Presentation of Ecology and Conservation Biomes, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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