Photo From You: Insect Identification

This comment and photo were emailed to us on the blog a few days ago.

Angies car critters

“My friend was out on the Katy prarie the other day and left her window down. Upon her return to the vehicle, she discovered nearly 100 of these little guys swarming inside her Tahoe. Can you please tell me what they are?”

The insect in question this time is one that is VERY common around here, and perhaps, like most insects, quite misunderstood! This picture was taken inside a woman’s car out near the Katy Prairie. Since the photo is blurry, it’s hard to get a really positive identification, but it looks to me like a member of the family Tipulidae, or crane flies. These flies are not usually called  by this name. Growing up, I knew them as mosquito hawks, or skeeter eaters! Some might even think that they are actually giant mosquitoes. It was not until I started studying Entomology in college that I learned their true identity and what they really do, which is…not much of anything at all!

The family Tipulidae contains 14,000 different species of crane flies, making it the largest family of flies. They are found literally all over the world.  They may resemble their close cousins the mosquitoes, but they want nothing to do with human blood or any blood for that matter. Often the adults don’t feed at all, but if they do, they stick to flower nectar. Mosquito hawk is definitely a misnomer. The larvae, which are active eaters, don’t eat mosquito larvae, they only feed on rotting organic matter and sometimes roots. The larvae of some European species can become pests in lawns.

D like Dragonfly :)
Dragonfly, also sometimes known as
mosquito hawks.
Creative Commons License photo credit: chris bartnik photography

The real mosquito hawk is actually a type of mosquito! These awesome mosquitoes belong to the genus Toxorhynchites, which is just as fun to pronounce as it is to spell! As adults, these are one of the very few types of mosquitoes that do not feed on blood. They prefer nectar as well. The larvae are active predators, especially on other mosquito larvae, so we really like these guys! Dragonflies are also sometimes known as mosquito hawks also since they chow down on them during all stages of their lives.

Crane flies are usually one of the first bugs I see emerging in the spring. You can identify them by their extremely long legs, which are very fragile, and their clumsy flight. The woman who took this picture said that she had nearly 100 of these in her car since her window was left open. I’m not sure exactly what they were doing, but my best guess was that they were late season adults swarming together in search of a mate to complete their lifecycle before it’s too late.  So next time you see something that looks like a giant mosquito, don’t swat at it, it means you no harm! Happy bug watching!

100 Years 100 Objects: Merychippus

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 Dr. Robert Bakker, the museum’s associate curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

CHI_7740Folks stop and stare at our fossil horse. It is cute in a coltish way, all gangly and long-legged. And it is dynamic – rearing up as if it just saw you and was whinnying a “Hello!”

But sharp-eyed visitors take a second look. Our Merychippus demands a digital double-take. Count the toes. There’s one big hoof on each foot, as there should be. It’s a horse, of course. The French word is “solipede,” meaning “Single Toe Foot.” Today, among all animals domestic and wild, horses and only horses have just the single, solitary toe to run on.

Wait – look closely. There’s more. Our Merychippus has too many toes. There are extra digits, little ones, on the inside and outside of the main hoof. The mini-toes have hoofs too but they’re narrow and pointed.

I imagine I’m petting our Merychippus along its muzzle, like I do to my neighborhood ponies. And I’d feel another odd thing – Merychippus has a more delicate, lightly-built face and nose. If you stare at the fossil, you see a row of molar teeth far smaller than any horse-owner would expect.

Those small molars and accessory digits tell a story that’s literally earth-shaking. Back in the 1870s, Merychippus and the other three-toed horses shattered the scientific status quo. The side-toes made Archbishops fume and fuss and get red in the face. German philosophers smiled and puffed their pipes with satisfaction.

You see, Merychippus proved that Darwin was right. Click here to read the full story.

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, 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.

Lucy’s Great Mystery: Part 3

In Part One we learned the frightening facts: Lucy was surrounded by formidable felines. She was too slow to run away and she didn’t have weapons to repel 150 pound leopards or 500 pound  homothere saber-tooths.

In Part Two we discussed even more of the fearsome predators surrounding Lucy, and began to discuss how futile fighting back would be.

How Could Our Lucy Survive a Legion of Cats and Hyenas?

How did she defend herself?

Here are some suggestions:

She made sharp-edged knives out of broken antelope bones and buffalo horns
Lucy model - faceThis was a popular theory in the 1950’s.  In South African caves, Lucy’s relatives are found with hundreds of broken antelope bones, horse bones, and broken horns form all sorts of hoofed creatures. Conclusion: Australopithecus didn’t make stone tools – they made bone-tools.

Supposedly Lucy and her clan smashed antelope legs and used the sharp-edged ends the way a hockey fan would use a broken beer bottle in a bar-fight. “Poke, whack, stab!”

Broken bones can be nasty weapons, it’s true, but….

Hyenas broke the bones
Careful analysis of the way the bones were broken proved that Australopithecus didn’t do the breaking. Teeth marks on the bones and the style of breakage matched what we see today around a hyena lair. All of those cave bones had been smashed by the big teeth of hyenas and maybe big lion-sized cats. The predators smashed Australopithecus bones too.

Maybe – Lucy Smelled Bad – Or Tasted Bad

Striped Skunk
Creative Commons License photo credit: Charles & Clint

Seriously – this is a theory we must consider. A few animals stink so thoroughly that predators won’t attack. Skunks are a good example. Even mountain lions are repelled by one spray from the stink glands of a Texas skunk.

And meat can stink or be poisonous. Toxins in the Fugu fish are deadly – if you go to a restaurant and gulp down the wrong part of your Fugu, you’ll die. So…..maybe Darwinian processes gave Lucy toxic flesh.

But primates don’t evolve super-stink
Today we just don’t find any lemurs, bushbabies, monkeys or apes with toxic meat or stinky glands.  In fact, most stinky mammals are predators – skunks, ferrets, and stink-badgers. So, although it’s theoretically possible, we should not be too enthusiastic about Lucy evolving chemical defenses.


Let’s Review Lucy’s Potential


ChimpUs-frontSkeletonLabelLet’s review what Lucy could do – we have nearly all the bones from the skeleton if we supplement Lucy and other Ethiopian finds with close relatives dug from South Africa. Follow along by scrutinizing our Lucy-chimp-us body diagram.


No Grabber Toe
Lucy’s big toe was like ours – it didn’t face away from the other toes the way a chimp big toe does. So Lucy couldn’t grab a branch and climb like a chimp.

Knees Together
Chimps can’t stand perfectly upright, because their knees slant down and out. But Lucy could stand in a modern posture – her joints were shaped so the right and left thighs came down and towards each other. She’d walk and run like us modern humans too – knees close together.

Strong Shins & Thighs
Lucy did have muscular, short shins and thighs. No, she couldn’t sprint as fast as a modern human but she could accelerate fast and turn quickly. And short legs actually are good for climbing.

Modern Hips
Lucy had wide upper hips, like ours, not narrow hips like a chimp’s. Wide hips are good for supporting guts when standing and running upright. And….wide hips could be good for climbing straight up a tree, if arms and legs work together. We see modern people shimmying up coconut palms this way.

Lucy – NOT America’s Next Top Model – Compact Torso
Today’s humans have long waists – especially in the Hollywood starlets and runway models. Not our Lucy. As the song goes, Lucy had “..strong thighs and shins… and her torso…even more so.” Lucy had no waist. Her barrel chest was set on top of her wide hips.

That gave her a low center of gravity, a design useful for three-dimensional movement. Lucy was a natural gymnast! She could jump and twist and do somersaults.

Shoulder-Socket Half Chimp
Lucy’s shoulder socket was half-chimp, half human. The joint let her raise her arms further up, above her head, than we can – but not as far as a chimp. Raising your arms high is useful for climbing vertically; hand over hand (the way we were taught in gym class in seventh grade).

Long Arms
Lucy is half-chimp in arm proportions too – her whole arm is longer and stronger compared to her legs than what we see among modern people. And strong arms certainly would assist in climbing.

Curved Fingers
So far, our review of Lucy’s anatomical equipment is a surprise – she’d walk like a modern human on the ground, but she might be able to climb vertically much better than we can. However – if she really was supposed to climb, she’d need long, curved fingers to wrap around branches.

Did she? Were Lucy’s fingers more curved than ours?

YES!!!!!!

Australopithecus did have more curve in the digits. Not as much as in a chimps but still more than in modern humans.

So, after reviewing all of Lucy’s potential, we now can give her advice:

LUCY!  To avoid being eaten…..STAY NEAR A TREE!

She wouldn’t have to climb like a chimp, but she would have to be near enough to a tree so she could shimmy up when the cheetah charged or the hyena pack came galumphing over a hill. She wouldn’t have to scoot over a branch, holding on with her big toe, chimp-style. But she could avoid most meat-eaters by going vertical.


The Old Theory Is WRONG! Lucy Did Not Evolve on the Open Plains.

Back to our original problem: the old theory said Lucy and her kind evolved to move over open, tree-less terrain. We now have new evidence – from fossil herbivores – that the theory is incorrect. If Lucy lived in treeless areas, her bones should be found only with hoofed animals adapted to plains– the wildebeests and gnu, for example. And zebras. We shouldn’t find woodland herbivores like black rhinos and mastodons.

In fact, the antelope and rhinos and hippos and mastodons we dig with Lucy are mostly woodland critters, adapted to move over grassy areas with many bushes and clumps of trees nearby.

Mystery Solved! Lucy Evolved to Stay Near an Escape Tree.

Her family could forage on the ground. And climb up and away. And maybe they did use pointed sticks to jab down at any leopard who tried to follow.

Our ancestor, Lucy, was a success because she made her world three-dimensional.


Reminder: GEMS booth host applications due on November 20th!!

DSC_0160Attention Girl Scouts:

Just one more reminder to send in your booth host application for GEMS 2010 by Friday at 5 p.m. for consideration – we’re going to have a lot of fun this year and we don’t want anyone to miss out on the opportunity to participate and share some knowledge! Go to our website to download the information packet and application – I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with this year.

Is your troop not yet old enough to host a booth? Leave a comment and let us know what topics you’re most interested in learning about at GEMS 2010!

See you all in February at GEMS!