HMNS’ 100th year comes to a close…

And what a year it’s been!

All throughout 2009, we’ve celebrated our hundredth year in Houston with a dedicated web site, a series of 100 fun family events; a showcase of our 100 favorite/most amazing/coolest artifacts; a video series with our longest-serving staff (the record is 39 years!), and a contest (which you can still enter for a chance to win a 2010 Museum membership!)

You can also check out 100 years of Museum history here: from our very first Museum bulletin in January 2010 through historic scientific expeditions, ambitious building projects and blockbuster exhibitions, it’s been quite a trip!

But we’re even more excited about what’s coming next – in our second century of science.

In fact, we’ve just broken ground on perhaps our most ambitious project yet: an expansion that will double the amount of public exhibition space that will be available for temporary and permanent exhibitions – including what we intend to be the world’s finest Hall of Paleontology; double the number of classrooms available for educational programs; and triple the amount of available collections storage space, to ensure the conservation and care of our collections for decades to come.

President Joel A. Bartsch talks about what’s next for the Museum in this video – and how you can help.

Help us continue and expand our mission of science education for even greater numbers of children and adults. Donate to the expansion today – and join our Cause on Facebook to help spread the word!

Happy New Year!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Paradise Birdwing

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 Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections,that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

Paradise Birdwingresize

Paradise Birdwing – Ornithoptera paradisea

The birdwing swallowtails from tropical Asia are some of the largest, most spectacular, and most endangered butterflies in the world.  All show high levels of sexual dimorphism (i.e., males and females are different in size and color).  Female birdwings are larger and much duller in color than the males, which come in glowingly iridescent colors of brilliant sapphire, emerald, and topaz.

The Paradise Birdwing was first discovered in the 1890s in New Guinea.  While the female Paradise Birdwing (right photo) looks much like females of other birdwing species, the male (left photo), with its dwarfed and unusually shaped hindwings, is very distinctive.  As a result, this species is highly prized and (as are many other birdwings) protected by law.

HMNS has a large number of birdwing specimens, acquired through the “paper trade” (i.e., specimens reared specifically for collectors) before many of the protecting laws were enacted.  It would be much more difficult today to acquire many of the species in our collection.

Learn more about moths and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest 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

Tis the Season to be worried about butterflies!

Grey Hairstreak, P7020072crop
Creative Commons License photo credit: Anita363

This year, I think we’ve gotten a record number of phone calls from people who are concerned about butterflies they’ve seen near their homes or have raised in their gardens. It’s no wonder that butterflies are very popular around here and no one wants to see them perish in the not-so-toasty temperatures outside! It may seem silly to some, but I can certainly sympathize. I spend a great deal of my time raising insects and I certainly get attached and would do things to care for them that might make some question my sanity! However, butterflies and other insects have been surviving through the winter for millions of years. Butterflies native to Houston have definitely got the climate figured out by now! So, before you go darting across your lawn after that poor butterfly, there are some things you should know!

As I pointed out in my post, “Where Have all the Bugs Gone?” bugs, including butterflies, are not quite as sensitive as many believe. These small but resourceful beings have quite a few tricks up their sleeves! Over-wintering, hibernation, migration, hunkering down; these are just a few examples. Butterflies in Houston pretty much have it made. Especially when you consider the fact that there are butterflies in the North, like the Morning Cloak, that can survive through a truly frigid winter and emerge in the spring better than ever! Our winter is very mild comparatively, with plenty of warm, sunny days. Here are some common Houston butterflies and how they survive the winter.

Papilio thoas nealces  [The Giant Swallowtail]
Creative Commons License photo credit: fesoj Giant Swallowtail

Swallowtails (giant swallowtail, black swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail, and more) -  These butterflies spend the winter in a suspended state called diapause and they spend it as a chrysalis. They are immobile, take in no food or water, and are extremely resilient. They can certainly hadle the very few freezes we experience here in Houston. I have had swallowtail chrysalids that have not emerged for nearly a year and a very healthy butterfly was the result!

Longwings – The gulf frittilary is our resident longwing. This is another butterfly that can be seen year-round in any of the four life stages. The mobile stages such as the larvae and adult will hunker down to avoid freezing temps. The immobile stages, the egg and pupa, are more resistant to temperature.

Orange-barred Sulphur
Creative Commons License photo credit: kaibara87 Cloudless Sulphur

Sulphurs - These sunny yellow butterflies can be found all over the world, including above the Arctic Circle – how’s that for cold! Favorites like the cloudless sulphur are found throughout the entire year as adults, even during the winter. When the temperatures drop too low, they hide in crevices in trees or man-made shelters and they fly when it is warm, gathering food to continue to carry them through the winter.

Monarchs - These are the most popular of all! Monarchs are known for their incredible migration from as far north as Canada, down to the mountains of Central Mexico. These butterflies, unlike some others, cannot withstand the freezing temperatures of the North. They do not only go to Mexico, some find their winter homes in California, Peninsular Florida and the Keys, and even here. We have a population that does not migrate from Houston because the temperatures are warm enough. If you see a Monarch outside during this time, don’t worry, they haven’t missed the boat, they are quite happy here!

She Was Completely Transparent With Me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

So you see, we do not need to intervene – butterflies know what to do when it gets cold. The temperatures outside right now are not deadly, just uncomfortable. Insects can go a long time without food or water and as soon as the sun re-appears, they will get their fill. If it does freeze, they will seek shelter.

Now, if you have been raising monarchs or other butterflies in your garden and you bring them inside to be warm, there is a chance they will emerge as adults when it is way to chilly for them to be released. They cannot be kept alive inside your home either. In this case, we will happily allow you to release them into our conservatory where they will be quite happy! Some butterflies will indeed perish during these few cold months, but it’s all part of the cycle that has been going since the creation of Earth and we should try not to intervene to much!

Until next time, Happy Butterfly Watching!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Pholidocercus hassiacus

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 David Temple, the museum’s 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.

Early Insectivore, Pholidocercus hassiacus

CHI_7711LWe are fortunate to have a few fossils from the Messel Pit in the Museum’s collection.  Located near Darmstadt, Germany, the quarry was originally a pit mine for oil shale. Abandoned when the mine no longer was profitable, plans were made to convert the pit to a landfill. The site was eventually saved and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of the spectacular number and preservation of the fossils found there.

During the Eocene, the quarry was a deep lake. The lake bottom, an anoxic, silty ooze, was toxic to bottom-dwelling fauna. With nearly 50 million years of hindsight, the inhospitable waters created an environment that guaranteed dead animals which had drifted to the lake floor were not scavenged and their remains mixed by the daily activities of bottom dwelling animals. The lake accumulated the remains of algae, bacteria, insects, spiders, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals – potentially anything calling the lush tropical forest home. A dark side to the fossil accumulation was spurred by releases of Co2 and hydrogen sulfide from the lake that poisoned and suffocated large numbers of animals living near the lake. One of the most famous recent Messel fossils to come to light is Darwinius masillae or “Ida”, an early primate.

This early relative of a hedge hog was covered with bristle hairs similar to modern hedge hogs but had scales on its head and tail. Traces of the bristle hairs can be seen as a faint black silhouette around the fossil. The stomach contents are also preserved and visible. This perfect articulation of the skeleton and the tantalizingly preserved traces of soft tissue point to a quick burial, absent of scavenging and bioturbation – a hallmark of the unique preservation found at the Messel Pit.

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.