Deepwater Update

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is finally coming to an end. After over 100 days, it seems that a cap, a static kill and the relief well will finally stop oil from pouring into the sea.

The estimate for the flow of the well has changed many times over the past 3 months. It seems to be topping out at around 62,000 barrels a day. This is much higher than the original estimates, but how do they calculate the flow? The USGS used video of the oil spill, mass balance calculations and remote sensors to determine how much crude oil was flowing out of the break.

Chandeleur Islands - May 9, 2010
Creative Commons License photo credit: lagohsep

So what has happened to all the oil? Well, the White House says that 75% has been dispersed, collected, burned off or evaporated. Other reports have different numbers. In July the old cap on the well was replaced with a new and better one that captured most of the oil. Then a static kill, which uses mud to force pressure down in the well, helped to stanch the flow. The relief wells have been drilled and there seems to be no seeping. All of that means that the oil spill is over. 4.9 million barrels was pumped out in the Gulf, making this the largest oil spill in the Gulf and the third largest oil spill in history.

BP is waiting on a pressure test to see if they need to initiate a bottom kill. A bottom kill is when they drill to the bottom of the well and pump in mud and cement through the bottom of the well.

The spill has caused a lot of things to change. A moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf was put into effect. There have been several challenges to this.

Transocean's Development Driller III
Creative Commons License photo credit: uscgd8

Also the Mineral Management Services (MMS) has been broken up into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The MMS was responsible for conservation and environmental protection on federal land used by energy companies as well as collecting royalties and enforcing regulations on companies that used federal lands to produce crude oil and natural gas. They were plagued with accusations of corruption and ineptitude. The new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or Bureau of Ocean Energy, has been subdivided into the Offshore Energy and Minerals Management and Minerals Revenue Management. This means that the people who enforce the regulation are not the same people who collect the revenue.

The 4.9 million barrels that were pumped out into the ocean will have long reaching environmental consequences. Some scientists worry that all the natural bacteria that ate the oil will help to form an area that is low in oxygen. However, a mass killing of fish does not require an oil disaster. Numerous beaches were closed to tourists and locals alike. Also some areas set aside for fishing (and shrimping) were closed because of the oil spill. Unfortunately, it will take a long time to see what the real lasting effects of the spill are. In fact, it will take years to determine the true effects. Most of the beaches and fishing areas have been reopened.

Waking up on April 20, no one would have thought that we would be dealing with an unprecedented disaster in the Gulf. No one thought that such a disaster would be linked with how we perceive the modern world or our every day life. Will we take steps to prevent the next one?

Photo Show in the Butterfly Center

A couple of years ago we installed a small “Artists’ Corner” gallery in a corner of the lower level lobby in the Butterfly Center.  It opened with an exhibition of moth paintings from art students at SFASU, followed by a collection of monarch butterfly photos from a Houston naturelover, then drawings from 6-10th grade YES Prep students.  For the next few months the corner will showcase a fabulous display of nature photographs put together by Zac Stayton, horticulturist for the Butterfly Center.

Zac is a Houston native.  He received a degree in horticulture from Sam Houston State College in 2007, and subsequently worked at Newton Nurseries here in Houston.  Then, inspired by a trip to Costa Rica, he picked up stakes and moved to Hawaii, where he spent a year working for a bromeliad grower.  Luckily for us, he returned to Texas last year so we could hire him to join our team. 

Zac is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable plantophile, and is especially fond of epiphytes such as orchids, Nepenthes pitcher plants, and of course, bromeliads.  He is also an accomplished nature photographer, and has his own website where you can see his work:  The photos on display in the gallery include a series of photos taken in Hawaii and Costa Rica, featuring plants (of course) as well as insects, other animals, and scenics.  On the other side of the display wall are photos of plants and butterflies he has taken in the Butterfly Center since starting work here last January. 

Be sure to stop by to see Zac’s photos when you next visit the Butterfly Center.  Professionals and amateurs alike will be inspired to see the beauty of the Center seen through a photographer’s eye! 

Shhh… Science in action

This story starts in Italy and will then take us to the Tarim Basin in Northwestern China. It features a well-known mummy (Oetzi) and one of the best preserved mummies in the world (The Beauty of Xiaohe). It contains data from in-depth DNA analysis performed on one mummy and holds the promise of similar date generated in the near future on another set of mummies. Fasten your seatbelts, here we go.

During the month of August 2010, several stories hit the wire that the DNA of Oetzi, the famous Iceman mummy had been sequenced. The Iceman was discovered emerging from a glacier on the border between Austria and Italy. His mitochondrial DNA is now the oldest complete H. sapiens mtDNA genome generated to date.

This is where we segue to the Tarim Basin mummies, discovered thousands of miles away from the Alps. As it turns out, Oetzi’s find spot was very close to Alpine pastures where Dr. Victor Mair’s family once took their animals to graze, and that brings us to the Tarim Basin Mummies, a long term focus of Dr. Mair’s research.

A gratuitous link between these two areas, you say? Not necessarily, if one considers what has just been announced in Italy and the potential of what could happen with the mummies in China. Moreover, one of the reasons Dr. Mair got to be so interested in ancient human remains was the discovery of Oetzi in 1991. This occurred a few years after he had seen the Tarim Basin mummies on display in a museum in Urumqi.

 The Beauty of Xiaohe. Courtesy of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum in Urumqi.

Oetzi lived about 5000 years ago; while the Beauty of Xiaohe lived about 1,000 years later, around 2000 BC.  In both cases, DNA research has been carried out on these early human remains. It seems that the Beauty of Xiaohe and her kinfolk had very close links with areas to the west of the Pamir Mountains. (In a previous blog, the Pamirs are mentioned as part of the geography of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).  Specifically, “Mitochondrial DNA analysis showed that the Xiaohe people carried both the East Eurasian haplogroup (C) and the West Eurasian haplogroups (H and K), whereas chromosomal DNA analysis revealed only the West Eurasian haplogroup R1a1a in the male individuals.”

Oetzi is of European origin; the Tarim Basin Mummies are often referred to as Eurasian, and Caucasian, without much further information about where they may have originated from, other than “west of the Pamir mountains.” This is where the reference made above, to the potential of future research comes in. The techniques exist to investigate the Tarim Basin mummies in much greater detail. The research has not happened yet.

In addition, there are ways to establish where individuals were born and raised, one of the most famous examples being the remains of an archer found close to Stonehenge. Tests showed that he originated in the Alps, probably Switzerland, Austria or Germany. He somehow made his way into what is now the United Kingdom, where he was buried. A similar scientific approach could be applied to the Xiaohe remains. I am sure that one day this will happen.

Currently the Beauty of Xiaohe is receiving visitors at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Oetzi, on the other hand, remains safely ensconced in his refrigerated display unit in Bolzano, Italy. No word yet if he is interested in coming over to visit his long lost relative.

Don’t miss Secrets of the Silk Road, open now at HMNS. See strikingly well-preserved mummies, tall in stature and fair in complexion, that have lain in the parched Tarim Basin of western China for 3,800 years along with 150 objects drawn from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology in Urumqi.

Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite!!

We’ve all heard that old saying from our parents while tucking us in at night. As a child I thought it was just some silly little rhyme about weird fictional creatures that may bite me in my sleep. Imagine my surprise when I found out that bedbugs really do exist! This silly little rhyme has taken on new meaning to people now, especially since reports of bedbug infestations have been surfacing recently in local, national and even world news. I was recently interviewed by a reporter in conjunction with a story she did on a bedbug infestation in a local apartment complex. I was then interviewed by a local radio station. Since the subject seems to be piquing the interest of Houstonians, and terrifying some of them, I wanted to shed some light on it for you!

Nymphal bedbug
Creative Commons License photo credit: liz.novack

Simply known as bedbugs, insects belonging to the family Cimicidae are small parasites that feed on the blood of mammals and birds. They are related to other insects such as stink bugs, cicadas, and assassin bugs in the order Hemiptera. All of these insects feed using a piercing and sucking mouthpart known as a “beak.” Many of these insects are well-known plant pests which use their beak to penetrate the tissues of plants. Others are predators, and a few suck blood. The common bedbug Cimex lectularius is found worldwide in temperate climates. They are small, about 1/8-1/4 of an inch long, oval to round in shape, flattened laterally unless engorged, and rusty brown in color. A female bedbug can lay around 300 eggs in her lifetime and the eggs take only about a week to hatch, depending on the temperature. Bedbugs prefer to feed on humans because we are very abundant, and well, an easy target! They are also known to feed on rats, mice, rabbits, and chickens. Bedbugs may be small, but they are very tough! They can withstand some temperature extremes and they can live for up to 15 months without food!

Bedbugs used to be quite a problem until about the 1940’s when they were nearly eradicated from heavy pesticide use, including DDT, which they are now resistant to. Their numbers have been slowly rebounding since about the mid 1990’s. This can be blamed on several factors including increased world travel, their growing resistance to many kinds of pesticides and their ability to go unnoticed.  Because of their size and shape, bedbugs can slip into and hide in nearly any sized crack or crevice, making them very difficult to spot during the day. At night, they come out to feed. They find their host by detecting body heat and carbon dioxide emissions, much like mosquitoes do. Once on the host, they penetrate the skin with their beak and inject an anesthetic to make sure they go unnoticed. They then take a small blood meal and withdraw their mouthparts. If they are not disturbed they will move to the side and do this again.

Bedbugs are not a medically significant pest because they don’t spread any type of disease; they are really just a nuisance. They are most common in buildings or complexes in which people come and go often and rooms or residences are close together – such as hotels, cruise ships, jails, hospitals, public housing, apartment buildings, etc. In hotels and other travel destinations, bedbugs can hitchhike on articles of clothing and baggage. In apartment buildings, they can travel easily between units. If an infested apartment becomes vacant, the bugs will seek a new host by traveling to an adjoining apartment. Bedbugs usually end up in residences such as houses because they are transferred unknowingly from one of these other types of places. Now, don’t get all upset and scared thinking if you’ve traveled or visited friends you could definitely have bedbugs. The best way to deal with any kind of pest insects is: Don’t be paranoid! Be preventative and be prepared! Here are some answers to questions you may have about bedbugs:

How do I know if I have bedbugs?

Leaf-footed bug, relative of a bedbug
Creative Commons License photo credit: procristination

This can be a bit tricky, but certainly not impossible! Be aware of your surroundings and what’s going on with your body. You should always inspect your body for insect bites and investigate things that may be making you itch and why. Take your lifestyle and activities into account to rule out other pests. Do you spend a lot of time outside or do you have pets? Don’t mistake mosquito and flea bites for bedbug bites. If you find yourself going to bed unscathed and waking up with itching or irritation, it may be something to look into. Due to the way they feed, bedbugs will sometimes leave 2 or more bites in a row next to each other, but not always. If you see bites like this, it is a telltale sign. Since bedbugs, don’t cause symptoms in everyone, there are other signs to watch for. Inspect your sheets for tiny blood smears and molts (shed skins). For this reason, it is helpful to have white or light colored sheets. Inspect your bedroom, mattress, and even your couch for small crawling bugs. If you find something bring it in to show us, or send a picture. We are ALWAYS happy to help the public by identifying insects!

What should I do if I have bedbugs?

Run For Your Lives
Creative Commons License photo credit: JMazzolaa

First, it is important to get a positive identification. Show the bug(s) to a competent Entomologist. Most pest control operators should know how to identify one, but again, we are a sure thing! If you do have bedbugs, DO NOT try to treat them yourself! Washing your sheets with hot water or even throwing your mattress out will not fix the problem! Bedbugs will more than likely be hiding in other places. Call a reputable pest control company to treat the problem. Scientists are constantly developing new pesticides to combat them and some companies can do hot steam treatments which will eliminate all stages of the bugs. They cannot take heat above about 115 degrees F. These services may be expensive, but they will work.

What can I do to prevent getting bedbugs?
Again, don’t be paranoid! That won’t do you any good and it will just stress you out. You can be preventative by doing certain common sense things that will help protect you against most pest insects. Make sure your house is in good repair, seal up cracks, fill holes, etc. Most pest insects especially bedbugs can come in through and hide in tiny spaces. Keep your house clean and clutter free. Have a squeaky clean disinfected home is good to keep the cockroaches away, but not necessarily bedbugs. All they need is a host, you or your family! However, by eliminating clutter around your home, you’re eliminating harborage and hiding places. This will make it a less attractive environment for them and if they’re there, they will be much easier to treat. Be well prepared and make smart choices when traveling.  If you’re staying in a hotel, do your research. You can find out a lot of information about hotels online. The same thing goes for moving into an apartment. Look for well maintained complexes and do your research!

So what if now I’m totally grossed out and scared of getting bedbugs??
Like I said, bedbugs are nothing to be afraid of. I know something about little creatures coming out at night to feed on us in our sleep is the stuff of nightmares for some, but consider things like lice or mosquitoes that feed on us regardless of when we’re awake or asleep and can transmit harmful pathogens. At any given moment there are trillions, actually an unimaginable number of microorganisms, including bugs, living and feeding on us. As creepy as it may seem, it’s totally natural. If you follow the advice in this blog, you should lead a relatively bedbug free life, and if there’s anything else we can do to put your mind at ease, answer questions, identify critters, we’ll be happy to! Until next time, don’t let the bedbugs bite!