A year in the life: Personal photos of the mayhem and magic that is working at HMNS

The end of one calendar year and the beginning of the next is always a good time to do a little tidying of your personal life. Calendars get replaced, inboxes get emptied and, for me, extra bits on my phone get dumped. So, under the auspices of cleaning out my phone, I came across some totally work-related photos I would like to share with you. They are weird, but so is working for a science-based non-profit.

For those that know us, Dave (Temple — HMNS’ Associate Curator of Anthropology and my husband) and I make sense. I am a little bit like the Martha Stewart of dead things and Dave is more like the Indiana Jones of Dimetrodons (although he would argue that he is the Alabama Dave of Dimetrodons). Perhaps with these photos you will get to know us — and the Museum — a bit better.


Zombie Nicole. We run an overnight program here, and we like Halloween. ‘Nuff said.

Zombie Nicole

Chewbacca getting his fortune told.


Dave versus the tufted-ear Marmoset.

Marmoset Dave

True fact: Green-cheeked conures like watching Dr. Bakker.

bakker birdies

This is the kind of thing that can be found in our freezer. Crickets don’t cook themselves, people.

bug cooking



Me and Bobby McGee hanging out and waiting for our ride. We had an appointment with Dr. Dan that day.

Taxidermy Nicole

Making new friends during the Paleo Hall installation.

paleo install

Granted this photo is a little blurry, but check out that tiny frog!  There is a dime just visible in my hand for scale.

Teeny Tiny Froggie!

Dave at an ecological research station in Brazil. The park ranger there is referred to as the “Chuck Norris of Brazil.”

Brazil Dave

Pitcher plants = Awesome.

Pitcher plants

New officemate. Likes to give hugs with his mouth.


Working from zero: How exchange programs and scientific sleuthing fuel our Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Our collection focus in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology is dictated by both our exhibits and current areas of research. We are heavily vested in birds and mammals (and herps to a lesser extent) from Texas (yeehaw!), Africa and Latin America, as well as globally threatened/endangered species that transcend political boundaries.

Tightly correlated with this latter category are some of the exotic pheasants — sadly, rare in nature due to their capacity to feed hungry families in otherwise impoverished areas. The majority of the planet’s pheasants come from Asia — although it’s not a continent the collection focuses on per se, the fact that most pheasants are threatened/endangered makes them a targeted focal group for our collection.

However, Asian Bird Flu virus has all but shut down all export of birds from Asia! Consequently, we rely heavily on the captive stocks of zoos and private game breeders to build our synoptic series of pheasants. We have managed to build a respectable collection of most genera and at least 35 different species, although there are still a few species we are lacking, which can only be obtained through exchange programs with other museums. Such exchange programs are difficult to get off the ground for a number of primarily bureaucratic reasons.

Nevertheless, one of the many exciting developments in Vertebrate Zoology this year is a new exchange program with a large museum in the northeast. The Museum provides them with data-rich specimens that we already have represented in our collection, and they, in turn, provide us with study skins to help fill various gaps.

In terms of our current pheasant holdings, we currently have all species but one in the cases of junglefowl (Gallus), and peacock pheasants (Polyplectron), which are very different from peafowl (Pavo), and tragopans (Tragopan). In the latter case, we were fortunate to recently receive a beautiful adult male specimen of the Western Tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus) through the above-mentioned exchange program.

Unfortunately, the specimen arrived with very little information. For example, was it collected from the wild or hatched in captivity? Although this seems trivial, knowing this information can mean the difference between a specimen that is valuable in studies dealing with biogeography and systematics, versus one that is only useful to make drawings from or is just something pretty to look at.  This is where detective work comes in handy (such as the sleuthing highlighted in my blog dealing with Col. Richard Meinertzhagen).

Between the tags on the specimen and data at the bottom of the online catalog, I was able to glean the following information: The specimen was cataloged on Oct. 3, 1908. Either the species or specimen was from northern India, obtained from the private collection of Tristam.

Western Tragopan

First I needed to determine if the specimen was collected from the wild or hatched in captivity. The late Jean Delacour was a fascinating individual who was very interested in a broad array of topics dealing with gamebirds. His family owned a large 14th-century French castle and estate in the quaint town of Cleres (just north of Rouen) which he inherited and used to raise and study exotic gamebirds. Ultimately, he donated the facility in full to the Paris Museum (I was fortunate to visit the Cleres facility for a meeting about 15 years ago).

Delacour was an authority on pheasants and wrote a first edition on these birds in the 1950s that included everything known at the time of its writing, including the status of different species in captivity. Delving into this source, I learned that about 50 Western Tragopans were imported from northern India between 1863-93, mostly to breeders and zoos in France, as well as the London Zoo.  Apparently they were very difficult to raise, but one French aviculturist managed to raise a limited number by the mid 1890s.

However, Delacour then indicates that every single Western Tragopan died out in captivity by 1900 and they were never imported again, so they never reached the U.S. So it seems intuitive that because our new specimen was cataloged in 1908, it would surely have to have been collected from the wild as it was collected eight years after the last Western Tragopan perished in captivity.

Simple enough, right? Not that simple, I’m afraid.

The British Collector Henry Baker Tristam died in 1906. It fits logically that the specimen then made its way to the institution we received it from, where it was cataloged in 1908. It is possible that Tristam had the bird in his possession for a while prior to his death, and it is therefore plausible that the bird could have been one of the captive imports that died out.

However, given that so few were bred in captivity, it is likely that this male was indeed collected in nature — even if it lived in captivity for a spell prior to its death. Reinforcing this, apparently very few, if any, of the birds in Tristam’s specimen collection were raised in captivity.

Have you done any scientific sleuthing lately?

Educator How-To: Calculating your birthday in Maya Long Count

Adapted from “Cracking the Maya Code,” a NOVA activity.

We’re familiar with a method of tracking time that uses days, months, years, decades, and centuries. This method of timekeeping is based upon the Gregorian Calendar System. The Maya, however, measured time in kins, uinals, tuns, katuns and baktuns using a system called the Long Count.  If you add the numbers in a Maya Long Count date, the sum is the number of days from the beginning of the Maya Fourth Creation:  August 13, 3114 B.C.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long CountMaya Long Count dates are written as a series of numbers separated by periods. For example,  12 . 18 . 14 . 11. 16 (December 31, 1987) is the date you will use as a starting point for your calculations. The same date is shown below in its separate component parts above its representative glyph.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long Count

Step One: Using the “Maya Long Count Conversion” chart above, convert each place value in the date 12 . 18 . 14 . 11 . 16  into days. Add these five numbers together and subtract 2 to get the total number of days. A formula has been provided below to help you get started. You will need to do your calculations on another sheet of paper.

12*Baktun + 18*Katun + 14* Tun + 11*Uinal + 16*Kin – 2 = ________days

Step Two: Record your birth date (in the Gregorian method). If you were born prior to January 1, 1988, calculate the number of days from the day you were born to December 31, 1987 (Answer A). If you were born on or after January 1, 1988, calculate the number of days from this date to the day you were born (Answer B). Keep in mind that leap years have an extra day. The chart below will help you with the number of days for each month. Record this number.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long Count

Note: The following are leap years and have a total of 366 days (a 29th day in February): 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.  All non-leap years have 365 days.

Step Three:  If you calculated answer A, subtract this number from the Step One answer. If you calculated answer B, add this number to the answer from Step One. Record this number..

Step Four:
Convert the number of days since the Maya Fourth Creation to your birth date in Maya Long Count using the “Maya Long Count Conversions” chart.

To calculate your birthday:

How many whole baktuns are there in C days?  This number (we’ll call it D) goes in the baktun position.
How many days are left over from C after you subtract the number of days in D baktuns? Call this E.
How many whole katuns are in E days? Call this number F and put it in the katun position.
How many days are left over from E after you subtract the number of days in F katuns? Call this number G.
How many whole tuns are in G days?  Call this number H and put it in the tun position.
How many days are left over from G after you subtract the number of days in H tuns? Call this number I.
How many whole uinals are in I days? Call this number J and put it in the uinal position.
How many days are left over after you subtract the number of days in J uinals? This is the number of kin in your birthday.

Fill in the spaces using your calculations, and check your answer here by plugging it into the applet.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long Count

HMNS is here to handle the holidays: Whether it’s goodies to wrap or stuff to do, we’ve got gifts galore

You’ve heard a lot lately about our Museum Store. But aside from finding everything from kids’ gear:

spikeosaurus backpack

To dorky duds:

solid, liquid, gas tee

To fine jewelry:

suzanna dai necklace

To funky stuff for your home:

elemental wine markers

. . . (all in-store OR online, we might add), you should also remember that we deal in fun.

For example, for the budding astronomer in your life, some NASA-grade astronaut gear might be suitable, but you could make his or her holiday STELLAR with telescope classes at the George Observatory. The George offers tailored classes for Go-To and computerized telescopes as well as for simple, non-tracking reflecting and refracting telescopes. Classes for each are offered on Jan. 5, with expert astronomers on-hand to help set up ‘scopes and get students started tracking those stars away from city light pollution in beautiful Brazos Bend State Park.

So while you’re wrapping up boxes this holiday season, be sure to think outside them. From membership to adult education to classes for kiddos, we’ve got you covered.