About Erin C

As a Youth Education Marketing Coordinator, Erin is responsible for keeping the 20 districts to the North of Houston informed about everything going on at the Museum. She also works booths at various conferences to help promote HMNS to educators. She is crazy about all things entomological, loves working with special needs children, and is always involved in some sort of creative endeavor.

Don’t Stop to Smell the Rotten Roses

What would you say to someone who wanted to send you one of the biggest flowers there is? Would you want to stick your nose amidst its fragrant petals and inhale deeply, savoring the unique scent? Well, I absolutely would not. I’d wear a mask with a HEPA filter on it to avoid getting sick. You might be thinking that either I have the worst allergies in the world or that I have lost my mind. But you’d be wrong!!! The flower of which I speak is the aptly named Corpse Flower.

Indigenous to Sumatra, the rare and endangered Rafflesia arnoldi has petals roughly the same color as rotten flesh and emits an odor that smells amazingly like a dead body. Its impressive bloom can reach up to 3 feet in diameter, but only lasts for a few days.

Rafflesia’s colossal bloom is impressive, but it is unbelievably dwarfed by another corpse flower, the Amorphophallus titanum. Nicknamed the titan arum, this flower’s inflorescence (what looks like the big petal part) is a deep crimson shade, mimicking the hue of animal tissue and can reach a diameter of roughly 3 feet with a 10-foot circumference. They can grow up to 9 feet tall.  The tip of the titan also helps attract meat-eating insects by being very close to human body temperature, and can easily be 10°F hotter than the surrounding air temperature. Titan arum’s putrid aroma of spoiled, rotten meat can be detected by the human nose over a half a mile away.

Now, while these flowers’ stenches can be extremely off-putting to people, it is like an intoxicating nectar to certain species of insect. Usually, those bugs that are typically drawn to dead and decaying bodies are attracted to the corpse flower. A throng of flesh flies and carrion beetles cover the odoriferous plants and help them to pollinate.

I’ll leave you with one quick fun-fact about the corpse flower; indigenous people originally thought they were carnivorous because of the reek coming from the colossal bloom, so they chopped them down whenever they could to avoid being eaten.

Free SEM Images! Where do I sign up?

Scanning electron microscopes are hardly what I’d call a ‘household item’, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have the opportunity to use one! ASPEX is providing any and everyone the chance to see their favorite mundane objects under the powerful magnification afforded by SEMs with their ‘Send Us Your Samples’ campaign.

Some of you may be asking, “Erin, what the heck is a scanning electron microscope, why do I even need to know, and just what does it have to do with me?’

Great question! Unlike most pictures we are used to viewing, the SEM uses electrons to capture images instead of light. The image we get to see is built up from the number of electrons emitted from each spot on any given sample. (Fun fact folks: Electrons are cobalt blue! Neat-o, huh?) The last time I got to use an SEM was as an undergrad in my biological imaging class. I had the privilege of taking some astounding pics of my favorite bugs. Really, insects of any kind look infinitely more fantastic and creepy using a scanning electron microscope. Where do you think Hollywood gets its inspiration for movie monsters?

Moldy Cheese – Before Moldy Cheese – After

So now we are all super stoked to see our hairbrushes and chocolate chip cookies scanned with an incredibly powerful tabletop SEM, right? Well…how do we do it? EASY! Simply download and print this form from the ASPEX website. Fill it out and send it along with the sample you’d like scanned to:

ASPEX Corporation
Free Sample Submissions
175 Sheffield Dr.
Delmont, PA 15626

Once ASPEX has finished the scan, the images and report will be posted here on ASPEX’s website. The results should be up in about two weeks, and they will notify all submitters by email when you can see your before and after images. Make sure you can part with what you send in as samples will not be returned!

Your everyday objects will be transformed into alien landscapes. Don’t believe me? Try looking up scanning electron micrographs of pollen. The images truly speak for themselves, but what kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t bury you in a deluge of graphic and evocative descriptions?! I’ll limit myself to one short example – no, it’s not the mold in delicious, delicious blue cheese, it is the common flea. This mighty jumper may surprise you when you meet him up close and personal. You might just find out that fleas have mustaches to rival even the likes of Tom Selleck and Burt Reynolds, the mustache greats.

This opportunity is perfect for educators, students, fun loving families, and all inquisitive folks in general! So grab your cat toys, the dried fly that is undoubtedly stuck in your window sill, your old toenail clippings, or anything else you want to see uber-mega-ultra close up and send it in! All for free, courtesy of ASPEX. Want to see more? Check out the SEM Image Gallery for some incredible examples!

Toy Bunny Before Toy Bunny After

The Real Blob! The Truth About Slime Molds

Ever heard of a nefarious, amorphous gelatinous mass with a seemingly insatiable appetite, ingesting and digesting anything and everything it comes in contact with? It’s The Blob, right?! Well, as close as you can get and still operate within real-life parameters…the real blob of which I speak is most commonly known as a slime mold!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Keresh

Now, its name is slightly misleading as it is actually not a mold at all. True slime molds form a plasmodium, a big blob with one membrane and lots and lots (think millions) of diploid nuclei – it is really like one huge cell the size of a medium pizza, a pizza whose many nuclei all divide at the same time. No need to run in terror though, this blob’s top speed is around one millimeter per hour.

What is most interesting about these true plasmodial slime molds is that they USED to be lumped in with all of the molds and fungus in Kingdom Fungi. But, because of their unique characteristics – such as the fact that they have a motile stage of life – they are now more commonly associated with Kingdom Protista! Other members of this kingdom are giant sea kelp and amoeba, just to name a few. This kingdom is a sort of island of misfit toys; most organisms belonging here do so because they do not qualify as animals, plants, or fungi and are not bacteria.

Physarum polycephalum

The most common image evoked when ‘slime mold’ is mentioned is that of Physarum polycephalum, a large yellow amoeboid mass on mulch or leaf litter, oozing along looking for bacteria to ingest.  Slime molds do, however, come in a variety of sizes and colors. Some slime molds found in the tropics are even bioluminescent! Who wouldn’t want some glow-in-the-dark ooze? I know I do.

But, kids, the fun must end sometime. As our blobby buddy matures, it turns into a grey, dust like material and grows spore bearing structures; many look like little balls or popsicles on the end of thin stalks and can vary in color – they even come in pink! When the spores are eventually released, they settle in new locations, starting the whole process of ooze and growth all over again. Isn’t life amazing?

I’ll end with one of my favorite fungus funny bone ticklers:  A mushroom, a skunk, and a slime mold walked into a bar. The bartender happily served the skunk and the slime mold, but told the mushroom, “We don’t serve your kind here.” The mushroom indignantly replied, “Why not? I’m a fun-gi!”

Frog-sicles Anyone?

The recent (and wonderfully unexpected) freeze in Houston got me thinking, I’m inside with the heater on and I’m STILL cold, how on earth do animals that live outside do it? Well…they freeze!

The most extreme critter-sicles that I’ve found happen to be amphibians. Take the Common Wood Frog, for example. It has a trait known as freeze tolerance. What this means is just what you think; it has the ability to freeze solid, form ice within its body, and basically hibernate in a state of suspended animation. During this time it has no heart beat or measurable brain activity, and its metabolism slows to a glacial speed! As the frog freezes, ice forms in its body cavity, drawing out the cells’ water and its liver pumps out massive amounts of glucose, protecting its cells from solidifying and turning the liquid in its veins to syrup (think maple). I don’t know about you, but having 50 times as much sugar in my blood as a diabetic does NOT sound like the start of a good nap.

After a few months of froggy deep-freeze, the Common Wood Frog slowly thaws from the inside out – its heart begins to beat, its metabolism jump-starts. After what we would deem an arduous slumber, this little ranid hops away to find the closest mating pool he can; the breeding season for these guys is only a few nights, instead of the typical few months! Talk about baby-boomers.

You may be thinking, as one of my good friends often does when I exclaim scientific facts, “Erin, that’s all pretty neat-o, but why should I care about a frozen frog?” Let me fill you in.

Scientists right now are using nature’s model to try and extend the shelf life of donor organs. The staggering fact is that, of the thousands of people on a waiting list for new organs, only a small fraction will get them in time. Usually, an organ, once removed from a donor, must find a new home within 6 hours of excision-even on ice-or it is no longer viable. If, through the study of cryogenics, we could extend that time to say even 24 hours, just think of the number of people that could be saved who wouldn’t have made it because of the distance between donor and recipient! If a donor’s kidney, for example, could be frozen and stored without the typical associated damage, surgeons could dramatically increase the number of transplants they perform every year.

Now, whoever said that science wasn’t cool never heard of a frog-sicle. I can’t think of anything cooler.