About Frances

As a museum naturalist, Frances teaches wildlife classes, presents hands-on wildlife outreach programs, teaches summer camp, and helps care for the live animal collection.

Tunicates & Taxonomy

Next month, I will be teaching a class about animal groups, families, & taxonomy. Taxonomy shows us how animals (or other objects) are related to one another in a hierarchical structure. There are 7 major groups which we regularly classify animals into, but there are also a wide variety of sub- or super- categories. The major groups of biological classifications are listed below with two examples written out:


American Crow
American Crow
  American Crow North American Giant Octopus
Kingdom Animalia Animalia
Phylum Chordata Mollusca
Class Aves Cephalodpoda
Order Passeriformes Octopoda
Family Corvidae Octopodidae
Genus Corvus Enteroctopus
Species C. brachyrhynchos E. dofleini

Depending on whom you ask, you may find there are 30-38 phyla, the major categories of animals based on their general body plan and developmental or internal organizations. These phyla can vary from containing only one species (Placazoa) to well over a million (Arthropoda).

Coming from a Zoology background, I found that I really like taxonomy and seeing the order and relationships between animals helps me to make sense of how a rock hyrax and an elephant could possibly be close cousins. They are connected in a group called Afrotheria, a superorder of Eutheria (placental mammals) whose relationships have been shown through molecular & DNA anylases.

Here are their classifications:


Rock Hyrax
Rock Hyrax
  Asian Elephant Rock Hyrax
Kingdom Animalia Animalia
Phylum Chordata Chordata
Class Mammalia Mammalia
Infraclass Eutheria Eutheria
Superorder Afrotheria Afrotheria
Order Proboscidea Hyracoidea
Family Elephantidae Procaviidae
Genus Elephas Procavia
Species E. maximus P. capensis

An article came my way about very unusual sea animals found in Antarctica. When I saw the beautiful picture of the tunicates (also known as sea squirts), I wanted to remind myself what these interesting creatures were and who they were related to in the big tree of life.  Although they may look more like “glass tulips” than an animal, these creatures do eat & grow like other animals.  In fact, tunicates are in the same phylum as ourselves, Chordata.  Tunicates, ourselves, hagfish, fish, and other chordates all go through similiar developmental stages that include a notochord (provides support), pharyngeal gill slits (used in feeding), and a tail (helps with locomotion). 

When born, tunicate larvae are similar to small tadpoles, swimming about until they find a suitable rock to settle down on as an adult, cementing themselves to their new home.  Next, they go through many physical changes before fully becoming an adult.  Some tunicates will continue to stay afloat in the ocean their entire lifespan, going through similar metamorphosis as their sedentary cousins.  Tunicates are filter feeders, with in- and out-current siphons.  Food and water is filtered in through their these siphons, then expelled out along with any waste products. 

Here are a few unusual and interesting facts about tunicates:

  • Tunicates are the only animals capable of producing cellulose – produces cell walls in green plants.
  • Tunicate blood contains a high concentration of the metal, vanadium – a metal used to make Lacrosse shafts and simulated Alexandrite jewelry.
  • Tunicate fossils go back as far as the early Cambrian – about 540 million years ago.
  • Tunicates are said to “eat its own brain” during metamorphosis – the tunicate body digests the cerebrial ganglion – a mass of nerves that have a role similar to a brain.
  • Some Tunicates have recently been descovered as invasive species, sometimes hitching a ride on the hulls of ships from one ocean to another.
  • Tunicates are the vertebrates closest living relative.
  • Tunicates are currently being studied in science for certain chemical compounds useful in fighting cancer.


Royal Blue Tunicate
Royal Blue Tunicate
  Royal Blue Tunicate
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Subphylum Urochordata
Class Ascidiacea
Order Enterogona
Suborder Phlebobranchia
Family Diazonidae
Genus Rhopalaea

Creepy Critter Cameo – Caecilian

Smoke Tinged Halloween Moon
Creative Commons License photo credit: peasap

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday.  I love that everyone, young & old alike, can dress up as just about anything from the classic witch to the random Roman column I spotted at last year’s Spirits & Skeletons.  Each year is a new opportunity to unveil yourself as a superhero, an Indian princess, a mad scientist, or even a hideous monster. 

Let’s focus on this last costume – the monster – the creepy, skin-tingling costume that never fails to invoke fear deep within us.  Why do we insist on wearing a scary costume?  Humans (and animals) have instinctual fears, a natural survival technique to avoid possible near-death situations, which includes dangerous animals.  Perhaps by dressing up as these scary beasts we can overcome our fears. 

Where does the inspiration for these beasts come from?  From nature, of course!  We see films or photos of animals in real life and can create a whole new monster with the help of our highly over-active brain, especially when watching a scary movie alone, at night, in the dark, with a full moon out, and possible werewolves ready to pounce at any moment!  Yikes!  Let’s take a look at one creepy critter that resides here in the Museum – the super-slimy Caecilian!

We have a Mexican Burrowing Caecilian (pronounced sə-sĭl’yən) , Dermophis mexicanus, a legless amphibian from the order Gymnophiona.  They live underground in Central Mexico and can grow up to 2 feet long.  Their diet primary consists of small invertebrates, including termites and earthworms.  After an 11-month gestation period, they give live birth (most amphibians lay eggs) to between four and eleven young.  When presenting this amphibian to students, we discuss how is it different from other vermiform animals such as worms and snakes.  The kids usually determine that it has a backbone (worms are invertebrates) and that it is slimy, not scaly (reptiles have scales and are not slimy).  Our caecilian is a very shy, quiet animal that also happens to enjoy attempting great escapes.  I think it’s a rather cute amphibian!

Our Mexican Burrowing Caecilian

There are over 150 species of caecilians, ranging along the tropics from South America to Africa.  They may be a dull grey or brown or even brightly colored purple, pink, orange, or yellow.  Most lack tails and all have tentacles, a specialized chemosensory organ near their nose that helps them to locate prey.  Many caecilians are nearly sightless, some without any eyes at all.  They may be aquatic, terrestrial, or fossoriallike our Mexican Burrowing Caecilian.  Depending on where they live, caecilians may be oviparous (egg-layers) or viviparous (live-bearers). 

Warning!! Here comes the creepy flesh-eating part of our story!!

In the womb, the developing caecilian embryos have specialized fetal teeth that allows them to stimulate secretions from the oviducts of their mother, providing the young with nourishment.  In another species, Boulengerula taitanus, an oviparous caecilian from Southeastern Kenya, the newborns also have specialized teeth to eat the skin off the back of their mother!!  The skin is regenerated every 3 days for the young, providing a nutritious meal.  Research has also found that a female may take care of young that aren’t biologically hers, a term called alloparenting.  However, this is a costly to the “nursing” female.  Check out this BBC video to experience these flesh-eating, super slimy critters in action.  Truly a fascinating animal worthy of mention at Halloween.

Boulengerula taitanus

To see more super scary, awe-inspiring yet repulsive critters for the Halloween season, check out this fun blog I found while researching tigerfish and then again while looking for caecilians: Ugly Overload! 

Rodents use tools to gather food

Our degu as a juvenile

Our degu as a juvenile

We have two adorable Degus (Octodon degus) in our collection.  These intelligent rodents are from Chile, but have recently become more popular in the pet trade.  They have become a wonderful addtion to our educational programs as not many people have heard of them.  As it turns out, they are also my personal favorite (we each have favorites, even though we try not to!)

Degus have also been used in medical research for diabetes, sleep patterns, & most recently, their ability to use tools! Before purchasing any new animal, we do a lot of research to make sure that they will be a good fit for our programs.  With that said, we knew that our new furry friends would be smart, energetic, and try to chew through anything.  We were prepared, but after reading articles on how degus were able to use a rake to gather food, we were impressed! Check it out:

Summer Encounters – Brazos Bend State Park

Oak tree

Welcoming Oak Tree

Last summer I was introduced to Brazos Bend State Park. I found many amazing animals living amongst the tall swamp reeds and old oak trees. Recently, I spent a weekend down there camping with my family. I’d like to share some of the beautiful animals we encountered on this visit.

Now, like many people, I’m not particularly fond of certain small, creepy-crawlies, including my least favorite: ticks! Unfortunately (and much to my dismay) I was feasted upon by one tiny tick. However, when I was given an opportunity to watch a spider feast upon its own meal, I didn’t feel the same distress. Near our campsite, there were plenty of enormous spiders for us to observe. I was astounded by the size and beauty of the Golden Silk Spider, Nephila clavipes, often called the Banana Spider.

Golden Silk Spider

Golden Silk Spider

She is relatively harmless to humans, but has an impressive web and can take down dragonflies. This species are also a cannibalistic species, preying upon their own kind. The males live on the backside of the web from the female, risking their lives to mate when the time is right. I witnessed a large female dining on a smaller female early one morning. Apparently, it is not such a good idea to build your web directly in front of a larger, hungrier silk spider! If you look closely at the photo to the right, you may be able to see the much smaller male sitting a couple of inches to the left of the female.

As a side note, I learned that another spider, the Brazilian Wandering Spider, Phoneutria nigriventer, is also often called a Banana Spider. This spider can be fatal to humans and should not be taken lightly.

Another favorite invertebrate that I was able to find at Brazos Bend State Park is the firefly (not to be confused with the excellent, but short TV series Firefly), also known as lightning bugs. Last summer was the first time I had ever seen them and I was still very excited when I saw them again this summer. I also managed to catch one and study it up close, watching as the abdomen slowly glowed on and off. These beetles use their bioluminescence to communicate with each other. Each species of firefly has their own, distinct pattern they flash to attract a mate. The male flashes his pattern while flying around, hoping to find a female responding to his light with her own light show. However, some females will mimic the pattern of another species in order to catch their dinner!

Lightning Bug

Lightning Bug

While walking around Elm lake, you can’t help but notice all of the beautiful water birds. They share the lake with the alligators, seemingly unaware of the dark eyes resting at the edge of the water’s surface. During the summer, you can easily spot pairs of white ibises, egrets & herons, common moorhens, black-bellied whistling ducks, and on occasion you may spot an osprey or wood stork. Below, I’ve posted a photo of a Green Heron, Butorides virescens, looking for his lunch amongst all of the duckweed. Green Herons typically hunt small aquatic animals including invertebrates, small fish, & frogs. It has been known to “bait” for fish, dropping a small item on the surface of the water and waiting to catch the fish attracted to the lure.

Green Heron

Green Heron

The last animal I want to bring up from my encounters at Brazos Bend State Park is the Nine-Banded Armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus. We were hiking on a path near the George Observatory while we waited to buy tickets to look through the telescopes later that evening. My well-trained ears told me there was an animal moving about in the underbrush nearby. I turned to look and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my first armadillo! The novelty of this new mammal had me snapping pictures left and right, spending a good 20 minutes observing its search for food.

Nine Banded Armadillo

Nine-Banded Armadillo

Eventually, my dogs noticed this new creature and started barking. By this time, the armadillo had meandered right near the path and upon being frightened by the dogs, he did an about-face and nearly ran straight into my friend’s legs! He eventually found his way back to the denser foliage and continued foraging for lunch. After this first encounter, we later came across 4 more juveniles, these were much quicker to run away from us than the first adult we observed.

The nine-banded armadillo may be opportunistic, eating whatever food they come across, but mostly they eat a wide variety of invertebrates: caterpillars, scarab beetles, grubs, termites, & worms. They will also eat carrion and occasionally crustaceans, fruit, reptiles & amphibians. Armadillos are excellent diggers but have poor vision. When frightened, they may jump straight into the air!

Armadillos are capable of crossing water in two interesting ways. In order to get around the problem of their heavy armor, the armadillo can hold its breath and simply walk across the bottom of a body of water. However, they are able to swim by inflating their stomach to offer some bouyancy. Nine-banded armadillos have identical quadruplets around March, the young staying with the mother for several months.

If you would like to see more photos from Brazos Bend State Park, please visit the BBSP Flickr group webpage. You can also find a wide variety of photos from HMNS at their Flickr group page as well. I am still working on updating my own Flickr page with Museum-related photos, but in the meantime, enjoy this one last photo of the largest alligator I’ve seen at Brazos Bend. I was standing directly above him on a dock at Hale lake. My best guess at his length: 12-14 feet long!

Large Alligator

American Alligator