Color and Create for the Secret Ocean Art Contest!

The bright colors of life on the coral reef inspire artists all over the globe. How well does your art measure up? Show off your talent through the Secret Ocean Art Contest, and you could win free museum tickets and an artist feature on the big screen! Check out some of our ideas below and learn how to enter the contest before the Sept. 25 deadline.

In the saltwater world captured in Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3Dwe see many animals with bright colors and vibrant patterns, and struggle to find some of the animals hiding in plain sight. Coloration plays an important role to survival in most environments. Animals with appropriate coloration can be better at confusing predators, attracting mates, or blending in to catch the next meal. Every animal has its own approach to coloration, and they each use it for more than just beauty.

Dangerous distraction

The lionfish is known for its large elegant fins and the impressive venomous spines along its back, but the red-striped pattern of the lionfish makes it a fierce predator at the top of its food chain. The lionfish does not use its venomous spines to capture prey. The venom is meant to protect the lionfish from other predators, and it is quite successful! The bright pattern on its body warns predators that the lionfish is venomous. Its warning coloration may be the reason there are no known predators for the lionfish that were introduced into the Caribbean.


Flickr Creative Commons.

Bright beauty

The clownfish is also known for its distinct color pattern. Unlike the lionfish, clownfish coloration does not serve as a warning. Rather, it helps them avoid predation. The white stripes break up the body of the clownfish making it harder for another animal to see. Using stripes and spots in this manner is called disruptive coloration. The disruptive coloration on the clownfish can confuse a predator for just enough time and allow the clownfish to retreat safely into its anemone.


Flickr Creative Commons.

Clever camouflage

One of the best color patterns for animals is one that goes unnoticed entirely. It’s hard to catch an animal that you cannot find. The octopus is well known for its ability to change the color and texture of its skin to blend into its surroundings. This camouflage can help the animal escape predators as well as sneak up on unassuming prey. An octopus can also mimic rocks, algae and even coconuts to blend in to all sorts of environments.


Flickr Creative Commons.

Now, combine your artistic talent with your knowledge of coloration for our contest! To compete, print out a copy of the rules and the Secret Ocean art contest template, then create your masterpiece. You can use paint, crayons, sand, glitter, beads and almost anything you can think of to create a fish or octopus. Don’t forget to submit before the deadline, Sept. 25! The top pieces will win great prizes like tickets to the HMNS permanent exhibit halls or to a showing of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3D at the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre. Your artwork could also be projected onto the big screen!

Give us your best shot! We’re looking forward to your colorful creations. Best of luck!

Una Visita al Templo Mayor: HMNS Discovery Guide experiences Mexico City

by “Cretaceous” Chris Wells

It was late morning and the air was still cool and refreshing as my girlfriend, Fernanda, and I walked through the historic center of Mexico City. I had not expected the weather to be so fair, and in truth there would would be the dry, white sun to contend with shortly. But in the shade of the decaying colonial structures around us, it was very pleasant. The interiors of these buildings were made up in modern styles for the tourists, but the facades betrayed every bit of their declined elegance. The old homes and businesses were grey or red or blue and rose abruptly from varying distances and angles from the street, the structures so old and quirky they felt like natural formations. In their shadows, it felt like we were passing through a cavern. Well… a cavern with a skylight.


The cavernous space between the buildings of the historic districts.

It was all really exotic to me, and on top of that, the streets were packed with people who were heading towards the National Plaza where thousands were gathering to watch Mexico play Brazil in the World Cup. For the viewing pleasure of these masses, three enormous screens had been erected among the old seats of government — grand and impressive buildings whose facades had once been a purer off-white but had since been corrupted by dirt and grime into a shade of gray. In these surroundings, the screens didn’t seem at all out of place because the game was as much a symbol of national pride as any politician. Perhaps more so.


Zocalo Square (AKA the National Plaza).

It was our first international trip together. Fernanda is Brazilian, and of course she wanted to stay and watch the game a little, but I was much more excited about something else. I’ve studied Latin American history in college for years. It’s my favorite subject. Earlier on the trip, we had visited the ancient city of Teotihuacán, one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Americas, and the Museo Nacional de Antropología, which holds some of the finest collections of Mexican indigenous artifacts in the world — artifacts from the Aztec and Mayan cultures and many other civilizations history books have chosen to forget. We had even seen the palace of the Emperors of Mexico, lording over the city from atop a mountain, its grounds adorned with grim-faced marble statues of men holding machetes, the men who had helped bring an end to that decadent age. But all the amazing things we had seen did not compare to the place we were about to visit: the Templo Mayor.


The cathedral built almost directly over the old Templo Mayor. Christianity triumphs over the pagan gods of the Aztecs.

Forgetting my usual policy of early relationship affability, I insisted we press on, past the crowded plaza and cheering fans, past the gloomy cathedral the Spanish had placed at the head of the plaza, to what looked like a pile of rocks huddled behind a fence. This, the old pyramid’s foundations, was all that remained of the most important religious site in Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital city of the Aztec Empire. The conquistador Hernando Cortéz and his men had been efficient in their practice of dismantling the structures of the old city and using the stones to build the new Spanish capital. Of course, by the time he had captured Tenochtitlan for the second and final time, most of the buildings had been destroyed by the cannon balls with which Cortéz had bombarded the city into submission.


From farther away, the cathedral towers over the remains of the Templo Mayor.

But there was still much left to see. Portions of the lower parts of the walls were preserved, rising about twenty feet in the air in all directions and angles. If the Spanish city felt like a cavern, the Templo Mayor looked more like a windswept, craggy range of mountains, like those found in the Antarctic. The unnatural angles were created by people plundering the architecture for building materials over the years since the fall of Tenochtitlan. I got a cold impression from that place, even with the white sun burning the back of my neck.


Serpent head surrounded by two braziers, originally it would have guarded the Templo, which once rose behind it.

We approached what was left of the two stairways that had originally led up to the two shrines at the head of the temple. One shrine was for Huitzilopochtli, the sun god and another was for Tlaloc, the god of rain and thunderstorms. Today, the stairs rise about 20 feet before ending abruptly in crumbly, eroded peaks. Originally, they would have ascended 300 feet. At the base of these stairs, we were greeted by serpents’ heads carved at the foot of the stairways on either side — Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, whom Cortéz was mistaken for by King Moctezuma. This case of mistaken identity is why Cortéz and his men were able to march unimpeded into the city. Many of Moctezuma’s commanders and trusted officials had advised against it, saying the Spanish should be treated like an enemy, but the emperor disagreed and all must obey the emperor.


Serpents’ heads that once guarded the staircases leading up to the shrines at the top of the Templo Mayor.

In an alcove carved out behind one of the staircases, there was a stone medallion depicting the dismembered body of a woman. The woman was Coyolxauhqui, the older sister of Huitzilopochtli. According to the myth, Coyolxauhqui became angry when she learned that her mother would have a baby, so she allied with her hundreds of brothers and sisters and plotted to kill both mother and child. Huitzilopochtli heard this plan from his mother’s womb, so he made himself emerge a full-grown warrior and killed his sister. Then he chopped her body up and threw her pieces down a hillside.


The oldest remains of the Templo Mayor. For centuries is was encased in several layers of stone facades, but now it breathes air again and is in pristine condition.

For the ancient Egyptians, pyramids were meant for burial, but for the Aztec, pyramids were stages — platforms raised high above the plaza so spectators could gather and see the rituals being performed at the top. On the Templo Mayor, in front of the shrine of Huitzilopochtli, it is believed priests would reenact the story of Coyolxauhqui by decapitating prisoners and rolling their bodies down the steps of the pyramid. The bodies would come to rest near the medallion depicting the goddess whose story their sacrifice symbolized.


The medallion depicting Coyolxauhqui, after she was dismembered by her brother.

But why was the medallion behind the staircase? Over time, the Aztec kings added onto the temple as a show of their success and of their devotion to the gods. They would build a new shell right over the old pyramid. With the top gone, now the structure looks a bit like those Russian nesting dolls, with one facade, one staircase and one medallion behind another. There are seven layers of facades, and inside those, in the center of the structure, is the very first temple, magnificently preserved. It’s a stunted-looking pyramid from the early days of the city.


Two of the Templo’s old facades, one inside the other.

Near the temple, a few other structures are preserved, including the House of Eagles, where members of the order of Eagle Warriors would gather for rituals, some of which involved human sacrifice. There are beautiful stone benches lining the walls, whose intricate relief images still bear their original paint. Archaeologists have found traces of what could be blood on these benches. It has been argued that auto-sacrifice was practiced there. Men would sit and let their own blood as a sign of devotion to their gods.


A stone bench lining the wall of the house of eagles, still with its original paint.

Obviously, there was a lot of violence and bloodshed within the Aztec Empire. Human sacrifices usually would have been prisoners of war. The Aztec were known to start “flower wars” in which they would engage another city in combat for the sole purpose of capturing warriors for sacrifice. In order to become an Eagle Warrior, one had to capture a certain number of prisoners in two consecutive battles. The capture of prisoners was believed to be vital to the future of the kingdom. The Aztec gods required blood. For them, blood was kind of like Gatorade; it gave them energy do perform the celestial duties. Without blood, the sun would not rise, the winds would not blow and life would end. Within the remaining walls of the Templo Mayor, archaeologists have found sacrificial victims from other cultures around Mexico, buried with objects related to their society. These burial caches were meant to symbolize that Huitzilopochtli, the most important Aztec god, held dominion over all the peoples of Mexico. This brutal practice was one of the reasons that Cortéz was able to gather a massive army of indigenous warriors with which to fight the Aztec. The empire had made many enemies.

But besides all the violence and bloodshed, the Aztec were a highly innovative society. The air is rather dry in Central Mexico, and for that reason Lake Texcoco, the lake in which the Island City of Tenochtitlan was built, was a salt lake. However, the Aztec were able to create areas of freshwater by building dams between the areas where freshwater was coming down from the mountains and the briny water in the rest of the lake. Also related to the importance of water is the fact that the Valley of Mexico was filled with many cities and cultures at the time, and there was a fair amount of competition for arable land.

One of the ways the Aztec helped solve the need for more land was to build chinampas, basically islands of rich soil dredged from the bottom of the lake. These man-made islands huddled around the margins of Tenochtitlan and hugged the shores around Lake Texcoco. They created their own farmland. Of course, another way they fixed the problem was to conquer the territory of surrounding cultures.

The Spanish were in such awe of the achievements of the Aztec that they named their new city after the leading tribe among the Aztec people, the Mexica. The seal of Mexico is taken from the Mexica legend of how they settled on the island. The story says that Huitzilopotchli had told the holy men of the Mexica to look for an eagle perched atop a cactus, eating a snake. That would be the sign that they had arrived at their promised land.


In the Historic District, a dilapidated colonial exterior enshrines , of all things, a McDonald’s, along with other modern stores.

Now, the island is gone. It was drained by the Spanish, who did not understand the purpose of the dams. Now most of Mexico City lies at the bottom of the valley, which was once underwater. Flooding is a big problem.  I still remember the last night we were in Mexico City. We had been enjoying the Museum of Anthropology all day, and in the evening (as had happened every evening we were there) the moisture that had evaporated in the dry sunlight all day and had been trapped by the mountains began to rain down as the air cooled. It was a hard rain and we couldn’t get a taxi, so we were forced to brave the torrent. And it was truly a torrent. The rain beat down from the sky and washed into the streets, flooding as deep as a foot in places. There was a point when we had to climb onto the high stone base of a wrought iron fence and scoot along, holding onto the bars to avoid slipping up to our knees into the deep water in the streets. There was a whole crowd, young and old, scooting along with us.


Fernanda trying to stay dry during a flood downtown, which are quite common.

In spite of the rain, it was a wonderful trip, and sometimes I go up to the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas on the third floor to stand in the re-creation we have of the Templo Mayor and spark memories from the trip. I hope you will come and visit too. Our re-creation is scaled down, but at the top of the structure we have an actual statue of a god related to Quetzalcoatl and objects from different cities cached in our walls, much like in the original. Some of the objects are beautiful (but dangerous) obsidian blades that were actually used by the Aztec, most likely in rituals of burial.

We also have some mummy masks and incense burners for the mysterious city of Teotihuacan, a city so old and so impressive the Aztec believed it was built by the gods. They considered it a holy site, and its history is worthy of a blog of its own. When I stand in our little ruined pyramid, all by myself, visions of the white sun come to mind. I remember the dry breeze blowing across the valley and the sound of indigenous flutes being played, albeit by street vendors who always hounded me to buy their stuff. Still, the music they made in attempt to lure tourists and their cash lent a mystical air to the site which I really appreciated. So if you’re planning a trip, come get inspired like I do. In the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we have many pieces on display and all of them have a cool story and a place of origin. Maybe you will discover a new destination.

Editor’s Note: “Cretaceous” Chris Wells is a Discovery Guide at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Stego says HMNS makes field trips easier on teachers

by Kaylee Gund

Hi all,

Stego the Stegosaurus here, putting my best plate forward for the beginning of the school year!


Stego the Stegosaurus, team leader for the field trips department.

I was chatting with my Discovery Guide pals the other day and we’re all looking forward to the great school field trips we see every year. But surprisingly, a few local teachers they’ve spoken to are intimidated by the prospect of planning a field trip.

I have to admit, the idea of taking more than 500 students off campus and bringing them back in one piece does sound overwhelming, but here at HMNS, it’s our job to make field trips the best possible experience for everyone involved.

As the face of the Youth Education Sales team, I, Stego the Stegosaurus, feel duty-bound to dispel the myth that organizing a field trip is by nature stressful. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to two wonderful ladies who can give you all sorts of great tips and ideas for students to put a spike in their learning curve (pun intended).

Karly - Paleo

Karly Hunt, Marketing Coordinator (

The newest member of our team, Karly Hunt, is the Marketing Coordinator for all districts west of Houston. She comes to us from Liberty Hill ISD, where she taught high school science. Karly, by the way, appreciates a good chemistry joke, but unfortunately all the good ones Argon… Get it?

This is Karly’s first year at HMNS, but she is already hard at work sharing her love of all things scientific with Houston educators. Her favorite part of the museum is the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

“We have such an amazing collection that really puts prehistory in perspective,” Karly said.

Needless to say, being a dinosaur myself, I like her already!

When she’s not traveling to schools, you’ll find Karly spending time outside, enjoying music of all genres, and playing with her dogs.

Cathy - Jurrasic Bark

Cathy Walton, Lead Marketing Coordinator (

Cathy Walton, our Lead Marketing Coordinator, is the museum representative for schools in Houston ISD, districts centrally located in the metroplex, and districts to the East. Having originally taught World Geography in Tennessee, she began her career at HMNS three years ago. Cathy is a wizard at finding field trip packages that fit an individual teacher’s needs, and she loves being able to work with amazing educators to help them inspire their students. She encourages teachers to “be as creative as you can to get students excited about learning!”

Cathy enjoys hiking, cooking, and entertaining (when she’s not hanging out with us dinos, of course). Fun fact: she grew up in Shelbyville, Tenn., better known as “Pencil City,” home of the No. 2 pencil!

If you have any questions or would like to know what exciting new exhibits your students can learn from next, feel free to contact one of these representatives. Check out our free curriculum and our field trip preparation guide for more info, too. And you can fill out a booking request form online if you already have an idea of what you’d like to do at the museum.

Have fun, keep learning, and we’ll see you soon!




Editor’s Note: Kaylee Gund is in Youth Education Sales at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Go ahead. Take your toddler to the museum!

by Victoria Smith

When my children were younger, and I was hip to the toddler scene, I would schedule play dates at all the usual places: I’d push the stroller to the park, load up the red wagon for the zoo, and slip Cheerios to fussy babies during story time at the library. The Houston Museum of Natural Science was also on the top of my list, and I was surprised other moms thought their kids were too young to appreciate it.


“Oh, no! He’s after us!”

The museum is fantastic for small kids! It’s got air conditioning, wide spaces to navigate, and if you have a two-year old who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches cut in squares, not triangles, you are welcome to bring your own food.

And of course, DINOSAURS! They’re huge, they’re exciting and they have pointy teeth (at least the carnivores do). Even if you don’t have a toddler who can identify every prehistoric creature and pronounce the names better than most college graduates, every kid loves dinosaurs. (Thank you, Dr. Scott the Paleontologist!) In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, the dinosaurs are mounted in active poses, bringing these ancient creatures to life for young visitors. The displays tell a story, and the murals illustrate it.


It’s the Circle of Life, baby.

Speaking of stories, my youngest daughter’s favorite story is the lion chasing the zebra in the Hall of African Wildlife.  Even though she knows how it’s going to end for that poor zebra, every time she asks, “Mommy, tell me the story of the lion and the zebra.” It’s not only a great chance throw in a few Mufasa quotes, but it’s also great to discuss how nature doesn’t waste anything because after the predators come the scavengers. I usually manage to work in a moral lesson about the selfish leopard who won’t share, too. There are interdisciplinary opportunities at every turn!


Let me know when the wonderment is over, so Momma can sit down!

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is one of our favorite spots to visit, and perhaps even my favorite place in the museum, period. Yes, the awe and delight in a young child’s face is a daily miracle, but they’ve got cushioned benches and free wi-fi! When you’re through with the center, there’s a beehive-themed play area with puzzles and blocks, and most importantly, it’s enclosed!


My daughter at age four, as an assistant in a chemistry demonstration…

If you want your daughters (and sons, of course) to grow up to interested in science, it’s never too early to start. Let them know that science is fun and not scary. The museum has dedicated tour guides who specialize in making the exhibits come alive for young children, and docents who offer many hands-on experiences. Kids can touch real fossils, feel if minerals are rough or smooth, and guess if an animal was an herbivore or carnivore while holding an actual tooth! It’s all there, at their eye-level.  


…and at age eight, taking on a brain dissection at Xplorations summer camp.

So now that the big kids are back in school, it’s a great time to plan a visit to the museum. If you’re lucky like me, you can convince their grandparents that even though your one-year-old can’t talk, he really wants a membership for his birthday, and not another toy to clutter the playroom.

Editor’s note: Victoria is the Executive Assistant to the President of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.