HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.


Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.


As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.


Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.


Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.


This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.


These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.


The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

Food chains link the creatures of coastal ecology

Don’t stick your hand in that shell! You don’t know who might be home. It could be a carnivorous snail or a “clawsome” crab. Take a look at our Texas state shell, the lightning whelk or left-handed whelk, which feeds on bivalves like oysters and clams. Perhaps the snail that makes the shell is still hiding inside, or perhaps the shell is home to a hermit crab. Unlike most crabs, hermit crabs use the shells of snails as homes to protect their soft bodies.

Hermit Crab

Hermit crab taking residence in an empty lightning whelk shell.

Texas is home to some fascinating creatures, and our coast is no exception. In addition to the Gulf side beaches, there are salt marshes, jetties and the bay to investigate. Our coastal habitats are just waiting to be explored, and with the right gear, you can see organisms at every trophic level. (You knew I was going to talk about food chains, didn’t you?) 


Lightning whelk snail retracted into its shell, operculum blocking the opening.

Most folks will notice some of the upper-level consumers: birds like pelicans and gulls. Who could miss the gull snatching your unattended hotdogs? Or the pelicans plummeting into the water face first to catch fish? Maybe you’ve noticed fishermen along the beach as they pull in small bonnethead sharks. Some animals may require good timing and tons of mosquito repellent to see, like our rare and critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. If you pay attention, there are even rattlesnakes catching mice that are feeding on insects and plants in the dunes!Food Web

As you follow a food pyramid from the apex down to the base, top predators like humans and sharks feed on the organisms in the level below. There you might find the larger bony fish we feed on, like redfish or snapper, and below them you can find some of the crustaceans and mollusks they feed on in turn. Crustaceans, like our blue crabs, stone crabs, and the smaller ghost crabs, often scavenge in addition to feeding on mollusks, worms, or even plant matter. Many of our mollusks are filter feeders, like oysters, pulling algae and plankton from the water. Finally, at the base of the food pyramid, there are the producers. The phytoplankton and algae make their own food with energy from the sun.

A food chain pyramid is a great way to show different types of food chains on one example. I used a pyramid created by my friend Julia and drew examples of food chains from our coast on it. One side has the trophic levels on it and the other three sides have example food chains. What’s on the bottom of the pyramid? The Sun, of course!Pyramid

Coastal ecology isn’t just about sand, shells, and dodging gulls. It’s also about the interactions between plants, animals, and their environment. The plants anchor the dunes, the dunes protect and replenish the beach sand, the sand houses animals like mole crabs and mantis shrimp, and we get to enjoy it when we protect it.

If tracking home beach sand in your shoes, car, towels, and suits doesn’t excite you, our new Hamman Hall of Coastal Ecology may be just the air-conditioned trip to the coast you need on a scorching summer day in Texas. Members, come join us Memorial Day weekend to see wonders of the Texas coastline!

Fear the Snail: Inside the vicious world of the predatory gastropod

So snails suck, right? They’re boring and slow and they don’t do anything cool. Some of them make pretty shells that you find on the beach, but they’re pretty much slimy and gross and basically not interesting at all.

Said no one ever. At least not those who understand the world and daily life of snails. They’re tough, vicious, and sometimes terrifying in their adaptations to help them feed and protect themselves, especially in the case of marine snails, which can be as varied in shape, size, and color as the imagination.

“There are about 30,000 known species of snail,” said Gary Kidder, HMNS Discovery Guide and snail expert. “They’re a ‘Walt Disney’ class: if you can dream it, they can do it.”


Slipper snail radula. Credit: Eric Heuple

Known in the science community as gastropods, meaning literally “stomach foot,” snails feed using a rasp-like tongue called a radula. Like most animals, the teeth vary from species to species based on what particular type of food the snail eats. In carnivorous snails, these teeth are like fish hooks that tear the flesh from their prey. Imagine having your skin licked off by a giant cat’s tongue! Terrible.

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The largest snail shell in the world, on display in the Strake Hall of Malacology.

Snails are not always small; they can grow to be massive. The Australian trumpet, or Syrinx aruanus, produces shells that can be as big around as your thigh. Measuring more than 30 inches in length, the record-holder for biggest snail shell in the world is on display in the Strake Hall of Malacology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It looks like you could fit a football inside this bad boy.


Lightning whelk. Credit: DixieHwy

Predatory snails use some barbaric tactics to kill and eat their prey. There’s no saving a bivalve caught by a lightning whelkBusycon perversum (incidentally, the state shell of Texas). The lightning whelks pries open clams, wedging its soft foot between the halves of its shell, then it uses its radula to scrape out the clam a piece at a time. Kind of like a stranger kicking down your door and coming into your house to get you. Frightening.

That’s just the beginning. The moon snail, in the family Naticidae, bores into the shells of mollusks and crabs with its radula and an acid secretion. That’s right: acid. It melts a tiny hole through its prey and licks out its insides with its tongue. No thank you!


Moon snail. Credit: Chris Wilson

To stun or kill their prey, many marine snails use some of the strongest venoms on Earth. The teeth in the radula of the geography cone, or Conus geographus, are modified to carry a venomous sting that disrupts insulin in its victims. Like a revolver loaded with up to twenty hypodermic needles (instead of six bullets), the cone snail harpoons its prey, sometimes with several stings in a matter of seconds.

“The venom gives you diabetes, basically,” Kidder said. “It makes you loopy. And if they’re able to hurt something our size, a fish, it’s usual prey, isn’t going to be an issue for it.”


Conus geographus. Credit: Patrick Randall

The harpoon of the C. geographus can penetrate human skin and sometimes gloves and wetsuits depending on its size. A single sting from a Conus snail can cause muscle paralysis, difficulty breathing, and death. No antivenin exists; victims must be hospitalized until the venom wears off. Don’t pick these suckers up unless you’ve got comprehensive health insurance!

Scientists, however, see the cone snail’s venom as an opportunity for medicines, and are working to synthesize compounds from its unique chemical cocktail as treatments for a variety of diseases.


Carrier snail. Credit: James St. John

Conus isn’t the only gastropod with potential benefit to humanity. The carrier shell, in the family Xenophoridae, Greek for “bearing foreigner,” uses a type of “concrete” to attach foreign objects to itself, reinforcing its own shell as it grows. The snail’s building media include other shells, pebbles, small pieces of coral, and in some instances human refuse like bottle caps. Scientists have even discovered new species from the shells attached to Xenophora.

“This is an aquatic saltwater snail that makes a cement that ‘dries’ underwater,” Kidder said. “If we can figure out how it does that, the economic possibilities are wild!”

So next time you see a land snail leaving a trail of slime, or a shell on the beach that once belonged to a marine gastropod, remember that in its own world, this slimy, slow-moving creature is a rock star.

Mala-whaaa? Discover the incredible world of mollusks in the Strake Hall of Malacology

One of the most awesome parts of working for a Museum (especially one as large as ours) is how many people you get to meet and work with – all with something different that gets them excited about science! It’s easy to celebrate your inner geek when you can find fellow geeks who you can geek out with in a geeky fashion while geekily reveling in unique parts of the Museum.

You could ask anyone here and they’d be able to tell you which part of the Museum brings this out in me: the Strake Hall of Malacology.

“Mala-whaaaa?” you may ask.

Malacology is the study of mollusks, an incredible group of creatures that includes octopi, scallops, and my favorite, snails (but more on them later). They’re invertebrates belonging to the phylum Mollusca, and there are over 85,000 species of them in the world!

These invertebrates all have three features in common but are otherwise extremely diverse. They have a mantle containing a cavity used for breathing and excretion; a radula, which is used for feeding; and the same structure to their nervous systems, with two pairs of nerve chords: one serving the internal organs and another for locomotion.

Mollusks are also able to use their internal organs for multiple purposes. For example, their heart and kidneys are used in their reproductive, circulatory, and excretion systems.

Mollusks are more varied than any other phylum. Think about it: squids, octopi, cuttlefish, nautili, clams, mussels, oysters, conch, slugs, snails — they all have many diverse species and yet they’re all still mollusks! And this is due, in part at least, to how long they’ve been around. While there’s still significant scientific debate about their precise lineages, we know that they’ve been around since the Cambrian period (541 to 485 million years ago). This has allowed them to diversify to fit in many, many niches all around the world — from the depths of the ocean to mountain tops.

Now for my favorite: SNAILS! Perhaps it’s because of my name (Gary, like Spongebob’s pet snail) but I think snails are really cool. They account for 80% of mollusks, and are perhaps the most diverse of them all. They’re found everywhere, in part because some have evolved to have gills while others have lungs.

But that’s not all! Some species with gills can be found on land, others with lungs are found in freshwater — with a select few even found in marine environments! They’re in ditches, deserts, large bodies of water and everywhere in between. Most are herbivores, but there are also omnivores and predatory snails. They’re also found in many sizes, from giant African land snails 35 cm in length to some just 1.5 mm long.

So come to HMNS to the Strake Hall of Malacology to learn everything there is about these marvelous mollusks!