Animal Espionage: Meet the Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs of the Wild

This week, you’ll have the first chance to experience our new special exhibit, Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America – examining nine major periods in U.S. history when America faced threats from enemies within our borders. But did you know HMNS already features a few “sneaks” of our own? They’re just of the animal variety!

In our HMNS Outreach Programs, we highlight several examples of crafty creatures who have adapted creatively to their environments to prolong survival. Want to meet a few of these smart cookies? Come to our free Shell Educators’ Preview Sept. 29!

How do you become a spy? First, blend in!


Our first spy is a familiar animal to the Gulf Coast – the American alligator! One of the alligator’s strongest adaptations is its amazing camouflage. I remember fishing as a kid on the Sabine River and my dad pointing out a gator in the distance. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t spot it! Only as we neared could I see the bumpy “dead log” silently watching us float by. Alligators are extremely well-adapted to ambush. With nostrils that stick out of the water like a snorkel and a clear inner eyelid to protect their eyes while they swim, their whole body can stay submerged as they await their prey. While too dangerous to approach in their natural habitat, our Wildlife On Wheels program Texas Wildlife often includes one of our baby alligators, still small enough to keep safely!


Several of our other spies star in our Bugs On Wheels: Amazing Arthropods program and are masters of disguise. The giant long-legged katydid, for example, is the world’s largest katydid, native to Malaysia. These awesome insects mimic leaves, and during the daylight hours they can safely remain motionless, cloaked in foliage, waiting to become active at night. They don’t only come in green though; these insects can have an endless array of shades and patterns to match the leaves of their unique habitats. And like many things that get better with age, so does their camouflage, as their back edge grows brown and tattered like an old leaf.

Traitors mean false friends.


In the natural world, traitors come in many guises, even that of seemingly innocuous plants! The pitcher plant, masquerading as a source of tasty nectar, lures in insects (sometimes even rodents) and traps them. Their victims cannot escape the waxy walls and sticky fluid inside. As their prey drowns, digestive enzymes help break down the body, allowing the plant to absorb the released nitrogen. You can meet three species of this unusual carnivore in our Cockrell Butterfly Center!


Another unique traitor native to our state is the Texas tortoise, often seen in our Wildlife On Wheels programs, though a threatened species in the state of Texas. Deceptively fierce, this desert dweller is extremely territorial, and males will fight to the death if a fellow tortoise challenges. Competitors rise up on front legs to charge, using the pronged gular scutes protruding from the shell to hook under the trespasser, attempting to flip him over. This is a deadly situation for a tortoise as all of the animal’s internal organs press down on the lungs, which causes him to suffocate if he cannot turn back over. Yikes!

The Science of Sabotage


Crushing prey with an estimated force of 60,000 Newtons, the bite of Tyrannosaurus rex would be lethal enough as it is, but some paleontologists, such as Farlow and Abler, debate that a more insidious biological superweapon could be concealed in those fearsome teeth. Fine serrations in each tooth provided strength and cutting power, but may have also allowed meat from T. rex’s last meal to linger, lending a perfect source for bacteria to feed on. Similar to that of a Komodo dragon, it is theorized that the bite of T. rex could deposit overwhelming amounts of bacteria, causing the wound to fester and become septic. Want to touch a T. rex tooth and feel the serrations? (We promise, ours are clean.) A visit from Dinosaur Discovery, part of Chevron Earth Science On Wheels, makes it possible!



Our last saboteur certainly employs a most unusual method of dispatching enemies —how about getting licked to death! The lightning whelk, a carnivorous snail, uses the sharp edge of its shell to pry apart bivalves. Once open, the whelk uses its radula (think scratchy cat tongue, but much worse!) to lick and scrape the hapless victim into smaller pieces for consumption. Fun fact: this ruthless snail is the state shell of Texas, and can often be found on gulf coast beaches. Look for a “left-handed” (sinistral) shell, shaped so it’s easier to put your left hand in. Another great place to see a whelk? In our Wildlife On Wheels: Invertebrates program, or in the Strake Hall of Malacology!

Interested in bringing these super-cool, sneaky creatures to your school or group? Send an email to or call (713) 639-4758 to book your Outreach Program today!

Late Night with Catalysts: New program offers after-hours fun for the young at heart

When I tell people I’m the Overnight Coordinator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I usually get one of two reactions. It’s either a sarcastic “Oh, does everything come to life at night?” or an astounded “People can spend the night there?!” While I’m in the Youth Education Programs department and typically work with the kiddos, we decided to partner with the Catalysts young professionals group at HMNS to create a late-night event for the young at heart. On July 30 we had our first-ever adult late night at HMNS exclusively for the Catalysts group.


The museum up late. From left to right, Emily Lutz, Elizabeth Marlowe, Jayme Schlimper (in the bear mask), Matti Hammett, Kelli Lozada, Nicole Temple, Julia Russell, Kelsey Friedemann, Madison Weinhoffer, Katie Conlan, and Sahil Patel.

Since it’s summertime, we decided to take everyone on a trip down memory lane to good ol’ summer camp. Of course, we had to make it a trip with a bit of that HMNS pizzazz. Late-nighters could “roast” s’mores in our toaster ovens as an indoor (and flameless) spin on everyone’s favorite campfire cuisine. We had a make-your-own trail mix bar complete with barbecue flavored mealworms as an optional but delicious addition. We also had some Cool Chemistry demonstrations by seasoned Outreach presenter Sahil Patel and flashlight-led tours of the Morian Hall of Paleontology with Connor Eichenwald from the museum’s W.T. & Louise J. Moran Ecoteen Program. Finally, if campers wanted to capture the moment, we had Smilebooth there with a bevy of youth ed-crafted, camp-themed props! See some of our favorite snapshots below.

If a summer camp-themed late-night sounds like your idea of a night well spent, then Catalysts is the group for you! Our young professionals group gives you access to a variety of events throughout the year including tickets to an exclusive Catalysts events each quarter and tickets to our Mixers and Elixirs events during the summer. That’s on top of the usual membership benefits like free access to our renowned permanent exhibition halls and advance notice of upcoming events and special exhibitions. Visit our Catalysts Web page to join today!


From left to right, Christine Dubbert, Sahil Patel, Madison Weinhoffer, and Daniel Echeverri.


From left to right, Clark Kellogg, Nicole Temple, and Allison Kellogg.


…and Sahil Patel, again. :)


Top, left to right, Julia Russell, Zack Kammer, Hunter Robinson (bear mask), and Dalia Rihani. Bottom, from left, Britt Baumgardner and Freddy Dabaghi.


Dain Geist and Rachel Wilkinson.


Morgan and Elizabeth Hann.

Ever wonder how fireworks… work wonders?

The Fourth of July just isn’t the same without pyrotechnics. And while the inevitable giant fireball from Dad lighting up the grill may be exciting in the moment, I’m actually referring to the giant chemistry demonstration we watch at night.


Fireworks are basically a bunch of combustion reactions, which are rapid chemical reactions involving oxygen gas (O2) combining with another substance. These combustion reactions are exothermic, which means energy is released during the reaction in the form of heat, light, and sound.

A firecracker explosion is essentially one large combustion reaction involving black powder or gunpowder, which is made up of potassium nitrate (KNO3), charcoal, and sulfur. Potassium nitrate will provide oxygen to the reaction, while charcoal and sulfur will act as fuel. This reaction produces a lot of gas and heat in very little time, and all of that gas produced needs a place to go. When too much of it builds up in an enclosed space and the pressure becomes too great, you get an explosion.

The basic components of a firework are a fuse, tiny explosives called stars, and a burst charge that triggers the explosion. Precise timing is also helpful.


First, you need an entirely separate explosion to get the firecracker up into the air. Typically to get the whole package airborne, you need what’s called a mortar, a long tube that directs the firecracker onward and upward away from bystanders. This explosion needs to be very controlled so you don’t set off the second firecracker inside, yet strong enough to get the whole package off the ground. A malfunction can have disastrous consequences. You can search for “fireworks fails” on YouTube for some disaster action.

When you light a firework, it’s not just one fuse; it’s two: the fuse that sends the firework up, and a time-delay fuse that is longer and burns more slowly, allowing the firecracker to gain some altitude before the second reaction begins. If the fuse is too short and the firecracker doesn’t fly high enough before exploding, it can get noisy (not to mention dangerous.)


Once the time-delay fuse expires, the stars begin to explode. A burst charge will explode and expel the stars, spreading them out. The stars themselves may have different chemical components within, but the basic idea is still a combustion reaction. There is some sort of fuel reacting with oxygen and producing a lot of gas and heat.


All those colors you see come from burning metals, which produce different wavelengths of light when heated. I don’t know how many of you have tried to burn metal before, but I can tell you from experience, it’s not easy.

We model this particular combustion reaction in one of our ConocoPhillips Science On Stage Outreach programs! Since lighting a firecracker in a school is a terrible idea, in Cool Chemistry, we use a fuel and some granular chloride salts in a beaker. When I light the fuel, I am beginning a combustion reaction that releases a lot of heat and will burn the metal salts.


The red/pink flame is from the metal lithium, sometimes used in batteries. You’ll notice that in this photo, there is a large Nalgene beaker covering the beaker that used to be full of green flames. That Nalgene beaker is airtight and cuts off the flow of air in and out of the beaker. When this happens, no new oxygen is allowed to enter; once the combustion reaction has used all of the oxygen inside the beaker, the flame will be put out.

Our beaker simulation doesn’t produce the loud bang we often associate with fireworks because it is open to the air around it. The boom heard is actually all of the gas building up inside of the firecracker being expelled all at once, moving faster than the speed of sound, just like the pop heard when a balloon bursts.

One prevalent legend says fireworks were invented accidentally by a Chinese cook some 2,000 years ago, and the basic concept has remained the same over the years. If anything, precise timing of explosions in fireworks shows has made the spectacle all the more enjoyable.

So grab some apple pie, pull out a lawn chair, relax and enjoy the world’s most famous combustion reaction, celebrating America’s birthday in style!

Bring the wonders of the Houston Museum of Natural Science straight to you with HMNS Outreach! To book a presentation of Cool Chemistry, email or call (713) 639-4758!

Hey, Texas! Get outside and visit your wild neighbors.

by Melissa Hudnall

Texans! Want to see exotic birds? Look out the window! Want to see 250,000 bats? Just go outside tonight and look up! As a wildlife teacher and outreach presenter for the museum, I’ve had a chance to talk with future generations about the amazing wildlife found in Texas. Usually students think you have to travel to exotic lands to see the really cool animals, and they’re shocked to hear about all of the incredible animals they’ve been living right next to in Texas.


Texas wildlife artifacts for the mobile classroom. Sahil Patel

That’s why I was excited to see the new HMNS at Sugar Land exhibit Treehouses: Look Who’s Living in the Trees!, because it makes these critters more accessible and feeds a natural curiosity that most children already seem to have about wildlife. After visiting this exhibit, young naturalists may start asking questions like, “Who made those track marks?” and exclaiming things like, “I know what that scat came from!”, which would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. Luckily, Texas is the perfect place to raise a young naturalist.

Look in our trees and under our bridges, and you might have a chance to see the only true flying mammal: bats! (Sorry, “flying” squirrels. Gliding doesn’t count.) Texas has tons of bats. In fact, we have so many that they are often picked up on radar used for weather reports.


Radar around the Bracken Cave in San Antonio shows a cloud of bats. Every blue dot is one in flight.

Everyone’s heard about the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, but visit these locations in the winter and you might be disappointed to find they have migrated for the season. Drive just 15 minutes away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you can see bats year round at Waugh Bridge. This bridge has roughly 250,000 Mexican free tailed bats who would love to meet you. Before you go, be sure to get them a Thank You card, because the bats under this one bridge in Houston eat up to 2.5 tons of insects each night!


This Mexican free-tailed bat might look cute and cuddly, but don’t pick them up like you see in this picture. Being mammals, they can carry rabies. Report any bats that you find on the ground in the day time or behaving strangely. They could be sick.

This is the perfect season to visit Waugh Bridge, as baby Mexican free tail bats test out their flying skills for the first time in early July. Just be sure to watch nearby towers for local birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, who are keeping a watchful eye on these bats as a source of food.


This peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 200 mph diving to catch its prey. This is a preserved specimen that travels to school with our Wildlife on Wheels program. Sahil Patel

In fact, Texas is a huge birding state. Individuals travel from all over the United States just to see the colorful migrants that pass through here, like Cerulean Warblers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatcher. Our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife does a really nice job of highlighting some of the phenomenal birds that pay us a visit, for those of us (me) who do not have the patience for actual birding.


Vermillion Flycatcher

Another adorable, and partially arboreal animal is the North American Porcupine.


North American Porcupine

Looking for a kiss under the mistletoe this winter? This rodent is happy to oblige. Porcupines have been known to slowly amble up trees in search of mistletoe and pine needles when their preferred shrubbery is coated with snow. However, you may wish to rethink this close encounter, not only because of their dangerous defensive quills, but also because of their orange teeth.


The orange coloration of the North American porcupine’s incisors is due to the high amount of iron in their enamel.

These teeth are not orange due to poor hygiene, but rather because of iron found in the enamel. This iron oxidizes, forming a rusty color. It’s the same reason your blood is red.

So Texans, get your wildlife education with HMNS and HMNS Sugar Land, then go out and explore! After all, now that you know their home address, it would be rude to ignore your neighbors…