My Little Stinky: Corpse Flower Cousin on Display at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Meet Lois’s baby cousin, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius. It may not be as large or as smelly as the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) that bloomed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 2010, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome! It’s blooming in the Cockrell Butterfly Center right now, and by the end of the weekend, it should be fully open and ready for a big debut.

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A. paeoniifolius bloom beginning to open. Photo by Soni Holladay.

Lois and this flower, also known as the elephant foot yam, are both Aroids, being of the Amorphophallus genus, characterized by the spathe and spadix floral structure and sharing the same distinct life cycle. The plant consists of an underground storage organ called a tuber, which differ in size and shape between plants and species.

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As the bloom began to open, we placed it in the CBC for our guests to observe. Photo by Soni Holladay.

When the conditions are right, A. paeoniifolius (pronounced pay-owe-knee-foe-lee-us) sends a single leaf out of the center of the tuber, which looks a lot like a small tree. The leaves typically have a tall, sometimes spotted or bumpy petiole resembling a tree trunk that branches out at the top to form leaflets. A paeoniifolius gets its name from the look of its leaflets, which recall the foliage of a peony plant. This leaf stage can last for several months — maybe up to a year — after which the leaf slowly starts to break down. It turns yellow, then brown, and eventually it falls over.

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The spathe will continue to open through the weekend, giving the bloom the look of a skirt around the central spadix. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The tuber then stays dormant for between three and nine months. If the tuber is developed enough to support an inflorescence, or flower growth, it will bloom. The blooms of an Amorphophallus are spectacular at any size, though not as stinky. Size doesn’t matter as far as stench goes. We sometimes have smaller species blooming in our greenhouses that can make your nosehairs curl.

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This close, the bloom smells faintly sour, like dumpster garbage. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

As the plant continues to bloom, the spathe will widen and “collapse” open, giving it the look of a skirt around the spadix. Right now, it looks more like a collar. Come visit the CBC this weekend to have a look (and a smell) at this fascinating plant, on display right next to its larger cousin, currently in the “tree-like” stage of its life cycle.

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A. titanum. Photo by Chris Arreaga.

Editor’s Note: The A. paeoniifolius flower enjoyed a long weekend at HMNS, then moved on to the next stage in its life cycle. Look for updates on this flower, the corpse flower and other Amorphophallus species on this blog and in social media.

Because That’s How You Get Ants: Flooding Causes Displaced Critters to Run for Shelter, Too

Most of you probably didn’t make it in to work today, and after my short drive to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this morning, I would say that was a good call. There were plenty of cars stalled in intersections, and I watched a sixteen-wheeler make a U-turn on 288 because the water level was too high under an overpass.  

Expensive car repairs aren’t the only reason to stay home during the flash floods we periodically experience. When the water rises, it carries with it everything that is buoyant.  This could be trash that was thrown out a car window, chemicals that spilled from a car during an accident or were poured down the drain, or the critters that live under the soil and in the bushes.

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One of the most awesome and horrifying things you will hopefully never see during a flash flood is a raft of fire ants. These little guys instinctively know how to survive the catastrophic destruction of their home. They are light enough to float individually, but they stick together. This allows the ants at the base to hold up those above the water for a while. The roiling ball of ants turns constantly to allow every member of the ball to get a rest and to get enough oxygen. The ants at the edge are constantly looking for something dry on which they can cling. The instant they find a tree or a street sign, up everyone goes.

This is also horrific because sometimes that thing is you.

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The ants, which are pretty upset at this point, will absolutely swarm you if you touch this little ball of hate. They will get to the highest point they can and then they will latch on.  With their piercing mouth parts. 

So, my friends. While I applaud an interest in the out-of-doors and making new friends, please wait until the city isn’t flooded to engage in both. Because sometimes you pick your friends…

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…and sometimes they pick you!

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Editor’s Note: Learn more about the behavior of ants and other insects at the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. (When the floodwaters recede, of course.)

“I Have a Question! Where do Your Bugs Come From?”

When I’m maintaining the live exhibits in the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, or giving a tour of our Insect Containment Room, one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, “Where do the bugs come from?” It’s a very good question! Many people ask if we are able to actually collect them, and I wish that were the case. Travel the world to collect exotic live specimens? Yes, please!

But the truth is we get our animals in boxes delivered by FedEx or UPS. The boxes come from all over the place. Arizona, Thailand, Costa Rica… But most of our exotic shipments come from the Penang Butterfly Farm in Malaysia, which collects and breeds butterflies and other insects and arthropods. They provide us with a large butterfly shipment each month and several arthropods throughout the year. Whenever our supply of large exotic insects is dwindling, I place an order for mostly beetles, but also katydids, mantids, and even centipedes or spiders.

We recently received one of these shipments, and I wanted to give you a sneak peek. I love getting these boxes. It feels like Christmas!

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This box transported five beetles, three large katydids, three mantids, two large spiders, and a few hundred butterflies!

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Each animal is packed carefully in individual containers with a moist sponge inside. Materials are placed in the box, such as soft filler and ice packs, to make sure the bugs stay comfortable on their long trip. They leave Malaysia on a Monday and arrive here Friday morning.

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The dead leaf mantis is nearly impossible to spot against a background of dead leaves.

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Until it moves!

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This dragon-headed katydid wasted no time finding a hiding spot! Katydids mimic leaves to keep them protected from predators.

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Giant long-legged katydids are the largest species in the world. They are a favorite around here!

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The giant golden orb-weaver has the largest and strongest web in the world. Although the web may sometimes accidentally ensnare birds or bats, the spider only feeds on flying insects.

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The orchid mantis has the most spectacular camouflage of all! They hide among orchid flowers waiting to grab unsuspecting pollinators such as bees and flies.

All of these and more can be seen on display in the Brown Hall of Entomology. Some can even be brought to your school for an exciting, hands on Bugs on Wheels presentation! See the HMNS website for further details!

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 4/4-4/10

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Cameron (age: 6):

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Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Behind-the-Scenes Tour – HMNS Offsite Collections Storage
Monday, Apr. 4
1:30 p.m. & 6:00 p.m.
Millions of artifacts and specimens are housed at the Museum’s offsite collections storage. For the first time ever, HMNS is allowing the public to tour this facility. Participants will see old favorites no longer on display, like the shrunken heads from the Amazon, and new acquisitions that have not been seen by the public yet, including a giant African elephant. This truly behind-the-scenes tour of the museum collections will be led by Lisa Rebori, HMNS VP of collections.

Lecture – Film Screening – Stonehenge Bringing Back The Dead
Wednesday, Apr. 6
6:30 p.m.
The discovery and analysis of 63 bodies buried beneath Stonehenge has overturned the accepted view on construction and use of perhaps the greatest prehistoric monuments. This film reveals vital clues to this ancient puzzle of the Neolithic period.
Join Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout for the Texas premiere of Secrets of Stonehenge Skeletons. This is a one-night only screening.
This event is cosponsored by AIA, Houston Society with support from Apache.

Lecture – Solving Stonehenge: New Discoveries by Michael Parker-Pearson
Thursday, Apr. 7
6:30 p.m.
Stonehenge still has secrets to reveal. Since 2003, a new era of archaeological investigation of this enigmatic Neolithic monument has produced a wealth of new information about Stonehenge and the people who built it. The research of the Stonehenge Riverside Project lead by Dr. Michael Parker-Pearson and other investigations are providing major insights into the purpose of Stonehenge, the lives of its creators, and reason that some stones came from nearly 200 miles away.
This lecture is cosponsored by AIA, Houston Society with support from Apache.

Class – Advanced Nature Photography Workshop
Friday, Apr. 8
2:30 p.m.
Take your photography to the next level! Professional nature photographer and instructor Amy Shutt will teach you best practices and advanced techniques for mastering composition and focus in nature, landscapes, wildlife and still-life photography, including panoramas and HDR. This class will prepare you to capture each shot exactly how you envision, instead of missing it and feeling frustrated and discouraged.

Spring Plant Sale
Saturday, Apr. 9
8:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. (or until sold out)
Interested in Butterfly Gardening? The perfect opportunity to get started awaits you twice each year, at the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s semi-annual plant sales! Once in spring and once in fall, we offer a wide variety of nectar plants for butterflies and host plants for their caterpillars. Plenty of experts are on hand to answer your butterfly gardening questions and help you to create the perfect butterfly habitat – right in your own backyard.

Class – Contain Yourself: Organic Gardening for City Lifestyles
Saturday, Apr. 9
9:30 a.m.
You want to grow your own food, but your outdoor space is limited. What to do if you live in a townhouse with a small yard or an apartment with a balcony? Container gardening is your answer. Learn what kind of containers, soils and varieties of plants to use when growing fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and flowers.
Sponsored by Urban Harvest.

Class – Nature Photography Workshop
Saturday, Apr. 9
2:30 p.m.
In this exotic photography adventure, you will learn how to get the best nature shots possible when photographing animals, insects and flora. Professional animal and nature photographer and instructor Amy Shutt will teach you the basics of your DSLR camera leaving you an understanding of how to use aperture, shutter speed, and ISO together to get out of auto mode. You will then venture out to photograph the insects, animals, flowers and plants in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. You will also work on photographing the waterfall to get soft velvety water shots. All participants will receive one-on-one instruction with their equipment.