Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 2/8-2/14

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Jim (age 12 7/8).

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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.

Endless Love Campaign 
Ends Friday, Feb. 19
Want to show your Valentine that your love will last forever?
Say it with a cockroach.
Before you go all “Eeuuuwwww,”… think about it.
These tough little beasts have been living, loving and roaming the earth for 350 million years. It’s even been said they’d survive a nuclear blast. Who knows? They might even outlive Keith Richards!
Here’s the good news. You don’t have to capture and gift wrap a cockroach yourself. For just $5, you can actually name one at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. You’ll receive a digital commemorative certificate, like this one, for your Valentine. How’s that for a lasting declaration of love?
You have to admit, it’s the most unforgettable gift ever—and it’s a great way to support conservation and education at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Class – Growing Fruit Trees in a Small Space
Tuesday, Feb. 9
6:00 p.m.
Homeowners with the smallest urban lots can grow fruitful gardens of increased variety and beauty. Instructor Angela Chandler will teach the techniques known as high density orchard, which enables the urban gardener to quadruple the variety of fruit they can grow without buying a single square foot of land. Maintenance is made easier by employing simple changes in the way home orchard management is approached. Practical and decorative techniques are will also be included. Fruits covered include stone and pome fruits, as well as tropical fruits, small bush fruits and berries.

Film Screening – Dispatches from the Gulf: Aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
Tuesday, Feb. 9
6:30 p.m.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred 1,500 meters deep in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing approximately 3.19 million barrels of oil. The event initiated an unprecedented response effort and mobilized the largest, coordinated scientific research endeavor around an ocean-related event in history-orchestrated through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI).
The GoMRI scientists and their research to improve society³ ability to understand, respond to, and mitigate the impacts of petroleum pollution and related stressors of the marine and coastal ecosystems is documented in Dispatches from the Gulf by Screenscope Films. It premiered as an episode of the award-winning Journey to Planet Earth series.
Join GoMRI scientists Dr. Edward Buskey of University of Texas Marine Science Institute and Dr. Scott Socolofsky of Texas A&M University’s Department of Civil Engineering for the giant-screen premiere of Dispatches from the Gulf. This is a one-night only screening.
This event is sponsored by Screenscope Films.

Seeing Stripes: The Zebra Longwing Butterfly

The zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) is a common resident of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC). This butterfly is easily recognizable with boldly striped yellow and black wings. When visiting the CBC, you’ll often spot them sipping nectar from the flowers and nectar feeders or sunning themselves with their wings spread open. These butterflies have some unique features and behaviors that set them apart form the rest!

Aposematic Coloration

Bright, contrasting warning colors are known as aposematic coloration. They indicate to potential predators of the “unprofitability” of a prey item. The bold yellow and black stripes on the zebra longwing serve as a warning signal to potential predators of the butterfly’s unpalatable and poisonous nature. Zebra longwing caterpillars feed on passion vine (passiflora) leaves and acquire some of their toxins, making them distasteful to predators. 

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Bright, contrasting colors warn predators to stay away.

Pollen feeders

Most butterflies can only sip fluids with their proboscis, most commonly flower nectar. Zebra longwings, on the other hand, also feed on pollen. They use their saliva to dissolve the pollen and take in its nutrients. Pollen, unlike nectar, contains proteins and is very nutritious. Pollen feeding is correlated with overall higher fitness. This diet allows zebra longwings to live longer (up to six months) and increases females’ egg production. 

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You can see pollen on this zebra longwing’s proboscis. Feeding on pollen increases longevity.

Pupal Mating

Male zebra longwings exhibit pupal mating, zebra_longwing_and_chrysaliin which they will mate with a female before and immediately after she emerges from her chrysalis. Males will seek out a female pupae and will perch on it and guard it from competing males. Many males may fight for the opportunity to mate with the yet-to-emerge female. The successful male will insert his abdomen into the softening pupae and copulate with the female. Mating will continue as she emerges and dries her wings. The males will pass a nutrient-rich spermatophore to the female which reduces her attractiveness to future mates. This male (at right) begins mating with the female before she has even emerged from her chrysalis.

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This mating pair shows the freshly emerged female still clinging to her chrysalis.

Communal Roosting

Adult zebra longwings roost communally in groups of up to 60 individuals at night. They tend to return to the same roost on a nightly basis. In the late afternoon, zebras can be observed fluttering and basking near their roost site as they slowly gather together for the night. Roosting together provides protection from predators and retains warmth. 

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These zebra longwings are preparing for the night by roosting together for safety.

So now you know! These beautiful, brightly colored butterflies are bad-tasting, and long-lived. They have unique mating habits and the snuggle together at night. Something to remember next time you visit the zebras at the CBC!

Staff Picks: Best of the Cockrell Butterfly Center

The Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC) is most well known for its free-flying butterflies inhabiting a three-story indoor rainforest. But there are many other cool things to see and experience at the CBC! We checked with staff members and asked them about their favorite sections of the center, and this is what they said:

Lauren – Lauren is the butterfly entomologist and she takes care of the 800 to 1,000 imported butterflies we receive every week. Her staff picks are the chrysalis emergence chambers. The emergence chambers showcase thousands of live chrysalids of every size, shape and color imaginable! Many have gold spots or flecks. The word “chrysalis” comes from the Greek word for gold, “chrysós.” If you watch carefully you can even observe butterflies emerging, leaving an empty chrysalis shell behind, which they cling to while their wings stretch and dry.

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Lauren stands next to the chrysalis chambers where you can watch butterflies as they emerge.

Erin – Erin is a board certified entomologist and is the insect zoo manager. She cares for all the non-butterfly bugs in the CBC. Her staff pick is the eastern lubber grasshopper sculpture found at the entrance of the entomology hall. The larger-than-life sculpture shows the anatomical details of the grasshopper’s body parts on one side, like the head, thorax, abdomen, wings and antennae. On the other side it shows a cross-section, displaying the insect’s internal organ systems. It’s a great visual introduction of what makes an insect, an insect. 

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Erin with the Eastern Lubber grasshopper sculpture you can enjoy in the CBC entomology hall.

Nancy – Nancy is the director of the CBC. Her staff-pick is spicebush caterpillar sculpture found in the entrance of the butterfly center. The giant caterpillar welcomes each visitor into the butterfly center and is a great opportunity for photos! It may seem cartoon-ish, but the sculpture is actually a very realistic representation of the caterpillar that can be found right here in Houston! The large eye-spots on the back of the caterpillar function to trick or scare away predators by making it appear like a bigger animal. 

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Nancy with the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar that greets guests as they enter the CBC.

Soni – Soni is the horticulturist that grows and cares for all of the plants in the CBC rainforest. Her staff pick is the Pride of Trinidad tree in the rainforest. The Pride of Trinidad (Warszewiczia coccinea) is native to Central and South America and the West Indies and is the national tree of Trinidad. The best part of this tree are its showy, flowering branches. Each flower cluster is accented with a red bract and is loaded with nectar. Inside the CBC rainforest, the Pride of Trinidad is in bloom year round and is constantly feeding a variety of butterflies! 

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Soni shows off a cluster of flowers on the Pride of Trinidad that feeds many of the butterflies in the CBC rainforest.

Ryan – Ryan is the CBC Bugs-On-Wheels outreach presenter. He travels to schools, day-cares, camps, and clubs to present a variety of bug-related topics (check them out here: Bugs-On-Wheels). His staff pick is the vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteus). This scary looking arachnid is actually quite harmless and easy to handle. They get their name from their defense mechanism. If threatened, glands near the rear of the abdomen can spray acetic acid which has a vinegar-y smell and may dissuade predators from making the vinegaroon their lunch!

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Ryan holds a vinegaroon showing their relatively docile nature.

Farrar – Farrar is the curatorial entomologist. He identifies and documents the thousands of species in the CBC’s entomology collection. His staff-pick is the beetle specimen display in the entomology hall. Beetle species make up almost 25 percent of all known animal species. They are found in almost all major natural habitats and are adapted to practically every kind of diet. The British biologist and atheist J.B.S. Haldane once said, when asked whether studying biology had taught him anything about the Creator: “I’m really not sure, except that He must be inordinately fond of beetles.” This quote lines the top of the beetle display in the CBC. 

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Farrar stands next to the beetle specimen display you can visit in the CBC entomology hall.

Celeste – Celeste is the butterfly rearing coordinator. She breeds and raises butterflies for the CBC. Her staff pick is Charro, the CBC’s resident iguana! Charro is a Green Iguana (Iguana iguana). Despite this name, he is actually bright orange! Green Iguanas can be a variety of colors depending on what region they come from. Charro can be found relaxing in his enclosure in the rainforest or sunning himself outside the butterfly center by the demo garden. After hours, Charro gets to wander the entire rainforest freely. Don’t worry about the butterflies; Charro is strictly vegetarian. 

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Celeste sits with Charro the iguana who resides inside the CBC rainforest.

Next time you visit the CBC make sure to check out all these staff picks, and take time to pick YOUR favorite part of the CBC!

Behind the Scenes: A Day at the CBC

When I say I am an entomologist at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, this is what people picture:

Entomologists do not dress like this except for when we dress like this.

Yes, I get to play with butterflies at my job and yes, my job is awesome! It’s also sometimes really smelly, sweaty and dirty.

My morning generally starts out with releasing butterflies, which sounds like something magical. The butterflies are released twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. As you may know, when butterflies emerge from their chrysalises (an act referred to as “eclosion”), they don’t really look like butterflies. Their abdomens are swollen and their wings are shriveled. As they hang from their pupa, the fluid in their abdomen moves into their wings to expand them. Once the wings have fully expanded, they still must hang for about an hour or so until their wings fully dry before they can be released. The butterflies are gently picked up and placed in a pop-up hamper and taken out into the rainforest to take their first flight.

That's no tail, my friend!

This may be a species of newly emerged swallowtail, but that’s no tail, my friend! That is a stream of sweet, sweet meconium.

Most butterflies are absolutely beautiful and in general, they are people’s favorite insect. But, like all animals, butterflies poop. In the emergence cases, an average of 100 or so butterflies emerge a day, and they poop a lot. That’s because they’ve been holding it for a couple of weeks, or months! This first poop is called meconium, just like with human babies. It comes in a vareity of colors — black, green, red, brown, pink and so on. It also gets everywhere.

There is a lot of sanitation involved in taking care of butterflies since they can contract diseases just like most organisms. I clean and disinfect everything that will come in contact with any lifestage of the butterfly on a daily basis. Magic erasers have become my best friend since they can really remove meconium from the chambers. But doodie isn’t my only duty…

The Cockrell Butterfly Center imports about 80 percent of our butterflies from farms all over the world. The majority of our butterflies come from Asia and Central and South America, but also Africa and sometimes Australia (but only sometimes). In general, these butterflies are shipped in air cargo to a break bulk shipper here in the States and then forwarded to us via UPS or FedEx. The chrysalises come loose in the box layered with cotton or special foam packaging to keep them safe. Butterflies can start eclosing within a week depending on the species, so the boxes have to get shipped fast! The shipment is sent out from its originating country Monday and is delivered to the museum Thursday of the same week if there are no delays with U.S. customs.

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By the time I receive the box, I have already made a tracking sheet which will follow the shipment until every butterfly has emerged. I write down data such as times, dates and which chamber I will put the finished board in. I then hang the pupae. This is done with string, hot glue, and pins. No, the hot glue does not hurt them. We don’t take kindly to bug abusers ’round here! A tiny amount of glue is added to the string and then the very tip of the abdomen attached.

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A fresh shipment that has been unpacked and separated by species. Its ready to glue up for display!

Every pupa that enters the containment room and every butterfly that is released out into the center is accounted for. Unfortunately, only about 85 percent successfully emerge. The others suffer from disease, parasitization, or emerge deformed. This is a much better rate than in nature though, which is estimated to be closer to 2 percent! Each failed emergence is marked and recorded and placed in a database. We bring in over 50,000 butterflies a year and we know the fate of every single one!

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Finished product!

Because we display exotic butterflies, we are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), specifically the APHIS branch (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service). Because of this, we have quite a few rules we must stick to. Why? Well, while butterflies are pollinators, their larvae are actually plant destroyers. This is because the larvae (caterpillars) feed on plants. If a butterfly were able to escape and lay viable eggs, their offspring could potentially wreak havoc on crops and the ecosystem.

These regulations are the reason we have a containment room behind the displayed emergence chambers. This is to confine the butterflies as well as nasty pests called parasitoids. Parasitoids differ from parasites in the fact they eventually kill their host. In our case, we mainly get very small wasps. Depending on the species, these wasps lay their eggs in or on an egg, caterpillar or freshly-formed pupa. The larvae hatch from those eggs and eat their host literally from the inside. The wasp species we get pupate in the butterfly’s chrysalis and eat their way out as adults. There can be hundreds in one chrysalis! Sometimes I can tell if a pupa is parastized, but if I miss it, then have the joy of chasing them around the chambers sucking on a tiny mouth vacuum called an aspirator–if you’re European it’s a pooter. These flying annoyances are then euthanized and labeled for future identification.

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Various species of parasitoids reared out at the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Another huge part of my job is education. Our department presents outreach programs to schools all over Houston and the surrounding areas. The program I present most often is called Amazing Arthropods, focused primarily on big bugs!

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Presenting Peanut the curly-hair tarantula to students.

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Giant jungle nymph waiting patiently for her next presentation.

The thing I love most about my job is I get to share my passion with people every day. It’s great to see people walking into the museum or a presentation with one attitude and leaving with a better understanding and appreciation for the little overlooked critters that run our world.