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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hungry for Summer Recipes? Try some bugs!

Why not put something super nutritious, sustainable, and oh-so-tasty on your grilling skewer this summer? Oh, did I mention it’s a little leggy? We are talking about cooking delicious insects! Since my last blog concerning entomophagy a couple of years ago, this unique eating experience has become quite popular. Many companies are popping up all over the country bringing new ways to introduce insects into your diet!

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Grasshopper Sheesh! Kabobs by David George Gordon

Insects are the new sushi.

As manager of our delicious edible insect vending machine in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, I am constantly searching for new products to add to our inventory. Besides quite a few new companies, there are also several restaurants where finding a grasshopper in your fine cuisine will not result in a health code violation (see the chapulines on Hugo’s dinner menu). You may think it’s crazy, but remember, 50 years ago sushi was considered disgusting to most Americans. Now, there are almost 4,000 sushi restaurants in the US!

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Add some legs to your diet.

When I took over the machine several years ago, we sold mainly novelty products (lollipops, etc.) because that was what was available. Now, we are working with new startup companies to introduce more “everyday use” products. I know, I know, most of you are more likely to stomp on a bug rather than chomp on a bug, but the times, they are a-changing!

One of these companies that makes bug “staples” is Exo. They make protein bars from cricket flour (milled crickets). Their Web site puts it perfectly: “CRICKETS ARE THE NEW KALE. Paleo and environmentally-friendly protein bars.” They are soy, dairy, grain and gluten-free for all of you “clean eaters” out there. I bet you never thought “clean” meant insects, huh?

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Sprinkle some of this Hopper Crunch cricket flour granola on yogurt with some fruit to make a bug parfait.

Another company, Hopper Foods,  based in Austin, Texas, has the mission, “to normalize entomophagy (eating insects) by creating delicious, nutritious and healthy products that people will want to eat every day.” Hopper has brought delicious, crunchy, cricket granola and no, you won’t get a leg stuck in your teeth!

Six Foods has created the next best thing to chips, Chirps (ha! Get it?). Yup, chips made from cricket flour along with “wholesome beans, corn, peas, and chia seeds” (from website). In delicious flavors such as BBQ and Cheddar, where could you go wrong?! Oh, and they have the best slogan: Eat what bugs you. All the taste with 3x the protein and 40% less fat. YES!

Bitty Foods makes cookies with yes, again, cricket flour—are you sensing a trend yet? They are delicious, nutritious, and did I mention delicious? The secret to their recipes? They “start with sustainably raised crickets, which are slow roasted to bring out their nutty, toasted flavor.”

Cricket Flours is not only a great place to get flour for your recipes, but they also specialize in protein powders. Also, if you are looking for a new set of recipes, you should buy their e-book to get some ideas for your next dinner party. Look for their single-serve protein packets in our vending machine this summer!

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Countries that consume insects and arthropods as a food source.

All the cool kids are doing it!

Like everyone is eating insects, like 2 billion people; kind of everyone. That’s not just very many, that’s A LOT! So if you’ve never eaten a bug, get out and try a bite. Heck, you might like ’em!

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Three Bee Salad by David George Gordon

For more bug recipes, check out these resources:

Girl Meets Bug – On this blog, learn how to make Bee-LT Sandwiches, Deep Fried Scorpion, Waxworm Tacos, and more. 

Eat-a-Bug Cookbook – Read here about David George Gordon’s latest edition of his entomophagy cookbook and take away some recipes like Three Bee Salad and Grasshopper Sheesh! Kabobs. Purchase the book on Amazon.

 

Ants in your Plants: Mutualism benefits both myrmecophyte and insect

What is an “ant plant”? Because we are striving to portray a “real” tropical rainforest, we have several and plants at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, but what makes them so special? Technically called myrmecophytes (from the Greek myrmeco – “ant”, and phyte – “plant”), these plants have a very special relationship with ants, one that is beneficial to both parties. Such mutually beneficial partnerships are known as symbioses or mutualisms, and they are fascinating to evolutionary biologists, ecologists, and lay people alike. So-called “ant plants” typically provide shelter, and sometimes food as well, for ants, and the ants taking advantage of these resources in turn defend the plant against herbivores or other threatening animals, and sometimes even against competing plants. In some cases the ants may provide their host plant with nutrients.

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Ants take shelter inside the passages within the swollen stem of this  Hyndophytum formicarum.

Examples of ant plants abound, particularly in the tropics. They occur in many different families of plants, and involve many different species of ant. Some plant-ant combinations are specific – i.e., the plant has co-evolved with a specific species of ant. In such cases this ant is usually found nowhere else: it has an obligate mutualism with its plant host.  Often the plant has difficulty surviving on its own as well.

More common are facultative mutualisms, where plants provide a resource (usually food) that a variety of ant species may visit. Simply by virtue of their presence on the plant, these ants discourage (or attack) herbivores or other organisms that might harm the plant.

Hundreds of plants bear extrafloral nectaries. These nectar-secreting glands on structures outside of the flower (usually on leaves or the petioles of leaves) are typically most active on new growth, which most needs defense against hungry herbivores. Ants gather at the nectaries to collect the sugary fluid they exude, and kill or chase off insects that try to eat the leaf.

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Ants taking nutrition from extrafloral nectaries on an Inga leaf.

Less common, but still with plenty of examples especially in tropical areas, are plants that provide shelter for ants. These domatia may be hollow stems, swollen petioles, or other hollow spaces on the plant that ants can use as living space.

A few neotropical shrubs in the large genus Piper (black pepper family) have evolved large, envelope-like petioles that house a species of Pheidole ant. Tiny pearl bodies (lipid-containing food bodies) are produced on the inside surface of these domatia – at least when the ants are present. These tiny ants are not aggressive and would not seem to be very effective defenders of their host; however, they have been observed removing insect eggs and small larvae. The real benefit to the host plant appears to be the extra nitrogen that the plants absorb from waste (feces, dead bodies, and other debris) left by the ants inside the petioles.

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Ants taking shelter within the domatia of a Miconia petiole.

Two shrubs in the coffee family, Hydnophytum and Myrmecodia, have very large and complicated domatia. The stems of these epiphytes from the mangrove forests of tropical Southeast Asia and Australia are lumpy and swollen, and almost look diseased. These bizarre-looking structures are riddled on the inside with hollow chambers, much like a Swiss cheese.  If you cut one of the tubers in half, you will find that some of the chambers have smooth surfaces, while others have darker, rough surfaces. The inhabiting ants use the smooth chambers for living space and the rough chambers for dumping their trash. Biologists have observed that the rough-walled chambers are able to absorb nitrogen and other nutrients from the decomposing wastes deposited in them by the ants, while the smooth-walled chambers are not absorbent. Since it is always a challenge for plants without roots in the ground to get enough nutrients high up in the treetops, this is a great adaptation to enhance these epiphytes’ survival. And, not only do the ants provide the plant with extra nutrition – their presence serves to deter things that might eat it.

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Enlarged and swollen stipules on an ant acacia offer shelter for a colony of Pseudomyrmex, an ant species found nowhere else but this plant.

The ant-plant mutualisms that really capture our imagination are those obligate mutualisms where the plant provides both food and shelter for the ants, and the ants are particularly fierce defenders of their plant host.  One of the most famous ant-plants is the bull-thorn acacia from the dry forests of Central America. Acacia is a very large genus of plants in the legume family, especially abundant in dry tropical areas of the world. All Acacia species are characterized by having their paired stipules (little flaps of tissue at the base of each leaf, found throughout the legume family) modified into spines or thorns. In the Acacia species associated with ants, these thorns have become very large and swollen, resembling a pair of bull’s horns. A specific species of stinging ants in the genus Pseudomyrmex has evolved as an obligate mutualist of these acacias.  Worker ants make a small hole at the tip of one of the horns, hollowing out an interior, and the colony lives inside these chambers. These ants are found nowhere else.

The bull-thorn acacia also provides its ant inhabitants with food. Like many legumes, acacias have extrafloral nectaries. In this case, they take the form of little slits along the main rachis of the compound leaf. Ant-acacias don’t just feed their ants sugar, however; they also produce small, protein-rich food bodies for the ants on the tips of the new leaflets. The ants thus have all their needs for shelter and food provided by their host plant. In return, the ants vigorously defend their home against anything that threatens it – leaf-feeding insects or other animals – swarming out of the thorns and stinging the intruder. Because these ants also bite and sting any plant that touches or grows too close to their home, they reduce competition to their host from other plants as well, and because tropical dry forests often burn, the vegetation-free circles around the ant-acacia may be particularly important as a fire brake.  Evidence for how much bull-thorn acacias rely on their fierce little ant defenders can be discerned by tasting the leaves. While most Acacia species are full of bitter compounds, ant-acacias have little need to maintain these chemical defenses, and no longer produce them. Their leaves are not bitter. But if the ant-acacia should lose its ant colony, it is liable to be hit hard by hungry herbivores.

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A species of Azteca ants takes shelter inside the hollow stems of Cecropia plants like this one.

The famous British naturalist Thomas Belt first described this amazing symbiosis, which he observed during his sojourn in Nicaragua in the mid 1800s. Today the food bodies borne at the tips of the new leaflets are called “Beltian bodies” in his honor.

A similar scenario, also from from the Neotropics, is seen in the relationship between several species of Cecropia (a fast-growing, early successional tree) and a species of Azteca ants. Cecropia has hollow stems – with special thin skinned “dimples” in the stem opposite each leaf.  A queen Azteca who finds a young Cecropia not yet colonized bores her way through this thin spot (called a prostoma).  The eggs she lays inside the stem hatch into worker ants, who tunnel through the membranes that divide the stem at each node, and open up more of the prostomata, giving them access to the outside. As the tree grows, the colony moves upwards, eventually making the whole tree a long, hollow shelter for the colony. Cecropia trees also provide food bodies for the ants; these “Mullerian bodies” (named for another 18th century European biologist, Fritz Muller) are produced on special spongy structures at the base of each leaf petiole. The occupying ants also bring small homopterans (aphid relatives) inside the stems of the Cecropia, where they feed on the plant’s sap in a protected environment.  The ants milk these small insects for their sugary exudate (called honeydew) just like farmers milk cows. Azteca ants do not sting, but they can bite, and the workers swarm out in huge numbers to attack any animal that touches their plant.

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Cutting into a hollow stem shows just how extensive the ant colony runs inside this plant.

A relationship very similar to the New World Cecropia-Azteca mutualism is found in the Old World tree Macaranga, also an early successional species, but in the spurge family, a completely different plant family from Cecropia. The ants inhabiting these plants are members of the ant genus Crematogaster (unrelated to Azteca). This is a great example of what is called convergence in evolutionary terms, whereby similar situations in different locations give rise to the same adaptive solutions among unrelated organisms.

Ants are amazing little creatures, and their complicated social behaviors, which often seem to mimic ours, make them particularly good partners for plants in the fight for survival.

Look for the bull-thorn Acacia (sans ants, unfortunately) next time you visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center. We recently received a specimen of Hydnophytum and of Mymecodia from a generous donor. These will eventually be placed in the rainforest. Our Cecropia tree, alas, got too big and died a few years ago. We hope one day to replace it!

 

HMNS greenhouse teaches how to plant a butterfly oasis in your back yard

They float on the wind, decorate your back yard in the spring and summer, and inspire warm emotions with their delicate wings. They seem carefree, at home in any meadow, but butterflies have more specific needs than we might imagine.

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Monarch butterflies don’t live just anywhere; they need habitat, too!

As urban sprawl continues to grow, reducing green space and native plant growth, natural butterfly habitats are shrinking. Butterflies require specific plants on which to feed and lay eggs. Caterpillars are finicky eaters.

Soni Holladay, Houston Museum of Natural Science Horticulturist and Greenhouse Manager, will lead a class Saturday, April 18, beginning at 9 a.m., to share information with the public about how best to plant a garden that will attract native butterfly species, creating a backyard butterfly nursery.

Holladay’s main concern is planting tropical milkweed to attract the famous migratory monarch butterfly. Though tropical milkweed is easier to grow, scientists have discovered it may play a part in declining monarch populations.

A parasitic species of protozoan called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or simply Oe, grows on the body of their monarch hosts. When infected monarchs land on milkweed to lay eggs, Oe spores slough off and are left behind. Caterpillars, which eat the milkweed, ingest the spores and become infected.

When the protozoans become too numerous, they can overwhelm and weaken individual butterflies, causing them to suffer. Several heavily infected monarch can take a toll on the local population. Oe can kill the insects in the larval or pupal stage, as well, before they can reach full adulthood.

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Tropical milkweed survives the Houston winters, making them a perennial plant and a possible danger to monarch butterfly populations.

Native milkweeds die off every year and grow back in the spring Oe-free as part of their cycle, but the evergreen tropical milkweed remains standing year-round, providing a vector for the protozoan to spread.

“We’re advising everyone who plants tropical milkweed to cut it back once a year or more,” Holladay said. Much like their native cousins, the tropical variety will return later, a healthy habitat for butterflies.

Holladay’s class will offer more details about this and other butterfly-raising issues. After the class, guests will tour HMNS greenhouses and our on-site butterfly-rearing operation. Tickets $23, all ages. Native milkweed plants and other seeds will be available to get you started.