Spider Crimes: the Worst Halloween Decorations on the Shelf, Scientifically Speaking

by Melissa Hudnall

September comes and I am shaken to the core with fear. I know what’s coming. No, I don’t mean winter, I mean another year of dismembered bodies and deformed figures. Can I handle the pain in their hurt eyes? Then it happens; I see the first hint of a hairy leg. My trepidation is high as I round the corner to see…



Kill… mmeeee…

I am infamous among my coworkers for getting just as upset as I am excited to see Halloween decorations going up. I adore Halloween, but I also love spiders, and this is where my conflict lies. Halloween does not love spiders. I have used my own tarantula so you can compare real treat to the tricks sitting on the shelves.

Let’s go over some spider basics so you too can feel my pain.


Pay attention to the pedipalps and chelicerae; you may not see them again. Pedipalps are for mating and holding food, and chelicerae house the venom and end in fangs, so these are important body parts. Going without these four appendages is like missing your arms, jaws and teeth.


First off, spiders have eight legs. Count the green circles. Only those are legs. Everything else, not legs.


So basically, I ate this cookie to remove this abomination from the world.

Secondly, they have two body segments — not one, not three. The legs are also attached to the front segment, not the back! The front is the cephalothorax, meaning “head thorax” and the back is the abdomen. Attaching the legs to the back is the same as having a leg growing out of your stomach.


I’m going to assume that these were not meant to be spiders with three segments, but rather very clever spider-mimicking ants. If you can have ant mimicking spiders, then surely it must work the other way around.


These look like ladybugs hitching rides on top of spiders.


And come on, people. Even dogs have standards. This chew toy is sub-par.

Lastly, have you ever tried your hardest and just barely missed your goal? I feel like this next spider embodies that moment. He has the correct number of legs, segments, pedipalps, chelicerae, and they’re all attached in the right places! However, SPIDERS DO NOT HAVE BONES!


*Drops the mic.*

Editor’s Note: Melissa Hudnall is a Programs Facilitator for the Youth Education department at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.


Being Natural: Nancy Greig

In 1994, Dr. Nancy Greig inherited what was “basically a hole in the ground.”

More than 21 years later, the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a world-renowned exhibition, and Greig’s vision is a major part of the success of both the CBC and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

As Greig puts it, getting the job “was just lucky.” Before moving back to Texas, Greig was wrapping up a year of postdoctoral studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis where she was, in her words, “changing caterpillar diapers.”

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Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Dr. Nancy Greig visits with a rice paper butterfly in the facility her efforts have made hugely popular.

“This professor I was working with was looking at the caterpillar fauna on three species of oak tree. After we collected them in the field it was my job to raise them in the lab so we could determine what species they were,” Greig said. “I had to get them fresh leaves and clean the containers out, so that’s why I called it changing caterpillar diapers. Pretty much you have to dump the ‘frass’ out every day.”

Greig’s background is a blend of tropical plant biology and entomology.  She did her graduate work at the University of Texas, Austin, conducting research in Costa Rican rainforests under the supervision of Dr. Larry Gilbert, who studies tropical butterflies.  Between receiving her Ph.D. and the postdoc position, Greig spent two more years in Costa Rica teaching a tropical ecology course, that was “like summer camp for graduate students – an amazing experience.”  She was back in Austin for a Christmas visit in 1993 when her UT advisor remembered he had recently received a call about a position at HMNS.

“I thought I was going to be a University professor or something, and I was expecting another year or two of postdocs,” Greig said. “But I got in touch with the museum and they wanted me to come to Houston for an interview. Two weeks later, they called in St. Louis and asked, ‘How fast can you be here?’”

Greig’s field experience in Costa Rica gave her a leg up on the job; during her field work and subsequent teaching, she had spent plenty of time getting intimately familiar with the neotropical rainforest environment the museum wanted to craft in Houston.

When Greig first arrived in Houston, the Cockrell Butterfly Center was still under construction.

“It was a hard-hat zone,” she said. “There were cables and ropes everywhere. Some of the cement planters were in place, but not much else. The metal struts were up but there was no glass.


Greig educates students about plants as well as insects. In nature, the two forms of life depend on each other.

“It was so bare when we first opened, so of course it’s grown up [since then]. At first the plants were so small,” Greig said. But despite the bareness, “the first year, we had a millon people come through the butterfly center. It was a big deal, and kind of a trial by fire.  I had never been on television or radio before, and we got plenty of press. I had to learn to talk in front of a camera!”

Her first duties were to help oversee the construction and work with the builders and the landscape architects.  She also had to hire staff, get the butterfly importation permits, and create the museum’s first entomology hall. This precursor to the current Brown Hall of Entomology contained many preserved specimens but had lots of text and no interactive displays.

“People would go through the butterfly center first and then go up there – and the energy level just died,” Greig said. “There were some great specimens and some good information, but it was a very quiet, somber space.”

After several years, Greig and the Exhibits department began planning a bigger, brighter, vibrant entomology hall. Along with a couple of museum board members, they visited museums and zoos all over the country to see what others had accomplished and how to adapt the best qualities into one fun, educational hall. The result has been well-received.

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Greig educates a student on butterfly identification at the CBC.

Gone were the static displays, replaced by interactive games, giant models and live arthropods. One of the biggest changes was to move the display cases closer to the ground, making the whole exhibit more kid-friendly and engaging.

The unveiling of the brand new Brown Hall of Entomology on July 1, 2007 was one of the highlights of Greig’s 22-year tenure as director, followed closely by the hysteria of Lois the corpse flower and “Cash for Cockroaches.”

In preparation for the opening of the new exhibit in 2007, the CBC offered to buy up to 1,000 cockroaches for 25 cents each from Houston residents to fill a feature of the hall, the Roach Dome. The public response was huge, and the story made the front page of the Houston Chronicle before jumping nationally and beyond with coverage from Reuters.

Lois similarly brought in a surge of media attention when the giant corpse flower showed hints of blooming in the summer of 2010. After being cared for and nurtured for years up in the greenhouses, Lois sprouted a slightly different stalk, sending the city of Houston into a three-week frenzy that culminated with her stinky bloom in July. Celebrity status was afforded to horticulturist Zac Stayton, a parody Twitter account was born, t-shirts and buttons were mass produced, and a documentary was made and released in the aftermath.

“It was so great for the museum; so great for Houston,” Greig said. “That is what the museum should be about. It was exciting and educational and fun. There was one woman who came over 30 times! At least once, sometimes twice a day!”

While Greig has always loved “creepy crawlies,” she has devoted her life to educating others about the positives bugs and arthropods provide to the world. She says that you can’t force that appreciation on people, but you can try to get through to them by asking them to imagine what the world would be like without them, among other tactics.

“I try to educate them with some fun stories and show that I’m not afraid. That there’s nothing to be afraid of. Seeing that someone can be totally comfortable with insects and spiders is important,” Greig said.

Nancy Greig Cockroaches

As an arthropod-lover, Greig believes all insects are important, and that even roaches are deserving of our love.

Greig herself is very enthusiastic about the evolution of many insects and their various adaptations for survival. The camouflage used by insects such as walking sticks and katydids really gets visitors thinking about how life got to this point, and Greig counts that as one of the must-sees of the Cockrell Butterfly Center. She is passionate about moving past the “creepy crawly” label as a result.

“It’s neat to be able to use the butterflies as the hook, the ambassadors, I would say, to bring people in, and then we help them to realize that bees and even cockroaches are important,” Greig added.

While Greig has always had a love of nature, she arrived at UT from Calgary ready to study linguistics. She says she took a circuitous route back to biology and that she is proof that “you can do really whatever you want to do.”

“It’s turned out to be really a perfect fit,” Greig said. “Running the Butterfly Center has been a great job for me. There are really not that many jobs like this. It was total serendipity.”

Visitors to the Cockrell Butterfly Center in October can see special plant life in the rainforest conservatory during the temporary exhibition, Savage Garden. And teachers hoping to meet Greig can mark their calendars for The Educator Event @HMNS Jan. 23, 2016, where she will give the keynote address. In addition, educators can book one of Greig’s Bugs On Wheels Outreach Programs, Monarchs or The Buzz About Bees.


Visit Savage Garden for a glimpse at some of nature’s nastiest plants

In case you thought plants were not much more alive than a rock, think again! As David Attenborough pointed out in his wonderful series, The Private Life of Plants, plants have many behaviors as complex and interesting as those of animals. The problem is, plants move much more slowly, making their behaviors and reactions harder for us to appreciate.

During the month of October, the Cockrell Butterfly Center is celebrating Halloween with Savage Garden, bringing attention to some interesting things plants do. If you visit during that time, be sure to check out the map at the entrance and look for the purple signs scattered throughout the main floor of the rainforest.


You’ll be introduced to plants much older than the dinosaurs (Ancient Plants),


plants that protect themselves with spines, thorns, and prickles (Spiky Plants),


plants that defend themselves chemically (Delicious, or Deadly?), plants that heal us (Medicinal Plants), plants that use ants as bodyguards (Ant Plants),


plants that eat insects (Carnivorous Plants),

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plants that come back from the dead (Resurrection Plants),


plants with really putrid flowers (Stinky Plants),


and last but not least, a Miracle Berry plant (False Sugar). 

This is only a small slice of the interesting things plants can do. They have all sorts of adaptations to make more of themselves (via pollination and seed dispersal) and to move from one place to another (seed dispersal and crawling vines, etc.). Some of them can travel through time, with seeds that remain dormant for dozens or even hundreds of years. The protective chemicals of some toxic plants don’t necessarily have to be eaten, either – think about poison ivy. Urushiol (the chemical that causes the extremely uncomfortable blisters in some of us) is a powerful deterrant to humans. Yet birds gobble poison ivy berries with no ill effect!

Even stranger than the above behaviors is the discovery of inter-plant communication. Ecologists have known for a while that plants can “tell” other nearby plants of the same species that they are being attacked by insects via airborne chemicals, and the “listening” plants can then beef up their own chemical defenses. But according to recent studies, plants have other means of communication, some using underground networks of mycorrhizal (fungal) connections that network plants of many different species, and others apparently even making sounds! Check out this interesting article on “Plant Talk” by Dan Cossins in The Scientist

We don’t have any of these “talking” plants (that we know of) in the Butterfly Center, but please visit us in October to learn more about some of the other totally wicked things plants do in Savage Garden! #ChillsAtHMNS

Visit the Fall Plant Sale Saturday to build or boost your butterfly garden!

Butterfly gardening is a great thing to do in the fall. Even though most butterflies will be settling down for the winter in the next few months, your garden will be ready with lots of host and nectar plants for next year’s butterflies. To get you started, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is hosting the Fall Plant Sale this Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon on Level 7 of the museum parking garage. And if you spend $30 or more, your parking is free!


Plants line the seventh floor of the Houston Museum of Natural Science parking garage, ready for the Fall Plant Sale Saturday, Sep. 26.

Most plants we offer are perfect for fall planting. Woody perennials such as salvias, duranta, lantana and many others are hardy for this area and benefit from going into the ground after the heat wave has passed and while the soil is still warm. As long as the root system has had enough time (about a month) to establish itself, the plants will be ready for winter.


Gomphrena Fireworks.

We’ve also got tips to help you maximize your planting season. For better overwintering, provide about two inches of mulch around the base of the plants and cut back the tall leggy growth to build plant strength and more roots. Also, when purchasing plants, you don’t always need to go for the plants with the most blooms. When planting something with a lot of flowers, the plant won’t put much effort into producing roots, which is what you want. Instead, they focus their energy on blooming and won’t be ready for winter. That means a lower chance of survival.



So when you pick out plants, go for bushy, healthy-looking specimens not yet in full bloom. You can even cut the blooms off when you plant, which will increase your chances of success.

Bring your enthusiasm, your green thumb and your curiosity to the Fall Plant Sale at HMNS. We’ll see you there!