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.

monarch

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.

Asclepias_curassavica_(Mexican_Butterfly_Weed)_W_IMG_1570

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.

Howdy, Y’all! Meet some cool critters in the new Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife

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Looking for a fun way to explore the new Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife?! Check out our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife Scavenger Hunt!

Whether you’re bringing students on a field trip or you’re just a kid at heart, visitors to the new hall will be astounded by the amazing natural diversity on display. With over 200 species on display and over 400 specimens, this is the most species-rich collection of Texas wildlife in the world!

Dan Brooks, HMNS Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the new Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife.

Want to learn more about the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife at HMNS?

Check out this video from My Fox Houston:

FOX 26 News | MyFoxHouston

 

 

 

Mean green flying machines: the hummingbirds are here!

Photo by JC Donaho. http://jcdonaho.com/

Photo by JC Donaho. http://jcdonaho.com/

What was that high pitched chirping and flash of iridescent green that just whizzed past at lightning speed? You just got buzzed by a hummingbird! The fall migration is passing through Houston, and these feisty little birds seem to be particularly abundant this year. Houston does not have (for the most part) any resident hummingbirds, but a few species pass through in spring and fall as they fly between their nesting grounds in the northern states and Canada, and their wintering ground in Central America.

The northward spring migration is much more diffuse than the fall event – you may hear a hummingbird or two in February or March, but they don’t linger. However, in late August through September and into early October, hummingbirds can be very evident in Houston. These marathon travellers will pass through our area for about 4 to 6 weeks, stocking up on fuel to take them over the Gulf of Mexico to their winter abode. They are particularly abundant on the Gulf Coast, where inclement weather can force them to stay put until a more opportune time comes to complete the migration. Rockport, Texas hosts a huge “Hummerbird Festival” every mid-September, with lots of talks on hummingbirds and other birds, butterflies, etc., and home tours to see gardens that are particularly full of hummingbirds. It’s over for this year, but put it on your calendar for future years and check it out!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Most hummers you see in Houston (and in Rockport) are Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Males are a metallic green with white bellies, and are named for the patch of dark feathers on their throat that glows a brilliant, iridescent ruby red when the sun hits it just right. Females and immature males do not have the spectacular throat coloring, and are white underneath. Some young males may have a fleck or two of red on their throat.

Two other species are sometimes seen here – the Rufous Hummingbird and the Black-chinned Hummingbird. Juveniles and females of these species are a little hard to distinguish from Ruby-throated females and youngsters, but the males are distinctive. Rufous males are a bright bronze color, with an orangey red throat. Black-chinned males are green with a black throat, below which, in the right light, a brilliant violet band will flash.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Farther west, in the Big Bend area and west into New Mexico, Arizona, and California, hummingbird diversity is much higher. About 15 or so species are known from the USA, and most of these occur in the western states. For the apex of hummingbird diversity, head to the highlands of South America (e.g., Colombia, with about 140 species), where dozens of different species can be seen, some of them truly spectacular. Most of these are residents in the tropics and do not migrate.

 

Male and Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, slow motion, August 2010 from Hummer Lover on Vimeo.

All hummingbirds behave similarly. Masters of speedy, controlled flight, they can hover in place, move backwards and forwards, dive and soar with incredible speed and precision. They can reach speeds of up to 60 mph, their wings whirring at 80 beats per second. Males in particular are territorial and aggressive, cheeping furiously as they drive off rivals from a good food source.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho http://jcdonaho.com/

Hummingbirds’ main food is flower nectar, so they are important pollinators of certain species of plants. They especially seem to gravitate to red flowers, although other colors are visited. Their long thin beaks and even longer tongues allow them to reach inside floral tubes that are much too deep for most butterflies and bees. Since birds in general have a poorly developed sense of smell, flowers pollinated by hummingbirds typically have no scent.

Hummingbirds also eat small insects such as fruit flies and gnats, catching them on the wing or finding them inside the flowers they probe for nectar.

Bottle feeder with ant-guard

Bottle feeder with ant-guard

Because they love sweet fluids, it is easy to provide feeders for hummingbirds, and several designs are available. Hummingbird food is simple to make; you just need sugar and clean water. DO NOT use any other sweetener – including honey or other types of sugar –just your standard white table sugar. Use four parts water to one part sugar. Bring the water to a rolling boil, add in sugar and stir until it dissolves, then turn off the heat. Do not cook it too long or it will start to caramelize. Let the solution cool and you are ready to fill your feeders. Keep extra sugar solution in the refrigerator.

IMPORTANT! If you want to feed hummingbirds you must commit to regularly changing their sugar water food! Sugar water ferments and/or grows mold quickly, and when spoiled it can make hummingbirds sick. Since you will need to clean the feeders about every three days, do not fill them too full or you will waste a lot of sugar solution. Fill them from between ¼ to ½ full, at least until you see how fast the hummers empty them.

DO NOT add red food coloring, and avoid commercial solutions with food coloring. Coloring is not necessary, as most feeders have red parts built in to attract the hummers’ attention. Like spoiled sugar water, food coloring is bad for the hummingbirds’ health.

Every three days, even if your feeders are not empty, clean them thoroughly with hot water and refill them with fresh solution. At the end of the season you should sterilize the feeders either in the dishwasher or using a dilute bleach solution before drying and storing them until next year. I prefer to use glass feeders as these are easier to sterilize.

 

Perky Pet feeder

Perky Pet feeder

A few guidelines on feeder placement – hummingbirds are not at all shy, so you can put feeders near your house where you can enjoy watching their activity. I put one right outside my kitchen window, and hang others around my back yard, especially near trees or bushes where hummingbirds can perch between bouts at the feeder. If you put out more than one feeder (I recommend this!), don’t put them too close, and ideally place them out of sight of each other to avoid their being monopolized by one dominant male.

Salvia leucantha, aka Mexican Sage

Salvia leucantha, aka Mexican Sage

In a good season, you will have dozens of hummingbirds – and the more feeders, the more hummingbirds! I usually put out from 3 to 9 feeders, depending on activity. Of course, hummingbirds also visit flowers for nectar. The classic hummingbird flower is red with a long floral tube, but many others also bring them in. Some good choices are salvias (many varieties), hummingbird bush, coral vine, trumpet creeper, and russelia.

Salvia guaranitica, or Purple Majesty Sage

Salvia guaranitica, or Purple Majesty Sage

Of course, if you have outdoor cats, you should not put out hummingbird feeders or any other kind of bird feeder!

Did you know?

  • Hummingbirds are only found in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Hummingbirds’ jewel-like, glittering colors do not come from pigments, but result from the refraction of light hitting special structures on their feathers.
  • The Bee Hummingbird from Cuba, less than 2.5 inches long, is the world’s smallest bird.
  • The largest hummingbird is the Giant Hummingbird, from Patagonia, Chile. It is about the size of a cardinal, but only weighs half as much (about .65 ounces, or about 1/20th of a pound).
  • The longest hummingbird is the Black-tailed Trainbearer from Colombia. The male’s total length is about 10 inches, including its 6.5 inch tail!
  • The Sword-billed Hummingbird from Ecuador has a 4 inch long beak, almost as long as its body!
  • Check out the PBS Nature special on hummingbirds, “Magic in the Air,” for some amazing footage of these incredible creatures!

We’d like to introduce you to the four new species of African house bats

Editor’s note: This blog post is a summation of “New Species of Scotophilus (Chiroptera: Vespertiliondae) from Sub-Saharan Africa,” written by HMNS Curator of Vertebrate Zoology Daniel M. Brooks and John W. Bickham, and published as a monograph in the Occasional Papers of the Museum at Texas Tech University.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a hotbed of biological diversity. A seemingly endless stream of new species has been discovered from different locales every year for centuries. The idea of this great biodiversity is widely accepted and, in fact, celebrated. But advances in genomic sequencing and morphology and an increased ability to obtain reliable specimens while recording their location shows that we’ve really just hit the tip of the iceberg. Many individual clades (or groups) of species should actually be distinguished further from each other as unique species themselves.

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Distribution of the four new species in Africa

The conservation question

Hold on a second here. Why is this important? What kind of difference could it make if there are 15 or 19 or 30 species of house bats in the world?

Glad you asked! Having an accurate taxonomy (naming and classification system) guides conservation efforts, while incomplete records impede these same efforts. Look at it this way: if you don’t know that a species exists, how can you protect it? In our modern era, we’re seeing rapid climate change and urbanization, which puts habitats under stresses to which species cannot quickly adapt. Therefore, having complete records allows us to make more meaningful conservation efforts because we have a better picture of what we’re trying to conserve. Having an accurate taxonomy also helps us to learn about biogeography, evolution, biodiversity and biology in general.

Now on to the bats!

As of 2005, there were 15 species of Scotophilus (house bats) documented. These were distributed between Indonesia, mainland Asia, Madagascar, Reunion Island and mainland Africa. However, these 15 species do not accurately reflect our current knowledge of Scotophilus biodiversity.

A 2009 study by Robert G. Trujillo sequenced cytochrome-b (part of an organism’s DNA) in Scotoplilus. Cytochrome-b is found in mitochondrial DNA, which is the genetic material in mitochondria (the “energy factory” of cells, if you will). These sequences are very useful in determining species differentiation.

With this information, Trujillo identified four distinct clades (branches on a species family tree). These include clades 8, 9, 11 and 12. Brooks and Bickham examined specimens from each of these lineages to see if there were enough physical differences between the organisms to further classify them as distinct species.

The clades and species of Scotophilus studied for the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene by Trujillo et al. (2009). The new species described in this  paper are circled.

The clades and species of Scotophilus studied for the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene by Trujillo et al. (2009). The new species described in this paper are circled.

Brooks and Bickham used skull and body measurements to compare specimens of each lineage with specimens representing the appropriate nominate — “textbook specimens” — of a given species).

Basically, they got very specific: measuring specimens from one predetermined area, and compared them to the nominate “textbook specimens” to see what physical differences there may or may not be.

When they compared the specimens, we saw that the genetic differences between the clades matched up with physical differences, which is why I’m proud to introduce to you four new species of African house bats (Scotophilus)!

Brooks - New SubSaharan Bats Blog 2

Study skin of Scotophilus andrewreborii holotype

 

Brooks - New SubSaharan Bats Blog 3

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus andrewreborii holotype

Scotophilus andrewreborii
Andrew Rebori’s House Bat

It is our honor to name this species for Andrew N. Rebori (1948–2011). Rebori unknowingly touched lives and inspired many individuals, including many museum professionals. He always maintained a keen interest in animals, especially bats, which exemplified his spirit and attitude toward life: “Take flight every new day!”

Type locality: Kenya: Rift Valley Province, Nakuru District, 12 km S, 4 km E Nakuru (0º24’S, 36º07’E).

Diagnosis: Scotophilus andrewreborii is distinguished from S. dinganii from Natal by a combination of external and craniodental features. S. andrewreborii averages slightly larger in body size for most characters. Additionally the dorsal pelage in S. andrewreborii is more reddish than the browner dorsal fur of S. dinganii, and the ventral pelage in S. andrewreborii is orange versus a much darker grey in S. dinganii.

Cranial measurements in S. andrewreborii are smaller, with non-overlapping measurements for braincase breadth for males, and shorter mean skull length (18.9 in S. andrewreborii vs. 19.6 mm for S. dinganii), narrower zygomatic, shorter braincase height, narrower interorbital width (4.4 vs. 4.8 mm), decreased breadth across upper molars, and decreased breadth across upper canines for females.

Brooks - New SubSaharan Bats Blog 5

Study skin of Scotophilus livingstonii holotype

 

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus livingstonii holotype.

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus livingstonii
holotype

Scotophilus livingstonii
Livingstone’s House Bat

It is our honor to name this species for the late David Livingstone (1813–1873). At a time when most of Africa was barely known compared to today, Livingstone, a young Scot of humble means, explored central Africa. Between 1841 and his death in 1873, Livingstone made several expeditions into the interior of the continent, mapping uncharted lands and searching for navigable waterways.

Type locality: Kenya: Western Province, Kakamega District, Ikuywa River Bridge, 6.5 km S, 19 km E Kakamega (0º13’N, 34º55’E).

Diagnosis: Scotophilus livingstonii is distinguished from S. dinganii from Natal by a combination of external and craniodental features. S. livingstonii averages larger overall in body size. Additionally the dorsal pelage in S. livingstonii is more reddish-mahogany than the browner dorsal fur of S. dinganii, and the ventral abdominal pelage in S. livingstonii is light buff vs. a much darker grey in S. dinganii.

Scotophilus livingstonii is also distinguished from S. dinganii from Natal by cranio-dental measurements. Male S. livingstonii have a shorter mean skull length, and females have a longer mean mandibular length.

Brooks - New SubSaharan Bats Blog 7

Study skin of Scotophilus ejetai holotype

 

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus ejetai holotype.

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus ejetai holotype

Scotophilus ejetai
Ejeta’s House Bat

This species is named in honor of Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, Distinguished Professor of Plant Breeding & Genetics and International Agriculture at Purdue University. He was born and raised in the village of Wollonkomi in west-central Ethiopia. Dr. Ejeta is a plant breeder and geneticist who received the 2009 World Food Prize for his research and development of improved sorghum hybrids resistant to drought and Striga weed. The results of his work have dramatically enhanced the food supply of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Type locality: Ethiopia: Orimaya Region, Dogy River Bridge (8º21’43″N, 35º53’02″E). Collected at 1390 m above sea level.

Diagnosis: Scotophilus ejetai is distinguished from S. dinganii from Natal by a combination of external and craniodental features. S. ejetai averages smaller overall in body size, with females presenting non-overlapping forearm length.  Additionally the ventral pelage in S. ejetai has an orange hue, whereas the ventral fur is buff with a greyish abdomen in S. dinganii.

Cranial measurements in S. ejetai are smaller, with non-overlapping measurements for skull length, zygomatic breadth and braincase breadth for males, and zygomatic breadth and braincase breadth for females.

Study skin of Scotophilus trujilloi holotype.

Study skin of Scotophilus trujilloi holotype

 

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus trujilloi holotype.

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus trujilloi holotype

Scotophilus trujilloi
Trujillo’s House Bat

It is our honor to name this species for Dr. Robert Trujillo (b. 1975), whose ground-breaking doctoral dissertation on the molecular systematics of Scotophilus paved the way for the description of the four cryptic species described here. Dr. Trujillo’s dedication to science and environmental stewardship are reflected in his outstanding career in the US Forest Service.

Type locality: Kenya: Coastal Province, Kwale District, Moana Marine Station, 1 km S, 2 km E Ukunda (4º18’S, 39º35’E).

Diagnosis: Scotophilus trujilloi is distinguished from S. viridis from Mozambique Island by a combination of external and craniodental features. S. trujilloi averages larger in body size and shorter in forearm length, with females presenting non-overlapping head-body and forearm lengths. Additionally the dorsal pelage in S. trujilloi is mahogany, whereas the dorsal fur is brown in S. viridis. The ventral pelage in S. trujilloi is orange with a greyish abdomen, whereas the ventral fur is grayish-brown grizzled whitish abdominally in S. viridis.

Cranial measurements in S. trujilloi differ from S. viridis, with shorter mean braincase height in males; and females, as well as non-overlapping mandibular length in females.