A new sound in town!

By Nancy Greig, Director Emeritus, Cockrell Butterfly Center

As I was leaving the museum around 9 p.m. last week, after the fun “Evenings with the Owls” event at the Butterfly Center, my attention was piqued by an unfamiliar sound. It was a sort of double cheep, with the accent on the second cheep – I did not recognize it. (I think it’s interesting how we don’t consciously hear most background noises because they are familiar – but even subtle sounds stand out, if they are novel. Perhaps it is a good survival strategy.)

In any case, there were plenty of other sounds – cricket frogs, traffic, etc. – in the area, but I soon located the source of the cheeping, about 15 feet up in a large live oak tree. I was able to mimic it closely enough to get whatever was making the sound to answer back, and we called back and forth for a while. I was mystified. Was it a bird? Maybe. A frog? More likely. An insect? I wasn’t sure. So bringing modern technology to my aid, I pulled out my iPhone and recorded a short video – of blackness, since it was well after dark, but the sound recorded quite nicely. I posted the video to Facebook, flagging a couple friends who are bird and herp experts, asking for their opinion. Not five minutes later I got a reply that included a video and recording of the coqui, a small tree frog (Eleutherodactylus coqui) endemic to Puerto Rico. Several other FB friends concurred, and some also sent more recordings and photos. The mystery was solved!


Photo courtesy of California Fish and Wildlife

But not entirely. How did it get here? The coqui originated in Puerto Rico, but has been introduced to the Virgin Islands and Florida (in 1972), and in 1988, it arrived in Hawai’i (possibly in plant material from Florida). Since that accidental introduction, its populations in Hawai’i have exploded, especially on the big island. Some areas have as many as 10,000 frogs per acre, and the males’ incessant call, which continues throughout most of the night, is driving people crazy (and driving down real estate prices). In addition to being a major noise nuisance, all these frogs (in a place with no native amphibians, and few predators) almost certainly impact the delicate/fragile island ecosystem.


Eleutherodactylus is a very large genus of mostly small, usually brownish tree frogs (185 species, all in the New World tropics). All species have direct development – i.e., the eggs are not laid in water and there is no tadpole stage; the eggs hatch directly into tiny frogs). Most species show some form of parental care, males and/or females guarding the eggs or sometimes even the young froglets. Female coquis may be almost two inches long; males are somewhat smaller. In their native Puerto Rico, coquis are cherished and have become a national symbol.
None of my knowledgeable friends had heard of the coqui being reported from Texas, at least not from our area. However, Texas has one of the fastest growing Puerto Rican populations in the country. It’s not inconceivable that a recent immigrant inadvertently imported one of these frogs. Or perhaps a frog arrived in a shipment of plants from south Florida. I have not noticed the coqui’s call in any other part of Houston, but I will be keeping my ears open from here on out.

It’s unlikely that the coqui would become as big a nuisance here as in Hawai’i. There are plenty of local frogs and toads that would function as competitors, and plenty of predators (other frogs, lizards, birds, snakes) that will eat small frogs. Also, our area has the potential at least of having some freezing weather during winter months, although this has not happened recently. A significant cold snap would likely do in these tropical creatures. So it’s not clear if this is something to worry about. However, because of its impact in Hawai’i, the coqui is listed as one of the 100 most noxious invasive species in the world…
If you hear this call in your area, please let us know, or even better, send us a recording stating where you heard it. We’d like to help track the coqui’s presence here in Texas.


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What You Might Have Missed – Member Events

By Kim Vera, HMNS Membership Copywriter


In August and September we had plenty events to help ease your summer blues and celebrate the beginning of the fall season. Here’s a recap in case you missed out. And be on the lookout for your HMNS weekly newsletter because we are planning a lot of exciting events in the coming months.


Members Night at the George Observatory | Friday, Aug. 5

After being closed due to flooding in Brazos Bend State Park, we were finally able to head back out and enjoy a night of stargazing with snacks, kids’ activities and lots of telescopes for viewing celestial marvels in the night sky.


Sugar Land – Block Party, Too! Members’ Event| Friday, Aug. 12


Members enjoyed an evening of tower building, food, and fun during our members-only event for Block Party, Too! Families were able to roam about the Museum, taking a break every now and then to grab a bite to eat or snack on dessert under a giant Tyrannosaurus rex.


2nd Saturdays for Members | Saturday, Aug. 13 and Sept. 10


During 2nd Saturdays, Members can experience the Museum an hour before the crowds arrive. Tours were available for our Out of the Amazon: Life on the River exhibit and the Morian Hall of Paleontology. For breakfast, Doughmaker Doughnuts served gourmet donuts, a favorite being the French toast, perfectly drenched in maple syrup and powdered sugar. 2nd Saturday is the perfect wakeup call for Members and their little ones. The next 2nd Saturday is on Nov. 12th – and don’t forget your kid’s pass for an extra prize!


World Trekkers: South Korea| Friday, Aug. 26



Passports were stamped, snacks were sampled, and faces were painted! Members were whisked away on a journey to South Korea where students from dojang K-Taekwondo performed demonstrations for the crowds and displayed acts of strength, precision and discipline. After their demonstrations, children has the opportunity to test their own skills with one-on-one training exercises with students from the school. World Trekkers also featured balloon artists and face painters who transformed children into their favorite animals and superheroes and samplings of roasted seaweed, shrimp chips and a chocolate-dipped pretzel stick called Pepero. Travel with us for our last Trekkers of the year as we head off to Ireland in November! See the world with HMNS and don’t forget your World Trekkers passport!


Members First! Bill of Rights: Amending America. | Friday, Sept. 1


In September, HMNS Members enjoyed a brand new benefit, Members First, which gave an in-depth look at the Bill of Rights before the exhibit opened to the public. As a Museum bonus, a historical reenactor was stationed in the Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. Hall giving Members an insight on our humble beginnings in pursuing life, liberty, and happiness.


An Evening with the Owls- Members Events| Monday – Wednesday, Sept. 12 – 14


An Evening with the Owls allowed Members to witness owl butterflies up close in the evening when they were most active. In addition to insect owls, special guests from Wild Life Center of Texas and Sky Kings Falconry introduced guests to feathered owls, including a great horned owl, a tiny screech owl and a beautiful barn owl. Charro, our resident green iguana, even made an appearance at the event to meet and greet guests and eat some snacks provided by staff of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.


HMNS Catalysts: An Evening with the Owls | Thursday, Sept. 15


paperSwarms of owl butterflies fluttered through the air in the Cockrell Butterfly Center as HMNS Catalysts Members attempted to capture pictures of the winged beauties while they landed from head to head in the crowd. Members were greeted that evening with an open bar and the aroma of mouthwatering roasted Berkshire pork loin sliders, crudité of asparagus, and assorted cheeses and olives. Special themed crafts were also available where guests could make their very own butterfly origami and pom pom bugs with googly eyes. Members also got to experience entomophagy – consuming bugs as a source of food – by sampling bowls of chocolate-coated array of insects and crickets and larvets flavored with sour cream and onion, BBQ, and cheddar seasonings.

Mummies of the World: The Exhibition – Members First Viewing and Members Exclusive Event | Friday, Sept. 23

Mummies of the World: The Exhibition opened with Members First, which allowed members the opportunity to experience this fascinating exhibition before it opened to the public. In the evening, we held our exclusive Members’ event that featured children’s craft tables, a fun photo booth, and a tasty menu of chicken tagine and dulce de leche brownies drizzled in caramel. Once inside the exhibit, HMNS docents enhanced the exhibit experience by providing deeper insights into the process of natural and man-made mummification.

We hope you had as much fun at the members’ events as we did! And check our website often because we will be adding new events soon.

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2016 African Hall Updates

Dan Brooks, Ph.D.

HMNS Curator of Vertebrate Zoology




The Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife, built 2002-04 was a new variation of a common traditional theme at HMNS, in that we wanted to portray more than just the Serengeti ecosystem.  Prior versions of the hall focused on the Serengeti, which while a very important ecosystem, was a mere fraction of the continent.  In late Fall of 2003, Phase I debuted, featuring dioramas representing the Congo Basin, West African Forest, Ethiopian Scrub and Serengeti Savannah.  In late Spring of 2004, Phase II debuted, featuring dioramas representing Okavango Delta, South African Lowveldt, Saharan Desert, and a rotating case.


The new exhibit was a smash hit, not only for portraying various ecosystems within the continent, but also for providing various themes in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.  The result was, what the visitor could see is the whole ecosystem, with elements of time and space removed, so that the species and landscapes are all brought to full view simultaneously in one ‘snapshot’.


As exciting as the new hall was, some updates were in order since the opening was already well over a decade.  In total, we added 23 new specimens representing 13 new species not currently on display, along with adding a couple of other species that are already on display.  This brought the total number of specimens on display in the hall to over 125, representing around 90 species.



West African Wetland

Perhaps, the most exciting addition is the West African Wetland diorama featuring an African Elephant (Loxodonta africana).  Elephants have the distinction of being the largest living land animal on the planet.  There are actually two species in Africa, those from the Savannah (Loxodonta africana) that you see in this diorama, and a smaller species that lives in forest, aptly called the Forest Elephant (L. cyclotis).  Additionally Asia harbors several subspecies of Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), including the Pygmy Elephant endemic to Borneo.  These living species are the last of a lineage of much more hairy relatives that walked the planet during the Pleistocene, known as Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) and Mastodons (Mammut americanum). 


Elephants are vital landscape architects in the tropical regions they inhabit.  They are important for seed dispersal, carrying seeds to spawn and grow away from the parent plant.  Moreover, they are important at molding landscapes, removing plants that would otherwise monopolize a habitat, providing a variety of refugia for smaller animals by toppling trees onto their sides, and other important roles.  Indeed, in areas where elephant populations have exceeded the number that can be comfortably supported at a given site, the landscape becomes quite denuded. 

Unfortunately elephants are tied for the one thing that is as coveted by some cultures as gold or diamonds – ivory.  The demand for the illegal trade in ivory has pushed elephants to the brink of extinction in many areas.  In some regions of Africa, tuskless elephants have been evolutionarily favored over their tusked brethren.  If elephants don’t have tusks they are of little value to poachers and thus not hunted, which means tuskless genes are carried forth to future generations.


Several species of aquatic and semi-aquatic bird species round out the West African Wetland diorama, including small flocks of Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) and White-faced Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna viduata), as well as Black Crowned Crane (Balearica pavonina) and African Open-billed Stork (Anastomus lamelligerus).


If the Cattle Egret looks familiar to you, it is perfectly understandable.  They are commonly seen in Texas pastures, usually near the cattle that the bird follows in order to snatch up the insects that they panic into movement.  But the Cattle Egret perfected this foraging technique on the African plain, following antelope and other large grazers.  It arrived in the New World via storm systems that carried the bird across the Atlantic, from the west coast of Africa to northeastern Brazil, whereupon the birds gradually dispersed to the south, west and north.


While similar in appearance to a duck, White-faced Whistling Ducks are actually closer related to swans, which they share a long neck in common with.  Several species of whistling ducks are distributed throughout the globe, occupying every continent except for Antarctica.  They get the name whistling duck from their call, but are also known as tree ducks do to their habit of perching and nesting in trees.  The closely related Black-bellied Whistling Duck is ubiquitous around Houston.  Like Cattle Egrets, White-faced Whistling Ducks dispersed across the Atlantic on their own, thus populating both Africa and Latin America.


Found in the tropical belt of Africa, Black Crowned Cranes are rare and classified as Vulnerable due to habitat loss and trapping for food and commerce.  They are typically associated in bonded pairs that mate for life, occupying grasslands and wetlands such as depicted in the diorama.  Cranes are well known for their loud duet calls, with contributions by both male and female simultaneously.  In contrast to most cranes (genus Grus), crowned cranes give loud honking noises, similar to a clown’s horn on a circus car!  For the different voice and other reasons, crowned cranes are placed in their own genus, including both this species and the Blue Crowned Crane (B. regulorum) from East and Southern Africa.


The African Open-billed Stork gets its name from the space between the mandibles of its bill.  This modification of the bill aids in handling molluscs to consume; freshwater snails are their preferred food.  Although they may be in flocks up to 7000 individuals, they prefer to feed alone.  Like many species, their breeding season is in the spring when resources are abundant.  African Open-billed Storks perform complex displays, involving head-bobbing, bill-clattering, and rocking back-and-forth with the head held between the legs.



African House Bat/Evolution Kiosk

To the right of the new West African Wetland diorama is a new kiosk featuring a label about ‘speciation and describing new species’, using as the model, new species of African House Bats (Scotophilus) I described in 2014 with my colleague John Bickham.  Featured are one of the four new species, Andrew Rebori’s House Bat (S. andrewreborii) along with the species it was split from, African Yellow House Bat (S. dinganii). 


New species evolve via a number of different modes, the most common of which involves isolation.  Oceanic islands are perhaps the first and most extreme form of isolation, but such ‘islands’ can also form on mainlands – imagine a mountaintop where the species inhabiting the very top is unable to exist at lower elevations – that’s an island barrier.  Other examples include species cratered in valleys between mountains or rivers, or other barriers created by contrasting habitats.  Over evolutionary millennia, those species with a common ancestor undergo separate trajectories with their own unique set of adaptations, such that ultimately they are very different.  Distinguishing and describing these new forms is the job of a museum zoologist.


On occasion one stumbles upon a new species while examining museum specimens and noticing something distinct, or running DNA analyses and also noticing something distinct.  These tandem situations led to the description of four new species of African House Bats: Livingstone’s (Scotophilus livingstonii) of tropical central Africa, Andrew Rebori’s (S. andrewreborii) and Trujillo’s (S. trujilloi) of Kenya, and Ejetai’s (S. ejetai) from Ethiopia.  Firming this up with morphological and DNA analyses led to the description of these four new species. 



Ethiopian Scrub

Several birds were added to the Ethiopian Scrub diorama, including a pair of Yellow-necked Spurfowl (Francolinus leucoscepus) which are endemic to this ecosystem, and have bright yellow bare patches on their throats, as the name implies.  Other endemics were added, such as individuals of Vulturine Guinea Fowl (Acryllium vulturinum) and Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus), to help build social groups of current individuals already represented in the diorama.


Yellow-necked Spurfowl are actually a species of Francolin, which are gamebirds found throughout Africa.  Spurfowl tend to associate in pairs (a male and female) as depicted in the exhibit.  Like other gamebirds they will use their powerful claws as a digging tool to expose grubs, roots, tubers, and other delicacies they enjoy eating.  They have a very powerful voice that can be heard at quite a distance.  Genders are identical, although the male is a bit larger. 


Except when breeding, Vulturine Guinea Fowl occur in medium to large flocks that spend the day scratching on the ground looking for food.  They are, however, strong fliers and roost in trees overnight.  Although they will take water when it is available, they can exist for long periods without drinking.  In spite of its name, the Vulturine Guineafowl is not a carrion eater, but rather an omnivore who will take a variety of invertebrates, seeds, and fruit.  Its featherless head gives it a superficial resemblance to vultures, which accounts for its common name.


The spectacularly colored Superb Starling is a common East African bird.  It feeds mainly on the ground, eating a range of seeds, fruits and insects.  It will devour food scraps and small flocks will often gather where people offer it food, making it popular with tourists.  While this species will nest in cavities like most starlings, it often builds large domed nest in low thorn bushes.  Sometimes a breeding pair is assisted by non-breeding offspring from earlier broods.



Saharan Desert

The Saharan Desert diorama was always a bit barren, lacking more examples of migratory birds and carnivores, so it was exciting to be able add both.  Mammalian carnivores include Pale Fox (Vulpes pallida) and Caracal (Felis caracal), the latter of which is carrying off a hyrax from the small familial group on the cliff.  Additional migrants include a flock of the European Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus), as well as an example of the exquisite Demoiselle Crane (Grus virgo) standing next to the date tree. 


The Pale Fox lives in the latitudinal band across the southern Sahara of Africa known as the Sahel Strip.  A species of the desert, the Pale Fox is more active at night to opportune cooler temperatures.  During the daytime they rest in the cool environment of underground burrows that can reach nearly 50 feet in length, while several feet underground.  The large ears are adaptations for enhanced hearing, and the sand-colored pelage helps them blend into their environment.  Another adaptation for desert life is the ability to obtain all needed water from their food, they drink little water (if any).


The Caracal is also known as the African Lynx, owing to the tufts of hair tipping the ears which it shares in common with the true Lynx (Lynx canadensis).  It can live from sea level to 10,000 feet in a variety of habitats – not only in Africa, but also northeast through the Middle East to western India.  While it may take a variety of game, the majority of its diet is comprised of mammals ranging in size from rodents to large antelope.  The speed and agility of the Caracal permit it to take mammals up to three times its size.  Caracals were apparently important symbols to ancient Egyptians.  Sculptured Caracals guarded tombs of Pharoahs, and ancient paintings and bronze figurines have been discovered as well.  


The smallest of the world’s 15 species of cranes, the Demoiselle Crane was given its name by Marie Antoinette.  Demoiselle means young lady or maiden in French, the queen was enchanted by the crane’s demure and maidenly appearance.  The geographic range covers a wide latitudinal band across Asia, with the Mongolian/Chinese population migrating to India for the winter, and the population between the Caspain and Black Sea, including Turkey, migrating south to spend winter in the Saharan Desert.


The largest of the grain-eating pigeons, the European Wood Pigeon can be found in a variety of habitats from city parks to woodland.  This species is one of the most commonly seen birds in Europe, ranging southwest to the Saharan Desert, as far east as parts of Mongolia and China and south to India.  Like most pigeons they have a clutch of two white eggs laid atop a flimsy platform of twigs; the squabs fledge at approximately three weeks of age. 



Ethiopian Highlands

Last but by no means least, is the Ethiopian Highland microcosm to replace the Bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus) in the rotating case.  Like many animals living in Ethiopia, the Gelada Baboon (Theropithecus gelada) and Erckel’s Francolin (Francolinus erckelii) are endemics that occur in no other country on the planet except for Ethiopia.  In fact, both of these species are among several that are restricted to the Highlands of Ethiopia rather than the Lowlands depicted in the circular diorama. 


The Gelada is so unique, it is in a monotypic genus, meaning that it is the sole member of the genus Theropithecus and has no closely related living relatives.  Many characteristic make the Gelada totally unique from other species of baboons (genus Papio).  Large troops of Geladas spend the night perched below a cliff ledge on rocky cliff face for protection from predators.  Not only is their nighttime cliff face bunking behavior unique among monkeys, but they are the only species of primate that subsists entirely on grass blades and grains.  After scaling back up the cliff face in the morning, they spend the day foraging in grassland above the cliff. 


Francolins are gamebirds that fill the ecological equivalent of pheasants and partridge in Asia, or grouse and quail in North America.  Overall they are closest related to partridge.  Approximately 25 species of francolins are found throughout Africa, with an additional five species hailing from Asia.  They vary extensively in size and color.  Like other gamebirds they will use their powerful claws as a digging tool to expose grubs, roots, tubers, and other delicacies they enjoy eating.  They have a very powerful voice that can be heard at quite a distance.  Males and females are identical, although the male is a bit larger. 


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Museum Collections: Cooler than it Sounds!

Oftentimes we find ourselves in social situations with people we’ve never met before. You may be in a doctor’s office, a school open house, or even at a social event in our Museum. While mingling with new people the same conversations invariably come up, with the subject matter being almost as predictable as your favorite pet greeting you at the door. The question we’ve all both asked and answered that amuses me the most is, “So, what do you do for a living?” Personally I’m okay with that question because saying that I work for the Houston Museum of Natural Science often results in responses like, “My children love that place!” or, “We’ve been members for years!”

Those are the typical responses I get when I omit the department I work for. How could the response be any different based on the department that I belong to? Well, I work in Museum Collections, and while for many that brings up mental images of stacks of old fossils and fragments of pottery, for some people it makes them envision a completely different form of “collections” work. Don’t get me wrong, as a struggling college student that was prone to creatively juggling bill due dates I can see where their mind processed the second word and completely missed the first. I help add to their consternation by providing my title of Inventory Manager, which I believe lends a mental image of tracking office chairs and Swingline staplers.


Not office chairs and swingline staplers

It really isn’t like that at all — and now comes the fun part of letting you peek behind the curtain of what it is to do what I do. Our Museum has a huge collection of artifacts, fossils, animals, shells, and minerals. Our collection is so large that as you walk the halls of the Museum you’re seeing no more than 10% of what we actually own. Keeping track of that many items is a full time job. Actually, it’s four full time jobs.

Meet Emmalee, Kathleen, and Max; all three are Inventory Technicians for the HMNS Collections Department. Their task and mine is to create a record of each item’s location and to tie that location to the item’s file. When you’re dealing with numbers of items that border on the millions that might seem like an impossible task. Thankfully technology impacts all things, including the museum world. Here at the Museum we have software that allows us to document an item’s location down to the very shelf that item rests on.



Anyone familiar with our Museum and has visited recently can probably guess that just knowing an object’s storage or display location wouldn’t be enough. Objects in storage or on display don’t typically stay in those locations and many of our pieces are rotated in and out based on current exhibitions at the Museum. Keeping track of an artifact or specimen once a curator has decided that it should be displayed or stored is our second responsibility.

So yes, my team and I work in a collections department but it might not be the department you first envision or the job you first thought we did. We work in a department that strives to preserve knowledge for future generations — and tracking dinosaurs really is in our job description.


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