Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 5/18-5/24

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! 

Bronze Head with Gold Mask copy
Behind-the-Scenes Tours
Tuesday, May 19
6:30 p.m. 
Samurai: The Way of the Warrior
Witness the exquisite objects related to the legendary Samurai warriors of Japan in the special exhibition Samurai: The Way of the Warrior. Museum master docents will lead you through the collection that includes full suits of armor, helmets, swords, sword-hilts, and saddles, as well as exquisite objects intended for more personal use such as lacquered writing boxes, incense trays and foldable chairs.

China’s Lost Civilization
Tour the stunning display of ancient jades, bone, pottery, elephant tusks and monumental bronzes that were discovered in Sanxingdui, China by construction workers. This after-hour tour of China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui is led by HMNS master docents.

Opening of Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology 
Friday, May 22
The Texas coast is a natural treasure to many Texans, but few know about its ecologic and economic importance. The new Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology will show visitors how a healthy environment is paramount to maintaining and sustaining a healthy economy. 

Opening of Secret Ocean 3D
Friday, May 22
Filmed over 3 years in vibrant marine environments from the Bahamas to Fiji, the first 3D theater film directed by Jean-Michel Cousteau provides a compelling breakthrough look at a secret world within the ocean that is perhaps the biggest story of all-that the smallest life in the sea is the mightiest force on which we all depend. 

Opening of Fate of the Maya
Friday, May 22
Explore ancient Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque; experiencing the elegance and power of these great Maya cities. Watch astronomers observing the heavens to predict the future. Then visit lagoons and sink holes to discover what destroyed this advanced civilization — a fate that still threatens great urban centers around the world. It’s a beautiful story for those who love to explore ancient civilizations and discover lessons carved in silt and stone.

 

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James Washington: Being Natural

Discovery Guide James Washington, III, better known at the Houston Museum of Natural Science as “Jurassic James,” has made a career out of going above and beyond the call of duty.

“[My bosses] say, ‘You have your responsibilities. Make sure those are done, but then do whatever you want to do’,” he said. “So of course, me being me, I kept adding things to my job description.”

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James Washington shows off his collection of model dinosaurs, which he has been compiling since he was a young boy. They have since been repurposed into a wildly successful training regimen for HMNS employees.

Five years ago, Washington was tutoring Geology at Lone Star College when his students were offered extra credit for visiting the Cullen Hall of Gems & Minerals at HMNS. He volunteered to spend his Saturdays giving free tours for his students and made an impression on museum staff in the process.

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Washington explains the properties of the mineral pyrite by comparing several examples with other similar minerals.

“The guy who interviewed me was like, ‘You look familiar.’ I told him I did a tour here last weekend for some students. So, they hired me on in front-line visitor services,” Washington said.

Washington could do it all and was quickly promoted into the concierge program before becoming one of the first of the museum’s full-time Discovery Tour Guides. He continued to do extra work that was technically someone else’s job, scheduling tours and handling requests, eventually earning a promotion to Concierge Lead.

But where Washington really found his calling was with training and teaching. It’s what he calls, “the best part of my job.”

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Washington stands before the extensive whiteboard diagrams he drew to model the prehistoric Paleozoic and Mesozoic oceans.

Over the years, Washington has collected fossils, artifacts, and model animals and dinosaurs. Beginning in the fall of 2014, much of that collection made its way to the HMNS basement into a special training classroom Washington developed for the concierge program.

Since that time, the classroom has expanded from one room to three and has grown to cover more topics including geology, paleontology, and more. An entire counter is filled with colorful plastic dinosaur models, a long row of folding tables models the evolution of numerous animal species, and the walls are covered in dry-erase drawings of volcanoes, oceanic layers, and prehistoric reptile anatomy. It’s the end-result of years of hard work.

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Washington hand-drew and colored this 20-foot-long poster board modeling the evolution of life over time, completing the display with models from his personal collection.

“I just kept bringing more and more stuff in and reorganizing. This is not in my job description; I’m only supposed to do tour scheduling, but I end up doing two Adult Education classes and now some home-school classes in the fall,” Washington said.

“Every once in a while, I feel sorry for whoever replaces me,” he added with a grin.

Washington has always wanted to be a science teacher, specifically at the university-level, but for now, his work at the museum allows him to explore the depths of a variety of subjects.

“I like learning about ancient history and earth science and biology and animals and I don’t want to commit to learning just one of those concepts forever. The museum facilitates that. I can learn everything I want and apply it,” Washington said.

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Geologic specimens Washington collected over the years on various digs and field excursions cover this counter in the Museum’s basement.

The first step towards that goal is completing college and earning a bachelor’s degree, and Washington works hard to balance a full-time job with a full-time course load. Between working five days a week and a class schedule that begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 8:30 p.m. on his days off, it’s no wonder that he jokes, “I don’t sleep.”

 

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Washington demonstrates the differences between two versions of Tyrannosaurus rex that appeared in two different Jurassic Park films to show how human understanding of prehistoric life has changed over time.

Washington was always interested in dinosaurs and loved visiting the museum as a kid. He says he puts the museum on a pedestal, so much so that when he first applied, he remembered thinking, “I could never work at the museum. This is the Museum of Natural Science.”

Today, coming up on four years as an employee, Washington is thankful for the opportunities afforded him. He still can’t believe he works here.

“I look at what the Museum has given to me. I am talking to their guests about science. I am being sent out to give talks about fossils. I am doing Skype tours of this place, and I’m just a little kid from Houston,” Washington said. “It’s just really neat that they have entrusted me to do all of these things. It’s a real honor.”

Children and adults alike love accompanying “Jurassic James” on his tours. Visit the museum today, and take one for yourself!

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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!

 

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Why you should care about endangered species today, tomorrow, and every day

The truth of the matter is that we humans are bound to this Earth. As the dominant species, it is easy for us to allow industry and propaganda to run rampant, annihilating whole populations of the animals with which we share the environment. One shepherd will kill the wolf who threatens his flock, one company will dynamite a mountain to extract an ore, and that may be fine. But if all the shepherds and all the companies kill and dynamite at once, that is a menace to the natural world. And as long as we continue to take advantage of quiet places virgin to human feet, or villainize an animal as a man-eating monster, the diversity of life on earth will always be in danger.

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A red wolf specimen behind glass appears to be mourning the loss of endangered and extinct species in the case beside it, in Texas, and across the globe. Farish Hall.

The question you have to ask yourself on Endangered Species Day, and every day, is are we really still competing with animals to gain a foothold on this rock we call home, or are we simply the most ruthless? One death by mauling, even 10 or 20 or 120, does not constitute a credible threat to humanity; there are billions of us. Call a shark, a bear, a wolf, a lion, a panther, any apex predator a danger to one or a small group of humans, but the time of fighting to survive in the jungle has passed. True, African villagers still suffer casualties due to contact with lions; yes, trekkers in the Rocky Mountains must remain vigilant for cougars and bears to avoid attacks; and yes, 10 people were killed and 87 were injured worldwide by sharks in 2014, but modern humanity now has the power to slaughter every last individual of any species. It’s not that difficult, and often it’s due simply to the spread of our kind into wild areas for resources or human development.

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Less than 1,000 ocelots are thought to survive in the wild. Farish Hall.

In the case of sharks specifically, 97 casualties in 2014 does not and cannot ever justify 100 million sharks killed every year. That’s about 274,000 dead sharks a day, or 11 shark killings per hour. A shark dies at the hands of a human, somewhere, every six minutes. Even nuisance animals aren’t this systematically destroyed. The World Wildlife Fund lists great white sharks as vulnerable on their endangered species directory, facing high risk of extinction in the wild. We don’t know much about shark biology and behavior, but we do know they play an important role at the top of the marine food chain, according to the WWF. They might all die before we get to know them.

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Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken exists now only in wildlife refuges. Farish Hall.

Sharks aren’t the only species in danger, of course. Many other animal populations have dwindled to mere hundreds. Biologists count 880 mountain gorillas left in the Virunga Mountains of central Africa. Imagine having only 880 humans on the planet. That’s barely the size of a small town in Texas, one of those places Grampaw says you’ll miss if you blink as you pass by. As few as 3,200 tigers live in the wild across the planet, the WWF says, and giant pandas, the mascot of the organization since 1961, number just above 1,800. Our favorite mammals are nearly gone. Just as gone as the dinosaurs. When they’re gone, they will never come back. Ever.

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Native to southern Texas, the jaguarundi is one of many endangered predators. Farish Hall.

In Texas, from the pounding Houston rain to the burning sun of El Paso, the steamy barrier islands to the prairie grasslands and canyons in the panhandle, it seems the big sky country has enough space for everything. But farming and introduction of non-native species, as well as the urban sprawl surrounding our boundless cities, has built a long list of endangered species. Texas Parks and Wildlife lists the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken, the wooping crane and the red-cockaded woodpecker endangered in Harris County, as well as the red wolf, the smalltooth sawfish, the Houston toad, and the leatherback sea turtle. Some of these exist only in wildlife refuges.

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The ivory-billed woodpecker, native to Texas, is critically endangered and thought to be extinct. Animatronic specimen displayed in Farish Hall.

The concrete city landscape of Harris County has replaced the natural habitat, a corner where coastal, wetland, and piney forest environments merge. As the city expands, roaming species like the red wolf are pushed out of their home territories while their numbers decline, but other creatures that rely on this area specifically for the resources the environment provides simply fade away. The Kemp’s Ridley feeds only in muddy or sandy bottom habitats, those brackish areas where swamp meets seawater, and while they migrate across the Gulf, these turtles still require coastline to nest. Other migratory species like the whooping crane use the coast as winter breeding grounds. As development continues, these environments shrink or change enough to kill off such species.

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The Carolina parakeet, once native to Texas and most states along the eastern coast of the United States, was declared extinct in 1939. Farish Hall.

Texas used to have its own native parrot, the Carolina parakeet. This beautiful tropical bird with red, yellow and green feathers, suffered devastating losses from deforestation and feather-hunting. It was declared extinct in 1939. Its range extended in the eastern United States from New York to Texas. The Houston Museum of Natural Science has a mounted specimen on display in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, alongside many other examples of native and endangered species. Apart from taxidermy, this parrot exists only in the imagination.

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The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is losing its habitat in Texas due to loss of the piney woods environment in which it lives and hunts. Farish Hall.

Next week, HMNS guests concerned about endangered species can come to the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, a new permanent exhibit adjacent to Farish Hall opening May 22, to learn more about the relationship between the environment and the economy. Some of Texas’s iconic species, including rare and endangered plants and animals, will appear on display. After touring these exhibits, visit the 100 awe-inspiring images of the 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year display. Some of these, like the photos of legal lion hunting, hyenas eating from a human garbage dump, and prospectors destroying thousands of acres of virginal forest for minerals, reveal just how awful things can get when we neglect the natural world.

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A quote by William Beabe in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife reminds us why we should care about endangered species.

Why should you care about extinction on Endangered Species Day? Because if a species dies out, it never comes back. Every creature is important, unique in its behaviors or adaptations or the shape and color of its body. If these creatures disappear, the only way we can get to know them is through history and in museums, not through personal experience. We will never know what we could have learned from them. We are the stewards of this planet now, not its owners. We rely on it much more than it relies on us. If we don’t help preserve life, these endangered species are as good as stuffed. And when they all die off, we’re next.

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