SHARK!

This post was written by Diana Birney, Supervising Marine Biologist for our upcoming SHARK! exhibit, opening August 29, 2015.

We fear them, we love them, and we are fascinated by them. We have a whole week on television dedicated to them that draws millions of viewers every year. Humans have an amazing obsession with this interesting group of animals, especially considering that we really don’t know that much about them.

It’s clear from the popularity of movies like Jaws and Sharknado that we love to be scared by sharks. While there is a good reason to give sharks their space, they are not the crazed “man-eaters” that Hollywood has often portrayed. In fact, since 1911 there have only been two deaths and less than fifty unprovoked attacks by sharks in Texas.

You’re actually more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be attacked by a shark.

However, every time you enter a body of water, you should go in with the knowledge that a shark could potentially be there. When it comes down to it, it’s their space — not ours.

That doesn’t mean that you can never go in the water again, it just means be smart about what you do in the ocean…

So go to the beach, bring your sunscreen (and reapply it often!). But also bring your knowledge of what lives in the habitat you are about frolic in. Feel like you don’t know enough? Don’t worry! Here’s a nice set of guidelines for your next trip:

1. Sharks aren’t searching for humans to eat

There is no evidence to suggest that sharks like eating people. In fact, considering the numbers of people that go to the beach and the attack statistics, it would seem that sharks DON’T like eating people. A beach is a potential buffet at certain times of the year, but the sharks don’t seem to take advantage of it (good news for us!).

When people do get bitten, it’s usually one bite and the shark lets go. This is similar to the other night when I had a plate of broccoli I was going to town on and ran into a bite of mushroom (I hate mushrooms). I promptly spit that nasty bite out and went back to my broccoli feast (YUM). Sharks tend to follow schools of fish or, for our larger shark friends, mammals such as seals. Schools tend to frequent coast lines and often when someone is bitten there is a school of fish in the area that the shark was intending to chow down on.

2. Sharks have AMAZING noses

Sharks can sense blood in a ratio of one part per million. They also have sensors on their noses called ampullae of Lorenzini. These are electroreceptors that can sense the electrical field given off by everything swimming around in the ocean — including you and me! If a wounded person or animal enters the water, a shark can be drawn to the blood but also to the electrolytes that pour out of the wound as well.

There is a common idea that punching a shark on the nose will make it less likely to attack you. This stems from the fact that the ampullae are all over the nose and punching the shark might disrupt the electroreceptors. Another reason this (sometimes) works is that most sharks like certain prey items and most of those prey items don’t know how to punch — giving the shark a strong clue that it won’t like eating you. 

However, it’s important to not just go around punching sharks… right under their nose is a huge mouth with lots of teeth, and you may end up just losing an arm instead of scaring the sharks.

3. “There’s a chance I’ll bite if you bother me too long” – sharks

This summer there was a shark bite incident off of the coast of California with a White Shark. A swimmer got too close to a fishing line that caught a shark. The shark had been on the line long enough to be mad at everyone and everything. When the swimmer approached it, unaware it was even there, the shark lashed out. The moral of the story is that sharks, like dogs and cats, have no way to communicate with us that they are uncomfortable or in pain. The only avenue available is their teeth. Many bites are exploratory or just to say “BACK OFF.” 

A good rule of thumb in any environment is that if it has teeth it can/will bite.

4) Stay with your swimming buddy

Having a buddy is essential for beach safety. Rip tides can pull even proficient swimmers down and out into the ocean (and are actually much more likely to happen to you than a shark attack). Sharks, just like other apex predators, e.g., lions, tend to go after prey that is separated from the pack — it makes for an easy dinner.  So if you are swimming alone a shark might think you are a solitary prey item. If you are with someone else, the shark might still think you are prey, but will be less likely to attack a small “pack” rather than a solitary animal.

The buddy system is also beneficial just in case something does happen. Your buddy can get help and report exactly what happened in case you are in shock or missing.

 

5) Daytime is the best playtime

Most sharks hunt at night, dawn and dusk when they can see the best. Fortunately, most people go to the beach during the day. Just be extra careful if you are going out in the evening or at night because the shark can see you better than you can see them, guaranteed. However, if you are in an area frequented by White Sharks remember that they tend to hunt during the day when their traditional prey are more active.

6) Play smart

It’s important to know what signs indicate a higher chance of sharks in the area. Sandbars and the drop offs around sand bars are a common shark hang out. Sharks can swim in extremely shallow water, so don’t let the low water level lull you into a false sense of security.

An easy sign of sharks to watch out for is the presence of other animals. I know it’s hard to stay back when you see a bunch of fish in the water (as a Marine Biologist, I can be guilty of not staying away from schooling fish), but sharks enjoy snacking on large groups of fish. We wouldn’t want you to end up a morsel in the shark’s buffet.

However, we can’t always see schooling fish. Don’t worry too much since there are more obvious signs you can watch out for including: birds, dolphins/porpoises and lots of splashing. Birds will attack schools from the air, so if you see many birds diving in a particular spot, you can safely assume there are fish there and will want to stay away from that location. Same with dolphins and porpoises. They eat a lot of the same foods that sharks eat, so do not assume there are no sharks just because you see dolphins.  Splashing is also a key sign to sharks that prey is in the area since schools of fish tend to ascend and splash around near the surface. So, again, stay away from areas that show signs of splashing, and it’s also a good idea to keep your splashing around to a minimum.

7) Know your local sharks

It’s also good to know your local sharks. The Gulf of Mexico is home to many different species, some sharks you might not see — much less have to worry about. Others, like the Bull shark account for all of the Texas deaths from sharks (don’t be too alarmed, again, there have only been 2 since 1911). We also have thresher (my personal favorite shark), nurse, blacktip, tiger, many different hammerhead species, and many more.

If you followed the news this summer, you might have seen a White Shark named Katherine approaching Texas. Katherine shows us that we can get Great White Sharks in the Gulf. For more information on Katherine and many other tagged sharks you can go to OCEARCH.org. If you are travelling and plan on going to the water, it’s helpful to know what sharks are in the area and how likely your are to see them.

In the long run, it’s important to remember that shark interactions are NOT common, you just want to be prepared and armed with knowledge whenever you hit the beach.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is teaming up with the Texas State Aquarium and OCEARCH to bring more information and awareness of sharks to Houston with our new SHARK! exhibit

Come visit to learn about (and even touch!) these amazing animals starting August 29!

Sunday Funday comes to HMNS with Mixers & Elixirs Pluto Pity Party

Extend your Sunday Funday to the Houston Museum of Natural Science August 24 and raise a glass to the infamously demoted Pluto at our Pluto Pity Party!

Come to Mixers & Elixirs and remember the good ol’ days when we had nine planets as you enjoy live music from the Space Rockers and drinks at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Planet or not – Pluto, you’ve stolen our hearts.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a… DWARF PLANET?!

Eight years later, the news of Pluto’s status downgrade from planet to dwarf planet still stings. We have an emotional connection to our solar system — as we should! This is our “cosmic neighborhood” and we are rightly very attached to our neighbors, all orbiting the same brilliant star.

But let’s look at it a different way, shall we?

Maybe this change for Pluto provides for us a way to celebrate how big and diverse our solar system really is! Not only do we have planets — big and small, gaseous and rocky — we have moons, rings, asteroids, comets, and yes, dwarf planets. So it’s not that Pluto isn’t a part of our solar system, it’s just in the outer reaches of the sun’s great gravity.

It’s like we thought Pluto lived in the heights, but then we found out it’s actually living outside the loop… It’s still a part of our community, just a little further away.

So no worries, folks, let’s keep our attachment to Pluto! It’s still cool (literally) and a testament to how much we can learn about our place in the cosmos.

 In that spirit, come down to HMNS Sunday, August 24 and celebrate Pluto!

Pluto’s demotion has been great for one thing though: the internet

 

And if you want some Pluto swag for the party, you’re all set with the Museum Store

Home Front: Lecture examines Texas history in WWII

By Guest Blogger Mike Vance, Houston Arts and Media

To picture the home front during World War II is to summon memories of drives for war bonds and scrap metal and rationing of sugar, meat and shoes. To be sure, it was a time that included all of those sacrifices and more. It was also, however, the beginning of a shift that would change Texas from rural to urban as half a million Texans moved to cities to fill industrial jobs.

Those industries were thriving from the war effort. Manufacturing in Texas quadrupled during WWII. Pipelines, refineries and petrochemicals blossomed on the upper Gulf Coast, and factories in the Metroplex churned out aircraft. Synthetic rubber was manufactured in the state, wood pulp operations were revived and Liberty ships were born on the Houston Ship Channel.

The state was home to a myriad of military bases. Tens of thousands of Americans were inducted or discharged in Texas. Training took place from one end of the state to the other, especially for the Army Air Corps, be it aviation mechanics in Wichita Falls, pilots in San Antonio or aerial gunners in Harlingen.

Scattered around Texas was the largest number of German prisoner of war camps in the United States. While much of the farm labor pool was away in the service, these captured Germans picked fruit and tended the fields and livestock.

All along the coast were anti-aircraft guns, concrete bunkers and even reconnaissance blimps. German U-boats did indeed ply Gulf waters, looking for Allied shipping.

Yet, the stories of Texas during the War don’t end with the effort to defeat the Axis powers. The early 1940s brought stirrings of social change. Women, still not allowed to serve on a jury, were suddenly doing essential work in factories or petrochemical labs.

Race relations showed signs of change, too. 1944 also saw a landmark Supreme Court case that ended the all-white democratic primaries in the state. When veterans of African or Mexican descent returned to their home state, they were much less inclined to silently accept the second-class status to which they had been relegated prior to the war.

Home Front: Texas in WWII is the fascinating, multi-layered story of soldiers, sailors and civilians selflessly working to fulfill a patriotic duty. It’s also politicians, civil rights, and young love. It is a story 70 years old that resonates loudly with the making of modern Texas.

Historian Mike Vance of Houston Arts and Media will give an overview of Home Front: Texas in WWII at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on August 26 in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre.

Home Front: Texas in WWII
Tuesday, August 26, 6:30 p.m.
Mike Vance, Historian
Tickets $18, HMNS Members $12
Purchase tickets: online by phone 713-639-4629 or at the HMNS Box Office.

Educator How-to: Tectonic Chocolate Bars

The earth is vast and its surface seems huge. However, the earth’s crust only makes up 1% of the earth’s mass — subsequent layers (the mantle and the core) make up the other 99%.

So, why do we care about the earth’s crust (besides the fact that we live there)? It consists of tectonic plates that move around, and where they hit, we get nature’s most impressive formations — Earthquakes and Volcanoes. Because the crust is so vast, it is hard to see the minor changes that occur daily. We tend to notice the big changes like mountains and effects from earthquakes.

In Houston, we don’t get to see either of those things! Luckily, the Houston Museum of Natural Science has Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters on exhibit right now. In Nature Unleashed you can see how the earth’s tectonic plates shift and learn about the earthquakes that can result, build your own volcano and watch as it explodes molten rock along the mountain side. You can even experience the inside of a tornado, and see some of the aftermath found in several cities.

Nature Unleashed: Inside natural DisastersIf you can’t make it to the museum, you can always show the effects of tension, compression and shifting on the earth’s crust using a simple chocolate bar!

Materials

  • Snack-sized chocolate bars (Milky Way and Snickers work best because of the caramel)
  • Wax paper or plates to place candy on while working

Procedure

  1. Tell the students that the earth’s surface is constantly changing. The crust is formed by tectonic plates which float on the plastic layer of the mantle called the asthenosphere. Where these plates interact, we notice changes on the earth’s crust. The chocolate on this candy bar is going to mimic some of those changes. This time I used Milky Way.

Structure of the Earth

  1. Have the students use their fingernail to make some cracks in the “crust” near the center of the candy bar. Ask them what they notice about the cracks in the crust?

Science Education

  1. Next, demonstrate tension by pulling the candy bar apart slowly. Notice how the crust shifts on top of the caramel layer. The caramel is the exposed upper mantle also known as the asthenosphere. It is this layer that allows the tectonic plates to move around. Sometimes this tension between plates can form basins or underwater ocean trenches.

Science Education

  1. The students should then place their chocolate bar back together gently. To demonstrate another way the earth’s crust moves, ask the students to move one half of the candy bar forward and pull the other half backwards. This is an example of a strike-slip fault. Notice how the chocolate changes at the fault line. This mimics the bending, twisting and pulling of the rocks that can occur at a fault.

Science Education

  1. Lastly, ask the students to push the two ends of the candy bar together. Notice how some of the chocolate pushes up and some even slides on top of another piece, showing how mountains can be created on the earth’s crust.

Science Education

  1. Now that you’ve seen what the earth’s crust can do, feel free to allow your students to eat their new landform creations! 

And don’t forget to come check out Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters showing now through September 14!