HMNS Weekly Update

Frankenweenie (2012)


Friday, October 14 | 7:15 p.m. | Members: $4 | Tickets: $5

Young Victor conducts a science experiment to bring his beloved dog Sparky back to life, only to face unintended, sometimes monstrous, consequences.

BTS – Mummies of the World: The Exhibition


October 18, 2016 at  6:00pm

Mummies of the World: The Exhibition presents a collection of mummies from Europe, South America and ancient Egypt-some 4,500 years old.


Go behind-the-scenes and learn about mummies and mummification through state-of-the-art multimedia, interactive stations and 3D animation, highlighting advances in the scientific methods used to study mummies, including computed tomography (CT), ancient DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating, all of which allows us to know who these mummified individuals were, where they came from and where they lived.


Among the mummies on display are the Vac Mummies, an entire mummified family from Hungary believed to have died from tuberculosis; the Burns Collection, a group of medical mummies used to teach anatomy in the early 19th century; an Egyptian priest named Nes-Hor who suffered from arthritis and a broken left hip; Egyptian animal mummies including a falcon, fish, dog and baby crocodile, many of which were deliberately preserved to accompany royals for eternity; and MUMAB, the first replication of Egyptian mummification done on a body in 2,800 years.


Coming Soon!

Lecture – Family Talk – The Griffin and the Dinosaur

Podoke attack! A ten-foot long podokesaur predator menaces the thin-necked herbivore Anchisaurus. Early Jurassic, Massachussetts, somewhere near Amherst College. 

Podoke attack! A ten-foot long podokesaur predator menaces the thin-necked herbivore Anchisaurus. Early Jurassic, Massachussetts, somewhere near Amherst College.


Exciting stories about griffins, dragons, sea monsters and giants have been told for thousands of years. Were they real? What is the truth? Children’s author Dr. Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University reveals some suprising secrets connecting fossils with fabulous creatures of myth.

October 22, 2016 at 9:00am

Suggested for grades 6-12 and adults.

Cosponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America Houston Society.

Tickets $5


Lecture – Future Humans by Scott Solomon

evolution astronaut

Drawing on fields from genomics to medicine and the study of our microbiome, evolutionary biologist Dr. Scott Solomon draws on the explosion of discoveries in recent years to examine the future evolution of our species. But how will modernization—including longer lifespans, changing diets, global travel and widespread use of medicine and contraceptives—affect our evolutionary future? Surprising insights, on topics ranging from the rise of online dating and Cesarean sections to the spread of diseases such as HIV and Ebola, suggest that we are entering a new phase in human evolutionary history—one that makes the future less predictable and more interesting than ever before.


Solomon of Rice University will present an entertaining review of the latest evidence of human evolution in modern times. Join us at HMNS this evening which is the book launch event for the new book is “Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution.”

This event is co-sponsored by the Baker Institute’s Civic Scientist Program.

October 25,2016 at 6:30pm

Tickets $18, Members $12


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Zombie Ants!

The Halloween season brings in hordes of scary creatures, from vampires to monsters to mummies. If we only look to the ant world, we can find all three. But these are not the scariest Halloween creatures to be found among the ants.

Ant Zombies!
In the tropical regions of the world, millions of ants are following the whims of an infection, possessed by a parasite that controls their brains for its own nefarious purposes. After maneuvering the ant into ideal position, this infection kills the vessel insect and explodes from its scull to give birth to more of its kind. Meet the Ophiocordyceps fungus and the ants it controls.


Photo Credit: David Hughes of Penn State / CC BY-NC 2.0


Ophiocordyceps. unilateralis is the villain in this horror story, a fungus that attacks ants and takes over their brains. Known as the “zombie fungus,” O. unilateralis attaches to the unsuspecting ant and breaks through its exoskeleton. The fungus spreads through the insect, producing chemicals that manipulate the ant’s behavior. The infected ant roams drunkenly, falling from high in the trees and erratically moving around on the forest floor, until the sun reaches its full height in the sky, at which point the ant ceases its wanderings. Under the influence of the zombie fungus, the ant chooses an ideal leaf. It bites down on the large vein of the leaf, and the ant’s jaw locks. The death grip is maintained until the ant dies and even after, as the fruiting body of the fungus explodes from the ant’s head, releasing its spores to infect more victims.

These unfortunate ants can be found in graveyards optimized for fungal growth (the correct temperature and humidity), and other ants actively avoid these sites, foraging in areas away from their dead peers.

Even movie makers are beginning to note the zombie ants. David Hughes, a leading expert in O. unilateralis, consulted for the movie World War Z and the videogame The Last of Us, lending real-world science to fictional zombies. The Last of Us imagines a mutated form of Ophiocordyceps that can infect humans, but we don’t have anything to fear from the zombie fungus anytime soon. The fungus has been specialized on ants for at least 48 million years, as fossil evidence shows. So humans don’t have to worry, but other bugs still need to keep their zombie defences high. There are strains of Cordyceps that infect many different arthropods, including tarantulas, grasshoppers and stick insects. The caterpillar specialist Ophiocordyceps sinensis is even used medicinally by humans. It is considered a “miracle cure” for many ailments and high quality specimens can sometimes sell for up to $50,000 dollars a pound!

So how do you stop a zombie infection? Ideas vary, but the zombie ant fungus has its own fungal foe. When O. unilatralis is infected by this hyperparasite, it cannot produce spores. This metafungus keeps the zombie number low and the spread of zombie-ism from progressing too fast through the ants.

In short, you don’t need to go to the movies to see zombies. Just go to the tropics and stay wary of fungi trying to control your mind (especially if you are an ant!).


Photo Credit: berniedup / CC BY-SA 2.0

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Sky events for October 2016

1st Quarter 1st-quarter1October 8, 11:33pm


October 15, 11:23pm

3rd Quarter3rd-quarter

October 22, 2:14pm


October 30, 12:38pm


This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on October 1, 9 pm CDT on October 15, and 8 pm CDT on October 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. 


The Summer Triangle is high in the west.  The ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius sets in the southwest.  How long can you follow Saturn as it sets in twilight?  The Great Square of Pegasus is high in the east at dusk. To the south and east, we see a vast dim area of stars known as the ‘Celestial Sea’, where only Fomalhaut stands out. 


Venus is a little higher in the evening sky this month. Look low in the west in evening twilight. On Saturday, October 29, Venus passes three degrees below Saturn.

Mars and Saturn are now in the southwest at dusk.

Mars continues to fade each night as Earth leaves it farther and farther behind. Also, it moves faster than Saturn against the background stars, so you can watch Mars pull away from Saturn this month.

Jupiter emerges into the morning sky this month. Look low in the east at dawn.

The Big Dipper is to the left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ in the west at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left. Saturn is right above Antares. The Summer Triangle is almost overhead. The stars of summer remain high in the early evening sky. Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is high in the east at dusk. Autumn is here.

Moon Phases in October 2016:

1st Quarter Oct. 8, 11:33 p.m.

Full Oct. 15, 11:23 p.m.

Last Quarter Oct. 22, 2:14 p.m.

New Oct. 30, 12:38 p.m.

Just after midnight on Wednesday, October 19, the waning gibbous Moon occults the bright star Aldebaran. Aldebaran blinks out of view at 12:04 am as the Moon passes in front of it and reappears at 1:06 am from behind the dark limb of the Moon.

In fact, the Moon has occulted Aldebaran at least once a month since January 2015; this will continue until September 3, 2018. However, many of these events are not visible from North America or happen in daytime for us. This occultation, however, is clearly visible from Houston (weather permitting, of course). The waning gibbous Moon and Aldebaran will be high in the east by midnight. You may need a telescope to watch the actual moment of disappearance, as the sunlit lunar disk will wash out Aldebaran. The reappearance, however, is noticeable in binoculars since the opposite limb of the Moon will be dark. We’ll see another occultation of Aldebaran on Monday evening, December 12, with the Moon one day before full.

Come see us Saturday nights at the George Observatory! On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer.

Our annual Astronomy Day at the George Observatory is on Saturday, October 8! On Astronomy Day we have activities from 3-10 pm, and all of the telescopes, even the ones that normally cost money to look through, are free. Surf to for more information.

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Ghostly Creatures of the Night: A True Raccoon Story!

The other day I was on one of my three-mile walks, fighting off those extra pounds that come with my new, sedentary office job. The sun was coming down earlier than I expected, an unwelcome consequence of changing seasons, and I found that the pretty tree-lined lane I live on had become a particularly dark and foreboding tunnel through an already dark night. The instant this realization struck me, a scrambling, scratching of claws against pavement was heard right beside me. I nearly jumped out of my sneakers!

Of course, what did it turn out to be? A raccoon… an animal too cute to be feared when seen, but whose nocturnal actions have managed to scare the living daylights out of many a night-time pedestrian. In fact, recent reports of Albino raccoons are shedding light on the possibility of a true fright! Dr. Dan Brooks, our Curator of Vertebrate Zoology has recently co-authored with former intern Adrian Castellanos an article on the phenomenon.

In early January 2001, a phone call was received from Barbara House indicating the League City Animal Control had obtained an albino raccoon that had died of distemper. The uniqueness of this specimen warranted getting it mounted (taxidermied) in a life-like pose.


As part of HMNS’ centennial celebration, an internet blog was created featuring 100 of the museum’s most unique objects. The albino raccoon mount from our Vertebrate Zoology collection was featured. Several individuals responded to the post that they had observed albino raccoons in nature. James Oberg posted on 11 July 2011 that he saw an albino raccoon the night prior feeding from his cat’s outdoor food bowl. Oberg successfully photographed the raccoon and indicated it was in League City.

On 20 April 2012, Joe Butler trapped an adult leucistic raccoon approximately 7 km south of Cleveland, (Montgomery Co.) Texas. This site is approximately 100 km north of League City. The animal was reported as an albino… however, the presence of tail rings and an otherwise ivory colored coat suggested a leucistic (very light colored) specimen rather than a true albino.

While there are several cases of aberrant color documented in birds, including several on display here at HMNS , aberrantly colored mammals are not documented as often. It is interesting that both of the albino raccoon specimens were from League City. Further observations or specimens of albino raccoons from League City might indicate the presence of a population that are genetically pre-disposed to albinism.

I definitely plan on keeping an eye out for these ghostly creatures during my evening walks, and so should you. For those of you who prefer not to walk around in the dark, we have our raccoon, as well as other mammals showing albinism, including an entirely albino bobcat and partially albino specimens of skunk and plains gopher, on display right now in our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife.

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