Animal Espionage: Meet the Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs of the Wild

This week, you’ll have the first chance to experience our new special exhibit, Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America – examining nine major periods in U.S. history when America faced threats from enemies within our borders. But did you know HMNS already features a few “sneaks” of our own? They’re just of the animal variety!

In our HMNS Outreach Programs, we highlight several examples of crafty creatures who have adapted creatively to their environments to prolong survival. Want to meet a few of these smart cookies? Come to our free Shell Educators’ Preview Sept. 29!

How do you become a spy? First, blend in!


Our first spy is a familiar animal to the Gulf Coast – the American alligator! One of the alligator’s strongest adaptations is its amazing camouflage. I remember fishing as a kid on the Sabine River and my dad pointing out a gator in the distance. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t spot it! Only as we neared could I see the bumpy “dead log” silently watching us float by. Alligators are extremely well-adapted to ambush. With nostrils that stick out of the water like a snorkel and a clear inner eyelid to protect their eyes while they swim, their whole body can stay submerged as they await their prey. While too dangerous to approach in their natural habitat, our Wildlife On Wheels program Texas Wildlife often includes one of our baby alligators, still small enough to keep safely!


Several of our other spies star in our Bugs On Wheels: Amazing Arthropods program and are masters of disguise. The giant long-legged katydid, for example, is the world’s largest katydid, native to Malaysia. These awesome insects mimic leaves, and during the daylight hours they can safely remain motionless, cloaked in foliage, waiting to become active at night. They don’t only come in green though; these insects can have an endless array of shades and patterns to match the leaves of their unique habitats. And like many things that get better with age, so does their camouflage, as their back edge grows brown and tattered like an old leaf.

Traitors mean false friends.


In the natural world, traitors come in many guises, even that of seemingly innocuous plants! The pitcher plant, masquerading as a source of tasty nectar, lures in insects (sometimes even rodents) and traps them. Their victims cannot escape the waxy walls and sticky fluid inside. As their prey drowns, digestive enzymes help break down the body, allowing the plant to absorb the released nitrogen. You can meet three species of this unusual carnivore in our Cockrell Butterfly Center!


Another unique traitor native to our state is the Texas tortoise, often seen in our Wildlife On Wheels programs, though a threatened species in the state of Texas. Deceptively fierce, this desert dweller is extremely territorial, and males will fight to the death if a fellow tortoise challenges. Competitors rise up on front legs to charge, using the pronged gular scutes protruding from the shell to hook under the trespasser, attempting to flip him over. This is a deadly situation for a tortoise as all of the animal’s internal organs press down on the lungs, which causes him to suffocate if he cannot turn back over. Yikes!

The Science of Sabotage


Crushing prey with an estimated force of 60,000 Newtons, the bite of Tyrannosaurus rex would be lethal enough as it is, but some paleontologists, such as Farlow and Abler, debate that a more insidious biological superweapon could be concealed in those fearsome teeth. Fine serrations in each tooth provided strength and cutting power, but may have also allowed meat from T. rex’s last meal to linger, lending a perfect source for bacteria to feed on. Similar to that of a Komodo dragon, it is theorized that the bite of T. rex could deposit overwhelming amounts of bacteria, causing the wound to fester and become septic. Want to touch a T. rex tooth and feel the serrations? (We promise, ours are clean.) A visit from Dinosaur Discovery, part of Chevron Earth Science On Wheels, makes it possible!



Our last saboteur certainly employs a most unusual method of dispatching enemies —how about getting licked to death! The lightning whelk, a carnivorous snail, uses the sharp edge of its shell to pry apart bivalves. Once open, the whelk uses its radula (think scratchy cat tongue, but much worse!) to lick and scrape the hapless victim into smaller pieces for consumption. Fun fact: this ruthless snail is the state shell of Texas, and can often be found on gulf coast beaches. Look for a “left-handed” (sinistral) shell, shaped so it’s easier to put your left hand in. Another great place to see a whelk? In our Wildlife On Wheels: Invertebrates program, or in the Strake Hall of Malacology!

Interested in bringing these super-cool, sneaky creatures to your school or group? Send an email to or call (713) 639-4758 to book your Outreach Program today!

Summer Encounters – Brazos Bend State Park

Oak tree

Welcoming Oak Tree

Last summer I was introduced to Brazos Bend State Park. I found many amazing animals living amongst the tall swamp reeds and old oak trees. Recently, I spent a weekend down there camping with my family. I’d like to share some of the beautiful animals we encountered on this visit.

Now, like many people, I’m not particularly fond of certain small, creepy-crawlies, including my least favorite: ticks! Unfortunately (and much to my dismay) I was feasted upon by one tiny tick. However, when I was given an opportunity to watch a spider feast upon its own meal, I didn’t feel the same distress. Near our campsite, there were plenty of enormous spiders for us to observe. I was astounded by the size and beauty of the Golden Silk Spider, Nephila clavipes, often called the Banana Spider.

Golden Silk Spider

Golden Silk Spider

She is relatively harmless to humans, but has an impressive web and can take down dragonflies. This species are also a cannibalistic species, preying upon their own kind. The males live on the backside of the web from the female, risking their lives to mate when the time is right. I witnessed a large female dining on a smaller female early one morning. Apparently, it is not such a good idea to build your web directly in front of a larger, hungrier silk spider! If you look closely at the photo to the right, you may be able to see the much smaller male sitting a couple of inches to the left of the female.

As a side note, I learned that another spider, the Brazilian Wandering Spider, Phoneutria nigriventer, is also often called a Banana Spider. This spider can be fatal to humans and should not be taken lightly.

Another favorite invertebrate that I was able to find at Brazos Bend State Park is the firefly (not to be confused with the excellent, but short TV series Firefly), also known as lightning bugs. Last summer was the first time I had ever seen them and I was still very excited when I saw them again this summer. I also managed to catch one and study it up close, watching as the abdomen slowly glowed on and off. These beetles use their bioluminescence to communicate with each other. Each species of firefly has their own, distinct pattern they flash to attract a mate. The male flashes his pattern while flying around, hoping to find a female responding to his light with her own light show. However, some females will mimic the pattern of another species in order to catch their dinner!

Lightning Bug

Lightning Bug

While walking around Elm lake, you can’t help but notice all of the beautiful water birds. They share the lake with the alligators, seemingly unaware of the dark eyes resting at the edge of the water’s surface. During the summer, you can easily spot pairs of white ibises, egrets & herons, common moorhens, black-bellied whistling ducks, and on occasion you may spot an osprey or wood stork. Below, I’ve posted a photo of a Green Heron, Butorides virescens, looking for his lunch amongst all of the duckweed. Green Herons typically hunt small aquatic animals including invertebrates, small fish, & frogs. It has been known to “bait” for fish, dropping a small item on the surface of the water and waiting to catch the fish attracted to the lure.

Green Heron

Green Heron

The last animal I want to bring up from my encounters at Brazos Bend State Park is the Nine-Banded Armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus. We were hiking on a path near the George Observatory while we waited to buy tickets to look through the telescopes later that evening. My well-trained ears told me there was an animal moving about in the underbrush nearby. I turned to look and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my first armadillo! The novelty of this new mammal had me snapping pictures left and right, spending a good 20 minutes observing its search for food.

Nine Banded Armadillo

Nine-Banded Armadillo

Eventually, my dogs noticed this new creature and started barking. By this time, the armadillo had meandered right near the path and upon being frightened by the dogs, he did an about-face and nearly ran straight into my friend’s legs! He eventually found his way back to the denser foliage and continued foraging for lunch. After this first encounter, we later came across 4 more juveniles, these were much quicker to run away from us than the first adult we observed.

The nine-banded armadillo may be opportunistic, eating whatever food they come across, but mostly they eat a wide variety of invertebrates: caterpillars, scarab beetles, grubs, termites, & worms. They will also eat carrion and occasionally crustaceans, fruit, reptiles & amphibians. Armadillos are excellent diggers but have poor vision. When frightened, they may jump straight into the air!

Armadillos are capable of crossing water in two interesting ways. In order to get around the problem of their heavy armor, the armadillo can hold its breath and simply walk across the bottom of a body of water. However, they are able to swim by inflating their stomach to offer some bouyancy. Nine-banded armadillos have identical quadruplets around March, the young staying with the mother for several months.

If you would like to see more photos from Brazos Bend State Park, please visit the BBSP Flickr group webpage. You can also find a wide variety of photos from HMNS at their Flickr group page as well. I am still working on updating my own Flickr page with Museum-related photos, but in the meantime, enjoy this one last photo of the largest alligator I’ve seen at Brazos Bend. I was standing directly above him on a dock at Hale lake. My best guess at his length: 12-14 feet long!

Large Alligator

American Alligator