Home Is Where The Heart Is

They say, “home is where the heart is”, and in my case that is true. However, home is also where you say things like, “Don’t kill that Black Widow. I need it…,” or “So………do you have any plans for that dead armadillo?

My parents live on a working ranch, complete with cows and buzzards, hay rakes and snakes. This affords me the opportunity, after chores are done and frankly sometimes during, to go science-ing.

Here’s everyone getting ready for vaccinations and the bovine version of OFF!

Here’s everyone getting ready for vaccinations and the bovine version of OFF!

This last visit, when various assignments were being discussed and doled out, I jumped on the wood pile. The premise of this chore was that a gate was left open or a latch broke somewhere, allowing the cows through a fence and into the yard around the house. Cows, being kind of curious by nature, ended up everywhere. One of those wheres landed the cows between the workshop and the wood pile because the cows wanted to scratch on all those log ends sticking out. Unfortunately for my parents, a 1,400 pound cow determined to scratch an itch is no match for a metal pipe rack and stacked wood and so over it went. Fortunately for me, critters live in wood piles….

My mom’s instructions were clear: make the wood pill neat. My instructions to my nephew and my sister-in-law were also clear: don’t smash anything good. The first new friend we found was this guy.

Who has eight legs and two pedipalps and is HUGE? This guy…

Who has eight legs and two pedipalps and is HUGE? This guy…

He is some species of wolf spider and he was GIGANTIC. This guy ended up getting some soapy water thrown on him because I wanted to pin him out (and he was also terrifyingly large), but everyone else we caught got to live.

spider 2The next new friend we found was a cousin to that wolf spider. I collected her because she has this beautiful blue egg sack. When we got her back to the Museum and put her in her new apartment, she was hungry! Several snacks later, she settled down under some leaves for a nap. (Update: She is loving living at the Museum! She has rearranged the furniture and plumped up a bit in anticipation of the arrival of her brood. Wolf spiders are great moms, so we will take some pictures of her and the fam once they arrive!)

black widowNow about the time I said, “Man, I’m super bummed we haven’t found any black widows,” this little lady showed up. I was super excited because we have been making some efforts to collect for an upcoming exhibit called Death by Natural Causes. She is a beautiful, fully grown Latrodectus mactans. How can you tell that she is fully grown? The juveniles have a red strip that runs down the back. When the spiders molt, the strip gets shorter and shorter until all you have is the tell-tale hour glass.

spider 3The next log I picked up, after scooping up the Black Widow, had this sweet little girl on it. What’s that you say? It’s a Brown Recluse? Why, yes it is. Both the Brown Recluse and the Black Widow have a bad reputation. Yes… both can potentially cause humans some problems, but they will also go above and beyond to avoid people if at all possible. Generally, the only time they bite is if they get pinned by a finger or arm or foot and are trying to defend themselves. You be nice to them; they’ll be nice to you.
spider 4At this point, I ran out of collecting containers but the day had just begun! The next critter that crawled out from under a log was this little Triatoma sanguisuga. Commonly known as kissing bugs, this little guys is possibly a vector for Chagas. There have been a number of studies initiated of late to keep track of Chagas transmission, but there isn’t a lot known about where it is and what it is infecting because most states don’t require anyone to keep track of the confirmed human cases.

The fastest new friend we made, and the only one we didn’t collect because I didn’t have the right parts with me, was this little guy. He was at the bottom of the pile eating all the critters we were trying to collect. He zipped out and under the rack when we disturbed the log he was under. My parents have lived on their ranch for about 15 years. In that time I have only seen four snakes: One was the little ribbon snake below, the second was a smaller version of this ribbon snake we saw the same day under a pile of hay, the third was a juvenile water moccasin sunning in the tank and the fourth was a coach whip. Conclusion: Snakes are good at hide and seek.

spider 5Later that day, after chores were done, we were sitting on the back porch with a Lone Star to cool off and this friend stopped by for a visit. Cicada nymph molts are generally what people know or see of Cicadas in Texas, although you are probably familiar with the noises they make as well. You will find the molts attached to tree bark or the brick of your house, split down the back. During their two to five-year life span, these cicadas spend just a couple months in the form you see in the picture. They are big but they are also 0% harmful to humans. They just want to chill out with you while you share a beer.

cicada

Also on the porch wanting to join the party? This female ox beetle. How can you tell it is female? The guys have these cool horns on their thorax that make them look like little beetle-y triceratops. Ox beetles live just a couple of months and are active during the summer. Their main job is recycling plant matter into compost, but that mostly happens in the larval form when they are just little, white, C-shaped grubs. They do fly in the adult form and, while it can be a little scary to unexpectedly find a big, brown, two-inch bug all up in your business, this guy is not harmful to humans at all. If you see one out, it is probably just cruising for a rotten log to lay some eggs.

ox beetle

The last critter of the day was this armadillo who met with an untimely death the night before when he ended up with the pool. As part of the shady, after chore discussions I asked my dad what he planned on doing with that armadillo. Ya know… because he had dibs. He indicated that his actual plan involved putting it in the woods to be recycled by the decomposers. I asked if I could have it for our education collections.

armadillo2
A little known fact, or at least something that most folks don’t think very hard about, is that all the specimens we use for teaching have to come from someplace and generally, you can’t get a pinned butterfly or a bobcat skull at Wal-mart. This being the case, we have to make or find all of our specimens for the teaching collection. Sometimes this is reeeaaalllly unpleasant.

It was the armadillo that causes my mom to question all of her life choices that led me to this point my life and wonder what she had done wrong. After dinner I hopped up to go skin the armadillo before it got dark. There was a lot of care taken on my part to keep clean because armadillos are known to carry leprosy. They are vectors for leprosy because armadillos and humans are about the same constant temperature and so the leprosy can snuggle right in and get comfy. People think that armadillos are giving leprosy to humans, but in reality humans probably gave it to them originally. You never see an armadillo exhibiting the signs of leprosy because they only live a short while. Two other fun facts about armadillos, the Aztecs called them āyōtōchtli, which translates to “turtle rabbit”; and, there are 21 extant species of armadillo that range from 5 to 59 inches long and 3 ounces to 120 pounds.

So, what do we do with all this stuff? It depends on the stuff. Most of these animals will get used in our live animal programs, labs, and summer camps. For those animals that are dead, or die after a long life of cricket pops and mealworm snacks, we try to preserve them for our educational collections. They may get used in the same programs, like the labs and the camps, but they also get put on display inside the classrooms, or for the special few, inside the Cabinet of Curiosities for you to come check out. So, if you do get the opportunity to check out some of our educational specimens, please be careful with them! It takes a couple of months to find, collect and/or make each one!

Peruse Sugar Land’s new Paleo Hall — it’s newly doubled in size and open now!

HMNS at Sugar Land has quite the pretty new Paleo Hall.

Check out the stunning new Paleo Hall in Sugar Land!

With 5,000 square feet of major mounts (including a Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex and Giant Ground Sloth), an impressive selection of trilobites, detailed to-scale models and an animated prehistoric aquarium, it’s got more than enough to interest a developing dino-lover or a seasoned fossil expert.

We've got trilobites

The trilobite section is one of the best in the area.

Fossilized in-ground Stegosaurus

Check out this fossilized in-ground Stegosaurus!

Triceratops

The Sugar Land Triceratops skeleton features a full tail.

Giant Armadillo

A fossilized prehistoric giant armadillo is just one of the specimens that once existed in the Texas area. To schedule your next visit to HMNS Sugar Land, click here.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Armadillo

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David, the museum’s associate curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on www.hmns.org – throughout the year.

The armadillo is an iconic animal in Texas, and this relative of the smaller, modern forms takes “Texas-sizing” to the extreme. This species, commonly known as Giant Armadillo, would have been nearly 6 feet long and weighed nearly 500 pounds. Like its modern cousin, this ancient animal was an immigrant to North America from the south, slowly migrating northward and subsisting of a diet of mostly plants and perhaps insects. The giant armadillo roamed and rooted along the Gulf Coast and as far north as southern Oklahoma, but disappeared about 10,000 years ago.

The Museum’s Giant Armadillo is a Houston fossil, discovered in 1955 by Florence Dawdy, a teacher, with her school age son and a friend near the old Scott Street Bridge on Brays Bayou.  Her family’s curiosity and concern about the fossil brought the find to the attention of the geology department at the University of Houston. This decision saved the fossil from further erosion or looting. UH students and volunteers excavated the fossil and provided the initial curation. It was described as part of a Masters Thesis at UH and then later published by Gideon James in the Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp796-808, July 1957, An Edentate from the Pleistocene of Texas.

For over 30 years, the Museum’s Giant Armadillo was the best example of Holmesina septentrionalis known to science, and it is still one of the most complete.

The Giant Armadillo was given to the Museum by the University of Houston and was mounted by proceeds raised from the Museum’s 1991 armadillo-themed Guild Gala. The specimen was mounted in two dimensions as a plaque, so visitors would experience the fossil as it was originally found.

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see larger and more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

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