2016 African Hall Updates

Dan Brooks, Ph.D.

HMNS Curator of Vertebrate Zoology

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The Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife, built 2002-04 was a new variation of a common traditional theme at HMNS, in that we wanted to portray more than just the Serengeti ecosystem.  Prior versions of the hall focused on the Serengeti, which while a very important ecosystem, was a mere fraction of the continent.  In late Fall of 2003, Phase I debuted, featuring dioramas representing the Congo Basin, West African Forest, Ethiopian Scrub and Serengeti Savannah.  In late Spring of 2004, Phase II debuted, featuring dioramas representing Okavango Delta, South African Lowveldt, Saharan Desert, and a rotating case.

 

The new exhibit was a smash hit, not only for portraying various ecosystems within the continent, but also for providing various themes in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.  The result was, what the visitor could see is the whole ecosystem, with elements of time and space removed, so that the species and landscapes are all brought to full view simultaneously in one ‘snapshot’.

 

As exciting as the new hall was, some updates were in order since the opening was already well over a decade.  In total, we added 23 new specimens representing 13 new species not currently on display, along with adding a couple of other species that are already on display.  This brought the total number of specimens on display in the hall to over 125, representing around 90 species.

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West African Wetland

Perhaps, the most exciting addition is the West African Wetland diorama featuring an African Elephant (Loxodonta africana).  Elephants have the distinction of being the largest living land animal on the planet.  There are actually two species in Africa, those from the Savannah (Loxodonta africana) that you see in this diorama, and a smaller species that lives in forest, aptly called the Forest Elephant (L. cyclotis).  Additionally Asia harbors several subspecies of Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), including the Pygmy Elephant endemic to Borneo.  These living species are the last of a lineage of much more hairy relatives that walked the planet during the Pleistocene, known as Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) and Mastodons (Mammut americanum). 

 

Elephants are vital landscape architects in the tropical regions they inhabit.  They are important for seed dispersal, carrying seeds to spawn and grow away from the parent plant.  Moreover, they are important at molding landscapes, removing plants that would otherwise monopolize a habitat, providing a variety of refugia for smaller animals by toppling trees onto their sides, and other important roles.  Indeed, in areas where elephant populations have exceeded the number that can be comfortably supported at a given site, the landscape becomes quite denuded. 

Unfortunately elephants are tied for the one thing that is as coveted by some cultures as gold or diamonds – ivory.  The demand for the illegal trade in ivory has pushed elephants to the brink of extinction in many areas.  In some regions of Africa, tuskless elephants have been evolutionarily favored over their tusked brethren.  If elephants don’t have tusks they are of little value to poachers and thus not hunted, which means tuskless genes are carried forth to future generations.

 

Several species of aquatic and semi-aquatic bird species round out the West African Wetland diorama, including small flocks of Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) and White-faced Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna viduata), as well as Black Crowned Crane (Balearica pavonina) and African Open-billed Stork (Anastomus lamelligerus).

 

If the Cattle Egret looks familiar to you, it is perfectly understandable.  They are commonly seen in Texas pastures, usually near the cattle that the bird follows in order to snatch up the insects that they panic into movement.  But the Cattle Egret perfected this foraging technique on the African plain, following antelope and other large grazers.  It arrived in the New World via storm systems that carried the bird across the Atlantic, from the west coast of Africa to northeastern Brazil, whereupon the birds gradually dispersed to the south, west and north.

 

While similar in appearance to a duck, White-faced Whistling Ducks are actually closer related to swans, which they share a long neck in common with.  Several species of whistling ducks are distributed throughout the globe, occupying every continent except for Antarctica.  They get the name whistling duck from their call, but are also known as tree ducks do to their habit of perching and nesting in trees.  The closely related Black-bellied Whistling Duck is ubiquitous around Houston.  Like Cattle Egrets, White-faced Whistling Ducks dispersed across the Atlantic on their own, thus populating both Africa and Latin America.

 

Found in the tropical belt of Africa, Black Crowned Cranes are rare and classified as Vulnerable due to habitat loss and trapping for food and commerce.  They are typically associated in bonded pairs that mate for life, occupying grasslands and wetlands such as depicted in the diorama.  Cranes are well known for their loud duet calls, with contributions by both male and female simultaneously.  In contrast to most cranes (genus Grus), crowned cranes give loud honking noises, similar to a clown’s horn on a circus car!  For the different voice and other reasons, crowned cranes are placed in their own genus, including both this species and the Blue Crowned Crane (B. regulorum) from East and Southern Africa.

 

The African Open-billed Stork gets its name from the space between the mandibles of its bill.  This modification of the bill aids in handling molluscs to consume; freshwater snails are their preferred food.  Although they may be in flocks up to 7000 individuals, they prefer to feed alone.  Like many species, their breeding season is in the spring when resources are abundant.  African Open-billed Storks perform complex displays, involving head-bobbing, bill-clattering, and rocking back-and-forth with the head held between the legs.

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African House Bat/Evolution Kiosk

To the right of the new West African Wetland diorama is a new kiosk featuring a label about ‘speciation and describing new species’, using as the model, new species of African House Bats (Scotophilus) I described in 2014 with my colleague John Bickham.  Featured are one of the four new species, Andrew Rebori’s House Bat (S. andrewreborii) along with the species it was split from, African Yellow House Bat (S. dinganii). 

 

New species evolve via a number of different modes, the most common of which involves isolation.  Oceanic islands are perhaps the first and most extreme form of isolation, but such ‘islands’ can also form on mainlands – imagine a mountaintop where the species inhabiting the very top is unable to exist at lower elevations – that’s an island barrier.  Other examples include species cratered in valleys between mountains or rivers, or other barriers created by contrasting habitats.  Over evolutionary millennia, those species with a common ancestor undergo separate trajectories with their own unique set of adaptations, such that ultimately they are very different.  Distinguishing and describing these new forms is the job of a museum zoologist.

 

On occasion one stumbles upon a new species while examining museum specimens and noticing something distinct, or running DNA analyses and also noticing something distinct.  These tandem situations led to the description of four new species of African House Bats: Livingstone’s (Scotophilus livingstonii) of tropical central Africa, Andrew Rebori’s (S. andrewreborii) and Trujillo’s (S. trujilloi) of Kenya, and Ejetai’s (S. ejetai) from Ethiopia.  Firming this up with morphological and DNA analyses led to the description of these four new species. 

 

 

Ethiopian Scrub

Several birds were added to the Ethiopian Scrub diorama, including a pair of Yellow-necked Spurfowl (Francolinus leucoscepus) which are endemic to this ecosystem, and have bright yellow bare patches on their throats, as the name implies.  Other endemics were added, such as individuals of Vulturine Guinea Fowl (Acryllium vulturinum) and Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus), to help build social groups of current individuals already represented in the diorama.

 

Yellow-necked Spurfowl are actually a species of Francolin, which are gamebirds found throughout Africa.  Spurfowl tend to associate in pairs (a male and female) as depicted in the exhibit.  Like other gamebirds they will use their powerful claws as a digging tool to expose grubs, roots, tubers, and other delicacies they enjoy eating.  They have a very powerful voice that can be heard at quite a distance.  Genders are identical, although the male is a bit larger. 

 

Except when breeding, Vulturine Guinea Fowl occur in medium to large flocks that spend the day scratching on the ground looking for food.  They are, however, strong fliers and roost in trees overnight.  Although they will take water when it is available, they can exist for long periods without drinking.  In spite of its name, the Vulturine Guineafowl is not a carrion eater, but rather an omnivore who will take a variety of invertebrates, seeds, and fruit.  Its featherless head gives it a superficial resemblance to vultures, which accounts for its common name.

 

The spectacularly colored Superb Starling is a common East African bird.  It feeds mainly on the ground, eating a range of seeds, fruits and insects.  It will devour food scraps and small flocks will often gather where people offer it food, making it popular with tourists.  While this species will nest in cavities like most starlings, it often builds large domed nest in low thorn bushes.  Sometimes a breeding pair is assisted by non-breeding offspring from earlier broods.

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Saharan Desert

The Saharan Desert diorama was always a bit barren, lacking more examples of migratory birds and carnivores, so it was exciting to be able add both.  Mammalian carnivores include Pale Fox (Vulpes pallida) and Caracal (Felis caracal), the latter of which is carrying off a hyrax from the small familial group on the cliff.  Additional migrants include a flock of the European Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus), as well as an example of the exquisite Demoiselle Crane (Grus virgo) standing next to the date tree. 

 

The Pale Fox lives in the latitudinal band across the southern Sahara of Africa known as the Sahel Strip.  A species of the desert, the Pale Fox is more active at night to opportune cooler temperatures.  During the daytime they rest in the cool environment of underground burrows that can reach nearly 50 feet in length, while several feet underground.  The large ears are adaptations for enhanced hearing, and the sand-colored pelage helps them blend into their environment.  Another adaptation for desert life is the ability to obtain all needed water from their food, they drink little water (if any).

 

The Caracal is also known as the African Lynx, owing to the tufts of hair tipping the ears which it shares in common with the true Lynx (Lynx canadensis).  It can live from sea level to 10,000 feet in a variety of habitats – not only in Africa, but also northeast through the Middle East to western India.  While it may take a variety of game, the majority of its diet is comprised of mammals ranging in size from rodents to large antelope.  The speed and agility of the Caracal permit it to take mammals up to three times its size.  Caracals were apparently important symbols to ancient Egyptians.  Sculptured Caracals guarded tombs of Pharoahs, and ancient paintings and bronze figurines have been discovered as well.  

 

The smallest of the world’s 15 species of cranes, the Demoiselle Crane was given its name by Marie Antoinette.  Demoiselle means young lady or maiden in French, the queen was enchanted by the crane’s demure and maidenly appearance.  The geographic range covers a wide latitudinal band across Asia, with the Mongolian/Chinese population migrating to India for the winter, and the population between the Caspain and Black Sea, including Turkey, migrating south to spend winter in the Saharan Desert.

 

The largest of the grain-eating pigeons, the European Wood Pigeon can be found in a variety of habitats from city parks to woodland.  This species is one of the most commonly seen birds in Europe, ranging southwest to the Saharan Desert, as far east as parts of Mongolia and China and south to India.  Like most pigeons they have a clutch of two white eggs laid atop a flimsy platform of twigs; the squabs fledge at approximately three weeks of age. 

 

 

Ethiopian Highlands

Last but by no means least, is the Ethiopian Highland microcosm to replace the Bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus) in the rotating case.  Like many animals living in Ethiopia, the Gelada Baboon (Theropithecus gelada) and Erckel’s Francolin (Francolinus erckelii) are endemics that occur in no other country on the planet except for Ethiopia.  In fact, both of these species are among several that are restricted to the Highlands of Ethiopia rather than the Lowlands depicted in the circular diorama. 

 

The Gelada is so unique, it is in a monotypic genus, meaning that it is the sole member of the genus Theropithecus and has no closely related living relatives.  Many characteristic make the Gelada totally unique from other species of baboons (genus Papio).  Large troops of Geladas spend the night perched below a cliff ledge on rocky cliff face for protection from predators.  Not only is their nighttime cliff face bunking behavior unique among monkeys, but they are the only species of primate that subsists entirely on grass blades and grains.  After scaling back up the cliff face in the morning, they spend the day foraging in grassland above the cliff. 

 

Francolins are gamebirds that fill the ecological equivalent of pheasants and partridge in Asia, or grouse and quail in North America.  Overall they are closest related to partridge.  Approximately 25 species of francolins are found throughout Africa, with an additional five species hailing from Asia.  They vary extensively in size and color.  Like other gamebirds they will use their powerful claws as a digging tool to expose grubs, roots, tubers, and other delicacies they enjoy eating.  They have a very powerful voice that can be heard at quite a distance.  Males and females are identical, although the male is a bit larger. 

 

Hate Mosquitoes? Consider a Bat House! Fight Insect-Borne Illness by Partnering with Furry Fliers

The National Weather Service reported last week that 35 trillion gallons of water fell in the state of Texas during the month of May. The ground is soaked for what may well be weeks to come, our bayous have swollen far beyond their usual limits and residents in Harris and Ft. Bend counties continue to pick up the pieces after flooding pushed them from their homes. We know what 35 trillion gallons looks like in terms of disrupting the lives of Texans, but it’s difficult to imagine just exactly how much that is.

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That’s a lot of water…

NBC’s Nelson Hsu put together a graphic breaking down the staggering amount of water that drenched our state — evenly distributed and dropped all at once, it’s enough to cover Texas in eight inches of water; enough to fill California’s 200 surface reservoirs to thrice their capacity, enough to cover Manhattan four times, and if we had caught all that rainwater and spread it across the globe, the world’s population would have a supply of 64 ounces of water for at least the next 27 years. And most people fail the eight-glasses-a-day challenge!

With Zika virus making headlines in the aftermath of May’s downpour, our soaking city seems like prime real estate for ground zero of the next outbreak. But fear not. Mosquitoes are ubiquitous, that’s true, but they’re easy enough to fight. They fly at less than 1.5 miles an hour, with a typical range of only about 300 feet in still weather. Their strength is in their numbers, not their speed — kind of like zombies.

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America’s worst enemy, but to bats, they’re food for thought.

First, there have as yet been no locally-acquired cases of Zika virus in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control; the 618 reported cases were all travel-associated. It’s also important to understand that while Zika poses a serious threat to developing infants during pregnancy, the disease presents no more than a few days of flu-like symptoms in adults and children.

Second, since mosquitoes are the main vector of Zika, the best way to directly combat them is to wear insect repellent. Sure it smells nasty, but Off! and other spray-on products could save you from serious symptoms and the awful itching of the world’s most annoying insect.

Third, you can stop mosquitoes from breeding by eliminating areas of shallow, stagnant water. Take a lesson from the residents of Flamingo, Fla., a community in the Everglades and home to one of the most voracious populations of mosquitoes: Get rid of aluminum cans, bottles and plastic containers, store recycling in plastic bags, don’t let water accumulate in garbage can lids or empty garbage cans, flush bird baths and plant trays twice a week, store pet food and water bowls indoors when Fido and Felix aren’t using them, and use mosquito “dunks” in areas that can’t be drained. These dunks utilize bacteria that consume mosquito larvae but leave fish and other animals unharmed.

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(Yawn!!!) It it dusk yet? I’m hungry for mosquito breakfast.

For the long term, my favorite method of laying waste to mosquitoes involves enlisting the assistance of another population of flying creatures — by hanging bat houses! The Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) is a hardy, numerous species (and they’re super cute), but their propensity to roost in a few huge colonies, like those you can find under bridges in Austin and Houston, leaves them vulnerable to habitat loss. Hanging one or two bat houses around your home keeps these adorable flying mammals close by, which means far fewer insects.

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Vote Bat for Harris County Mosquito Exterminator! I eat bugs so they don’t eat you!

While female mosquitoes have an insatiable appetite for blood, which they need to lay their eggs, bats have an equally ravenous hunger for the insects. A single bat can eat around 1,000 mosquitoes every night, and a single small bat house offers shelter for up to 25 bats. Do the math with me — two shelters is 50 bats, which could eat a total of 50,000 mosquitoes a night or 350,000 mosquitoes a week. That’s not just the mosquitoes around your house; that’s probably every mosquito on the block. If you convince your neighbors to hang houses, too, you could form a bat colony coalition for an even more formidable mosquito-fighting force.

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When we have a problem, we hug it out. #justbattythings

The capacity of a bat house, of course, is also adjustable according to its size. Many bat house companies, like P & S Country Crafts or Habitat For Bats offer a variety of dimensions available for purchase, or you can build one yourself. It’s an easy enough project to knock out in your garage in a few days, and an even easier project to hang up a pre-made one. Each house promotes an environmentally-friendly semi-symbiotic relationship with our adorable bat friends, which stay long enough to raise their pups and then move on when the weather cools down. And by this time, the mosquitoes will have disappeared for the season, as well.

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Bat houses by www.pscountrycrafts.com, mounted on a pole. Bat houses can also be attached to the sides of houses or barns. Trees are not ideal for bat house mounting.

So do what you can to fight mosquitoes, but consider teaming up with the bats, our neighborhood insect-fighting superheroes. Check out Bat Conservation International for more information on ways to help these furry fliers.

Visit the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to learn more about bats and other native species in need of conservation.

Hey, Texas! Get outside and visit your wild neighbors.

by Melissa Hudnall

Texans! Want to see exotic birds? Look out the window! Want to see 250,000 bats? Just go outside tonight and look up! As a wildlife teacher and outreach presenter for the museum, I’ve had a chance to talk with future generations about the amazing wildlife found in Texas. Usually students think you have to travel to exotic lands to see the really cool animals, and they’re shocked to hear about all of the incredible animals they’ve been living right next to in Texas.

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Texas wildlife artifacts for the mobile classroom. Sahil Patel

That’s why I was excited to see the new HMNS at Sugar Land exhibit Treehouses: Look Who’s Living in the Trees!, because it makes these critters more accessible and feeds a natural curiosity that most children already seem to have about wildlife. After visiting this exhibit, young naturalists may start asking questions like, “Who made those track marks?” and exclaiming things like, “I know what that scat came from!”, which would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. Luckily, Texas is the perfect place to raise a young naturalist.

Look in our trees and under our bridges, and you might have a chance to see the only true flying mammal: bats! (Sorry, “flying” squirrels. Gliding doesn’t count.) Texas has tons of bats. In fact, we have so many that they are often picked up on radar used for weather reports.

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Radar around the Bracken Cave in San Antonio shows a cloud of bats. Every blue dot is one in flight.

Everyone’s heard about the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, but visit these locations in the winter and you might be disappointed to find they have migrated for the season. Drive just 15 minutes away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you can see bats year round at Waugh Bridge. This bridge has roughly 250,000 Mexican free tailed bats who would love to meet you. Before you go, be sure to get them a Thank You card, because the bats under this one bridge in Houston eat up to 2.5 tons of insects each night!

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This Mexican free-tailed bat might look cute and cuddly, but don’t pick them up like you see in this picture. Being mammals, they can carry rabies. Report any bats that you find on the ground in the day time or behaving strangely. They could be sick.

This is the perfect season to visit Waugh Bridge, as baby Mexican free tail bats test out their flying skills for the first time in early July. Just be sure to watch nearby towers for local birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, who are keeping a watchful eye on these bats as a source of food.

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This peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 200 mph diving to catch its prey. This is a preserved specimen that travels to school with our Wildlife on Wheels program. Sahil Patel

In fact, Texas is a huge birding state. Individuals travel from all over the United States just to see the colorful migrants that pass through here, like Cerulean Warblers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatcher. Our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife does a really nice job of highlighting some of the phenomenal birds that pay us a visit, for those of us (me) who do not have the patience for actual birding.

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Vermillion Flycatcher

Another adorable, and partially arboreal animal is the North American Porcupine.

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North American Porcupine

Looking for a kiss under the mistletoe this winter? This rodent is happy to oblige. Porcupines have been known to slowly amble up trees in search of mistletoe and pine needles when their preferred shrubbery is coated with snow. However, you may wish to rethink this close encounter, not only because of their dangerous defensive quills, but also because of their orange teeth.

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The orange coloration of the North American porcupine’s incisors is due to the high amount of iron in their enamel.

These teeth are not orange due to poor hygiene, but rather because of iron found in the enamel. This iron oxidizes, forming a rusty color. It’s the same reason your blood is red.

So Texans, get your wildlife education with HMNS and HMNS Sugar Land, then go out and explore! After all, now that you know their home address, it would be rude to ignore your neighbors…

Help us thank the birds and bees (and bats, moths and flies!) during National Pollinator Week

For the next several paragraphs, we’ll be talking about a few very special flying creatures (and some others) that are called pollinators — to whom we owe huge thanks for providing much of the food we eat! 

Without these pollinators to carry their pollen from flower to flower, plants could not form fruits or seeds to reproduce themselves and feed our whole ecosystem of hungry animals — including humans. Did you know that at least one of every three bites you take is thanks to a pollinator? (More if you are vegetarian.)

Although the world’s pollinators include many of the animals you’d expect and more (e.g., also butterflies, beetles, monkeys, even some rodents and lizards), the most important pollinators of our fruit and vegetable crops are insects, particularly bees. Unfortunately, today many pollinators are in danger due to habitat loss, overuse of insecticides, and other factors. To learn more about the threats facing pollinators and what you can do to help, visit the Pollinator Partnership’s webpage at pollinator.org.

National Pollinator Week, June 16-23 this year, was initiated by a group of biologists calling themselves the “Pollinator Partnership,” whose goal was to bring the public’s attention to the vital ecosystem services provided by pollinating bees, butterflies and moths, beetles, birds, and bats — and to make people aware of the urgent issue of their declining populations. 

Seven years ago, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to designate a week each June to commemorate the importance of pollinators. Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration.

From feasting to beekeeping, learn more about the efforts of these hardworking — and essential — animals in three special events planned for National Pollinator Week. 

Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m.

In addition to the Butterfly Center and Insect Zoo, you will visit the containment room and rooftop greenhouses — areas not open to the public where staff cares for the Museum’s butterflies and other insects. Kids 5 and above welcome! Click here for ticket info.

Beekeeping Class
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m.

From the tools and techniques needed to start your own apiary to tips of daily life with bees, beekeeper Shelley Rice will share the basics of starting your own beehive and how to harvest wax and honey naturally and safely. Participants will meet at Shelley’s private apiary. Advance registration required. Click here for ticket info.

Cultural Feast: A Culinary Cultivation — All About the Birds and the Bees
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m.

In the perfect kick off to summer, join the staff of the Cockrell Butterfly Center at Haven for a five-course meal showcasing the contributions of bees and other pollinators to our food sources prepared by chef Randy Evans. Culinary historian Merrianne Timko will discuss the culinary history of these pollinator-focused ingredients. Advance reservations required by June 16. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets online.