Science Friday: DNA Testing

We’re very excited to bring you this weekly feature – Science Friday, a science talk show produced by NPR. Each week, a new video takes on a different on science topic, in an effort to bring an educated, balanced discussion to bear on the scientific issues at hand.

You may remember that we started this feature more than a year ago – but technical difficulties kept us from making it a regular appearance. Thanks to the fine folks at SciFri, however- I think we’ve got it figured out. Hopefully, we’ll be bringing you the science-y goodness every Friday from now on.

This week we follow two high school students from New York as they perform a DNA test on foods to see just what ingredients are in our everyday meals. They review if goat milk really comes from goats, the origin of caviar, and what exactly goes into New York City hot dogs.

Can’t see the video? Click here to view it.

Attention: Butterfly Enthusiasts!

Have you ever wondered to yourself, “when is the best time to visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center?”  or “when can I come and enjoy exhibit without being surrounded by school children?” Well, this is it folks, right now – the best time ever to come and enjoy the exhibit halls of HMNS in relative calm and quiet.

September is a very slow month for us here. Children have just returned to school, field trips have not started and most everyone is too busy to even think about a trip to the museum. I would guess that most museums in the district go through this in the fall as well. It gives us some much needed time to slow down and work on things that we’re not able to get to during the busy spring and summer. I really enjoy the quiet and we can literally hear crickets chirping in the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

Butterfly - London Butterfly House, London, England - Sunday September 9th 2007
Creative Commons License photo credit: law_keven
The Indian Leafwing

What does this mean? This is a perfect time for a nice, relaxing visit, especially to the Butterfly Center. We still have plenty of sunny warm days where you can see a thousand butterflies flying around. If you are a photographer that is discouraged by the crowds, this is a great time to come and get some nice pictures. If you are a mother or father that stays home with small children, what a wonderful time for you. The noise and chaos of large school groups can be very intimidating to small children, especially if they have never been here before. I can’t stress enough what a great time this is to visit, so if you’re working, take a day off and take advantage of the amazing places that make up Houston’s famous Museum district!

Right now, we have some absolutely amazing butterflies flying and  awesome insects in our Entomology Hall. If you are wild about blue morphos (who isn’t?), you’ll love these! The Indian Leafwing (Kallima paralekta) is a rare treat for us from Southeast Asia! Their camouflage is incredible. They look exactly like a leaf while at rest, but when they open their wings, they display brilliant blue and orange. They are one of my very favorites!

Another one we’ve been getting lately is the one-spotted prepona (Archaeprepona demophon). This butterfly, from Central and South America, is often mistaken for a blue morpho, but upon closer inspection, you can see that it’s quite different!

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Archaeprepona demophon
Glasswing Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: wwarby
Clear Wing Butterfly

If you have very, very good eyes, you may be able to spot our tiny Greta oto, also known as the clear wing, or glass wing. They are so small, but very beautiful and elegant! They also come from Central and South America and despite their size, have a big personality! As caterpillars, they feed on poisonous plants. They retain these toxins into adulthood, making them distasteful to predators. The males exhibit a type of behavior known as lekking. This is a mating behavior where males gather on a daily basis, in the same area, and assume the same position within a circular arena. Here, they put on mating displays, dances, and even engage in fighting, depending on the animal. Females come to the lek to be fertilized.

You will not find these butterflies on our identification chart. We don’t get them often, so hopefully you will make the trip to see them! As always, we have some spectacular insects on display as well, including exotic and native beetles, katydids, walking sticks, spiders, scorpions, and creepy roaches! Well, not creepy to me.

I hope you will take advantage of this quiet time of the year. Come and bask in the peace and serenity of an almost empty butterfly center and hopefully have one of your favorite visits here at HMNS! Happy bug watching!

Southern Arizona: A Bug Geek’s Paradise!

tarantula
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Tarantula

Last week, I attended what is probably the best conference ever!! Well, that is if you are interested in wildlife, especially invertebrates.  The Invertebrates in Education and Conservation conference is a small gathering of people who are involved in invertebrates in some way. Most of the attendees are employed by insect zoos and butterfly houses all over the country, some are teachers, some are doctors, and some, like all of us, just plain love bugs!

The conference is held in a small town called Rio Rico which is located about an hour south of Tucson and right above the Mexican border. Located right smack dab in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, this quaint little town is perfect for spotting some spectacular wildlife; some of which can only be found in that particular habitat. The insects and arachnids are amazing, but there are also plenty of desert-dwelling mammals, reptiles, and birds to make anyone’s day!

arizona-mountains
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Arizona Mountains

The conference is full of activities: workshops, field trips, paper presentations, and lets not forget the social aspect! Bug people really know how to party! But seriously, there is so much invaluable information that I get from talking to the other conference participants. I can always learn ways to improve every aspect of our facility and that’s why this conference is so important.

chrysina
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Chrysina beetle

I was able to go on a few collecting trips as well as purchase some critters that I was not able to catch myself. I came back with some great new bugs that you will soon be able to see on display! 

I caught some gorgeous beetles including cactus longhorn beetles (Moneilema gigas), fig beetles (Cotinis mutabilis), and jewel scarabs (Chrysina sp.).  Cactus longhorn beetles are robust black beetles with very long antennae, which are characteristic of longhorn beetles. They can be found during the cooler hours of the day feeding on Cholla. This is a cactus with extremely tough sharp spines, so collecting these beetles can be a bit of a challenge. They are harmless, but somewhat resemble another black beetle called a darkling beetle. These beetles secrete a foul-smelling liquid to deter predators, so resembling them along with hiding in the sharp spines of the cholla helps to keep the longhorn beetles safe.

Fig beetles are also known as Green June Beetles and can be found here in Texas. They are, however, very abundant and easy to catch in the desert. They are active during the day and fly around, buzzing very loudly, from plant to plant. Very often, people think that a bumble bee or something similar is headed for them until the beetle lands, showing off its beautiful emerald green coloration. They love to eat over-ripe, soft fruits such as figs and peaches, hence the name!

Chrysina, or Jewel beetles are a magnificent find. There are 3 species common to the area: gloriosa, lecontei, and beyeri. They are all beautiful, but a little harder to find then the fig beetles because they are active at night.

cholla
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Cholla Plant

I was also on the look out for katydids of course (my favorite!)  I brought back 1 very small nymph which I will not be able to identify until it matures. I’m very anxious to see what species it is! I was also able to get some various desert katydids, all belonging to the sub-family tettigoniinae. This sub-family is comprised of predaceous katydids. Some are active predators that will hunt and kill their prey and some are scavengers, feeding on eggs and freshly dead invertebrates. They all require plant material in their diets as well.  Out of the 6 I brought back, 2 are male sooty-winged katydids (Capnobotes fuliginosus), 2 I have not been able to identify, and 2 are a pair of Haldeman’s shieldback katydids (Pediodects haldemani). I am especially excited about these two because I actually have a male and female that I would love to breed.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Haldeman’s Shieldback

As you can see, this species has kind of a diabolical look to it, and since predatory katydids are known to inflict a painful bite when handled, I will be careful with this one!

It was not all fun and games for me. I went there to present a paper. I actually presented on our blog! I love to talk and write about bugs to anyone who will listen or read and it has been well received!

So, hopefully you bug geeks out there will continue to read and put Southern Arizona on your list of places to visit, you won’t regret it! If you get there, be sure to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI). They are the ones who organize and host this wonderful gathering and they rely on our support. Well, until next time, happy bug watching!

Beetle-mania!

Think it’s good luck when a ladybug lands on your hand? Do you delight in dancing fireflies lighting up the night? Are you gaga for grub worms? Then, my friend, you’ve caught it…Beetle-mania! I know what you’re thinking; ladybugs and fireflies are beetles? Isn’t a grub a worm!  Don’t fret if you can’t name them all. Coleopterans (members of the beetle family) are a widely diverse group of organisms that make up a quarter of all animal species known to science.

scarab beetle
Creative Commons License photo credit: llisa

Beetles, like all insects, have an exoskeleton made of chitin. (Side note: THIS is the reason they crunch if you accidentally step on them!) They have six legs and can come in all the colors of the rainbow. Scarabs, in particular, are sought after by collectors for their brilliantly hued, glossy forewings. Think you’d need to visit an ancient Egyptian tomb to see a scarab? Think again! Just turn on your porch light and open your door around the sixth month of the year and try to keep the June bugs out.

Lady Beetles (Coccinellidae)
Creative Commons License photo credit: jpockele

Beetles are not just fun to look at (though they really, really are); they provide invaluable services to many human professions. Gardeners, landscapers, and farmers use beetles to help in pest management. For example, some species of lady beetles, commonly known as ladybugs or ladybird beetles, are aphidophagous, meaning they eat aphids. Other beetles prey on parasites, such as caterpillars, and even eat fly eggs.

Forensic entomologists can use beetles to identify a post mortem interval. Insects like beetles and flies are among the first to discover a corpse. Members of the Scarab, Carrion, and Carcass beetle families arrive at the scene to help break down the carrion and to eat the larvae of the flies that got there first. (Side note 2: Look up some info on blow flies to learn more, especially Chrysomya rufifacies, the hairy maggot blow fly! My favorite.) Dermestids, or Skin/Hide beetles, are among the last wave to arrive. Because of the very predictable development times of these beetles, forensic entomologists are able to count backwards to estimate the postmortem interval, and can sometimes do so to within a few hours.

Now that your brain is full of beneficial beetle facts, go look under a rock and see what you find! Don’t be surprised if you like it. If you want more, come to the Entomology Hall in the Cockrell Butterfly Center and discover the world beneath your feet!!!