Have Science Fun in the Summer Sun with a Solar Print Kit!

by Marina Torres

Texas heat is here, and school’s out for summer. With all that bright sun outside, it’s a great time to play under the open sky. In the spirit of the season, we took science outside with a do-it-yourself kit from our own Museum Store. This super fun and educational solar print kit really leaves an impression! With this kit, you can challenge your children’s imagination and keep them active.

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Here’s what it comes with:12 five-by-seven pieces of solar paper, two print frame holders, two pre-printed stencil sheets and three blank note cards with envelopes so kids can share their finished projects with friends and families.

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And here’s how it works: First, lay everything out.

Cut out the pre-printed stencil images and gather the items you’d like to use in your image. In a dim room, place the solar sheet (located inside the black envelope) under the frame, with the blue side facing up. Place the items on top of the sheet and close the frame.

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Carefully place the system under the bright summer sun for about three minutes or until the sheet turns white.

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Gather your items and prints out of the sun, then rinse under running water and let them dry.

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Voila! You’ve merged art and science into one, and created these super cool solar images!

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Visit the Museum Store or shop online for this solar print kit and other DIY kits or browse around for other summer toys. We’ve also opened an exciting new Cabinet of Curiosities section inspired by our newest exhibition. There’s never been a better time to start your own collection!

Editor’s Note: Marina is the Visual Manager for the Houston Museum of Natural Science Museum Store.

My Little Stinky: Corpse Flower Cousin on Display at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Meet Lois’s baby cousin, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius. It may not be as large or as smelly as the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) that bloomed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 2010, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome! It’s blooming in the Cockrell Butterfly Center right now, and by the end of the weekend, it should be fully open and ready for a big debut.

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A. paeoniifolius bloom beginning to open. Photo by Soni Holladay.

Lois and this flower, also known as the elephant foot yam, are both Aroids, being of the Amorphophallus genus, characterized by the spathe and spadix floral structure and sharing the same distinct life cycle. The plant consists of an underground storage organ called a tuber, which differ in size and shape between plants and species.

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As the bloom began to open, we placed it in the CBC for our guests to observe. Photo by Soni Holladay.

When the conditions are right, A. paeoniifolius (pronounced pay-owe-knee-foe-lee-us) sends a single leaf out of the center of the tuber, which looks a lot like a small tree. The leaves typically have a tall, sometimes spotted or bumpy petiole resembling a tree trunk that branches out at the top to form leaflets. A paeoniifolius gets its name from the look of its leaflets, which recall the foliage of a peony plant. This leaf stage can last for several months — maybe up to a year — after which the leaf slowly starts to break down. It turns yellow, then brown, and eventually it falls over.

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The spathe will continue to open through the weekend, giving the bloom the look of a skirt around the central spadix. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The tuber then stays dormant for between three and nine months. If the tuber is developed enough to support an inflorescence, or flower growth, it will bloom. The blooms of an Amorphophallus are spectacular at any size, though not as stinky. Size doesn’t matter as far as stench goes. We sometimes have smaller species blooming in our greenhouses that can make your nosehairs curl.

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This close, the bloom smells faintly sour, like dumpster garbage. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

As the plant continues to bloom, the spathe will widen and “collapse” open, giving it the look of a skirt around the spadix. Right now, it looks more like a collar. Come visit the CBC this weekend to have a look (and a smell) at this fascinating plant, on display right next to its larger cousin, currently in the “tree-like” stage of its life cycle.

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A. titanum. Photo by Chris Arreaga.

Editor’s Note: The A. paeoniifolius flower enjoyed a long weekend at HMNS, then moved on to the next stage in its life cycle. Look for updates on this flower, the corpse flower and other Amorphophallus species on this blog and in social media.

Seeing Stripes: The Zebra Longwing Butterfly

The zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) is a common resident of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC). This butterfly is easily recognizable with boldly striped yellow and black wings. When visiting the CBC, you’ll often spot them sipping nectar from the flowers and nectar feeders or sunning themselves with their wings spread open. These butterflies have some unique features and behaviors that set them apart form the rest!

Aposematic Coloration

Bright, contrasting warning colors are known as aposematic coloration. They indicate to potential predators of the “unprofitability” of a prey item. The bold yellow and black stripes on the zebra longwing serve as a warning signal to potential predators of the butterfly’s unpalatable and poisonous nature. Zebra longwing caterpillars feed on passion vine (passiflora) leaves and acquire some of their toxins, making them distasteful to predators. 

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Bright, contrasting colors warn predators to stay away.

Pollen feeders

Most butterflies can only sip fluids with their proboscis, most commonly flower nectar. Zebra longwings, on the other hand, also feed on pollen. They use their saliva to dissolve the pollen and take in its nutrients. Pollen, unlike nectar, contains proteins and is very nutritious. Pollen feeding is correlated with overall higher fitness. This diet allows zebra longwings to live longer (up to six months) and increases females’ egg production. 

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You can see pollen on this zebra longwing’s proboscis. Feeding on pollen increases longevity.

Pupal Mating

Male zebra longwings exhibit pupal mating, zebra_longwing_and_chrysaliin which they will mate with a female before and immediately after she emerges from her chrysalis. Males will seek out a female pupae and will perch on it and guard it from competing males. Many males may fight for the opportunity to mate with the yet-to-emerge female. The successful male will insert his abdomen into the softening pupae and copulate with the female. Mating will continue as she emerges and dries her wings. The males will pass a nutrient-rich spermatophore to the female which reduces her attractiveness to future mates. This male (at right) begins mating with the female before she has even emerged from her chrysalis.

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This mating pair shows the freshly emerged female still clinging to her chrysalis.

Communal Roosting

Adult zebra longwings roost communally in groups of up to 60 individuals at night. They tend to return to the same roost on a nightly basis. In the late afternoon, zebras can be observed fluttering and basking near their roost site as they slowly gather together for the night. Roosting together provides protection from predators and retains warmth. 

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These zebra longwings are preparing for the night by roosting together for safety.

So now you know! These beautiful, brightly colored butterflies are bad-tasting, and long-lived. They have unique mating habits and the snuggle together at night. Something to remember next time you visit the zebras at the CBC!

Staff Picks: Best of the Cockrell Butterfly Center

The Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC) is most well known for its free-flying butterflies inhabiting a three-story indoor rainforest. But there are many other cool things to see and experience at the CBC! We checked with staff members and asked them about their favorite sections of the center, and this is what they said:

Lauren – Lauren is the butterfly entomologist and she takes care of the 800 to 1,000 imported butterflies we receive every week. Her staff picks are the chrysalis emergence chambers. The emergence chambers showcase thousands of live chrysalids of every size, shape and color imaginable! Many have gold spots or flecks. The word “chrysalis” comes from the Greek word for gold, “chrysós.” If you watch carefully you can even observe butterflies emerging, leaving an empty chrysalis shell behind, which they cling to while their wings stretch and dry.

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Lauren stands next to the chrysalis chambers where you can watch butterflies as they emerge.

Erin – Erin is a board certified entomologist and is the insect zoo manager. She cares for all the non-butterfly bugs in the CBC. Her staff pick is the eastern lubber grasshopper sculpture found at the entrance of the entomology hall. The larger-than-life sculpture shows the anatomical details of the grasshopper’s body parts on one side, like the head, thorax, abdomen, wings and antennae. On the other side it shows a cross-section, displaying the insect’s internal organ systems. It’s a great visual introduction of what makes an insect, an insect. 

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Erin with the Eastern Lubber grasshopper sculpture you can enjoy in the CBC entomology hall.

Nancy – Nancy is the director of the CBC. Her staff-pick is spicebush caterpillar sculpture found in the entrance of the butterfly center. The giant caterpillar welcomes each visitor into the butterfly center and is a great opportunity for photos! It may seem cartoon-ish, but the sculpture is actually a very realistic representation of the caterpillar that can be found right here in Houston! The large eye-spots on the back of the caterpillar function to trick or scare away predators by making it appear like a bigger animal. 

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Nancy with the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar that greets guests as they enter the CBC.

Soni – Soni is the horticulturist that grows and cares for all of the plants in the CBC rainforest. Her staff pick is the Pride of Trinidad tree in the rainforest. The Pride of Trinidad (Warszewiczia coccinea) is native to Central and South America and the West Indies and is the national tree of Trinidad. The best part of this tree are its showy, flowering branches. Each flower cluster is accented with a red bract and is loaded with nectar. Inside the CBC rainforest, the Pride of Trinidad is in bloom year round and is constantly feeding a variety of butterflies! 

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Soni shows off a cluster of flowers on the Pride of Trinidad that feeds many of the butterflies in the CBC rainforest.

Ryan – Ryan is the CBC Bugs-On-Wheels outreach presenter. He travels to schools, day-cares, camps, and clubs to present a variety of bug-related topics (check them out here: Bugs-On-Wheels). His staff pick is the vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteus). This scary looking arachnid is actually quite harmless and easy to handle. They get their name from their defense mechanism. If threatened, glands near the rear of the abdomen can spray acetic acid which has a vinegar-y smell and may dissuade predators from making the vinegaroon their lunch!

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Ryan holds a vinegaroon showing their relatively docile nature.

Farrar – Farrar is the curatorial entomologist. He identifies and documents the thousands of species in the CBC’s entomology collection. His staff-pick is the beetle specimen display in the entomology hall. Beetle species make up almost 25 percent of all known animal species. They are found in almost all major natural habitats and are adapted to practically every kind of diet. The British biologist and atheist J.B.S. Haldane once said, when asked whether studying biology had taught him anything about the Creator: “I’m really not sure, except that He must be inordinately fond of beetles.” This quote lines the top of the beetle display in the CBC. 

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Farrar stands next to the beetle specimen display you can visit in the CBC entomology hall.

Celeste – Celeste is the butterfly rearing coordinator. She breeds and raises butterflies for the CBC. Her staff pick is Charro, the CBC’s resident iguana! Charro is a Green Iguana (Iguana iguana). Despite this name, he is actually bright orange! Green Iguanas can be a variety of colors depending on what region they come from. Charro can be found relaxing in his enclosure in the rainforest or sunning himself outside the butterfly center by the demo garden. After hours, Charro gets to wander the entire rainforest freely. Don’t worry about the butterflies; Charro is strictly vegetarian. 

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Celeste sits with Charro the iguana who resides inside the CBC rainforest.

Next time you visit the CBC make sure to check out all these staff picks, and take time to pick YOUR favorite part of the CBC!