Family time & me time: Have the best of both at HMNS this holiday season

It’s the holiday season – full of food, festivities and family. Sure, you look forward to this month year-round, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get sick of it. Conversations start to get stale, your mother (or worse – mother-in-law) won’t let you stop stuffing your face, and you begin to worry that none of your pants will fit anymore.

This is enough to make some shout, “Bah humbug!” at every passerby, but it needn’t be so! All you need is some way to divert your family’s attention away from your new piercing, lack of promotion, the boyfriend or girlfriend that they loathe, or whatever childhood embarrassment they still insist on using to regale holiday guests (or worse yet, reenact).

What better way than an outing to the Houston Museum of Natural Science! Not only is this the perfect excuse to get out of the house, but with all of our exhibition halls, there are plenty of places to ditch your family — if only for a short while.

THE MORIAN HALL OF PALEONTOLOGY

The stunning views of fossilized dinosaurs, giant sloths, woolly mammoths and more will buy you just enough time to slip over to the John P. and Katherine McGovern Jurassic Bark Gallery (in a separate room towards the back, on the left). Here you will find sanctuary amongst the remains of a petrified forest – clearly terrified of your family too.

You might also head up to the Morian Overlook. Just as your family’s entering the hall, slip back out, and take the elevator up to the second floor. Be careful they don’t see you, because from here, you can take in the whole hall from above.

THE HALL OF ANCIENT EGYPT

There’s a lot to see in this hall. Rush to the back as you enter while the fam plods along. Here you’ll find the mummies and sarcophagi. And we have great, dim mood lighting – which means you could totally lay out on one of the benches, and people will just think you’re another exhibit! Chill here for a while until your family catches up.

THE COCKRELL BUTTERFLY CENTER

A Rainforest, butterflies, an iguana – let your clan to take it all in while you scope out your next spot.

As you enter the Rain Forest Conservatory, head all the way to the bottom level – into the cave. You can remain unseen from above and chill with all the cool butterflies that are trying to be as exclusive as you.

If you enter the Hall of Entmology from here you’ll be right by the “Land of BEEyond.” Please understand that this area is meant for children, so let them play in peace if they get there first – but after all, you’re a kid at heart, right? Why not chill here? You might even get to meet the queen bee.
THE MINERAL HALL AND SMITH GEM VAULT

This hall is lit perfectly to enhance the natural beauty of the minerals and gems on display — and also perfect lighting for a quick escape from your tribe. Walk briskly, and stick close to the wall on the left. As you round the corner, you’ll come up on the Smith Gem Vault, which, if you’re wearing dark colors, makes you nearly invisible. The only light in this room is focused on the perfectly carved diamonds and other jewels on display. It seriously looks like they’re emitting light themselves.

Hang out here for a while, and if you do it right, you can slip back into the mineral hall as the fam goes in the gem vault. You just bought yourself another 20 minutes of freedom!

Other options for some solace in the Museum:

Wortham Giant Screen Theatre: They won’t be able talk to you in here!
Burke Baker Planetarium: With the added feature of looking up, idle chit-chat is discouraged
The Museum Store: Nothing takes the edge off quite like a bit of retail therapy

Labor Day! Fun For The Long Weekend At HMNS

Monday is Labor Day – and you know what that means, right?

LONG WEEKEND.

In case you’re wondering how to fill the long hours between Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning, here’s a list of the top ten weekend experiences you can have with the family at HMNS all weekend long.

That’s right – we’re open MONDAY! Because we’re here for you. 

10. Come And Take It!

A look at the stunning variety of fascinating artifacts from Texas’ rich history, that is.

Come And Take It
The Come And Take It Cannon!
See a full set of photos from the exhibit on Flickr

Texas! The Exhibition closes at 5 pm on Monday, Sept 5 – so don’t miss your last chance to see Santa Anna’s spurs, Davy Crockett’s violin, the Davis Guards Medal and many other objects from a huge swath of Texas history – from prehistoric cultures to the Spindletop oil gusher.

Preview the exhibit with our blog series on Texas History! (And see how you can win free tickets to see the exhibit closing weekend!)

9. Ramble through Borneo with Orangutans

And while you’re at it, explore Tsavo with young elephants.

Born To Be Wild
The cuteness! See it this weekend in Born To Be Wild 3D at HMNS!

Born To Be Wild 3D is a fascinating, entertaining and heart-warming film chronicling the efforts of two pioneering women to save orphaned animals.

Time Out New York says “The kids will squeal with delight.” We think you probably will, too.

8. Discover The True Meaning of Mayan Prophecies 

2012: Mayan Prophecies
2012: Mayan Prophecies in the HMNS Planetarium

Worried about 2012? Explore the Mayan culture in this new planetarium film. Learn why Dec. 21, 2012 will be just another day, but the Mayan culture’s true contributions to civilization are unique and fascinating.

7. Solve A Crime!

If watching CSI makes you think you think “I could do that!” – this exhibit is for you! Study fingerprints, chromatographs, DNA, insect lifecycles, tire marks, hair analysis, thread comparison, and handwriting analysis to catch the culprit!

Crime Lab Detective opens at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land on Saturday, Sept. 3!

6. Watch A Butterfly Enter The World!

Cockrell Butterfly Center

Our butterflies flit through a three-story, glass enclosed rain forest habitat – and it’s a showstopper of the large-scale variety. But you shouldn’t miss the Hall of Entomology on the upper level – where you can watch butterflies emerge from their chrysalides daily. It’s a quiet moment of tranformation, rebirth and wonder that everyone should experience.

5. Discover a Modern-Day Dragon

Think all dragons breathe fire? Some just flash it – including The Dragon, one of the world’s most famous mineral specimens.

The Dragon | HMNS Mineral Hall

It just so happens to be part of our collection – on permanent display in the Hall of Gems and Minerals, along with literally hundreds of the world’s finest gems and minerals. Hundreds. 

4. Develop An Intense Desire To Wear This.

Ancient Ukraine Exhibit at HMNS
Preview the entire exhibition in this set of photos on Flickr.

If you’ve followed our advice on #4, you’ve likely whetted your appetite for gold. And our Ancient Ukraine exhibition (closing Sept. 5!) could be called: Gold! Oh, And Some More Gold. (Except that it also features fascinating artifacts made from many other materials, from the entire 6,000 year history of Ukraine.)

Get an idea of what you’re in for in our curator’s blog series on Ancient Ukraine.

3. Spend Saturday With The Stars!

George Observatory

Long weekends are the perfect time to make the long drive out to our George Observatory. It’s an hour outside Houston, but that means light pollution is at a minimum – and stars are at a maximum.

If you’ve never been, you will marvel  at the number of stars you can see with the naked eye – and the astronomical detail you can view through our Gueymard telescope, one of the largest in the country that’s available for public viewing.

The Observatory is open every Saturday night from 3 – 10 pm. Get Directions and information on Admission.

2. Explore Two Continents

Hall of the Americas

Our Hall of the Americas features cultures from the Inuit in Alaska to the Inca of Peru – go on an expedition through hundred of years of American history and over 2 continents this weekend!

1. Take The Science Fun Home!

The HMNS Museum Store has a metric ton of science ideas and activities to take home – and your purchases always support our science educational programs! Grab the Pocket Starfinder for your Big Bend camping excursion, take the Encyclopedia of Texas Shells on a seashore expedition, or identify what’s fluttering around your own backyard with the Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas Guide.

From a Galileo Thermometer to track the summer heat to a Dinosaur Hunter Field Canteen, we’ve got everything you need to close out the summer right!

Here’s to a great long weekend – hope to see you here at HMNS!

Taking Flight: A Second Look at New Art in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

“Taking Flight” is a temporary art exhibition in our butterfly center, displaying the artwork of 6th – 12th grade students from three of the seven YES Prep Public School campuses. Inspired by science, or simply a love of nature, they are all wonderful depictions of different butterflies and insects – and a beautiful illustration of the intersection of science and art.

Today we highlight the work of Bianca Olvera. She gave us a little insight into her work and the butterfly art in the q&a below. Check out our first artist profile here.

Break Free
Bianca Olvera, 12th grade

Artist Statement: “It’s hard to go through life without making mistakes. However, even when you make them, no matter how bad they may seem, you always have the chance at redemption and forgiveness. This is something my sister taught me.”

1. What was your inspiration for creating this piece?

What inspired me to create this piece was my sister. I love her with all my heart. I look up to her a lot. She’s always trying to do what’s best for me by teaching me about life, love and being myself.

2. Why did you choose butterflies as your theme? What can you tell us about them?

I wanted to dedicate this piece for my sister, she loves butterflies. I asked her what they meant to her and she told me that butterflies represent new life – that they are not just these insects that pollinate our flowers…To her, butterflies symbolize a new start with God. I’m really proud of her for knowing who she is and what she’s all about. She makes me want to be head strong just like her.


3. Your piece has a unique three-dimensional element. Can you tell us how you created that, and why?

Mrs. Higuera, the AP Art teacher, was showing me this new technique cutting paper with X-Acto knives. I fell in love with it and I decided it would be a good idea to cut the butterflies out of paper. I wanted something different compared to what everyone else was doing. I cut each and every butterfly individually. It took a long time, but it was worth it. I liked the way they came out.

4. What role should art play in science? Is there a role for science in art? Please explain.

I think art should always play a role in science. It’s there to show you what’s going on through photographs, drawings, sketches, and gives you a better understanding and view of what you’re looking at. Plus, I think it’s pretty to look at.

5. Do you think you’ll use scientific concepts for your art in the future?

I’m not really sure, I’m just going to have to wait and see what the future has in stored for me and my love for art. It would be nice to use scientific concepts, it sounds very interesting.

Don’t miss Bianca’s “Break Free” – or any of the other beautiful works of art now on display in “Taking Flight,” on the lower level of the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The exhibition will be available through March 31.

Meet Charro, our new resident iguana!

The Butterfly Center recently acquired a new iguana.  His name is Charro (which means “cowboy” – as in “charro beans”) and we believe he is between 5 and 10 years old.  For the time being, he is housed in a cage in the rainforest area.  We may eventually let him loose to wander freely in the Center, once he is thoroughly acclimated – but for now, he seems to be content (and is particularly visible to patrons) in his cage.  Keeping him confined does allow us to find him easily in order to take him outside for some exercise and sunshine on a daily basis. 

We’ve had several free-ranging iguanas in the Center over the years.  It is a perfect place for them – much better than the situations in which pet iguanas are typically found.  Indeed, all of our resident iguanas have been pets that outgrew the space and/or time their owners could provide them.  I think it is unfortunate that these creatures continue to be sold as pets:  what starts as a cute little green lizard ends up as a small dinosaur – and most people are not prepared to handle the latter.

But as a result of all the iguanas we’ve had, I’ve learned more about them than I ever expected to know.  They are actually very interesting and personable creatures!  If you’d like to learn more yourself, read on – or check out the excellent information at the website of the Green Iguana Society.

iguana of sea
Galapagos Island Iguana
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ansgar Berhorn

Iguanas are in the same family (Iguanidae) as the little green or brown anole lizards we see in our gardens here in the southern USA.  The most common species available through the pet trade is the common or green iguana.  Green iguanas (the scientific name is Iguana iguana) are common in tropical areas from Mexico to South America.  In their native habitat, they often sit sunning themselves high up in trees, especially along rivers.  If a hawk or eagle flies over (both are major predators of iguanas) they will fling themselves into the river below.  They are excellent swimmers!   There are several other species of iguana, including the spiny or black iguana (also common in Central America, especially near the coast), and of course the famous marine iguanas and land iguanas of the Galapagos Islands (both species believed to have evolved from green iguanas). 

summer-09-042Baby iguanas are about 8 inches or so long and bright green.  But they soon get much larger, some growing to over 6 feet long.  As they mature, they lose their bright green color, and males in particular gain “secondary sexual characteristics.”  People often ask about Charro’s large jowls (the big lumps on either side of his head).  We like to say that they are like biceps on men – enticing to females and intimidating to other males!  The jowls, large dewlap (flap of skin below the chin), and the orangish skin color are all characters seen in mature male iguanas.  Male iguanas also develop fatty deposits on top of their head.  Mature females are slimmer and duller colored, with smaller jowls and dewlap and no head lumps. 

Although much less colorful than the babies, adult iguanas can change color up to a point.  We’ve noticed that Charro gets darker when he is taken out into the sunshine, and lighter when he’s back in his cage.  Iguanas use their color to regulate their body temperature – they darken up to absorb more heat.  An iguana’s color can also indicate its mood or stress levels (sometimes their colors become more contrasting when threatened or frightened).  Male iguanas in particular become more colorful when they are in their breeding season.  The orange becomes brighter, and the black stripes on the tail, etc., more pronounced.

Iguanas apparently have excellent vision, and can see colors as well as we do.  They also have a “third eye” (called the parietal eye), a clear scale on the top of their head.  This organ senses light and dark, and alerts them to aerial predators.  

Male iguanas in particular develop pointed “tubercular scales” on the back of the neck, and have a ridge of flexible spines along the back.  I have not been able to find any known function for these, beyond ornament.  Quite a few of Charro’s ridge spines have been broken off, and we are not sure whether they will grow back.  Iguanas do molt their skin periodically – unlike snakes, which shed their entire skin at once, iguanas lose theirs in patches over several weeks. 

Iguanas can live for over 15 years, but usually don’t make it that long in the wild because other animals (including humans) love to eat them!  In fact, they are sometimes called “chicken of the trees” or “bamboo chicken.” Their eggs are also eaten, and their skin is sometimes used for belts or boots, etc.

summer-09-040Iguanas themselves are strict vegetarians, which is rather unusual among lizards (most eat insects or other small animals).  For us, of course, it is fortunate that iguanas have no interest in eating butterflies!  We feed Charro healthy salads of vegetables and fruits.  Greeny leafy vegetables such as collard greens are especially good for him.   According to the Green Iguana Society website, although iguanas will eat almost anything you offer them, they should not be given any animal protein!

Because iguanas, especially the males, are quite territorial, we have been advised (by none less than the director of the Houston Zoo) to keep only one iguana at a time.  Indeed, many years ago when we had a male and female, they had a tremendous battle and the male was badly injured.  Although in nature you may see several iguanas in close proximity, they are not social creatures and really only get together to mate. 

Long-time patrons of the Butterfly Center will remember some of our previous iguanas.  Sidney died in 2004 at the age of 14, after more than three years in the Center.  A large, stocky and colorful iguana, he acted more like a dog than a lizard; he was so friendly that he would crawl into people’s laps to be petted.  When Sidney died, we had an autopsy done; the vet told us he died of a heart attack (apparently a common cause of death in older, captive, male iguanas!) 

Gandalf was not quite as friendly as Sidney, but was a truly magnificent specimen.  Unlike Sidney and Charro, he had a complete, unbroken tail that was exceedingly long (Gandalf was about 6 feet long including the tail.)  Unfortunately, after several years of climbing all over the Center, he made an unfortunate misstep.  We believe he slipped off one of the planters on the second floor and crashed onto the cement floor around the cenote.   This undoubtedly happens in nature as well: during one field season in Costa Rica I used to admire a large iguana that sunned himself every day on a high and slender branch of a cecropia tree along the Puerto Viejo river.  One day I noticed that the branch had broken off…I never saw that particular iguana again. 

Stretch immediately preceded Charro.  He was never a happy or friendly iguana, and died of old age/ill health earlier this year (2009), less than two years after he came to us.   Charro was acquired for us earlier this summer by Olga, one of the visitor services staff who has a friend at the Brownsville Zoo, Charro’s previous home.
 
From our previous experiences we’ve learned that individual iguanas, once you get to know them, definitely have personalities!  So far Charro seems to be a very laid-back, tolerant, and well-behaved iguana.  However, we always impress upon visitors that iguanas can bite, although it is usually a last resort and they usually give plenty of warning.  However, when it happens, an iguana bite can be serious.  They have lots of very sharp little teeth – it’s like getting slashed with a hacksaw.

Fortunately, we have learned to read the signs:  iguanas typically give behavioral clues about their mood.  When an iguana is comfortable and happy (for example when we pour water over Charro’s head, something he seems to particularly enjoy) it will stand up on its front legs, raising its head in the air.  Most iguanas also enjoy being petted, particularly behind the head, or under the chin and jowls, or along the back.  Sometimes they close their eyes in pleasure, leaning into the caress just like a dog or cat, and even look as if they are smiling!

An angry iguana, however, is quite fearsome.  If frightened or seriously irritated, it will typically turn its side to whatever is bothering it and stand up on all four legs, apparently trying to maximize its size.  It may also walk forward in a stiff-legged manner, sometimes opening its mouth and wagging its tail.  This is not a friendly wag – it means the iguana may whip with its tail or even bite!  At this point it’s time to back off and give the iguana some space.

People sometimes voice concerns about iguanas and salmonella.  Yes, some iguanas can carry it.  So after handling Charro or any other reptile, for that matter, it is a good idea to wash one’s hands thoroughly, especially before eating.

summer-09-043If you don’t see Charro in the Butterfly Center when you visit, check outside by the Kugel Ball.  A number of docents have volunteered to take him out for a “sunbath” on sunny days.  Iguanas need the heat, as well as the UV A and B wavelengths provided by the sun’s rays (or the simulated sunshine provided by a UV lamp), to get warm enough to move and to eat/digest food, as well as to manufacture vitamin D (just like humans).  We try to get Charro outside for at least half an hour, several times a week.  It’s also a good way to let people see him up close!

Any of you iguana experts out there – I’d be happy to hear feedback about any aspect of iguanas and their care.  We’re always learning about them!