On Display in the Museum Store from Los Matachines De Durango

by Marina Torres

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With the opening of the Virgen de Guadalupe exhibit in December 2015, it was important to create a display to reflect the religious figure and the culture. Unfortunately for my oldest sister, she had to undergo knee surgery and would not be able to participate in the Virgen de Guadalupe festivities. However, this led her into letting us borrow and showcase the Matachine skirt she wears for the ritual dance in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

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Catrina Display located in the Museum Store.

Los Matachines de Durango is a group of danzantes, line dancers sometimes called soldiers. A group of approximately 25 to 30 people perform for the Virgen De Guadalupe each year on Dec. 12, her birthday along with multiple dates around Christmas time. They practice throughout the year to make up new steps for the dance and to teach new dancers who join the group.

Matachines De Durango.

Matachines De Durango.

Key elements of the costume consists of the Naguilla, the skirt with the image of “La Virgen de Guadalupe” emblazoned on it, with carrisos, small flutes that create noise while the group dances. The Guaje, similar to a maraca, is carried with the left hand of the danzante and used as a percussive musical instrument to mark time during the dance. The Jara, similar to a wooden bow, is used in the choreography as the instrument that signals the dancers to start dancing or when the Monarca will change a step. Lastly, a red bandana symbolizes a crown.

Naguilla.

Naguilla.

Guaje and Jara used in the choreography.

Guaje and Jara used in the choreography.

The ritual dance is led by the Monarcas, the captains which consist of three danzantes who stand at the head of the files and coordinate during the dance. El Viejo, the Grandfather, is the dance character who provides order and sometimes comedy in the group, and the dancers look to El Tamborero, the person who plays the large drum and makes up the main dance music for the matachines, to know when to start.

Monaracas.

Monaracas.

El Viejo.

El Viejo.

El Tamborero.

El Tamborero.

Danzante honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Danzante honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Guests adoring the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine.

Guests adoring the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine.

Choreography.

Choreography.

Danzantes lined up.

Danzantes lined up.

The Monarca leads and signals the dancers when to start and they all start with honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe. Once the dancers greet and honor La Virgen, the Monarca signals the guests to pass through the lines to also honor and greet her. Once everyone greets La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Monarca signals the danzantes to begin their performance. Each choreographed dance takes between two and four minutes and each one represents a prayer. Each full performance may last from 30 to 60 minutes. This depends on the hostess who requested the Matachines to dance and how much time they want the performance done. During the performance, El Viejo will do his part in keeping the guests entertained with some dance jokes. After the hostess informs the Monarca that the celebration is at an end, the Monarca signals the danzantes to do the last honoring of La Virgen de Guadalupe in order to say goodbye for now and to keep watching over everyone who was there for the celebration.

Come watch the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Association perform a special Mother’s Day procession in honor of the Holy Mother with music, dancing, elaborate costumes and Aztec feather headdresses this evening at 6:30 p.m.

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

Giant African Millipedes are back!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Up until a few years ago, there was never any shortage of an amazing arthropod, known as the Giant African Millipede, around here. They are an absolutely breathtaking bug! Imagine a roly poly type of creature and add about 6-10 more inches of length and about 200-250 more legs! African millipedes (Archispirostreptus gigas) hold the title for the longest millipedes in the world. They are capable of reaching a length of 15.2 inches! They are sought after, not only for their size, but for their incredibly docile personality. They’re so cute and fun to watch! They make wonderful display animals because they spend most of their time above ground feeding and resting. They are voracious eaters and are often seen munching away at their food. They are a favorite among visitors. Volunteers enjoy handling them and giving our guests an up close and personal look. Unfortunately, we haven’t had them around here for a couple of years. The USDA halted the importation of these millipedes for a few reasons. You would only be able to acquire them if you had the appropriate permit, which we do, but finding a supplier was a huge challenge. After about two years missing them, we are happy to welcome them back!

One fast critter.
A Giant Centipede
Creative Commons License photo credit: graftedno1 

Millipedes are often confused with centipedes, another long, leggy arthropod. It is very important to know the difference because centipedes can be dangerous. The differences aren’t very subtle. Centipedes are morphologically similar; they have a head with one pair of antennae and a trunk made up of many segments. The major difference is in the legs. Centipedes (centi=100; pede=legs) have one pair of legs per body segment and the legs seem to originate from the sides of the body. Their legs are longer, thicker, and more muscular, allowing them to move very quickly. Their first pair of legs are modified and have become a pair of claws that are capable of injecting venom. All of these characteristics make them efficient predators that feed on anything from tiny insects to small mammals, depending on the size of the centipede of course. A very large centipede can harm a human with its potent venom. Small ones are not a threat. Like most arthropods, centipedes are shy and non-aggressive, but it’s important to know the difference so you don’t mistake one for a harmless millipede and try to handle it. Another feature that might give them away, if it’s difficult to see the legs, is a pair of appendages on their last segment. They resemble another set of antennae, possibly a defense mechanism to throw predators off of which side their head and poison claws are on. Millipedes don’t have these.

Millipedes are a diverse group of arthropods, ranging in size from 5 mm to 10 inches or more, like our giant African millipedes. Unlike centipedes, most eat decomposing organic matter. Their body segments are thinner and more numerous and each one bears 2 pairs of small legs. Although millipede means 1000 legs, the record is 375 pairs, or 750 legs! The legs originate from the bottom of the body so they cannot be seen from the top, like centipede’s legs. They are very slow moving. Their defense mechanisms are simple. First, they curl their bodies into a spiral to protect their legs. They can also secrete a chemical from pores along the sides of their bodies. This chemical varies from species to species, but it is meant to deter, gross out, or harm a would-be predator. Most of these chemicals are not harmful to people but will stain skin and clothes.  Once a millipede grows accustomed to being handled, they will not produce such secretions very often.

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Our new Millipedes
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 

We hope to have our new batch of African millipedes around for a long time. This is highly probable considering that they are very easy to care for and they can live about 5 to 7 years as adults. If you would like to see these incredible millipedes on display, come on by! Unlike some of our shy residents, these are always visible to the public! You can always keep an eye out for their smaller native cousins as well, they’re just as interesting to watch.

Until next time, happy bug watching!


Flame on!

People come to the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see butterflies, but are often equally entranced by the lush plants that provide the setting.  The plant life has multiple functions.  One, since most of the butterflies we display in the center are from tropical rainforests, we try to duplicate their native environment and conditions to make them feel at home (and hopefully to maximize their short lifespans). 

Warszewiczia coccinea

Warszewiczia coccinea growing
in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Second, some of the flowering plants provide food (nectar) for the butterflies.  And third, we try to find plants that are interesting and attractive to our human visitors.  We keep all these things in mind when selecting a plant for the exhibit. 

One plant in particular that fills all our criteria is the Rainforest Flame Tree, or Warszewiczia coccinea, as it is known botanically. 

This member of the coffee family is native to Central and South America and the West Indies.  It is the national tree of Trinidad (another common name for this tree is “Pride of Trinidad.”) It usually grows to around 25 feet tall, but can reach greater heights in different growing conditions.  In Costa Rica, this tree is considered a canopy tree and can reach 50 feet. 

The leaves of the tree are somewhat corrugated and are located oppositely on the stem.  But the best thing about it are the showy flowering branches.  They are located on the end of a branch and are placed at the nodes. 

Each flower cluster is accented by a red bract, sort of like a poinsettia flower would have.  In fact, another one of the common names for this plant is poinsettia tree.  The flower cluster, which is orange, is very appealing to butterflies because it is loaded with nectar.  In any given moment, several species of butterflies can be seen visiting the flowers. 

Although Warszewiczia warrants more use in tropical gardens, it is rarely seen outside botanical gardens.  One reason for this is that it is difficult to propagate.  Usually, plants in the coffee family can be propagated by seeds or by cuttings. Warszewiczia, on the other hand, shows little success with either method.  After several years of trying in the greenhouses of the Butterfly Center, just one cutting has ever proven successful.  

Due to its rarity, Warszewiczia is highly sought after by plant collectors.  If a collector was lucky enough to acquire one of these plants he would want to live in a warm environment such as Houston.  Any environment colder than Houston would require a greenhouse to overwinter the plant.