Visit Savage Garden for a glimpse at some of nature’s nastiest plants

In case you thought plants were not much more alive than a rock, think again! As David Attenborough pointed out in his wonderful series, The Private Life of Plants, plants have many behaviors as complex and interesting as those of animals. The problem is, plants move much more slowly, making their behaviors and reactions harder for us to appreciate.

During the month of October, the Cockrell Butterfly Center is celebrating Halloween with Savage Garden, bringing attention to some interesting things plants do. If you visit during that time, be sure to check out the map at the entrance and look for the purple signs scattered throughout the main floor of the rainforest.


You’ll be introduced to plants much older than the dinosaurs (Ancient Plants),


plants that protect themselves with spines, thorns, and prickles (Spiky Plants),


plants that defend themselves chemically (Delicious, or Deadly?), plants that heal us (Medicinal Plants), plants that use ants as bodyguards (Ant Plants),


plants that eat insects (Carnivorous Plants),

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plants that come back from the dead (Resurrection Plants),


plants with really putrid flowers (Stinky Plants),


and last but not least, a Miracle Berry plant (False Sugar). 

This is only a small slice of the interesting things plants can do. They have all sorts of adaptations to make more of themselves (via pollination and seed dispersal) and to move from one place to another (seed dispersal and crawling vines, etc.). Some of them can travel through time, with seeds that remain dormant for dozens or even hundreds of years. The protective chemicals of some toxic plants don’t necessarily have to be eaten, either – think about poison ivy. Urushiol (the chemical that causes the extremely uncomfortable blisters in some of us) is a powerful deterrant to humans. Yet birds gobble poison ivy berries with no ill effect!

Even stranger than the above behaviors is the discovery of inter-plant communication. Ecologists have known for a while that plants can “tell” other nearby plants of the same species that they are being attacked by insects via airborne chemicals, and the “listening” plants can then beef up their own chemical defenses. But according to recent studies, plants have other means of communication, some using underground networks of mycorrhizal (fungal) connections that network plants of many different species, and others apparently even making sounds! Check out this interesting article on “Plant Talk” by Dan Cossins in The Scientist

We don’t have any of these “talking” plants (that we know of) in the Butterfly Center, but please visit us in October to learn more about some of the other totally wicked things plants do in Savage Garden! #ChillsAtHMNS

Animal Espionage: Meet the Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs of the Wild

This week, you’ll have the first chance to experience our new special exhibit, Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America – examining nine major periods in U.S. history when America faced threats from enemies within our borders. But did you know HMNS already features a few “sneaks” of our own? They’re just of the animal variety!

In our HMNS Outreach Programs, we highlight several examples of crafty creatures who have adapted creatively to their environments to prolong survival. Want to meet a few of these smart cookies? Come to our free Shell Educators’ Preview Sept. 29!

How do you become a spy? First, blend in!


Our first spy is a familiar animal to the Gulf Coast – the American alligator! One of the alligator’s strongest adaptations is its amazing camouflage. I remember fishing as a kid on the Sabine River and my dad pointing out a gator in the distance. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t spot it! Only as we neared could I see the bumpy “dead log” silently watching us float by. Alligators are extremely well-adapted to ambush. With nostrils that stick out of the water like a snorkel and a clear inner eyelid to protect their eyes while they swim, their whole body can stay submerged as they await their prey. While too dangerous to approach in their natural habitat, our Wildlife On Wheels program Texas Wildlife often includes one of our baby alligators, still small enough to keep safely!


Several of our other spies star in our Bugs On Wheels: Amazing Arthropods program and are masters of disguise. The giant long-legged katydid, for example, is the world’s largest katydid, native to Malaysia. These awesome insects mimic leaves, and during the daylight hours they can safely remain motionless, cloaked in foliage, waiting to become active at night. They don’t only come in green though; these insects can have an endless array of shades and patterns to match the leaves of their unique habitats. And like many things that get better with age, so does their camouflage, as their back edge grows brown and tattered like an old leaf.

Traitors mean false friends.


In the natural world, traitors come in many guises, even that of seemingly innocuous plants! The pitcher plant, masquerading as a source of tasty nectar, lures in insects (sometimes even rodents) and traps them. Their victims cannot escape the waxy walls and sticky fluid inside. As their prey drowns, digestive enzymes help break down the body, allowing the plant to absorb the released nitrogen. You can meet three species of this unusual carnivore in our Cockrell Butterfly Center!


Another unique traitor native to our state is the Texas tortoise, often seen in our Wildlife On Wheels programs, though a threatened species in the state of Texas. Deceptively fierce, this desert dweller is extremely territorial, and males will fight to the death if a fellow tortoise challenges. Competitors rise up on front legs to charge, using the pronged gular scutes protruding from the shell to hook under the trespasser, attempting to flip him over. This is a deadly situation for a tortoise as all of the animal’s internal organs press down on the lungs, which causes him to suffocate if he cannot turn back over. Yikes!

The Science of Sabotage


Crushing prey with an estimated force of 60,000 Newtons, the bite of Tyrannosaurus rex would be lethal enough as it is, but some paleontologists, such as Farlow and Abler, debate that a more insidious biological superweapon could be concealed in those fearsome teeth. Fine serrations in each tooth provided strength and cutting power, but may have also allowed meat from T. rex’s last meal to linger, lending a perfect source for bacteria to feed on. Similar to that of a Komodo dragon, it is theorized that the bite of T. rex could deposit overwhelming amounts of bacteria, causing the wound to fester and become septic. Want to touch a T. rex tooth and feel the serrations? (We promise, ours are clean.) A visit from Dinosaur Discovery, part of Chevron Earth Science On Wheels, makes it possible!



Our last saboteur certainly employs a most unusual method of dispatching enemies —how about getting licked to death! The lightning whelk, a carnivorous snail, uses the sharp edge of its shell to pry apart bivalves. Once open, the whelk uses its radula (think scratchy cat tongue, but much worse!) to lick and scrape the hapless victim into smaller pieces for consumption. Fun fact: this ruthless snail is the state shell of Texas, and can often be found on gulf coast beaches. Look for a “left-handed” (sinistral) shell, shaped so it’s easier to put your left hand in. Another great place to see a whelk? In our Wildlife On Wheels: Invertebrates program, or in the Strake Hall of Malacology!

Interested in bringing these super-cool, sneaky creatures to your school or group? Send an email to or call (713) 639-4758 to book your Outreach Program today!

Visit the Fall Plant Sale Saturday to build or boost your butterfly garden!

Butterfly gardening is a great thing to do in the fall. Even though most butterflies will be settling down for the winter in the next few months, your garden will be ready with lots of host and nectar plants for next year’s butterflies. To get you started, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is hosting the Fall Plant Sale this Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon on Level 7 of the museum parking garage. And if you spend $30 or more, your parking is free!


Plants line the seventh floor of the Houston Museum of Natural Science parking garage, ready for the Fall Plant Sale Saturday, Sep. 26.

Most plants we offer are perfect for fall planting. Woody perennials such as salvias, duranta, lantana and many others are hardy for this area and benefit from going into the ground after the heat wave has passed and while the soil is still warm. As long as the root system has had enough time (about a month) to establish itself, the plants will be ready for winter.


Gomphrena Fireworks.

We’ve also got tips to help you maximize your planting season. For better overwintering, provide about two inches of mulch around the base of the plants and cut back the tall leggy growth to build plant strength and more roots. Also, when purchasing plants, you don’t always need to go for the plants with the most blooms. When planting something with a lot of flowers, the plant won’t put much effort into producing roots, which is what you want. Instead, they focus their energy on blooming and won’t be ready for winter. That means a lower chance of survival.



So when you pick out plants, go for bushy, healthy-looking specimens not yet in full bloom. You can even cut the blooms off when you plant, which will increase your chances of success.

Bring your enthusiasm, your green thumb and your curiosity to the Fall Plant Sale at HMNS. We’ll see you there!

Whooo’s that? It’s a butterfly!

An owl butterfly, to be exact. Join us this week at the Cockrell Butterfly Center to celebrate one of our favorite flutterers during An Evening with Owls. Named for the huge owl-like eye spots on the underside of their wings, these big beauties have wingspans that can reach up to seven inches or more! The upper side of their wings are often dull in shades of dusky blue and brown.

Close up of an owl eyespot

Close up of an eye spot on the underside of an owl butterfly’s wing.

Owl butterflies don’t hoot, but they are in the genus Caligo which means darkness in Latin. This refers to the fact that they are crepuscular (most active at early morning and/or dusk). These butterflies feed on rotting fruit and their awkward flapping flight may remind you of a bat.

Though they are typically resting most of the day, you can often find them feeding mid-day on their favorite food--rotting fruit. Mmmmmm, moist.

Though they are typically resting most of the day, you can often find them feeding mid-day on their favorite food: rotting fruit. Mmm-mmm, tasty.

What big eyes you have!

Those awesome eyespots do their job quite well!

Due to their size and slow flight, owl butterflies are easy targets for many predators. Good thing those eye spots on their wings are not just for decoration! The spots’ uncanny resemblance to large eyes deter predators during the insect’s most vulnerable times, such as feeding, mating, resting or emerging from the chrysalis. However, these eye-like ornaments are also thought to act as targets which direct the predator away from their main body, allowing the butterfly time to escape.

Dusk + 1000 Owl Butterflies = Magic

There are 15 species of owl butterfly, four of which are flown at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. You can see two of these species featured this week at An Evening with Owls. The tawny owl (Caligo memnon) is most abundant species present. Typically, they have a wingspan of four to five inches but can reach up to six. The other species displayed this week is the forest giant owl (Caligo eurilochus) which has a slightly larger average wingspan than the tawny owl with a range of five to six inches.

The owls are brought in from butterfly farms in Central America, via FedEx!

The owls are brought in from butterfly farms in Central America, via FedEx!  Each foam tray contains about 200  pupae and are carefully packed in each box.

For the first time ever we have increased our owl collection more than tenfold and will have more than 1,000 of these marvelous creatures feeding, flying, darting and chasing each other around at dusk. Your other favorite butterfly species will still be in attendance, but will be roosting rather than flitting about in the twilight. Keep your fingers crossed and hope that one, or a few, land on you!

Tickets are going fast for An Evening with Owls Friday and Saturday night. Don’t miss this one-time-only event!

Editor’s Note: Owl butterflies make great models, and the CBC an excellent portrait studio for butterfly photography! The images below were shot Tuesday night at around 7:30 p.m., after the owls had begun roosting for the evening along with the other butterflies. Photos were shot using a Nikon D90 camera on ISO 1600 with the snapshot fill flash.


Owl butterfly. Jason Schaefer.


Owl butterfly. Jason Schaefer.


Owl butterfly. Jason Schaefer.


Owl butterfly. Jason Schaefer.

You’ll find other roosting butterflies there and camera-ready, like these two species below.


Zebra longwing butterflies roost together on a long hanging vine. Jason Schaefer.


The underside of blue morpho butterflies have spots, but don’t confuse them for the owls! Jason Schaefer.