Go ahead. Take your toddler to the museum!

by Victoria Smith

When my children were younger, and I was hip to the toddler scene, I would schedule play dates at all the usual places: I’d push the stroller to the park, load up the red wagon for the zoo, and slip Cheerios to fussy babies during story time at the library. The Houston Museum of Natural Science was also on the top of my list, and I was surprised other moms thought their kids were too young to appreciate it.

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“Oh, no! He’s after us!”

The museum is fantastic for small kids! It’s got air conditioning, wide spaces to navigate, and if you have a two-year old who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches cut in squares, not triangles, you are welcome to bring your own food.

And of course, DINOSAURS! They’re huge, they’re exciting and they have pointy teeth (at least the carnivores do). Even if you don’t have a toddler who can identify every prehistoric creature and pronounce the names better than most college graduates, every kid loves dinosaurs. (Thank you, Dr. Scott the Paleontologist!) In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, the dinosaurs are mounted in active poses, bringing these ancient creatures to life for young visitors. The displays tell a story, and the murals illustrate it.

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It’s the Circle of Life, baby.

Speaking of stories, my youngest daughter’s favorite story is the lion chasing the zebra in the Hall of African Wildlife.  Even though she knows how it’s going to end for that poor zebra, every time she asks, “Mommy, tell me the story of the lion and the zebra.” It’s not only a great chance throw in a few Mufasa quotes, but it’s also great to discuss how nature doesn’t waste anything because after the predators come the scavengers. I usually manage to work in a moral lesson about the selfish leopard who won’t share, too. There are interdisciplinary opportunities at every turn!

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Let me know when the wonderment is over, so Momma can sit down!

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is one of our favorite spots to visit, and perhaps even my favorite place in the museum, period. Yes, the awe and delight in a young child’s face is a daily miracle, but they’ve got cushioned benches and free wi-fi! When you’re through with the center, there’s a beehive-themed play area with puzzles and blocks, and most importantly, it’s enclosed!

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My daughter at age four, as an assistant in a chemistry demonstration…

If you want your daughters (and sons, of course) to grow up to interested in science, it’s never too early to start. Let them know that science is fun and not scary. The museum has dedicated tour guides who specialize in making the exhibits come alive for young children, and docents who offer many hands-on experiences. Kids can touch real fossils, feel if minerals are rough or smooth, and guess if an animal was an herbivore or carnivore while holding an actual tooth! It’s all there, at their eye-level.  

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…and at age eight, taking on a brain dissection at Xplorations summer camp.

So now that the big kids are back in school, it’s a great time to plan a visit to the museum. If you’re lucky like me, you can convince their grandparents that even though your one-year-old can’t talk, he really wants a membership for his birthday, and not another toy to clutter the playroom.

Editor’s note: Victoria is the Executive Assistant to the President of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Top 5 Most Frequently Asked Questions in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

The Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC) strives to bring the natural world to within the public’s reach. Visitors enjoy tropical plants and exotic animals exhibited throughout the indoor rainforest, insect zoo, and practical entomology hall, and as they wander through the CBC, they’re sure to ask tons of questions! To keep you informed, we’ve compiled a list of the top five most frequently asked questions about the CBC and answered them below. Take a look!

Q. Is that real?

A: It depends on what you are asking about.

Usually this question is asked about the chrysalids hanging in the emergence chamber. In that case, the answer is yes! All the chrysalids you see are real! We receive between 800 and 1,000 chrysalids per week. The chrysalids are carefully glued up so the butterflies can emerge in a natural position. If you look carefully, you may see the chrysalids wiggling. You can also observe the freshly emerged butterflies drying their wings. Twice a day, we collect the butterflies with fully dry wings and release them into the CBC rainforest. On Wednesdays until Labor Day weekend, you can watch how we do it during our Wing It! presentation.

chrysalis board

These chrysalids are real! Soon butterflies will emerge from each one.

When this question is about the plants in the Rainforest Conservatory, the answer is also yes, but with one exception. All the plants are real except for the huge central tree. This tree contains the rainforest’s air circulation system. All others are living plants that are meticulously cared for by our staff horticulturalist, Soni Holladay. Each plant is labeled, so keep a lookout for a coffee tree, chocolate tree, pride of Trinadad, pineapple plants, miracle berry bush, and a variety of beautiful orchids. 

Before and after! All the plants in the CBC are real with the exception of the large central tree.

Before and after the completion of CBC construction. All the plants in the CBC are real with the exception of the large central tree.

Q. How many butterflies are there in here?

A. We keep a collection of more than 1,500 live butterflies in the CBC rainforest at all times. It may seem like more or less, depending on how active the butterflies are. The butterflies are most likely to be actively flying and feeding when there is bright sunlight and warm weather. During these times, the whole rainforest feels like it’s fluttering around you. Early in the morning, or in cooler, overcast weather, many of the butterflies will be quietly roosting underneath leaves. During these times, a sharp eye will allow you to spot the sleeping butterflies all around  you. Take this time to enjoy the variety of colors and patterns that are more easily discernible on butterfly wings that aren’t flying. Owl butterflies, however, are active at dusk. You can watch hundreds of them swirling in our rainforest during our limited-availability event An Evening With Owls, coming in September.

roosting

Shhhhhhhhhh! They’re sleeping! Look for roosting butterflies hanging from leaves next time you visit the CBC.

Q. Where do the butterflies come from?

A. We receive the butterflies in their pupal form (chrysalis) through the mail. Each week, we import up to 1,000 live chrysalids from butterfly farms in Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. We also raise a small portion of the butterflies in the greenhouses on the top level of the parking garage. We receive up to 150 different species of butterflies throughout the year. Use the butterfly identification guides as you enter the rainforest to help you identify some of our most common species!

shipment

Our butterflies are shipped from farms all over the world!

Q. What do the butterflies eat?

A. The CBC rainforest is always full of a variety of flowering plants. Most butterflies feed on nectar. Watch the butterflies visiting the blooms and you will notice them extending their proboscis into the center of the flower. They use this mouth part like a straw to draw up the nectar. Supplementary food is provided for the nectar-feeders in feeding stations filled with artificial nectar. Artificial nectar is made from a mixture of water, sugar and amino acids. It is soaked into sponges that the butterflies can visit to get an extra snack. But not all butterflies feed on nectar. Some prefer the juices from rotten fruit or tree sap. For the fruit-feeders we provide banana brew (fermenting bananas, sugar and beer mixture) as well as slices of over-ripe fruit. Butterflies are also known to feed on some less savory substances such and dead animals and feces.

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A butterfly uses its proboscis to sip nectar from a flower.

butterflies eat gross things

Fun fact: butterflies also get essential nutrients by feeding on feces and carrion!

Q. How long do the butterflies live?

A. It depends. Most butterflies are not long-lived. The average life span for the butterflies in the CBC rainforest is about two weeks. Some, like the Atlas moth, only live a few days. Atlas moths don’t even have mouth parts as adults, so they don’t feed at all! They live off of the fat stores they accumulated as a caterpillar. Several of the long-wing species of butterflies may live up to a couple of months. Perhaps the most well-known species of butterfly, the Monarch, is known for  its amazing migration from Canada to Mexico. The migratory generation of Monarchs can live between 6 and 9 months!

monarch and chrysalis

The Monarch butterfly has a long-lived generation that allows it to migrate from Canada to Mexico.

We hope you enjoyed our quick Q&A session! Drop by the CBC any time to satisfy your curiosity further. We’re always around to answer questions.

A Staple for Butterfly Exhibits: The Rice Paper

One of the most distinctive and easily recognizable insects in the Cockrell Butterfly Center is the rice paper butterfly (Idea leuconoe), also known as the paper kite and the large tree nymph. All these common names allude to the rice paper’s characteristic slow, graceful, and sometimes floppy flight. These butterflies make great, showy additions to butterfly exhibits and are therefore a widespread staple, found in most live butterfly displays. Rice papers are native to the forested regions of Southeast Asia.

idea leuconoe dorsal

Rice papers make great additions to butterfly exhibits.

Rice papers are related to the well-known monarch, both belonging to the subfamily Danainae and known to be distasteful to most avian predators by sequestering chemicals in their bodies from their larval food plants. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed to become unpalatable. Similarly, rice paper caterpillars feed on the milkweed relative, Parsonsia, to become distasteful. The monarch’s striking black-on-white and yellow coloring serves as a warning to potential predators. Rice paper larvae have a similar flashy coloration: black and white stripes with red spots.

Contrasting colors on the caterpillars warn predators to stay away.

Contrasting colors on rice paper caterpillars warn predators to stay away.

The rice paper life cycle begins with the female butterflies laying eggs on their host plant, Parsonsia. The eggs are small and cream-colored, usually laid on the underside of leaves. The eggs take about five days to hatch into tiny black-and-white striped caterpillars. The caterpillars first feed on their eggshell before directing their appetite to the Parsonsia leaves. The newly hatched larvae are too small to chew all the way through the thick leaves, so they create a circular trench as they eat the leaf epidermis. As they are eating they will extend their bodies and regurgitate yellowish foam distal to the chewed area. They continue this behavior until they have completely surrounded themselves in a ring of foam. This foam has been found to act as an effective ant repellent; ants will not cross the barrier. As the caterpillar grows, it “molts” five times in stages called instars. First through third instar caterpillars will exhibit this foaming behavior. Fourth and fifth instar caterpillars do not use regurgitated foam to repel ants.

Stages of caterpillar development.

Stages of caterpillar development. The top-right image shows a caterpillar inside its ring of ant-repelling foam.

It takes the caterpillars about two weeks of munching on leaves to reach pupation size. At this point, the caterpillars will find a safe spot to hang and form a “J” shape. They will then molt to reveal chrysalids that take about two days to completely dry. The chrysalids are a beautiful, shiny, metallic gold with black spots and swirls. Approximately 10 days later, the chrysalids pop open to reveal a brand new butterfly. The wet butterfly allows its crumpled wings to unfurl. A couple of hours later, the butterfly uses its newly dry wings to take flight and awe and educate museum visitors. 

Wanda Hall: Being Natural

The first things all visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science see are an 8,000-pound amethyst geode from Uruguay in the lobby and the smiling face of Wanda Hall. And she wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Security guard Wanda Hall can be found in the lobby between the parking garage and the gift shop, greeting guests with her wide smile. Hall became the front line security guard in July 2014.

Hall has been with HMNS for three years, joining the security staff in 2012 right after the opening of the Dan L. Duncan Family Wing. She began by patrolling the brand new Morian Hall of Paleontology, the special exhibition Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition during its time with us, and the Hall of Ancient Egypt, before moving to her current post at the parking garage lobby July 15, 2014.

Hall relishes her job and the opportunity to speak with every guest that visits the museum. Even during our interview, she occasionally paused to greet parents and children entering for Xplorations summer camp.

“[If] you smile at people, they’re going to smile back,” Hall said. “You can’t help but smile at people.”

Hall grew up in Smithville, TX, about 45 miles southeast of Austin on State Highway 71. At the age of 22, she followed in her brother’s footsteps and traded in the town of 3,927 people for Houston, a city of 2.2 million.

Before finding her way to the museum, Hall spent 29 years working as a social worker for the State of Texas, helping seniors and disabled citizens with Medicaid eligibility. She spent eight years retired, enjoying working out and tending her garden, which includes a lemon tree and a pineapple plant.

This love of nature and plants has made the Cockrell Butterfly Center Hall’s favorite place in the museum. She used to spend her breaks in there, roaming around among the flora and floating butterflies—that is, until she learned of the two green tree pythons living in the conservatory next to the handicap entrance.

“I like the butterflies, the plants, everything. But I’m still afraid,” Hall said. “I haven’t been in there in a while. They said, ‘didn’t you see the snakes behind the glass?’ Ever since they told me that, I haven’t been back in there!”

Wanda 1

Hall sits at her typical post, located right next to the gift shop steps. Even while posing for photos, she continued to greet and assist visitors to the Museum!

Ophidiophobia aside, Hall really enjoys working at the Museum. A true people person, her infectious smile and laughter are great for welcoming visitors to HMNS. She loves interacting with the patrons, and they frequently reciprocate.

“Last year around camp time, this little girl came up to me and said, ‘When I come around the corner, there’s something about you. You’ll smile at me. You make my day.’ That was so sweet,” Hall said.

“I meet a lot of people,” Hall continued. “A lot of people want to sit and talk as they come through. They’ll be gone a few minutes and then they’ll come back and talk. People can be glad to see me, and I’ll be glad to see them. I like working in the front. I don’t think I want to come back inside!”

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is open seven days a week, and Hall will be there to greet visitors Monday through Friday. For those planning to visit on August 14, be sure to wish her a happy birthday!