Frog-sicles Anyone?

The recent (and wonderfully unexpected) freeze in Houston got me thinking, I’m inside with the heater on and I’m STILL cold, how on earth do animals that live outside do it? Well…they freeze!

The most extreme critter-sicles that I’ve found happen to be amphibians. Take the Common Wood Frog, for example. It has a trait known as freeze tolerance. What this means is just what you think; it has the ability to freeze solid, form ice within its body, and basically hibernate in a state of suspended animation. During this time it has no heart beat or measurable brain activity, and its metabolism slows to a glacial speed! As the frog freezes, ice forms in its body cavity, drawing out the cells’ water and its liver pumps out massive amounts of glucose, protecting its cells from solidifying and turning the liquid in its veins to syrup (think maple). I don’t know about you, but having 50 times as much sugar in my blood as a diabetic does NOT sound like the start of a good nap.

After a few months of froggy deep-freeze, the Common Wood Frog slowly thaws from the inside out – its heart begins to beat, its metabolism jump-starts. After what we would deem an arduous slumber, this little ranid hops away to find the closest mating pool he can; the breeding season for these guys is only a few nights, instead of the typical few months! Talk about baby-boomers.

You may be thinking, as one of my good friends often does when I exclaim scientific facts, “Erin, that’s all pretty neat-o, but why should I care about a frozen frog?” Let me fill you in.

Scientists right now are using nature’s model to try and extend the shelf life of donor organs. The staggering fact is that, of the thousands of people on a waiting list for new organs, only a small fraction will get them in time. Usually, an organ, once removed from a donor, must find a new home within 6 hours of excision-even on ice-or it is no longer viable. If, through the study of cryogenics, we could extend that time to say even 24 hours, just think of the number of people that could be saved who wouldn’t have made it because of the distance between donor and recipient! If a donor’s kidney, for example, could be frozen and stored without the typical associated damage, surgeons could dramatically increase the number of transplants they perform every year.

Now, whoever said that science wasn’t cool never heard of a frog-sicle. I can’t think of anything cooler.

‘Tis the Season…

The world’s largest
shell, an object from
the HMNS collection that
is currently on display.
Creative Commons License photo credit: etee

This is the time of year when we’re all thinking about what we’re giving to friends and family. Especially this year, when most of us are being more thoughtful about what it is we’re giving. Since my job duties entail the registration and processing of donations to the museum’s collections, I encounter gift giving all year long. But especially at the end of the year and this month has kept me busy! Currently, I’m plowing through recent donations of things as varied as Amazonian spears to a swan specimen to Native American pueblo pottery. All of these donations will enhance our collections and all of us in the Collections Department are most appreciative of our generous donors.

However, these are the most recent acquisitions. The Houston Museum of Natural Science wouldn’t be where it is today without nearly a century of far-sighted people who generously and intelligently gave entire collections of natural specimens and cultural artifacts. They entrusted things they had collected with passion and zeal to a museum that was just beginning to grow so that Houstonians could learn about the natural world around them. In the coming year of 2009, as the museum celebrates its centennial, you’ll hear more about the names of Attwater, Westheimer, Milsaps, McDannald but their generosity was the foundation of the museum’s collections.

A spectacular mineral specimen in the
HMNS collection.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Lori Greig

And that’s what it takes – generosity. I wonder what our past donors would think of today’s natural history auction market? Fossils and minerals can fetch exorbitant prices, far more than most museums can ever pay. Would those long ago donors who thought so highly of museums as institutions for the public approve of specimens and artifacts staying in the private hands of the highest bidder? After all, these early naturalists, amateur and professional, were often wealthy and acute businessmen themselves. But they did give and the museum has been fortunate that that kind of generosity has prevailed for a century. Indeed, it continues today and our collections continue to grow.

So, I’ll continue to measure and count amazing artifacts and specimens and make sure each donor is properly acknowledged. It’s just my small part in witnessing how the thoughtful generosity of our donors makes the museum a better place for us all.