Corpse Flower Watch: Day 12

Today, Lois measures just about 64.25 inches. Her vertical growth has slowed to only .75 inches since yesterday – this, plus the bright purple streak that appeared on the her right side and the fact that the bracts have fallen off completely (see image below), indicate that blooming is imminent!

And, we have some great news! The Cockrell Butterfly Center will be open around the clock for the Corpse Flower Watch until after Lois has bloomed – come by any time to see her! You can get tickets here.

7.12.10 Amorphophallus titanum
The bracts have fallen! See a full set of photos of the
Corpse Flower’s growth here.
Date Height
July 1 31″
July 2 34″
July 3 37″
July 4 41″
July 5 45″
July 6 49″
July 7 53″
July 8 57″
July 9 60″
July 10 62″
July 11 63.5″
July 12 64.25″

100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Longhorn Beetle

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

The name says it all:  the Titans were a race of giants in Greek mythology, while giganteus is Latin for giant.  This monster from the rainforests of the Amazon basin in South America is the largest beetle in the world, at least in terms of overall size (the African Goliath beetle, a scarab, is heavier).  The giant longhorn is a member of the Cerambycidae or long-horned beetle family, which includes over 20,000 species worldwide.  The family’s common name describes the very long antennae characteristic of most cerambycids – in some species over twice as long as the body.  Male cerambycids typically have longer antennae than females of the same species.  Shown here are a male (wings spread, longer antennae relative to body size) and female (larger, with somewhat shorter antennae). 

Learn more about beetles and their relatives in a visit to the Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center – a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Luzon Peacock Swallowtail – Papilio chikae

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

One of the beautiful “peacock” swallowtails, this species has a very limited distribution – endemic to the mountains of Luzon in the Philippines – and was only discovered about 40 years ago.  Highly sought after by collectors and not well-protected in its native habitat, the Luzon Peacock is endangered enough to be listed on the CITES’ Appendix I (collecting or trading wild-caught CITES I species is prohibited by international agreement).

As is true for many swallowtails, the male and female Luzon Peacock are slightly different or “dimorphic” in size and color pattern (females typically being duller in color and larger in size, although this specimen is on the small side).  Here, the male is on the right, the female on the left.

Learn more about butterflies and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see larger and
more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

One tough decision…

For those of you who read my first blog, you will note that I decided to make use of some of those old camp diaries that are just collecting dust at home rather than inform everyone how great the weather is this week.  So along those lines, here is my second contribution.

I was about halfway through my Master’s thesis program at the time this account was written.  During the early 1990s I struggled, as some grad students do more than others, with the various personal relationships I was in (graduate advisors to girlfriends – you name it!), struggled with finding a respectable thesis project (I knew it would be something involving Neotropical Mammalogy, and it was in the end), and above all, the struggle to do what is right. 

While this latter challenge became easier for me with age and experience, I think part of the reason it is so much more challenging at a younger age is because you are exposed to so many different strong yet influential personalities – characters that mold the sort of person you turn out to be for the duration of your life.  As you can guess, I was (and still am today) exposed to a great variety of folks, some true heroes and others not so much. 

This story takes us back to a remote village in east-central Mexico amidst beautiful tropical montane forest.  The subject matter revolves around a species of Neotropical bat – my fascination with these magnificent creatures was strongly influenced through two legends in our discipline, Robert J. Baker and J. Knox Jones, Jr.  These Horn Professors at Texas Tech University were strong influences on my character and dedication to the field.  In fact Robert and I collaborate on projects today, and Knox, though deceased, lives every day in my memory, as we named our son, Levi Knox Brooks, in his honor.

-DB, 13 August 2008

 El Cielo (Photo by D.M. Brooks)

One tough decision…

~25 May 1992
Alta Cime, El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, Tamaulipas, Mexico

I couldn’t believe it was already close to midnight.  We were sitting around the table in a small one-room dwelling with dirt floor, rough wooden table in the center, and the flickering light provided by a kerosene lantern in the corner.  The sheriff of the township of Alta Cime was out making his night-time rounds.  His two children were fast asleep, wrapped up in their blankets on the floor.  Sitting around the table were his wife, my counterpart Jorgito, my charming assistant Sue, and me.  Nobody had said anything for a long time – 10 minutes of silence with a strong judicial overbearing seemed like hours.  In my hand was a small cloth bag containing a living organism – a young bat that was dredging up our collective four ideologies, trying to find resolve what had become a huge thorn in our summed moral consciousness, which grew heavier by the minute…

It was my first trip to study Neotropical bats, and my first trip to this region of Mexico.  Sue and I headed south from Lubbock, stopping overnight in Junction along the banks of the south fork of the Llano River in the beautiful Texas Hill Country.  After the usual several hour delays with hassles at the border with customs officers, we were finally on our way to the southern region of the beautiful state of Tamaulipas. 

Our destination was what at the time was a brand new Biosphere Reserve called El Cielo (or del Cielo; 22055’30”-23025’50” N, 99095’50”-99026’30” W), located just south of the Tropic of Cancer.  Although this region had been worked actively by (mostly American) scientists for several decades prior to our arrival, it was not made an official protected reserve zone until recently.  [Incidentally, today El Cielo is visited far and wide by birdwatchers from all over the globe, as it is only a six hour drive south of the Texas border.]  The Biosphere Reserve model has three broad zones: a human use area on the periphery, a controlled use area in the middle, and in the core – a pristine reserve restricted to scientists traveling by foot or horseback (no vehicles allowed!).

Our first site to net bats was in the core of the reserve at around 4,200 feet in altitude.  It was a long hike in and a long hike out, but worth it when we arrived, as the habitat was absolutely stunning tropical montane forest.  Unfortunately, the rain during the evening our bat nets were erected yielded only a single specimen of a small fruit-eating bat (Dermanura [a genus which today is considered Artibeus]). 

Our second site at Los Cedros (~900 feet) was where the main field station was located for the reserve.  We strung several mist-nets along tropical forest edge, which yielded a great diversity of lowland, primarily fruit-eating bats, including two species each of fruit-eating bats (Artibueus jamaicensis and A. lituratus) and yellow-shouldered bats (Sturnira lilium and S. ludovici), and of course, our token blood-sucker – the omnipresent common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus). 

The two species of Sturnira were virtually indistinguishable, and could only really be keyed out by examining the ridge of their lower incisors (whether the incisors were dilobate or trilobate).  What was going through the minds of our entomologist colleagues I could only imagine, as we pried open the little bat’s mouth with one hand, holding the bat still with the same hand, holding a pocket-sized magnifying glass with the other hand, and illuminating our ‘work space’ with a headlamp, all the while trying not to get bit!

photo by L. Siles
 Common vampire bat
(Photo by L. Siles)

Our final site, the township of Alta Cime (~3300 feet) was met with excitement as Los Cedros proved so productive!  We immediately sought out the town sheriff / mayor / administrator, for just as in many of the old westerns, the head cheese of a given town often wears many hats.  We told him why we were there, and he kindly offered us a spacious and surprisingly clean abandoned goat shed to make camp in and devour our cans of spam and refried beans.  He said he would not be around in the evening, as he had to make the rounds, but kindly extended the invite to use the backyard of his own ranch house. 

We went ahead and accompanied him to his backyard, which contained pigs, poultry, and a small garden with large trumpet-vine flowers.  While it didn’t appear to be much, we went ahead and obligingly strung our bat nets, which proved surprisingly productive as the evening rolled in.  The pigs and poultry, respectively, lured in both common (D. rotundus) and hairy-legged (Diphylla ecaudata) vampire bats.  The deep corolla-tubed flowers lured in a nectar-feeding bat called the Mexican hog-nosed bat (Choeronycteris mexicana), which had never been recorded in the reserve!

So there we sat, around the table dimly illuminated by kerosene lamp.  In my hand I held a small cloth sack which fit comfortably in the palm of my hand.  The sack contained a young male hog-nosed bat; we could tell it was a young bat because the finger knuckles were swollen as the bone joints were not fully fused (un-ossified phalanges).  And thus began the dilemma – this species of bat had never been recorded in the reserve before, but in order to make the record official we had to sacrifice the bat to prepare as a museum voucher specimen. 

As a young grad student affiliated with the Museum at Texas Tech University, I had sacrificed and prepared quite a few study specimens, but none were necessarily of species that were rare in nature.  We found many reasons to sacrifice the little bat and many reasons to set it free.  Our morals were in a hyper-state of flux – well, Choeronycteris is not considered Endangered so it should be fine to collect it; but it has to be rare, otherwise it would have been collected before; but then again, as budding young scientists it would be great to prove our worth by documenting a new species for the reserve; but could we keep our dignity if the species was in fact rare, all for the sake of a published note?  What to DO? what to do…  [What would you have done?]

Post-log (13 August 2008): In the end we set the little bugger go.  Perhaps this was the right decision (if you believe in karma?), as I have gone on to document much more relevant records in the years that have ensued, including new state records, regional records, country records, and most importantly, new species.  At such an early stage of my career, the fate of this little bat that evening in Alta Cime proved an incredibly tough decision.  Such decisions became less difficult with time, and in the years that followed I collected and prepared many specimens.  But I will never forget the complex issues each of the four of us mulled over that evening in Mexico’s newest reserve, over the fate of a young nectar-feeding bat.