Home Is Where The Heart Is

They say, “home is where the heart is”, and in my case that is true. However, home is also where you say things like, “Don’t kill that Black Widow. I need it…,” or “So………do you have any plans for that dead armadillo?

My parents live on a working ranch, complete with cows and buzzards, hay rakes and snakes. This affords me the opportunity, after chores are done and frankly sometimes during, to go science-ing.

Here’s everyone getting ready for vaccinations and the bovine version of OFF!

Here’s everyone getting ready for vaccinations and the bovine version of OFF!

This last visit, when various assignments were being discussed and doled out, I jumped on the wood pile. The premise of this chore was that a gate was left open or a latch broke somewhere, allowing the cows through a fence and into the yard around the house. Cows, being kind of curious by nature, ended up everywhere. One of those wheres landed the cows between the workshop and the wood pile because the cows wanted to scratch on all those log ends sticking out. Unfortunately for my parents, a 1,400 pound cow determined to scratch an itch is no match for a metal pipe rack and stacked wood and so over it went. Fortunately for me, critters live in wood piles….

My mom’s instructions were clear: make the wood pill neat. My instructions to my nephew and my sister-in-law were also clear: don’t smash anything good. The first new friend we found was this guy.

Who has eight legs and two pedipalps and is HUGE? This guy…

Who has eight legs and two pedipalps and is HUGE? This guy…

He is some species of wolf spider and he was GIGANTIC. This guy ended up getting some soapy water thrown on him because I wanted to pin him out (and he was also terrifyingly large), but everyone else we caught got to live.

spider 2The next new friend we found was a cousin to that wolf spider. I collected her because she has this beautiful blue egg sack. When we got her back to the Museum and put her in her new apartment, she was hungry! Several snacks later, she settled down under some leaves for a nap. (Update: She is loving living at the Museum! She has rearranged the furniture and plumped up a bit in anticipation of the arrival of her brood. Wolf spiders are great moms, so we will take some pictures of her and the fam once they arrive!)

black widowNow about the time I said, “Man, I’m super bummed we haven’t found any black widows,” this little lady showed up. I was super excited because we have been making some efforts to collect for an upcoming exhibit called Death by Natural Causes. She is a beautiful, fully grown Latrodectus mactans. How can you tell that she is fully grown? The juveniles have a red strip that runs down the back. When the spiders molt, the strip gets shorter and shorter until all you have is the tell-tale hour glass.

spider 3The next log I picked up, after scooping up the Black Widow, had this sweet little girl on it. What’s that you say? It’s a Brown Recluse? Why, yes it is. Both the Brown Recluse and the Black Widow have a bad reputation. Yes… both can potentially cause humans some problems, but they will also go above and beyond to avoid people if at all possible. Generally, the only time they bite is if they get pinned by a finger or arm or foot and are trying to defend themselves. You be nice to them; they’ll be nice to you.
spider 4At this point, I ran out of collecting containers but the day had just begun! The next critter that crawled out from under a log was this little Triatoma sanguisuga. Commonly known as kissing bugs, this little guys is possibly a vector for Chagas. There have been a number of studies initiated of late to keep track of Chagas transmission, but there isn’t a lot known about where it is and what it is infecting because most states don’t require anyone to keep track of the confirmed human cases.

The fastest new friend we made, and the only one we didn’t collect because I didn’t have the right parts with me, was this little guy. He was at the bottom of the pile eating all the critters we were trying to collect. He zipped out and under the rack when we disturbed the log he was under. My parents have lived on their ranch for about 15 years. In that time I have only seen four snakes: One was the little ribbon snake below, the second was a smaller version of this ribbon snake we saw the same day under a pile of hay, the third was a juvenile water moccasin sunning in the tank and the fourth was a coach whip. Conclusion: Snakes are good at hide and seek.

spider 5Later that day, after chores were done, we were sitting on the back porch with a Lone Star to cool off and this friend stopped by for a visit. Cicada nymph molts are generally what people know or see of Cicadas in Texas, although you are probably familiar with the noises they make as well. You will find the molts attached to tree bark or the brick of your house, split down the back. During their two to five-year life span, these cicadas spend just a couple months in the form you see in the picture. They are big but they are also 0% harmful to humans. They just want to chill out with you while you share a beer.


Also on the porch wanting to join the party? This female ox beetle. How can you tell it is female? The guys have these cool horns on their thorax that make them look like little beetle-y triceratops. Ox beetles live just a couple of months and are active during the summer. Their main job is recycling plant matter into compost, but that mostly happens in the larval form when they are just little, white, C-shaped grubs. They do fly in the adult form and, while it can be a little scary to unexpectedly find a big, brown, two-inch bug all up in your business, this guy is not harmful to humans at all. If you see one out, it is probably just cruising for a rotten log to lay some eggs.

ox beetle

The last critter of the day was this armadillo who met with an untimely death the night before when he ended up with the pool. As part of the shady, after chore discussions I asked my dad what he planned on doing with that armadillo. Ya know… because he had dibs. He indicated that his actual plan involved putting it in the woods to be recycled by the decomposers. I asked if I could have it for our education collections.

A little known fact, or at least something that most folks don’t think very hard about, is that all the specimens we use for teaching have to come from someplace and generally, you can’t get a pinned butterfly or a bobcat skull at Wal-mart. This being the case, we have to make or find all of our specimens for the teaching collection. Sometimes this is reeeaaalllly unpleasant.

It was the armadillo that causes my mom to question all of her life choices that led me to this point my life and wonder what she had done wrong. After dinner I hopped up to go skin the armadillo before it got dark. There was a lot of care taken on my part to keep clean because armadillos are known to carry leprosy. They are vectors for leprosy because armadillos and humans are about the same constant temperature and so the leprosy can snuggle right in and get comfy. People think that armadillos are giving leprosy to humans, but in reality humans probably gave it to them originally. You never see an armadillo exhibiting the signs of leprosy because they only live a short while. Two other fun facts about armadillos, the Aztecs called them āyōtōchtli, which translates to “turtle rabbit”; and, there are 21 extant species of armadillo that range from 5 to 59 inches long and 3 ounces to 120 pounds.

So, what do we do with all this stuff? It depends on the stuff. Most of these animals will get used in our live animal programs, labs, and summer camps. For those animals that are dead, or die after a long life of cricket pops and mealworm snacks, we try to preserve them for our educational collections. They may get used in the same programs, like the labs and the camps, but they also get put on display inside the classrooms, or for the special few, inside the Cabinet of Curiosities for you to come check out. So, if you do get the opportunity to check out some of our educational specimens, please be careful with them! It takes a couple of months to find, collect and/or make each one!

Curious Late Nights at HMNS – The Mystery of Imperato’s Lost Tablet

Disclaimer: This fictional story was written by Julia Russell in Youth Education Programs.

Hello everyone,

My name is Julia, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since I started my research as a graduate student at HMNS. It really seems like it was just yesterday…


I’ve loved museums since I was a child. I was always fascinated by the huge and impressive collections museums were able to acquire. It’s a curiosity of mine that has never fully disappeared. Being a mini-museum connoisseur growing up, I had many of my own collections. I had the traditional stamp collection. I had the cumbersome rock collection. (Gathering new specimens for my collection probably wasn’t the highlight of our family vacations for my parents.) I eventually moved on to collecting books about my two favorite topics: sharks and dinosaurs. This also led to a lot of “excavations” in my backyard. I was fairly unsympathetic about destroying the landscape of our backyard when I was on a search to uncover the greatest dinosaur fossil ever found. I never actually found it, but I did triumphantly reassure my dad that the numerous holes in the backyard were in the name of science and discovery!

Eventually, I decided to study history and biology at the University of Fibonacci. Throughout my time as an undergraduate student, I tried to find career paths that would let me combine my dual interests in the humanities and the hard sciences. The one place I could bring these two passions together? A museum! In keeping with my childhood, I continued to marvel at the world’s museums and their Impressionist paintings, ancient Greek pottery, dazzling gems and minerals, mummies, fossils, and so much more. The one question that began to echo through my mind as I visited these institutions: why do we collect? What drives people to create collections? Is it human nature to collect? Since four years of undergraduate work wasn’t nearly enough time to satisfy these questions, I decided to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Noneya to explore the art of collecting a little further.


To better understand why, I had to start with when. At what point in our history did we start collecting? If I could find a starting point, I had a better chance of understanding the why. As it turns out, the practice of collecting is as old as humans themselves. The concept of collecting in an effort to better understand the natural world around us seems to be an inherent part of our human nature. In all of my studies, there was one particular collection that struck me: the collection of Ferrante Imperato.


Like most people, I’m intrigued by the unknown. I think that’s what draws me to Imperato and his collection. We don’t know much about this…apothecary? Or was he an alchemist? I decided to make Imperato and his cabinet of curiosities, a kind of precursor to the natural history museums of today, the focus of my graduate thesis. Enter HMNS.

I came to HMNS after hearing that they were bringing Ferrante Imperato’s collection over from Naples, Italy. They were going to have his actual collection. It was a researcher’s dream. I reached out to HMNS and began studying the numerous objects and texts left behind by Ferrante and his son, Francesco.  


I combed through original texts and flexed my semi-fluent Italian language muscles. I was particularly entranced by Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale from 1599. This engraved text outlines Imperato’s natural history collection, making it one of the first texts to do so. While I was interested in the extensive catalog of his collection and his reasons for collecting, I couldn’t help but notice some strange references throughout his texts. The word tesoro appears several times in Imperato’s writings. Tesoro is the Italian word for “treasure.” Of course, since Ferrante Imperato was an enthusiastic collector, I assumed he was referring to his collection as a treasure. As an 8-year-old, I frequently boasted about my collections of “treasures” though my treasures mostly consisted of dirt clods from my backyard excavations that I had yet to “prep out” as I explained to my parents. However, as I continued to read Imperato’s texts, I came to realize he wasn’t referring to his entire collection as a “treasure.” He was referring to a single object, a tablet.

I’m a firm believer that Ferrante Imperato was an alchemist as well as an apothecary. In my quest to understand what drives people to collect, it seems that Imperato was determined to use his collection to find natural remedies for a variety of ailments. He also frequently discussed the transformation of matter, a concept near and dear to alchemists’ hearts. Could this tablet be part of Imperato’s work as an alchemist? And more importantly, could this object be in the very Cabinet of Curiosities I’m studying right now?


While I love talking about my research and the topic of my thesis, as any graduate student does (seriously, I’ll talk about it for hours), I really wanted to write this guest blog to ask for help. I need to solve the mystery of this tablet. I don’t have much longer to work with the collection before my thesis is due and my time at HMNS is up! So here I am, reaching out to the HMNS community for help. Can you unlock the secrets and solve the riddles of Ferrante Imperato’s Cabinet of Curiosities before it’s too late?

If your group is interested in helping Julia solve the mystery of Imperato’s lost tablet, email education@hmns.org for more information on this special Curious Late Night program.


Aperture and Amber: Our Amber Secrets Pixel Party Recap

After-hours at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on April 10, we hosted one of our exclusive Pixel Parties — where we open select exhibits just for photographers (both amateur and professional). This time around, we gave photographers access to the Morian Hall of Paleontology and Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs. Here’s a small sampling of what they gave us in return:

Michael Palmer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikedaddy/25767535184/in/pool-hmns/

Michael Palmer


Michael Palmer

Sergio Garcia Rill, http://sgarciarill.zenfolio.com/hmns_amber

Sergio Garcia Rill

Sandy Grimm, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sulla55/26345218786/in/pool-hmns/

Sandy Grimm

Dwayne Fortier, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fortier_photography/25778251933/in/pool-hmns/

Dwayne Fortier

Randall Pugh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uffdah777/26086547700/in/pool-hmns/

Randall Pugh

Arie Moghaddam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/coogie/25774417994/in/pool-hmns/

Arie Moghaddam

Randall Pugh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uffdah777/26293102051/in/pool-hmns/

Randall Pugh

Ivan Moreno, https://www.flickr.com/photos/37chess/26322021871/in/pool-hmns/

Ivan Moreno

Ivan Moreno, https://www.flickr.com/photos/37chess/25783405474/in/pool-hmns/

Ivan Moreno

Arie Moghaddam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/coogie/25774411244/in/pool-hmns/

Arie Moghaddam

Randall Pugh




This post was written by Diana Birney, Supervising Marine Biologist for our upcoming SHARK! exhibit, opening August 29, 2015.

We fear them, we love them, and we are fascinated by them. We have a whole week on television dedicated to them that draws millions of viewers every year. Humans have an amazing obsession with this interesting group of animals, especially considering that we really don’t know that much about them.

It’s clear from the popularity of movies like Jaws and Sharknado that we love to be scared by sharks. While there is a good reason to give sharks their space, they are not the crazed “man-eaters” that Hollywood has often portrayed. In fact, since 1911 there have only been two deaths and less than fifty unprovoked attacks by sharks in Texas.

You’re actually more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be attacked by a shark.

However, every time you enter a body of water, you should go in with the knowledge that a shark could potentially be there. When it comes down to it, it’s their space — not ours.

That doesn’t mean that you can never go in the water again, it just means be smart about what you do in the ocean…

So go to the beach, bring your sunscreen (and reapply it often!). But also bring your knowledge of what lives in the habitat you are about frolic in. Feel like you don’t know enough? Don’t worry! Here’s a nice set of guidelines for your next trip:

1. Sharks aren’t searching for humans to eat

There is no evidence to suggest that sharks like eating people. In fact, considering the numbers of people that go to the beach and the attack statistics, it would seem that sharks DON’T like eating people. A beach is a potential buffet at certain times of the year, but the sharks don’t seem to take advantage of it (good news for us!).

When people do get bitten, it’s usually one bite and the shark lets go. This is similar to the other night when I had a plate of broccoli I was going to town on and ran into a bite of mushroom (I hate mushrooms). I promptly spit that nasty bite out and went back to my broccoli feast (YUM). Sharks tend to follow schools of fish or, for our larger shark friends, mammals such as seals. Schools tend to frequent coast lines and often when someone is bitten there is a school of fish in the area that the shark was intending to chow down on.

2. Sharks have AMAZING noses

Sharks can sense blood in a ratio of one part per million. They also have sensors on their noses called ampullae of Lorenzini. These are electroreceptors that can sense the electrical field given off by everything swimming around in the ocean — including you and me! If a wounded person or animal enters the water, a shark can be drawn to the blood but also to the electrolytes that pour out of the wound as well.

There is a common idea that punching a shark on the nose will make it less likely to attack you. This stems from the fact that the ampullae are all over the nose and punching the shark might disrupt the electroreceptors. Another reason this (sometimes) works is that most sharks like certain prey items and most of those prey items don’t know how to punch — giving the shark a strong clue that it won’t like eating you. 

However, it’s important to not just go around punching sharks… right under their nose is a huge mouth with lots of teeth, and you may end up just losing an arm instead of scaring the sharks.

3. “There’s a chance I’ll bite if you bother me too long” – sharks

This summer there was a shark bite incident off of the coast of California with a White Shark. A swimmer got too close to a fishing line that caught a shark. The shark had been on the line long enough to be mad at everyone and everything. When the swimmer approached it, unaware it was even there, the shark lashed out. The moral of the story is that sharks, like dogs and cats, have no way to communicate with us that they are uncomfortable or in pain. The only avenue available is their teeth. Many bites are exploratory or just to say “BACK OFF.” 

A good rule of thumb in any environment is that if it has teeth it can/will bite.

4) Stay with your swimming buddy

Having a buddy is essential for beach safety. Rip tides can pull even proficient swimmers down and out into the ocean (and are actually much more likely to happen to you than a shark attack). Sharks, just like other apex predators, e.g., lions, tend to go after prey that is separated from the pack — it makes for an easy dinner.  So if you are swimming alone a shark might think you are a solitary prey item. If you are with someone else, the shark might still think you are prey, but will be less likely to attack a small “pack” rather than a solitary animal.

The buddy system is also beneficial just in case something does happen. Your buddy can get help and report exactly what happened in case you are in shock or missing.


5) Daytime is the best playtime

Most sharks hunt at night, dawn and dusk when they can see the best. Fortunately, most people go to the beach during the day. Just be extra careful if you are going out in the evening or at night because the shark can see you better than you can see them, guaranteed. However, if you are in an area frequented by White Sharks remember that they tend to hunt during the day when their traditional prey are more active.

6) Play smart

It’s important to know what signs indicate a higher chance of sharks in the area. Sandbars and the drop offs around sand bars are a common shark hang out. Sharks can swim in extremely shallow water, so don’t let the low water level lull you into a false sense of security.

An easy sign of sharks to watch out for is the presence of other animals. I know it’s hard to stay back when you see a bunch of fish in the water (as a Marine Biologist, I can be guilty of not staying away from schooling fish), but sharks enjoy snacking on large groups of fish. We wouldn’t want you to end up a morsel in the shark’s buffet.

However, we can’t always see schooling fish. Don’t worry too much since there are more obvious signs you can watch out for including: birds, dolphins/porpoises and lots of splashing. Birds will attack schools from the air, so if you see many birds diving in a particular spot, you can safely assume there are fish there and will want to stay away from that location. Same with dolphins and porpoises. They eat a lot of the same foods that sharks eat, so do not assume there are no sharks just because you see dolphins.  Splashing is also a key sign to sharks that prey is in the area since schools of fish tend to ascend and splash around near the surface. So, again, stay away from areas that show signs of splashing, and it’s also a good idea to keep your splashing around to a minimum.

7) Know your local sharks

It’s also good to know your local sharks. The Gulf of Mexico is home to many different species, some sharks you might not see — much less have to worry about. Others, like the Bull shark account for all of the Texas deaths from sharks (don’t be too alarmed, again, there have only been 2 since 1911). We also have thresher (my personal favorite shark), nurse, blacktip, tiger, many different hammerhead species, and many more.

If you followed the news this summer, you might have seen a White Shark named Katherine approaching Texas. Katherine shows us that we can get Great White Sharks in the Gulf. For more information on Katherine and many other tagged sharks you can go to OCEARCH.org. If you are travelling and plan on going to the water, it’s helpful to know what sharks are in the area and how likely your are to see them.

In the long run, it’s important to remember that shark interactions are NOT common, you just want to be prepared and armed with knowledge whenever you hit the beach.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is teaming up with the Texas State Aquarium and OCEARCH to bring more information and awareness of sharks to Houston with our new SHARK! exhibit

Come visit to learn about (and even touch!) these amazing animals starting August 29!