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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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?

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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.

 

A Long Time Ago on the Other Side of the World… Samurai culture inspires George Lucas’s Jedi and Sith

vaderStar Wars revealed the amazing creativity of George Lucas. Star Wars characters seemed foreign—even alien—to American audiences. Of course, like all creative geniuses, Lucas had his inspiration. His characters resemble actual humans from a long time ago, but from a galaxy not so far away.

Just on the other side of good old planet Earth, a few hundred years ago, samurai warriors were respected and revered.

To Star Wars fans, it is no secret that George Lucas was inspired by Japanese culture when creating his Star Wars epics. Japanese influences can be seen in costumes, hairstyles, make-up, as well as the weapons and swordsmanship.

Although the amazing visuals of the characters clearly have Japanese origins when you learn what to look for, the most telling influence of samurai warriors on the Galactic Empire may be Bushido, the way of the samurai. The spirit of Bushido is reflected in the Jedi Code.

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Lucas is known to have studied the works of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. When you see this film, you will see the origins of the Jedi and Sith. Haven’t seen a Kurosawa film? You are in luck! You can view the iconic film Seven Samurai at HMNS on April 14 and see the force of the samurai that inspired Lucas’ Star Wars empire.

How did the code of the Samurai warrior translate to the Jedi Knights? Need light shed on the transformation of samurai sabers into an energy blade? How did the armory and arms of the Samurai influence that of the Galactic Empire?

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This summer you can learn about the influences the samurai made to the Star Wars movie franchise in special evening tour of the Samurai: The Way of the Warrior exhibit offered on June 18, July 16 and August 20. Space is limited, so book your galactic samurai adventure now!

Film Screening: Seven Samurai
Tuesday, April 14, 6:30 p.m.
One of the most thrilling movie epics of all time, the newly restored, high-definition edition of Seven Samurai tells the story of a 16th century village whose desperate inhabitants hire the eponymous warriors to protect them from invading bandits. Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa weaves philosophy and entertainment, delicate human emotions and relentless action, into this tale of courage and hope. Mark Kerstein of Hokushikan Chiba Dojo will introduce the film. For advance tickets, call 713.639.4629 or click here.

JEDI – SAMURAI TOUR
June 18, July 16, August 20
6 – 9:30 p.m. (last entry at 8 p.m.)
Armored warriors of the past inspired the creative genius of a filmmaker—in a galaxy not so far away. In this multimedia tour of the Samurai: The Way of the Warrior exhibit—led by HMNS staff and a few guest Jedi, Sith and Samurai guides—the origins of many of George Lucas’ Star Wars heroes and villains will be unveiled. You will also enjoy demonstrations of light saber and kendo katana. The compelling links between Samurai and Jedi will build your appreciation for both. For advance tickets, call 713.639.4629 or click here.

Crime Lab Detective Update

Today’s post is from Keegan Chetwynd, an employee at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciene at Sugar Land.

Over the past few weeks many of you have had the opportunity to visit our Crime Lab Detective exhibit.

We have had the privilege of hosting several events involving community law enforcement agencies. We have decided to put together a few articles on different law enforcement functions within the community; this first article will be focused on the Sugar Land Police Department and their role within our community as high visibility crime prevention specialists. We will also be taking the time to examine several of the more interesting pieces of equipment in use by the department.

Since Sugar Land was first declared a “General Law” city in 1959 the police department has been an integral part of the community, in fact, one of the very first substantial expenditures undertaken by the city in 1959 was a $3000 Police Car that was fully equipped by the standards of the time. Traffic signage, street lights, a typewriter and an adding machine were also among the early expenditures. The annual budget for running the city totaled only $52,000 at the time, it now tops out above $52 Million, and the police department has grown to reflect these changes. The police department presently employs 176 people who, through hard work and dedication have made Sugar Land the safest city in Texas.
To get a better picture of how the inside of their department works on a regular day, I met up with Sergeant Jimmy Surratt who had agreed to take me on a behind the scenes tour of the station, and to bring me along for 2 shifts in his cruiser. Jimmy has been a career policeman, having started work in 1986 for the Wharton County Sherriff’s Department. He has been with the Sugar Land police department since 1992. When asked why he first decided to become a police officer, he expressed that it had been the result of a strong desire to assist members of the community, and it must be mentioned that this is a sentiment well echoed within the department in Sugar Land.

Jimmy and Justin
Officer Jimmy and Justin

The City of Sugar Land is divided up into 6 beats, the first of which extends north of Highway 90 to the edge of the city.

The second beat is what amounts to the Sugar Land business district along Highway 6 and Highway 59. Beats 3, 4 and 5 are predominantly residential neighborhoods to the East, South and West sides of the city respectively. The Sixth is actually listed within the department as Beat 9, and it represents a special patrol area within the Town Center area. Our museum is located right in the heart of Beat 5.

Because of the supervisory role of Patrol Sergeants we were able to move between several areas, and were able to respond to a number of incidents throughout the course of the 2 shifts. In one instance there had been an attempted burglary in a residential area, there was some indication that the burglars themselves were wearing work overalls and had been driving what looked like a service van. This is a particular sort of crime that has been observed with some regularity in the more affluent communities in the United States, in some instances the criminals are even able to disguise themselves as Postal workers or Linemen for the power companies. In a sentiment that is echoed by the department’s crime prevention strategies Sergeant Surratt encourages anyone who finds a suspicious person in their community to call the non-emergency police line @ 281-275-2020 and to try and provide specific details about the suspicious actions of the individuals, and most importantly, if possible, try to record the license plate information on their vehicle.

When the police observe a visible trend in crime within their community, one of the first suppression options is to create an impact team. It is comprised of a group of officers who are being specially tasked to handle the rising frequency of the specific type of crime. One of the more basic ways that an impact team is able to thwart burglars is often by persistent patrols in areas that are being frequented by suspicious persons.

Police Chase
Police Chase!

An interesting side effect of having a well-staffed and well-motivated body of officers is that the majority of them have had the opportunity to go through additional training, beyond what is required by the state. In fact several members of the Sugar Land Police Department have had the distinct privilege of attending the F.B.I.’s international training course hosted at their facilities in Virginia. Lt. Justin Joyce is among the chosen few, and in describing his experiences within the program, it was abundantly clear that the objective of the course was to raise global law enforcement standards, to promote cooperation between agencies, and to expand the knowledge base of those in attendance.

I also found it very interesting to note that contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, a Crime Scene Investigation unit is not always called to the scene of every crime that happens. In most instances the police officers in our community are fully trained in evidence handling and collection techniques, and are more than capable of spear heading an investigation. The Crime Scene Unit is generally processing the harvested evidence within their lab. They will only be called out to the field at the request of an on-scene commander; discharged weapons, high dollar theft, and harm to other human beings are generally the sorts of crimes that require their onsite expertise. The Crime Lab in Sugar Land is known for its finger printing capabilities, but DNA is not cost effective to do in-house, and so it is sent away to a state facility. Our exhibit Crime Lab Detective does place a strong emphasis on finger prints, and so I have developed a strong appreciation for anyone who is able to do comparisons without the assistance of a machine. The Lab in Sugar Land does have a fully functional AFIS (Automated Finger Print Identification System) which is able to help them with this task.

Crime Scene Vehicles
Crime Scene Vehicles

As promised we will now take a look at some of the equipment in use by the department currently.

If you live in the Sugar Land area you may have noticed that there is a change occurring. The older Crown Victoria’s are starting to disappear from the streets, and are being replaced with the highly visible Tahoe, but among the Tahoe’s parked behind the station there is a smattering of something altogether more sinister and aggressive in appearance.

Sugar Land Police Charger
Sugar Land Police Charger

The Dodge Chargers in use by the police are 2006 models, and are fully decked out with the factory police conversion package, including the 340 Horse Power, 5.7 Liter Hemi V8 engine and all of the other hardware needed for its role as a Traffic enforcement vehicle. Although the vehicle itself weighs almost 2 tons it is agile, with precise steering and a rear wheel drive system that is favored by police. It also has a silhouette which is similar to a number of vehicles common on today’s roads, and when painted in subdued markings it has proven itself exceedingly useful in the apprehension of drivers who would otherwise hide their recklessness in the presence of a squad car. Inside the Charger there is the regular suite of police additions, including radios, equipment racks, and the computer system that is used to track the vehicles, and also to relay call information to the officer, and allow him to see more information on persons of interest. As would be expected from modern law enforcement vehicles there is also a system which monitors the actions of the officer during a traffic stop, for his own safety.

There is however one piece of hardware onboard the new Chargers that might not be as easily recognized – The License Plate Recognition System. As the car moves through the streets of Sugar Land it is actively scanning all the vehicles around it with the cameras mounted on the trunk. It is supported by a computer that runs a complex algorithm which is able to determine license plate numbers from the camera images. It can determine plate numbers even when they are skewed by perspective. These License plates are then matched against a list of outstanding warrants and stolen vehicles, and if a match is made the officer is alerted, and is then able to perform a traffic stop.  It is quite likely that as technology further improves, we will start to see these systems on more police cars around the country.

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License Plate Recognition System

To learn more about how the police are able to apprehend criminals, and to try your own hand at crime solving, come visit the Crime Lab Detective special exhibit!