Air, sharks, and robots: Copywriter Jason goes to summer camp

What do you get when you throw a 30-year-old copywriter into a summer camp classroom full of 10-year-olds?

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Sticking out like an aqua-colored sore thumb in Karen Culbertson’s “Leonardo’s Workshop” class at Xplorations Summer Camp. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

A lot of weird looks and kids asking, “Miss, does he actually think he’s 10 years old? Is that why he’s here?”

That, and an aqua T-shirt.

Since Xplorations Summer Camp is in its final swing at the end of this summer (only two weeks left after this one!), I decided it was time I looked into what those brilliant teachers are showing all our curious campers. VP of Youth Education Nicole Temple placed me in a class for a day as sort of an “undercover reporter,” but the kids weren’t buying it. Maybe it’s because I’m six feet tall or have a beard. And here I was starting to believe those people who said I look young for my age. Guess good skin will only take you so far.

In the “Leonardo’s Workshop” summer camp, I studied with a class of about 25 students, delving into the mechanics of pressure under the tutelage of Karen Culbertson. We learned about pneumatics, the science behind the reason tires inflate to support tons of machinery, and hydraulics, using water to drive moving parts. A bad student since way back, I arrived late to class. Camp starts at 10 a.m., and I was there around 10:45. I missed the lecture about the work of Leonardo da Vinci (the Renaissance mind responsible for strange flying machines, paintings, sculpture, and the Vitruvian Man), but I was just in time to join the class in making a few hypotheses about our first science experiment.

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Working together in groups to share ideas is a big part of learning at camp, and part of the fun. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill  

After finding the nearest empty seat and awkwardly introducing myself to my table, my group partners caught me up on what I’d missed. The day prior, they made a glider, which seems easy enough, but the challenge was they weren’t allowed to throw it. They could only drop it off a ledge, and it was supposed to soar on its own.

I expressed my doubts. “No way! Really? That sounds impossible.”

“It wasn’t that hard,” the kid across from me said with a confident shrug.

I felt intimidated. They already thought I was dumb for being a student in a class someone my age should be teaching. Could I pull this off? Would I get in trouble if I didn’t perform?

I decided to mind my P’s and Q’s and pay attention, taking careful notes. Ms. Culbertson taught us that pneumatics (careful on the spelling) is the science that deals with compressed air.

“Do you ever wonder how a tire holds up a car?”

Come to think of it, I did.

“Do you think it’s the rubber or the air that supports the weight?”

I hesitated to answer, fearful that I’d look stupid, and let the class give the correct response. “It’s the air!”

“Good. Now we’re going to see how it works.”

Ms. Culbertson’s helpers gave us straws, masking tape, and a gallon-sized plastic freezer bag. We were told to tape the bag shut with the straw inside, and she encouraged us to get creative with solving the problem of preventing any leaks. I thought it would be clever to tape the straw in one corner of the zipper closure to minimize leaks, but it didn’t work. (Here’s a tip: even when the zipper is closed and the tape surrounds the straw, the air can still leak out if you don’t seal the lip.) So I taped the whole thing shut. I saw the other kids following my example, and then I started to feel cool, like an accepted part of the group.

When our bags were sealed, Ms. Culbertson had us stack our notebooks on top of them and witness the power of an inflated chamber. We found we could lift several pounds of weight with just a flexible piece of clear plastic supported with air pressure. Pretty darn cool to see pneumatics in action!

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One of my camp buddies and I watched how marine biologists tag great white sharks with GPS trackers. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

After the experiment, we headed out of the classroom on a field trip to the Shark! exhibit, where we got wet touching live bamboo and epaulette sharks. (Here’s another tip: use only two fingers and don’t grab the sharks. You can hurt them or get hurt yourself, and the marine biologists will yell at you. This didn’t happen to me; I’m just saying…) When you run your fingers from nose to tail, the sharks’ skins are smooth, but from tail to tip, it’s like sandpaper. Ms. Culbertson explained that the reason for the rough skin is to make the sharks more “aerodynamic,” a lot like the gliders her class made the day before, but in water. Their skin and torpedo shape makes sharks some of the best swimmers in the ocean.

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The docile bamboo sharks in the Shark! Touch Tank Experience exhibit feel smooth or like sandpaper, depending on which direction you pet them. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

We stayed in the exhibit and watched some footage of field biologists tagging great whites, compared the jaws of a modern shark to the giant maw of the extinct megalodon, and learned that sharks aren’t as dangerous as they seem. Even though attacks can sometimes be grisly, they don’t happen often, and it’s pretty rare to die from a shark bite. Sharks would rather eat fish than people. To them, we taste gross. Info on text panels told the tragic story of finning, which is killing millions of sharks a year, driving them toward the endangered species list.

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Information on text panels explained the plight of the great white shark, being driven to an endangered species by the global finning industry. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

After a 45-minute lunch watching the Magic School Bus and chatting with some college-level facilitators closer to my own age (the one time I broke character), we returned to the classroom for the highlight of my adventure as a camper. By then I had made some friends.

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A wooden hydraulic arm gave us something to aspire to in our engineering science experiment. Syringes filled with water and food coloring drive its moving parts. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

With pneumatics behind us, Ms. Culbertson turned the class to hydraulics. Her assistants gave us each a length of surgical tubing and two syringes (without the needles, of course). We submerged all the elements in a bucket of water and assembled them, one syringe plunger-down and the other plunger-up. If you do it right, when you take it out of the water, you can press one plunger down and the hydraulic pressure forces the other plunger up. It was the basic mechanical element that allowed us to build a robotic arm.

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The basic hydraulic arm we assembled was much simpler, but no less cool. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

Ms. Culbertson showed us a fancy wooden arm build from a kit to give us inspiration. Four syringes powered it, and depending on which assembly you activated, it would grip, descend, move side to side or bend its “wrist.” There was no way any of us could have made something like that without a set of instructions, but the demonstration gave us enough ideas to build a basic hinge out of cardboard cut-outs and duct tape.

Using the same parts, each of us came up with a different model. One camper made what I named a “waving machine,” attaching a hand-shaped cutout to the end of his arm, while I and another student taped a green marker to the end of my hydraulic “arm” to make a sort of writing machine. Many other designs proved that the imagination is limitless. Some were successful, while others needed work, but with da Vinci’s lessons of constant innovation in mind, Ms. Culbertson pushed everyone to keep trying to improve their designs.

By then, it was 2 p.m. and time for me to go back to work in my boring old office cubicle. Back to adult life. Still, as I shared the adventure with several of my co-workers, it was difficult not to feel child-like excitement.

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Wild about sharks at summer camp. We all had a blast! Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

There’s only two weeks left to register for Xplorations Summer Camp at HMNS. If I learned something, made friends, and had fun, any kid will! With many other exciting themes to choose from like Crime Scene Investigators, Star Warrior’s Academy, Mummies and Mysteries, and Dino Claws and Shark Jaws, there’s tons of stuff to learn about and experiments to do.

Shoot. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll go back myself.

Saltwater SWAT team: Top 5 fascinating shark hunting techniques

I’ve been entranced by sharks since I was a little kid. From the first time I saw Jaws, I was hooked (pun intended). There are so many aspects of a shark’s physiology I admire, but my favorite point of fascination is probably the variety of hunting techniques they use to capture their prey. Though most of my friends are aware of my sharktastic obsession, others are surprised because I’m, well, a vegetarian. Yes, I’m a vegetarian with an intense interest and, dare I say, admiration for this aquatic carnivore’s feeding habits. This animal’s intelligence, grace, stealth, and prowess are unparalleled on land (except maybe when J.J. Watt is playing for the Texans). When people hear the word “shark,” they typically picture mindless killing machines, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. Sharks have highly adapted hunting strategies that have been honed over millions of years to make them one of the most efficient predators on the planet. Here is my own personal countdown of the most fascinating shark hunting methodologies.

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Mako shark, Isurus oxyrinchus.

Photo credit.

5. Mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus): Mako sharks are one of only a few shark species that are technically endothermic meaning they are able to maintain a fairly high internal body temperature roughly seven to 10 degrees above that of the water around them. This high body temperature gives them the energy they need to maintain a constant swimming speed of up to 35 miles per hour and bursts of speed of up to 70 miles per hour. The symmetry of their caudal fin also helps them maintain these high speeds. Due to this unique adaptation, Mako sharks are the fastest shark species out there making them a lethal predator. Though they’ll eat a number of different oceanic species including cephalopods, dolphins, and sea turtles, they can also chase down some of the fastest schooling fish in the sea like tuna and swordfish.

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Whale shark, Rinchodon typus.

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4. Whale shark (Rinchodon typus): Whale sharks get bragging rights as the largest fish species in the world. And while they can grow more than 40 feet in length, their food of choice is plankton. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, the largest fish species in the world feeds on tiny plankton. As a filter feeder, they swim through the ocean with their mouths wide open to filter out these delicious little morsels and any other small fish that make the mistake of getting in the way. Getting out of the way isn’t always the easiest feat though, since a whale shark’s mouth can open to almost five feet wide!

3. Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas): The bull shark is definitely a contender when it comes to most fascinating hunting techniques. One of the main reasons for this is its increased territory and hunting ground; it’s one of the few shark species known to habitually hunt in freshwater. When it comes to hunting, bull sharks get their name from their use of a technique known as the bump and bite. Bull sharks will use their body weight to propel themselves into their prey to stun or even kill it. Then, before the prey has a chance to recover, the bull shark attacks. Their unique ability to adapt to freshwater environments means they also have a wide range of prey from sloths to cows to hippos! They are extremely territorial, so they are one of the most common offenders when it comes to shark attacks on humans. Rule of thumb: if you’re in a murky body of water and you feel a hard bump, maybe get out of the water for a bit.

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Bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas.

Photo credit.

2. Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias): Of course, I had to include the famous great white shark. Great whites are probably the most well-known shark, because they have the best agent. Or maybe it’s because almost any movie about a killer shark stars the great white. While many of these Hollywood depictions have led the general public to believe these animals kill without discrimination, they are actually exceptionally precise and calculating hunters. Great white sharks utilize two hunting practices that, when put together, make them an aquatic force to be reckoned with. The first, known as spyhopping, is predominantly seen in marine mammals like dolphins and whales.

Spyhopping is when an animal brings its head above the water’s surface to take a look at their prey. The great white shark is one of the only shark species that we know of that to utilize this technique. After their recon mission, great white sharks travel below the surface to wait for the opportune moment to seize their prey. To capture fast-moving marine mammals (their favorite blubbery snack), great white sharks travel at incredible speeds and explode through the surface of the water. This practice is called breaching, and it’s most impressive when you consider the size of these predators. Great white sharks can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and burst out of the water at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. Some can even reach heights of 10 feet above the water’s surface! It’s a fairly rare occurrence, because it takes considerable energy to propel these animalistic torpedoes out of the water.

 

1. Thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus): By far, my favorite hunting technique of any animal. For decades, fishermen claimed that these sharks used their caudal fin to hunt. They would consistently find thresher sharks caught in their hooks; however, the sharks weren’t hooked by the mouth, they were hooked by their tail fin. Their conclusion was that the unusual shape of this shark’s tail fin was a prominent and integral part of its hunting technique, though they weren’t sure how. Thresher sharks are easy to identify, since they have a highly elongated upper lobe on their caudal fin. This caudal fin can sometimes make up two thirds of the shark’s body length. It has only been throughout the last few decades that researchers have come to witness their amazing hunting technique in the wild. Thresher sharks can actually use their caudal fin like a whip to stun their prey before going in for the kill. It’s a truly remarkable hunting strategy that you have to see to believe!

Don’t forget to stop by the museum’s Shark! exhibition this summer to get a chance to learn even more about these amazing animals. You can track sharks, learn about how researchers tag and study great whites, and touch live epaulette carpet sharks and white-spotted bamboo sharks at our touch tanks, open through Sept. 7.

Still not enough saltwater for you? Drop by the brand-new Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, opening this Friday, May 22.

Why you should care about endangered species today, tomorrow, and every day

The truth of the matter is that we humans are bound to this Earth. As the dominant species, it is easy for us to allow industry and propaganda to run rampant, annihilating whole populations of the animals with which we share the environment. One shepherd will kill the wolf who threatens his flock, one company will dynamite a mountain to extract an ore, and that may be fine. But if all the shepherds and all the companies kill and dynamite at once, that is a menace to the natural world. And as long as we continue to take advantage of quiet places virgin to human feet, or villainize an animal as a man-eating monster, the diversity of life on earth will always be in danger.

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A red wolf specimen behind glass appears to be mourning the loss of endangered and extinct species in the case beside it, in Texas, and across the globe. Farish Hall.

The question you have to ask yourself on Endangered Species Day, and every day, is are we really still competing with animals to gain a foothold on this rock we call home, or are we simply the most ruthless? One death by mauling, even 10 or 20 or 120, does not constitute a credible threat to humanity; there are billions of us. Call a shark, a bear, a wolf, a lion, a panther, any apex predator a danger to one or a small group of humans, but the time of fighting to survive in the jungle has passed. True, African villagers still suffer casualties due to contact with lions; yes, trekkers in the Rocky Mountains must remain vigilant for cougars and bears to avoid attacks; and yes, 10 people were killed and 87 were injured worldwide by sharks in 2014, but modern humanity now has the power to slaughter every last individual of any species. It’s not that difficult, and often it’s due simply to the spread of our kind into wild areas for resources or human development.

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Less than 1,000 ocelots are thought to survive in the wild. Farish Hall.

In the case of sharks specifically, 97 casualties in 2014 does not and cannot ever justify 100 million sharks killed every year. That’s about 274,000 dead sharks a day, or 11 shark killings per hour. A shark dies at the hands of a human, somewhere, every six minutes. Even nuisance animals aren’t this systematically destroyed. The World Wildlife Fund lists great white sharks as vulnerable on their endangered species directory, facing high risk of extinction in the wild. We don’t know much about shark biology and behavior, but we do know they play an important role at the top of the marine food chain, according to the WWF. They might all die before we get to know them.

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Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken exists now only in wildlife refuges. Farish Hall.

Sharks aren’t the only species in danger, of course. Many other animal populations have dwindled to mere hundreds. Biologists count 880 mountain gorillas left in the Virunga Mountains of central Africa. Imagine having only 880 humans on the planet. That’s barely the size of a small town in Texas, one of those places Grampaw says you’ll miss if you blink as you pass by. As few as 3,200 tigers live in the wild across the planet, the WWF says, and giant pandas, the mascot of the organization since 1961, number just above 1,800. Our favorite mammals are nearly gone. Just as gone as the dinosaurs. When they’re gone, they will never come back. Ever.

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Native to southern Texas, the jaguarundi is one of many endangered predators. Farish Hall.

In Texas, from the pounding Houston rain to the burning sun of El Paso, the steamy barrier islands to the prairie grasslands and canyons in the panhandle, it seems the big sky country has enough space for everything. But farming and introduction of non-native species, as well as the urban sprawl surrounding our boundless cities, has built a long list of endangered species. Texas Parks and Wildlife lists the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken, the wooping crane and the red-cockaded woodpecker endangered in Harris County, as well as the red wolf, the smalltooth sawfish, the Houston toad, and the leatherback sea turtle. Some of these exist only in wildlife refuges.

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The ivory-billed woodpecker, native to Texas, is critically endangered and thought to be extinct. Animatronic specimen displayed in Farish Hall.

The concrete city landscape of Harris County has replaced the natural habitat, a corner where coastal, wetland, and piney forest environments merge. As the city expands, roaming species like the red wolf are pushed out of their home territories while their numbers decline, but other creatures that rely on this area specifically for the resources the environment provides simply fade away. The Kemp’s Ridley feeds only in muddy or sandy bottom habitats, those brackish areas where swamp meets seawater, and while they migrate across the Gulf, these turtles still require coastline to nest. Other migratory species like the whooping crane use the coast as winter breeding grounds. As development continues, these environments shrink or change enough to kill off such species.

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The Carolina parakeet, once native to Texas and most states along the eastern coast of the United States, was declared extinct in 1939. Farish Hall.

Texas used to have its own native parrot, the Carolina parakeet. This beautiful tropical bird with red, yellow and green feathers, suffered devastating losses from deforestation and feather-hunting. It was declared extinct in 1939. Its range extended in the eastern United States from New York to Texas. The Houston Museum of Natural Science has a mounted specimen on display in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, alongside many other examples of native and endangered species. Apart from taxidermy, this parrot exists only in the imagination.

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The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is losing its habitat in Texas due to loss of the piney woods environment in which it lives and hunts. Farish Hall.

Next week, HMNS guests concerned about endangered species can come to the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, a new permanent exhibit adjacent to Farish Hall opening May 22, to learn more about the relationship between the environment and the economy. Some of Texas’s iconic species, including rare and endangered plants and animals, will appear on display. After touring these exhibits, visit the 100 awe-inspiring images of the 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year display. Some of these, like the photos of legal lion hunting, hyenas eating from a human garbage dump, and prospectors destroying thousands of acres of virginal forest for minerals, reveal just how awful things can get when we neglect the natural world.

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A quote by William Beabe in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife reminds us why we should care about endangered species.

Why should you care about extinction on Endangered Species Day? Because if a species dies out, it never comes back. Every creature is important, unique in its behaviors or adaptations or the shape and color of its body. If these creatures disappear, the only way we can get to know them is through history and in museums, not through personal experience. We will never know what we could have learned from them. We are the stewards of this planet now, not its owners. We rely on it much more than it relies on us. If we don’t help preserve life, these endangered species are as good as stuffed. And when they all die off, we’re next.

Meet Chris Fischer from Ocearch today at HMNS!

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Today at HMNS – meet Chris Fischer, Founding Chairman and Expedition Leader for OCEARCH who will be here today at the opening of our new special exhibition Shark!

Event Details:
Friday, August 29
2:00 – 4:00 p.m.
Glassell Hall in front of Shark! exhibit

Tickets:
FREE for members
Non-Members: Included with purchase of a ticket to our permanent exhibit halls.

About Chris Fischer:
Chris Fischer is the Founding Chairman and Expedition Leader for OCEARCH. Since 2007, he has led 20 global expeditions to advance science and education while unlocking the many mysteries surrounding the life history of white sharks and other giants of the ocean. He has facilitated millions of dollars in collaborative ocean research, supporting the work of over 70 scientists from more than 40 international and regional institutions, through his own financial resources and with the support of partners such as title sponsor Caterpillar Inc. Additional support comes from films sponsor Costa Sunglasses, Education Development partner Landry’s Inc., philanthropists and foundations, and the general public who make contributions through Rally.org.

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His work with OCEARCH has been aired on the National Geographic Channel and HISTORY in over 170 countries and has been documented in over 7,500 global media stories. The work, ranging from satellite tracking to biological studies is helping generate critical data required to better understand the health of our oceans by understanding the health of its apex predators. Fischer is an award-winning member of the Explorer’s Club with 10 flagged expeditions. His collaborative open-sourced approach has generated over 50 scientific papers in process to advance ocean sustainability through data-driven public policy while simultaneously advancing public safety and education.

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Chris’ ultimate goal is to explode the body of knowledge forward by enabling scientists and governments around the globe to generate groundbreaking data on the ocean’s apex predators in an open source environment. He’s also conceived a way to advance STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education through a free, dynamic shark-based OCEARCH K-12 curriculum available at OCEARCH.org, home of the Global Shark Tracker – which is also available as an iPhone and Android App.