We can’t ignore the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: World Ocean Day aims to raise concern for plastic pollution

I once heard there is an island of plastic the size of Texas floating in the North Pacific. Turns out this is just a myth.

The truth is much, much worse.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not an island. You can’t stand on it or walk across it. It’s more like a cloud of suspended plastic particles ranging from the size of a person to microscopic. This patch isn’t just the size of Texas. It’s nearly as large as the United States, and it’s one of five oceanic areas with problems just as bad.

They’re called gyres, massive whirlpools that circulate the waters of the north and south Pacific, the north and south Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean, and all five of them are choked with plastic pollution. Scientists estimate there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean, or six times more plastic by dry weight than zooplankton, the most basic and common marine fauna that ultimately feeds the entire oceanic food web.


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches for thousands of miles across the north Pacific.

“Plastics have only been around for 100 years or so, and they’re already a huge problem,” said Shayla Andreas, Houston Zoo staff. “Plastic isn’t bad. It’s not evil. It has allowed for medical advances and other health applications. It’s just being overproduced.”

Think about all the plastic things you put into the trash can after using them only once. Soda straws. Water bottles. Coffee mixers. Grocery bags. Netting. Fishing line. Food wrappers. The purpose of this plastic is to keep your food clean and make access to it more convenient, but the plastic never goes away. It never degrades; it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s tiny enough for marine life to swallow.


Here’s where the plastic begins to affect not only our oceans, but ourselves. Plastics contain toxic chemicals and have the ability to absorb other compounds, which both leach out of the plastic over time. Fish eat the plastic, as do turtles, birds and whales, and if it doesn’t get caught up in the digestive tract and disrupt the absorption of nutrients, then the chemicals in the plastic inevitably poisons them. Fish and creatures pass the plastics in their guts on to the larger predators, until eventually, you have a whopper mackerel some fisherman pulls out of the ocean for sushi, its belly full of the plastic it has collected from the bellies of other fish, flesh tainted with chemicals that have entered its bloodstream. No one wants to eat that.


Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup, according to Eriksen. Oceanic gyres expel plastics into currents that eventually reach shorelines.

The point is, the plastic that’s meant to protect us could ultimately poison us. The greatest problem, according to Marcus Eriksen, Director of Research for the 5 Gyres research project, are microplastics, specifically microbeads that lately have appeared in cosmetic facial cleansers. These beads, no larger than a fleck of dirt, are used a single time as an exfoliant, then washed down the drain and into the sewers, which in turn enter watersheds that feed into the ocean. 5 Gyres claims this is the most dangerous source of plastic pollution, and Andreas agrees. Because of their minute size, microplastics affect the most marine life. Small fish can ingest the particles as well as some of the largest predators.


Microplastics are the greatest threat to the health of the ocean.

“The smaller the plastics are, the worse the problem is,” Andreas said. “Especially for baleen whales that eat krill. They filter out the water and the krill stays in the baleen, but so does the plastic.”

Cleanup of microplastics appears next to impossible, even for 20-year-old environmentalist Boyan Slat, Dutch inventor of a groundbreaking gyre cleanup array and founder of The Ocean Cleanup. His array involves a passive, angled catch system that floats on the surface of the ocean and uses the motion of gyre currents to funnel plastic into its vertex, where a solar-powered conveyor constantly lifts the pollution out of the water and into a single container.


20-year-old Dutchman Boyan Slat presents his proposal to deploy a giant plastic-catching array in the Pacific Ocean.

The mission of the non-profit is to deploy an enormous 100-kilometer-long array in the north Pacific, which Slat estimates will remove half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years. Slat plans to deploy a smaller pilot array off the coast of Tsushima, an island between Japan and South Korea, in 2016. At 2000 meters in length, it will still be twice as long as the record-holder for the largest floating structure deployed in the ocean in history, the Tokyo Mega-Float, a floating airport.

But Slat’s array provides no solution for microplastics and smaller particles which will elude his array. His invention offers a promising, cost-effective, and feasible beginning to cleaning up the mess, but it won’t solve the problem completely, which Andreas believes starts at the point of sale for every consumer and with responsible manufacturing.

“It comes down to researching the products that you use. You have to care,” Andreas said. “And you have to get them to care about it. Taking initiative, behavioral change, is so easy to do. People have to make a concerted effort not to get them.”


Microbeads used in cosmetic facial cleansers are washed down the drain and enter the ocean via watersheds.

Consumers should consider choosing biodegradable alternatives to products that contain microbeads. Exfoliants should be made from natural materials.

Word is beginning to spread about the direness of the plastic pollution situation. The Houston Museum of Natural Science recently celebrated the United Nations-established World Oceans Day, an event that drew out about 2,000 people. Representative faculty from Rice University and Texas A&M University emphasized the importance of keeping plastic out of the ocean, and guests had an opportunity to estimate the amount of biomass living in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and look inside the stomach of a thresher shark specimen.

Code Pink's Jodie Evans at the Tedx - Great Pacific Garbage Patch Conference

Code Pink’s Jodie Evans at the Tedx – Great Pacific Garbage Patch Conference.

Plastic may make human life more convenient, but single-use plastics have become a problem that can no longer be ignored. The only viable solution may be better choices to prevent plastics from entering the ocean in the first place. Reuse plastic bottles or take your own refillable water container. Choose to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. Never toss plastic or any garbage into the environment. And always, always recycle.

Meet Boo and Hiss the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Newest Additions!

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is excited to announce that we have two new residents.

Boo and Hiss
Hiss and Boo the latest additions to the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

“Boo” and “Hiss” are baby green tree pythons, and they are on display in the “lizard crevice” next to the large aquarium on the main level of the rainforest.  That exhibit housed a lonely, shy male Cuban Knight Anole for many years, but we were looking for something showier.  Our friends in the Reptile House at the Houston Zoo recommended emerald boas or green tree pythons as good display animals that would “fit” in a rainforest setting.  And, they just happened to have a large litter of green tree pythons and would be happy to donate a couple!  (The Knight Anole, I’m happy to say, went to join a harem of female Knight Anoles at Moody Gardens.)

The baby snakes were born at the zoo last January, part of a litter of 18 eggs.

Green tree pythons are usually green (as the name implies) as adults, but juveniles may be yellow, or brick-red, or sometimes orange.  All of these colors can appear in a single litter.  Our Boo is yellow and Hiss is dark brick-red.  I’m sure some of you have read “Verdi” to your children; if so, you will know what Boo looks like (and see attached photos).

Green tree pythons (Morelia viridis) are native to the rainforests of Indonesia, New Guinea, and northern Australia.   They are one of the world’s most beautiful snakes.  Adults range in color from bright green to yellow, and occasionally blue-tinted specimens (called cyanomorphs) are seen.  Young snakes, born yellow, brick red, or orange, slowly change color as they mature; the complete color change may take several years.  Smaller than many python species (adults are typically from 3 to 5 feet long), these snakes are mostly arboreal and nocturnal, spending the day coiled up along the branch of a shrub or tree, unwinding at night to explore and hunt.  Their prehensile tails help them to hold on to branches as they climb.  They primarily eat rodents.

Offering Hiss a pinkie
Hiss being fed.

Emerald tree boas (Corallus caninus) are the South American equivalent of tree pythons, and the two share many characteristics.

Both are green as adults, but come in a range of colors as juveniles.  Both share a distinctive way of coiling when at rest, making sort of a saddle shape with two loops and resting their head in the middle.  However, the two species are not particularly close relatives.  Their impressive similarities in appearance and behavior are due to convergence – the fascinating phenomenon whereby two unrelated species have evolved similar characteristics because they live in similar habitats (another great convergent pair among reptiles is the North American “horny toad” and the Australian thorny devil lizard).  Pythons are found in the Old World tropics (Asia, Indonesia, and Africa), have heat-sensitive pits along their upper lip, and lay eggs.  Boas are New World (Central and South American), have no heat pits, and are ovoviviparous – i.e., they give live birth (the eggs hatch while still inside the mother snake).   Both boas and pythons are considered primitive among snakes in general – for example, both have two lungs wheras more derived snakes have only one. 

While very beautiful, neither green tree pythons nor emerald boas are recommended as an “easy” snake for beginning snake enthusiasts.  They don’t become particularly tame, even when bred in captivity, and are prone to bite if disturbed (they are not venomous, but who likes to get bit?).  Despite their somewhat crabby disposition, we are very fond of our beautiful babies and hope you will stop by to meet them soon!

A Nature Walk through Hermann Park

Wax myrtle is a tree that is eaten by the 5 species of exotic walking sticks that we have here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, as well as some of our grasshoppers and other herbivores. Recently, while trying to catch dragonflies (don’t ask), I stumbled upon not one, or two, but tons of these trees in Hermann Park! They were all over the place between the Japanese Gardens and the Houston Zoo. Now, every week I have a nice walk down to that part of Hermann Park to enjoy these trees, and every time I go, it’s a different adventure! 

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A handsome Wood Duck

Today I thought I would take my camera and document some of the great things I saw: vibrant wildflower plants, amazing wildlife and people enjoying a beautiful day. It’s a really nice way to get out of the office and I always look forward to what I’ll see. I love all kinds of wildlife, not just bugs of course!

Hermann Park is filled with so many different species, especially birds, many of which are ducks. The wood duck is just one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Their colors are amazing and they have such a distinguished look. These ducks nest in trees near water sources. The ducklings jump out of the nest, falling several feet to the ground without being hurt. Many people consider them the most beautiful water bird, and I can see why. This duck was not shy with the camera!

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Great Blue Heron

Another bird that I am always happy to see is the Great Blue Heron. The first time I saw one of these take flight, I was so impressed. They are huge birds, but are so graceful and delicate. Seeing these majestic birds completely makes me forget that I’m in the middle of the 4th largest city in the United States. There were two of them today, hiding behind tall plants in the water. Luckily one came out of hiding for me! 

My visits have become even more special recently with the beginning of spring. Dragonflies and butterflies have taken to the air. Aquatic insects dart around the surface of the ponds, feeding fish, tadpoles and baby turtles. The babies are my very favorite part of spring! I’ve been lucky enough to encounter several ducklings on my last couple of visits. Their numbers have decreased, but the surviving ducklings are getting bigger and depending less on their mothers. I saw one today swimming by itself looking for food. It’s still pretty fuzzy and cute!

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A duckling – how precious!
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I was also able to photograph a dragonfly. If you’ve ever tried, you know it can be very frustrating! They scare so easily and it’s so hard to get up close. The key is definitely patience. Dragonflies are very territorial and will always come back to the same perch or one near it. If you keep at it, you will be able to catch a couple of shots of one.

Once I had gathered enough food for my insects and lollygagged around enough, I started to make my way back to work – but not without seeing the very familiar, adorable face of a squirrel. I’ve always loved squirrels for their cuteness and fun-loving personalities. They definitely have a way of helping me to forget about any stress. You can’t watch them without snickering a little bit. This squirrel seemed a little confused about what I was doing, but he gave me some really great poses.

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I really should bring my camera every time, as today was actually kind of a slow day for wildlife. I’ve also seen nutria, red-eared sliders, box turtles, whistling ducks, sea gulls, bull frogs, and tons of insects! Hermann Park really is a gem. It is such a historically significant part of our city and it is filled with so many simple, wonderful things to do. I encourage everyone to get out every once in a while to enjoy nature wherever it may be. You never know what you will see and how it can brighten your day!

Happy nature watching! 

Museum Educators Open House — January 24th is just around the corner!

Well, it’s 2009 and it’s almost time for the Museum District’s Museum Educators Open House on Saturday, January 24th! MEOH is always a fun day for us at the Houston Museum of Natural Science where we get to collaborate with other Houston Museums to put on a big event for area Educators!

The HMNS will be hosting the following amazing Houston organizations; Battleship Texas/San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, Bayou Preservation Association, Downtown Aquarium, FotoFest, Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, Houston Computer Museum, Houston Gem and Mineral Society, Houston Zoo, The John C. Freeman Weather Museum, Moody Gardens,  and the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art! The Children’s Museum of Houston, The Health Museum, Holocaust Museum Houston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will also be participating as MEOH hosts for the other 16 participating organizations!!

Houston area educators, school administrators, home school educators and student teachers are invited to discover the fascinating exhibitions, programs and educational resources available for their students. This event is completely FREE for all educators and for educators who attend at least 3 or more presentations are eligible for 3 hours of Continuing Education Credit; all you have to do is register online.

Go to the Museum District homepage to register for MEOH 2009 today!