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! 

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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!

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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!

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

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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!


Exploring Sri Lanka

Most people know that Sri Lanka is the post-1972 name for Ceylon, the large island off the southeast coast of India.  But most people – myself included before this trip – probably don’t know much more than that about this fascinating country and its ancient culture.  For two weeks in late September/early October, I had the chance to visit and learn more.

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

My three travelling companions were Paul, a herpetologist who worked for 25 years at the Houston Zoo; his wife Barbara, formerly head of the zoo’s primate section; and Lynn, who currently works in the primate section.  My interests are in plants and insects – so the trip had a broad biological orientation.  Our in-country guide was Anselm De Silva, a herpetologist and professor who has written many books about the reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka.  He put together quite an itinerary for us natural history geeks, taking in seasonal forest, dry forest, cloud forest, a huge botanical garden, but also some famous archeological sites, a tea picking operation and processing factory, and the bustling city of Kandy, one of the country’s former capitals.

Things I learned about Sri Lanka…one, it has an incredibly ancient (and violent) history.  We visited several ancient archeological sites, including Anuradhapura, which reminded me very much of Tikal in the Peten area of Guatemala:  both are ancient metropoli that were abandoned and subsequently covered by jungle.  Both flourished during the same (long) time period:  about 400 BC to 1000 or so AD.  Both were mainly religious sites (Buddhist and Hindu, in the case of Anuradhapura; polytheistic in the case of TIkal) with many temples and extensive living quarters for the monks and/or priests of the religious class.  The architecture, carvings, and other art work found in the two sites are amazingly similar. 

Polonnaruwa is another historical site we explored – it dates back to the time of William the Conqueror.  The nearby fortress city of Sirigira was also impressive.  Like some of their counterparts in the New World (Tikal, Palenque, etc.), these archeological sites in Sri Lanka are great for seeing wildlife.  Macaques and langurs ran about the ruins, lizards basked on the ancient brickwork, and exotic birds flew among the trees. 

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

In addition to its archeological riches, I learned that Sri Lanka has protected about 8% of its land area in 15 impressive national parks and other reserves (over 100 protected areas in all).  We visited just a few of them.  My favorite was Ruhunu or Yala, the largest park in the country, comprising over 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of dry forest on the southeast coast.  Visitors to Yala are only allowed to travel safari-style with a driver and guide; there are too many large and potentially dangerous animals to let people wander on their own.  It was the end of the dry season, so the shrinking water holes were the best place to see wildlife.  We had hoped to see leopards, as Yala has the highest concentration of these animals of anywhere in the world – but we missed on this one.  However, we saw dozens of elephants, axis deer, water buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles, along with langurs and macaques, mongooses, a variety of lizards, and dozens of birds. 

Langur family

Langur family

Flying fox

Flying fox

In Bundala, another large park along the southern coast that was mostly lagoons and swamps, we saw many of the same animals but also many water birds – herons, egrets, storks, flamingos, lapwings, stilts, etc., etc.  Our best views of elephants was at Minneriya, where we watched two bull elephants in must mingle with a large herd of cows and youngsters, while in the distance a pair of jackals yipped back and forth, and spectacular Brahminy kites flew overhead.  Wild peacocks and jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka – ancestor of the domesticated chicken) were everywhere in all these parks.  Flying foxes (giant fruit bats) were everywhere, hanging chittering in the trees by day, flying off en masse in the evenings.  They were spectacular!  Sadly, we noticed many caught (electrocuted) in electrical lines, especially near roost areas. 

I learned that tea, coconuts, rubber, fish, coffee, and spices are all major export crops in Sri Lanka.  We had a chance to spend a couple of days in the refreshingly cool tea-growing area in the central mountainous area.  The plantations themselves – hills covered with carefully pruned tea bushes, coral bean (Erythrina) or other trees providing some shade – looked and felt very much like the coffee-growing areas of Costa Rica’s central plateau.  However, the brightly dressed Tamil workers reminded me that this was the East and not the West. 

Tamil women

Tamil women

I also learned that Sri Lanka has a relatively high standard of living (the highest of any Asian country,according to WIkipedia) and a literacy rate of over 90% – among the  highest in the developing nations.  The country is predominantly Buddhist, but Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are also represented, and all appear to co-exist quite peacefully (the Tamil Tiger rebels are Hindu, but their rebellion is based on ethnic and economic problems, not religion).  The people we met were friendly, and I didn’t notice any who were desperately poor.  Most people spoke at least a few words of English, and there was a lot of interest in our upcoming election!  I loved the clothes – most women wore colorful saris – in all colors of the rainbow.  I saw only a few women, and only in the cities, wearing pants.  Men had a wider range of possibilities – some wore pants, others shorts, and many wore long or short sarongs.  Sandals and flipflops were the footwear of choice for both sexes.  Muslim men often wore caps on their heads, and the women covered their hair with a scarf.   

 

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

The food was good – although I did crave a bowl of cold cereal or a simple peanut butter sandwich more than once.  “Rice and curry” is eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their hands (the right hand only is used).  That took a little getting used to since I have been discouraged from putting my hands in my food since I was about two years old – and this was not discrete finger food, but rice and helpings of often soupy curried vegetables, or meat, or lentils, etc.   But, we managed (and sometimes broke down and ate with a fork).

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Our time was short and there were things we didn’t get to do - we missed seeing the traditional dancers in Kandy, for instance.  And I would have loved to check out some of the beaches, which were fabulously beautiful, with clear blue water and pinkish sand.  Colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, and endless skeins of fishing nets, were strewn over some of them; others were completely pristine.  Although most areas have been extensively repaired, we saw some evidence of the devastating 2004 tsunami in places along the coast.  Seeing the bare foundations of houses, and hearing people’s stories, reminded us that Sri Lanka lost over 35,000 people in that disaster, with over half a million displaced - making our recent hurricane “Ike” seem benign by contrast.

Fishermen and nets near Galle
Fishermen and nets near Galle

All in all it was a very interesting visit.  If I go back, I’d like to have more time to explore on my own and get to know the people.  I’d especially want to go back to Galle, an old Dutch outpost on the southwest coast.  The colonial part of the city in particular was very picturesque.  The highland village of Ella had marvellous views and plenty of accomodations for tourists.  I would definitely want to get to Sinharaja, a rainforest preserve with many endemic plants and birds.  And I’d want to spend at least a bit of time on any of the gorgeous beaches – and do some shopping! 

 

Hindu temple entrance

Hindu temple entrance

Picking tea

Picking tea

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Street scene in Gampola

Street scene in Gampola

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa