Invasion of the bulbuls: Houston team studies new invasive species

Editor’s note: This blog post is a summation of “Ecology, Behavior, and Reproduction of an Introduced Population of Red-vented Bulbuls (Pycnontus cafer) in Houston, Texas,” written by HMNS Curator of Vertebrate Zoology Daniel M. Brooks and published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

 

Invasive species are (unfortunately) nothing new to Texas. Defined as an “introduced species that adversely affect the habitats and bioregions they invade economically, environmentally, and/or ecologically,” invasive species (aka invasive exotics or exotics) can have wide-ranging negative impacts on regions.

Species such as giant salvinia, feral hogs, zebra mussels and nutria constitute invasive species currently wreaking havoc on Texas wildlife, having decimated food sources and changing ecological dynamics, and even threatening other species’ survival in their environmental niches. It’s for this reason that many scientists have begun to study introduced species and their behaviors before they decimate their new habitats.

In light of this, Brooks initiated the Texas Invasive Bird Project in June 2008, a citizen-science study targeting six avian species invading the state. One of these is the red-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer). This species was previously unstudied in Houston.

The red-vented bulbul is native to Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka, but has become a well-established invasive species in parts of the Middle East, various tropical Pacific islands … and Houston. In its native and introduced regions, it can be found in a variety of habitats, including urban gardens. In the Houston study, we aimed to determine the ecology, behavior and reproduction of the bulbul through a questionnaire made available at birdwatching clubs, annual birdwatching festivals and circulated on internet list serves. Most of the respondents were either birdwatchers familiar with bulbuls or horticulturalists who maintain diverse gardens.

The results determined that the most frequent activities for the birds included foraging, perching or resting and calling. Ninety-six percent of the reports described residential suburbs as the primary habitat of the birds, with the highest concentrations being found in the Heights neighborhood. In these areas, they were observed perching on 35 species of plants, and feeding on 20. Forty-three percent of the plants they perched on are native to Texas, while only five of the 20 plants they fed on are native to Texas. The most common plants used for perching were also exotic plants (bamboo, crepe myrtle, fig and tallow), which are all found in the native range of the bulbul.

They are generally non-migratory birds. But the largest flocks appear at regular intervals between August and September, and then again from December through January, traveling in flocks of 12 to 22 birds. This matches their patterns in other regions, while their numbers are much smaller in Houston (with gatherings of 20 to 100 birds within their native range).

Ultimately, it seems that bulbuls are not currently a threat to Houston, but they should continue to be closely monitored. While they pose no current negative economic threat as they do in Pacific islands (such as Oahu, where they’ve decimated tropical plant crops), it seems that their largest potential threat in Houston remains through seed dispersal. In this area, they have great potential to disperse noxious weedy seeds, as they have done in Fiji with spiked pepper, guava, and prickly night-shade.

In the meantime, the birds seem to be enjoying their niche in previously untapped resources of other exotic plants brought to Houston and used in gardens, which other birds have not used with great regularity to eat or perch in. However, as the population continues to increase and spread through the region, we will have to monitor any changes that may occur which could negatively impact native species.

There’s a hack for that: Science Hack Day comes to Houston

If you love science and you have a creative mind, you may the perfect hacker for us! On April 5-6, we are working with Brightwork CoResearch to host our first Science Hack Day.

What’s a hack day?

It’s an event where people come together and collaborate to create new and scientific ideas. It’s for coders, designers, scientists, makers and anyone who loves science. It’s like an organized think tank — and this year it’s happening at HMNS.

What kind of hacks happen? Check out these examples from past Science Hack Days from the Science Hack Day Website:

Syneseizure

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could feel sight? That’s what one team of science hackers sought to explore, creating a mask that simulated synesthesia, a condition where senses get mixed up (e.g. associating colors with numbers or seeing ripples in your vision resulting from loud sounds). The team wanted to simulate a synesthetic sensation by mashing up sight (via a webcam) with touch (via vibrating speakers).

Syneseizure is a fairly creepy looking hack: having only 24 hours to prototype it, the only mask sewing pattern the team could find was one for a gimp mask. Just going with it, they attached 12 vibrating speakers inside the mask and wired them up to an Arduino, then a webcam. The result is an all-encompassing head mask that vibrates on different areas of your face, corresponding with different visual information picked up by the webcam. This creates a sense of feeling if areas of a room are lighter or darker as you navigate around.

Galaxy Karaoke

What if you could turn an entire planetarium into a cosmic karaoke machine? That’s what a team of science hackers at the Adler Planetarium did over the course of a weekend. Previously, a bunch of awesome Galaxy Zoo forum members collected a complete set of real galaxy images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which just happened to look like letters of the alphabet.

The Galaxy Karaoke team resurrected some previously hacked-together code, which takes these images and pastes them together into arbitrary words and sentences. The team then used this to generate lyrics to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” put the images into a 3D model of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and choreographed a fly-past with the lyrics (spelled out using real galaxies!), in time with the song.

DNAquiri

What does DNA taste like? Aside from the fact that DNA is very small, the materials needed to extract it often aren’t edible. Or, if they are, they’re not as delightful as a cocktail. Despite the copious amount of food present at Science Hack Day, a band of biohackers were hungry for more. They sought to craft a recipe for extracting strawberry DNA that didn’t require indigestible ingredients and could also double as a cocktail. Using strawberry puree and some very strong alcohol, the biohackers were able to extract the strawberry DNA into polymer clumps you could see with the naked eye. The final cocktail was definitely something that could knock you on your feet — and it has paved the way for more delightful science-based delicacies.

Get involved!

We provide the space, the hackers provide ideas … and then the magic happens! The hackers have 24 hours to collaborate and create a project. At the end of the 24-hour period, they will present their projects to the general public and the best projects will receive awards!

There are lots of ways you can participate with our first ever Science Hack Day! You, too, can be a hacker, working to create new ideas and solutions. All you have to do is apply!

If you don’t have the time to participate in the event, you could always become a sponsor. Or if you just like watching science happen, visit the museum on April 5-6 to see those hackers at work!

And if you’d like to know more about what you’d be getting yourself into, click here for FAQs.

Let’s all be hackers!

Na na na na na na na … BATS, man!

For bats being amazing examples of evolutionary resilience and fascinating, intelligent creatures with complex, long lives that perform invaluable ecological roles, we humans don’t seem to appreciate them very much. They’ve had a bad rep in cultures around the world due to their association with the night for millennia, but what’s this based on, really? Fear of the dark? Jealousy? Our imaginations — which can make almost anything out to be our “enemy”?

Like many other things deeply ingrained in our social consciousness, these feelings have been added into our speech patterns. We often use an association with bats to point out odd or unfavorable behavior.

Take for instance:

“Without my glasses, I’m blind as a bat.”

“From his erratic behavior, we were sure he had bats in the belfry.”

“She ran away like a bat out of hell.”

Well, how about this:

“Without my glasses, I’m blind as a bat. No, really I’m fine — I don’t need them. My sense of smell and hearing are better than using sight anyway. Oh, and I’ve been around for 50 million years, so I’m pretty sure I know the lay of the land anyway, so NBD. By the way, I provide an invaluable service to humankind by eating the insects which seem to cause them so much trouble.”

OK, a bit wordy, but you get the idea – bats are freakin’ awesome. They’re the only mammal that legitimately flies – having developed wings out of what used to be hands (look at their skeleton and you’ll see how crazy this is; it would be like having webbed fingers that go the length of your body!).

And they live nearly everywhere on earth, except for some small, isolated islands. Now that’s what I call evolutionarily resilient.

Bats are native to the orange areas on the map. (Which is pretty much everywhere.)

In spite of all this awesomeness, bats in America are under threat from a new disease called White-Nose Syndrome. This disease is caused by a fungus which is taking hold in caves along the entire northeast corridor. It infects bats while they’re hibernating, so their bodies have essentially shut down and can’t fight it. The fungus causes their flesh to deteriorate as the spores take hold and suck the water and nutrients out of the bat. This causes them to wake up and search for food (which they can’t find, because it’s winter), wasting the rest of their fat reserves and leading to starvation.

The fungus appeared in New York in 2007 and has since killed millions of bats who seem to have little to no way to fight it. It came to New York from Europe; however, the bats across the pond don’t seem to mind nearly as much as American bats. This leads some to believe that they’ve evolved to be resistant to it (think Black Plague resistance in European populations — or lack thereof when smallpox came to America).

White Nose Syndrome by found county

But that’s not to say all hope is lost! Scientists across the country are performing research to learn more about the fungus — mapping where it’s been found, how it takes hold, and performing experiments to prevent the onset of the disease.

(You can learn more here, here, here, here, and here.)

But one of the best ways to help save the bats is having a well educated population that’s invested in the little furry flying guys. Lucky for YOU, there’s an exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land opening on Sat., Jan. 18 all about bats! Come to Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats and learn all about these amazing creatures (and, come spring, you can check them out in Houston under the Waugh St. Bridge).

 

Nota bene: Baby bats are super adorable. I hereby submit that they should become part of the never-ending flood of baby animal pictures shared around on social media as to better their public perception.

Don’t believe me? Just check these out.

Museum District Day is this Saturday!

Today’s post is by Susan Schmaeling, APR. Susan is passionate about the 18 member museums in the Houston Museum District Association (HMDA). As a consultant to HMDA, she is delighted to help facilitate Museum District Day, which introduces the richness of the member museums of the Houston Museum District to thousands of visitors.  

Houston is a thriving cultural hub and at the heart of it all is the Houston Museum District. Come and explore the fourth largest museum district in the nation during Museum District Day!

15th Annual Museum District Day
Saturday, September 17, 2011
10 am – 5 pm

17 museums offer free general admission to their captivating exhibits, special programs, hands-on activities, performances and more. Pack up the car with family and friends and drive yourself to the Museum District – paid and/or free public parking is available at many of the museums.

Or take out the hassle and ride the METRORail to the Houston Museum District stop at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. You can bike it and safely lock your bike in front of The Menil Collection bookstore or on Branard Street in front of one of the distinctive grey Menil bungalows. Then hop on a free Museum District Day Bus Shuttle and take one route which stops at each and every participating museum.

Participating museums include:
Buffalo Soldiers National Museum Houston Museum of Natural Science
Byzantine Fresco Chapel The John C. Freeman Weather Museum
Children’s Museum of Houston The Jung Center
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston Lawndale Art Center
Czech Center Museum Houston The Menil Collection
The Health Museum Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Holocaust Museum Houston Rice University Art Gallery
Houston Center for Contemporary Craft Rothko Chapel
Houston Center for Photography  

Here’s a sample of the fun, free activities you and your family can participate in on Museum District Day:

Meet anchors and reporters from our title sponsor, KHOU-TV Channel 11, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm.

Take a free Tai Chi class at 3 p.m. by Henderson Smith on the lawn near the Rothko Chapel.

Enjoy a delicious lunch al fresco at the Great Good Hot Dogs Truck for about $5 per hot dog at The Menil Collection.

Contribute a part of yourself to The Jung Center’s Inside-Outside Virtual Parade collage. Free materials like photos, clippings and art images will allow you to express your true self.

Help the Blue Star Moms support our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bring a small personal care item to the Holocaust Museum Houston to be sent overseas. Write a note of thanks to the men and women who protect and serve us.

Make Sunprints at the Houston Center of Photography.

Watch the Houston Area Blacksmiths forge steel at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft‘s annual “Gathering of the Guilds.”

Make a Snap Circuit at the Inventor’s Workshop inside the Children’s Museum of Houston.

Witness performances about the life of a Buffalo Soldier every hour on the hour from 11 am to 3 pm at the Buffalo Soldiers Museum.

Watch artist Ana Serrano create her cardboard cityscape, Salon of Beauty at the Rice University Art Gallery.

Share your memories of Hurricane Carla and Tropical Storm Allison at The Weather Museum, as we remember the 50th anniversary of Carla and 10th anniversary of Allison, and learn about how storms are named as you come up with your own list of Atlantic storm names.

You will experience the richness of other cultures, be inspired and celebrate the Museum District’s diverse community.

Get details about Museum District Day!

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Please note – the Houston Zoo is not providing free general admission on Museum District Day.