100 Years – 100 Objects – Spondylus Linguafelis

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Tina, the museum’s associate curator of malacology. She has chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating shells and animals in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

Spondylus linguafelis – Sowerby, G.B. II, 1847

Spondylus linguafelis - small versionThis extremely fragile, colorful species is a member of the Pectinoidae family of marine bivalves.  They are found in Hawaii, Polynesia, the Solomon Islands to Western Australia.  The long-spined specimens are found in sunken ships and in underwater caves, which makes them dangerous to collect for divers.  Colors range from purple to yellow to white, but multi color variations are sometimes found.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org

Home Sweet Oil Platform

Beyond Petroleum
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

We all breathed a sign of relief this weekend as Gustav spared the Houston area.  We hope that the hurricanes backed up for landing on our continent follow his example and fizzle out before causing as much harm as we have seen in the past century.  Katrina and Rita caused untold damage from which we are still struggling to recover.

The Gulf of Mexico normally produces about 1.5 million barrels a day of U.S. crude: 2% of global oil production and about a quarter of our domestic output. Many damaged platforms and oil rigs in the Gulf were sunk or put adrift after Katrina and Rita.  

This appears alarming at first,  and of course, oli platform cost us millions of dollars to replace – to say nothing of the production lost.  But the story is not all dark.  Our guest blogger,  Lindsey Goodier from the Oil and Gas Investor tells us more…

I learned something new yesterday – did you know that oil platforms are home to thousands of underwater creatures?

reef fish & soft coral
Creative Commons License photo credit: jon hanson

The protection provided by the platforms attracts a variety of fish and the structures become home to corals, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Over the past 20 years, over 200 platforms that are no longer used have attracted many sea creatures. The conglomeration of sea creatures at these oil platforms has served as a learning center for marine life observation.

Especially in the Gulf of Mexico, the habitat the platforms create for fish is of value to fishermen. Since the GOM is a flat plain, comprised of mud, clay and sand with very little natural rock bottom and reef habitat, the platforms are one of the few places that habitats can form. Without oil platforms, fish and other marine life would be far more dispersed, making commercial fishing, recreational fishing and diving more difficult.

As observed and documented by the Minerals Management Service’s (MMS) diving scientists, invertebrates and plants attach to petroleum platforms within weeks of their placement in the marine environment. Within a year, the platform can be completely covered with plants and sessile invertebrates, attracting mobile invertebrates and fish species, and forming a highly complex food chain.

Now, I won’t be so naive as to ignore the fact that oil spills do occur. Yes, living under an oil platform can be a risky way of life. But the benefits of community living for these creatures seems to be greater than the risk of an actual spill. And the enjoyment that they bring to humans who can observe communities of marine life is the greatest benefit of all.

Lindsay Goodier is the Online Editor for OilandGasInvestor.com; check out her blog, Oil Rules.

Feeling energized?
Read about the Minerals Managment Service’s announcement about Sperm Whales.
See what Lindsay Goodier had to say about our Wiess Energy Hall.
Michael Phelps and solar power: what’s the connection?

I want candy! (boom boom boom ba-dum boom)

Candy can be a useful teaching tool, even if you don’t advocate eating it. It’s well known, comes in lots of varieties, and it’s cheap if you buy it in bulk. It can also be used after its expiration date – great for construction, not consumption. I have used it to illustrate cell and organ structure; architectural design and geometric structures; and, by far my most favorite, dichotomous keys and taxonomy.

Candy Cell Labeled

Test plant cell model

I was first introduced to taxonomy in high school. We had to know the classification of every animal we caught for Marine Biology or dissected in Biology. It wasn’t until college, when we were given the oddest assortment of corks, stoppers, nuts, bolts, nails and screws, that I was introduced to dichotomous keys directly. I am addicted to sorting and organizing, so that assignment was one I thoroughly enjoyed. I had to determine relationships, categorize each “specimen,” name it, and create a key so that anyone could figure out which specimen was which. Loved it!

Years later, in a Texas Master Naturalist training class, an instructor used a simple candy dichotomous key to show us how the key worked before letting us tackle the identification of fish. Have you ever noticed the chin barbels on a croaker? I almost missed them. Dichotomous keys can help scientists to identify field specimen and hopefully new species as well.
The idea to use candy to ease the uninitiated into dichotomous keys was brilliant! So of course I borrowed the idea to use with kids. Now, with kids I kept it simple: “use this key to identify the unknown piece of candy – your ‘specimen.’”

To make sure it worked, I made up names for the candy. Almost everyone knows what a Hershey’s kiss is, but what about Smackus pennsylvius? It’s the name I came up with for the kiss – Hershey’s HQ is in Pennsylvania and in cartoons a kiss comes with a pucker-smack sound, hence Smackus (there are a lot of different Hershey kisses, worth their own genus) and pennsylvius after their origin. You can get a lot more complicated by assigning other species names to each kiss, since they do vary and I assume cannot interbreed. I used the original kiss in the key, so went with the origin for the species name.

Before I get too carried away (and I will) here is a simple key I created for one class. See if you can follow the key below to find the names of Smarties, Jolly Ranchers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, Candy Cane and Mar’s Minis Mix (mixed bag mini Mars brand bars).

Candy samples for dichotomous key

In any dichotomous key, you always start at #1. Like a choose-your-own-adventure story, you are given two paths from which to choose. Each number has 2 choices, or characteristics, that describe the specimen. Each step usually gives you an answer or a direction (go to #3). You may skip a step in a key based on the directions you follow. If your specimen doesn’t fit into either characteristic, go back a step and see if you made the right choice. By observing carefully, you can get the right answers. Of course if your specimen doesn’t fit at all, you may have discovered a new species!

1a. Wrapper is metallic material
1b. Wrapper is non-metallic material
go to #2
go to #3
2a. Shape is circular
2b. Shape is rectangular
Gooberis moosi
Rufusastrum micros
3a. Packaged in groups
3b. Packaged individually
Tarticus owlii
go to #4
4a. Multiple colors present
4b. Multiple colors absent
Noelia crutchii
Bombre merrii

See if you can reason out the names once you have matched them up with their candy. I used my imagination, a good dose of silliness (good for the heart) and some actual Latin roots to come up with these names. The great thing about Latin is you can have a lot of fun trying to pronounce it as well! I’ll give answers if you are interested – please comment.

This is a very basic key; it only lists 5 specimens. which could suggest that there are only 5 species of candy. We know that isn’t the case, but remember that this was for kids and maybe the first time they had tried this.

To actually try and classify (and name) all of the candy you can find in a grocery store gets a lot more complicated. But for someone addicted to classification or candy, it sounds to me like a good time. Happy sorting!