Butterflies will blow your mind: A new Giant Screen Theatre film gives viewers new respect for migrating Monarchs

If you — like me — have long thought of butterflies as delicate, simple creatures, you have been sorely mistaken.

A new Giant Screen Theatre film, Flight of the Butterflies, opens tomorrow and frames familiar Monarch butterflies in a new light as masters of migration. The film follows the life’s work of Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife in stunning 3D as they tag and track the migratory patterns of Monarch butterflies. After 40 years of tracking and thanks to the  help of thousands of citizen scientists, the Urquharts were finally able to unlock the mystery of Monarch migration and identify their winter gathering place in remote mountaintops of Mexico.

Flight of the ButterfliesAnd it’s not just the visual spectacle that’s stunning. Did you know that a super-butterfly is born every third generation that lives longer and flies farther than its predecessors? Or that this Super Generation that makes the extended trek from Canada all the way to Mexico can fly as much as mile up in the air, catching rides on the wind? It challenges your perception of butterflies as erratic, delicate things, that’s for sure. They’re marksmen; weathering one of the longest migrations on earth to target an isolated mountaintop they’ve never even seen with incredible accuracy. Even our great state of Texas is featured, in all its bluebonnet-blanketed glory.

Make it a butterfly-filled weekend with the Semi-Annual Plant Sale and you can even establish a garden to help these guys along! For a schedule of showings, click here.

Who were the Maya? Who would you have been in ancient Mexico?

Who were the Maya? I’ve become interested in Mayan civilization for various reasons. One, it’s 2012, and there are the obvious accompanying prophecies of the apocalypse. Two, I grew up listening to stories about the Maya as part of my culture.

The Maya people are widely regarded as a civilization ahead of their time — an ancient culture who built great pyramids, created a calendar using the stars, and continue to thrive in the cold, mountainous regions of Guatemala and Southern Mexico as well as in the rainforests of Northern Guatemala and Southern Belize.

2012 Mayan_30x402012: Mayan Prophecies is currently showing in the HMNS Planetarium

But who were the Maya, really? In the 1500s when the Conquistadores arrived in the New World, they came looking for gold, land, and other riches. After colonization they brought religion in the form of Roman Catholicism, and in time, there was a fusion of the old and new worlds. The Maya soon became immersed in the Spanish Empire.

Even though the Olmec are not considered Maya, they did influence the Maya people as they developed and perfected their spectacular architecture of step-pyramids and sacred buildings, beautiful artwork and pottery, and a complicated mathematical and astronomical numerical system.

IMG_1816A Mayan step pyramid

There are three different periods of the Maya culture: The Pre-Classic period (c.1700 BC-250 AD), the Classic period (250-900 AD) and the Post-Classic (900 AD-1546/1697 AD) period.

Pre-Classic Period Maya were modest farmers whose primary crops were corn, squash and beans grown in their gardens. Their houses were mud-covered with thatch roofs.

In the Classical Period, complex cities, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and timekeeping developed. The collapse of the Maya towards the 8th and 9th Century AD left many cities abandoned, while others continued. What incited the Maya’s downfall — and how some cities survived while others fell — remains a mystery. Some hypothesize drought, natural disasters, famine, plagues, disease or possibly war.

Tulum Temple of MuralsThe Tulum Temple of Murals

Post-Classical Period cities in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Highlands of Guatemala, like Chichen Itza, still flourish. It was also during this time that the Maya people started using a simpler timekeeping version of the Mayan Calendar.

Did you know how that the same ancient calendar that has us stockpiling for the apocalypse also helped Mayan babies get their names?

The day a baby was born on the Sacred Calendar would also be their first name. A child’s full name was a combination of the Sacred and Solar Calendar. If you are curious about what your name would have been, there is a kiosk located in our Hall of the Americas where you can enter your date of birth and discover your Mayan name.

Of gomphotheres, early American Indians, the Lazarus effect and the end of the world

Sometime during 2007, a rancher in the northern Mexican state of Sonora took a visitor to see large bones he had found in an arroyo, or creek bed. The visitor was Guadalupe Sanchez, who works for Mexico’s INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia). It turns out that the bones were not the only item that piqued Guadalupe’s interest; several stone implements were found in association with them. What makes this discovery so very special and highly interesting is the kind of animal the bones belonged to and the nature of the stone tools.

After two years of hushed up investigations, the scientists recently announced that these bones represent two juvenile gomphotheres and the tools belong to the so-called Clovis tradition, a topic which has been the subject of earlier blog entries . The focus here is not on who came first, Clovis or others (that argument has been settled anyway), but rather on the implications of the find of the Gomphothere bones together with Paleoindian tools like those of the Clovis tradition. That is what is drawing the attention of a lot of North American archaeologists these days. In a nutshell, what we have here is described as “the first documentation that there was some sort of human interaction with gomphotheres in North America.”

What in the world is a gomphothere?

WPHubeiPlatybeladonThink of gomphotheres as a type of early elephant, but a strange looking one.
Imagine an elephant-sized animal, with a trunk and tusks pointing straight forward. Then add to that picture a lower jaw with two protruding teeth and voilà, you have a pretty good idea of what our gomphothere looks like.

When were they supposed to have been around?

Considered to have been the most successful and diverse group of Elephants or Proboscideans, these animals thrived during the late Miocene (9 – 8  million years ago) and the Pliocene (5.3 – 1.8 million years ago). The traditional wisdom – up until recently – was that their North American representatives survived the longest in Florida.

Lazarus effect

With dates like these, it would appear then that the jolly pachyderms disappeared about 1.788 million years (give or take a few thousand years) before the earliest humans started walking around in North America. The recent discoveries made at “El fin del Mundo” upended this conventional wisdom. Animals considered long gone by the time of the arrival of the first Americans, now seems to have survived until that point in time. Resurrected from the dead, as one scientist intimated.

The site got its foreboding name because of its very remote location on a ranch in the Rio Sonora watershed. However, being remote is a relative term. Once the news breaks, it is no longer a secret and people will find their way to the site. That is why scientists waited for two years to announce their discovery. This gave them ample time to get a good start on the work that needs to be done.

According to Dr. Vance Holliday, a University of Arizona anthropologist, this is the first time gomphothere fossils were found together with implements made by Clovis people and because of this association, this find has major implications.

Saber-tooth Cat Skull
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan Somma

Instead of completely disappearing 1.8 million years ago, some Gomphotheres seem to have survived until relatively recently. Our mental image of early man in the Americas encountering and hunting mammoths and mastodon now has to include Gomphotheres as well. In addition to giant hyenas and sabertooth cats, humans also developed a taste for these creatures.

Are all the gomphotheres gone now?

Even though they survived much longer than originally suggested, gompotheres are no longer with us. However, these lumbering leviathans have been immortalized in a number of outdoor statues, as you can see here, here and here.

The Incredible Journey of the Monarchs – on PBS

She Was Completely Transparent With Me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

What do you know about monarch butterflies?

A universal favorite, most people know that these showy orange and black butterflies fly south every year to spend the winter in Mexico. Many of you may have raised their black, yellow, and white caterpillars on Mexican milkweed as a class project or in your backyard.

But why do the adult butterflies migrate, and how do they get there and back? Who are the people and cultures they encounter as they traverse the continent from north to south each year? How did we learn about their migration, and what does it tell us about the natural world?

Migration
Creative Commons License photo credit: tlindenbaum

To answer these questions, and to see some amazing footage of millions of butterflies in flight and at their overwintering grounds, be sure to watch NOVA’s long-awaited special, “The Incredible Journey of the Monarchs.” It airs on PBS tomorrow night (Tuesday, January 27) at 7 p.m.

Inspired by Sue Halpern’s book, “Four Wings and a Prayer,” the filmmaker followed the butterflies in hot air balloons and high tech gliders, interviewing researchers and ordinary citizens in Canada, the USA, and Mexico to tell the story of these unusual butterflies and the unique phenomenon of their migration.

You can catch a quick preview of the show, learn about filmmaker Nick de Pencier, or see a list of monarch links and books at the NOVA website.

According to our friends in the monarch-watching business (see www.monarchwatch.org) this film is “the best program ever done on monarch butterflies.” Don’t miss it!

Again, it airs in Houston on PBS (Channel 8) on Tuesday, January 27 at 7 p.m.