The Monster Mash, IS a Museum Smash!

BOO! Halloween PLAYMOBIL scary!!!!
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Banana Donuts ~ Half Baked Photography

When you were young, did you ever call someone into your room at night to make sure there were no monsters hiding under the bed or in the closet, only to be told “there’s no such thing as monsters?” Well, I’m here to say phooey to all those non-believers. The following is a compilation of modern and marvelous Museum Monsters! Let’s just jump right in with both feet.

Seemingly mythical creatures have always fascinated mankind, but a special few have remained and live on in legends. One of the most popular is the Loch Ness monster. Fondly known as Nessie, this creature has eluded identification and in-focus photography for years. Yet people from all walks of life claim to see a creature with a long, serpentine neck leaving ripples in its wake as it swims through the Loch Ness. Well…want to see what everyone says she looks like for yourself??? The animal described above most resembles a now extinct marine reptile you can see in the Museum’s hall of Paleontology, a plesiosaur! Plesiosaurs have elongated necks and four flipper-like appendages which helped them swim easily through the ancient seas.

ZombieWalk Asbury Park NJ
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bob Jagendorf

Now let’s play a game. What dwells underground, lying dead but not dead, needing brains to be complete, waiting for its nest victim to unknowingly pass by? You thought zombie, right? Wrong! It’s Clostridium tetani, the bacteria that causes tetanus, which is a must-have specimen for some types of research institutions. This bacteria and a handful of others can produce endospores, which are dormant, environmentally-resistant survival structures. These spores don’t need oxygen (are anaerobic) and germinate when in contact with tissues to produce a potent neurotoxin. This toxin affects the brain and many of its primary functions, and, if left untreated, eventually leads to death in part by causing paralysis of respiratory muscles.

Maggots, London Zoo, London.JPG
Creative Commons License photo credit: gruntzooki

…Speaking of feasting on flesh, did you know that maggots, fly larvae, are necrophagous (meaning they eat dead tissue?) Sounds terrible, right?  The thought of a roiling, squirming mass of wormy things devouring a rotting carcass is more than some people can handle. Actually, they are quite helpful little things, especially in treating wounds that won’t heal like diabetic ulcers. Still grossed out? Just remember, bugs are our friends! In fact, you can come by and check our bugs out at the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Giants are not something we are accustomed to in this day and age, the closest thing we have is an elephant and, while quite large by our standards, they don’t even hold a candle to Indricotherium, the largest mammal ever to walk the earth. Herbivorous, it stood over 16 feet tall and weighed more than 4 elephants. To put it into perspective, a person around 6 feet tall would just come to its KNEE. Now that’s a giant mammal I’d like to see!

Smile for the Camera
Creative Commons License photo credit: Furryscaly

Moving on to the next monster, I want you to consider this phrase: “I vant to suck your blood!” Sound familiar? Vampires are the “in” monster of the moment, but they owe their stardom to the misunderstood, hemoglobin loving vampire bat. In fact, this bat is in part responsible for some of the vampire characteristics we are all familiar with today! Look at the parallels, nocturnal creatures ‘turning into’ a bat and sneaking up on unsuspecting victims, drinking their blood to survive. Vampire bats, however, don’t usually bleed their meals dry. That’s just plain vampire folklore.

Do you remember the classic horror film “The Blob?” Well, blobs actually exist! A mucilage is a gelatinous mass of deadly bacteria and detritus accumulated into huge swaths a jelly-like goo! Sounds appetizing, I know. These have most recently been spotted off the Mediterranean coastline. But beware, this is no benign blob. Mucilages large enough can cause entire beaches to be closed because of their virally and bacterially born lethality.

Book List: Mythical Creatures

The sense of wonder is alive in children, and that may be the reason children love books about mythical creatures– unicorns, dragons, monsters, etc.  The pages of books are the perfect, safe places for these creatures to come to life.

When I began considering books to write about one title jumped out at me:  The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster a Tale of Picky Eating by A. W. Flaherty.  The reason is simple.  My granddaughter Abbie believes cereal, chicken nuggets, Pop Tarts, Cheetos, peanut butter crackers and a few other items make a wonderful diet.  I hoped this book would help me discover a way to get Abbie out of her rut, but it did not.  However, not for the reason you might expect.

Katerina-Elizabeth is a young girl who takes an ocean liner to visit her grandmother in Scotland.  Traveling alone, Katerina-Elizabeth discovers that her parents have ordered oatmeal for her every day.  Hating oatmeal, Katerina-Elizabeth tosses it out the porthole.  A sea worm “no bigger around than a thread and no longer than your thumbnail” thinks the oatmeal is a lovely treat.  You guessed it….Katerina-Elizabeth continues to throw her oatmeal overboard each morning, and the sea worm, growing constantly, follows the boat to get his breakfast. 

When the boat reaches Scotland it continues up the River Ness to Loch Ness and the worm follows.  Luckily for the worm, the children of Scotland do not like oatmeal either, and they also throw their breakfast in the water.

Several months later, a child spots the worm and calls it a monster.  Looking at his reflection in the water, the worm sees how much he had changed.  Tourists begin flocking to Loch Ness to see “Nessie,” and when Katerina-Elizabeth is sailing home to America, the most famous “Nessie” sighting of all occurs. 

The author, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a teacher at Harvard Medical School is a picky eater, as is one of her twin daughters.  The other twin is, like Dr. Flaherty’s husband, a normal eater.  In a section called “The Science of It All,” Dr. Flaherty explains the difference between Supertasters, Nontasters and average tasters.  She says that picky eating is often genetic, and most picky eaters are Supertasters.  She even provides a simple test to see which kind of taster your child or you are. 

Although I loved this book, I did not learn ways to help Abbie become an adventurous eater. More importantly, I realized Abbie must be a Supertaster, so she is not likely to change.  I’ll just relax and enjoy her.

One of the most beautiful books about mythical creatures is Pegasus by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by K. Y. Craft. 

Rainy Day
Creative Commons License photo credit: caroline.apollo

Pegasusis the story of the young hero Bellerophon and his quest. The king of Lycia has been instructed by King Proetusto kill Bellerophon, but the king of Lycia is fond of Bellerophon.  Rather than kill the young man outright, the king of Lycia devises a task which would inevitably lead to Bellerophon’s death.  Bellerophon is to slay the Chimera, a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent.

Before beginning his journey Bellerophon consults a well-known soothsayer and is told that in order to be successful he would need the help of the winged, wild horse Pegasus.  As he is looking for Pegasus, Bellerophon falls asleep by the fountain Pirene.  In his sleep, a beautiful goddess appears to him and tells him of the importance of creating a bond of trust between the young hero and the winged horse.  Only with this bond will the slaying of the Chimera be possible.  Following the battle between the hero and the monster, Bellerophon marries the king of Lycia’s daughter.  However, the hero and the winged horse had forged a bond that neither would forget.

The illustrations in this book are exquisite.  Seeing the picture of Pegasus spreading his wings, you can almost feel the feathers and experience the horse rising into the sky.  The illustrations enhance the text to the extent that it is difficult to imagine one without the other.  The last page features the only round picture in the book, and it creates the feeling of gazing through a telescope at the constellation Pegasus in the night sky.  The illustration is both beautiful and thought-provoking.

Surely, unicorns are every young girl’s favorite mythical, magical creatures, and unicorns that fly are even better! Unicorn Races by Stephen J. Brooks features Abigail and her nightly journey to a forest to watch six unicorns race. 

Unicorn Dreams
Creative Commons License photo credit: seeks2dream

After being tucked in for the night Abigail gets up and puts on her princess dress, her princess shoes and waves her princess wand.  In a few minutes, the unicorn Lord William appears at Abigail’s window, and after she puts on her princess crown he flies her to the magical place where colored unicorns race and fairies and elves provide a feast sure to please any child—sundaes, cakes and cookies.  Following the feast, Lord William flies Abigail back to her room where she falls asleep dreaming of the next unicorn race.

The author Stephen Brooks is a former Federal Agent and “writes to comfort children.”  His books “provide enchanting worlds where children are safe to wander and explore.”  Linda Crockett’s illustrations bring this fantasy to life with beautiful colors and magic on each page.  Don’t just read the book—look closely at the illustrations for a special treat.

Let the wild rumpus start!
Creative Commons License photo credit: rgarwood

Perhaps the best-known book about mythical characters is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.  Max has been naughty and his mother sends him to his room with no dinner.  Alone in his room, a magical forest, the Land of the Wild Things, grows in his imagination.  Although Max becomes “King of All Wild Things” he is homesick and returns to his room where he finds his dinner waiting for him—still warm.

So whether you choose a book in the hopes of solving a dilemma like I did or just want your imagination to soar, these books are a great place to begin.  Enjoy!

Creepy Critter Cameo – Caecilian

Smoke Tinged Halloween Moon
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Halloween is by far my favorite holiday.  I love that everyone, young & old alike, can dress up as just about anything from the classic witch to the random Roman column I spotted at last year’s Spirits & Skeletons.  Each year is a new opportunity to unveil yourself as a superhero, an Indian princess, a mad scientist, or even a hideous monster. 

Let’s focus on this last costume – the monster – the creepy, skin-tingling costume that never fails to invoke fear deep within us.  Why do we insist on wearing a scary costume?  Humans (and animals) have instinctual fears, a natural survival technique to avoid possible near-death situations, which includes dangerous animals.  Perhaps by dressing up as these scary beasts we can overcome our fears. 

Where does the inspiration for these beasts come from?  From nature, of course!  We see films or photos of animals in real life and can create a whole new monster with the help of our highly over-active brain, especially when watching a scary movie alone, at night, in the dark, with a full moon out, and possible werewolves ready to pounce at any moment!  Yikes!  Let’s take a look at one creepy critter that resides here in the Museum – the super-slimy Caecilian!

We have a Mexican Burrowing Caecilian (pronounced sə-sĭl’yən) , Dermophis mexicanus, a legless amphibian from the order Gymnophiona.  They live underground in Central Mexico and can grow up to 2 feet long.  Their diet primary consists of small invertebrates, including termites and earthworms.  After an 11-month gestation period, they give live birth (most amphibians lay eggs) to between four and eleven young.  When presenting this amphibian to students, we discuss how is it different from other vermiform animals such as worms and snakes.  The kids usually determine that it has a backbone (worms are invertebrates) and that it is slimy, not scaly (reptiles have scales and are not slimy).  Our caecilian is a very shy, quiet animal that also happens to enjoy attempting great escapes.  I think it’s a rather cute amphibian!

Our Mexican Burrowing Caecilian

There are over 150 species of caecilians, ranging along the tropics from South America to Africa.  They may be a dull grey or brown or even brightly colored purple, pink, orange, or yellow.  Most lack tails and all have tentacles, a specialized chemosensory organ near their nose that helps them to locate prey.  Many caecilians are nearly sightless, some without any eyes at all.  They may be aquatic, terrestrial, or fossoriallike our Mexican Burrowing Caecilian.  Depending on where they live, caecilians may be oviparous (egg-layers) or viviparous (live-bearers). 

Warning!! Here comes the creepy flesh-eating part of our story!!

In the womb, the developing caecilian embryos have specialized fetal teeth that allows them to stimulate secretions from the oviducts of their mother, providing the young with nourishment.  In another species, Boulengerula taitanus, an oviparous caecilian from Southeastern Kenya, the newborns also have specialized teeth to eat the skin off the back of their mother!!  The skin is regenerated every 3 days for the young, providing a nutritious meal.  Research has also found that a female may take care of young that aren’t biologically hers, a term called alloparenting.  However, this is a costly to the “nursing” female.  Check out this BBC video to experience these flesh-eating, super slimy critters in action.  Truly a fascinating animal worthy of mention at Halloween.

Boulengerula taitanus

To see more super scary, awe-inspiring yet repulsive critters for the Halloween season, check out this fun blog I found while researching tigerfish and then again while looking for caecilians: Ugly Overload!