100 Years – 100 Objects: Paradise Birdwing

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 Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections,that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

Paradise Birdwingresize

Paradise Birdwing – Ornithoptera paradisea

The birdwing swallowtails from tropical Asia are some of the largest, most spectacular, and most endangered butterflies in the world.  All show high levels of sexual dimorphism (i.e., males and females are different in size and color).  Female birdwings are larger and much duller in color than the males, which come in glowingly iridescent colors of brilliant sapphire, emerald, and topaz.

The Paradise Birdwing was first discovered in the 1890s in New Guinea.  While the female Paradise Birdwing (right photo) looks much like females of other birdwing species, the male (left photo), with its dwarfed and unusually shaped hindwings, is very distinctive.  As a result, this species is highly prized and (as are many other birdwings) protected by law.

HMNS has a large number of birdwing specimens, acquired through the “paper trade” (i.e., specimens reared specifically for collectors) before many of the protecting laws were enacted.  It would be much more difficult today to acquire many of the species in our collection.

Learn more about moths and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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

100 Years – 100 Objects: Madagascar Sunset Moth

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 Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections,that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

Madagascar Sunset Moth – Chrysiridia rhipheus

Madagascar Sunset Moth-6x5This spectacular, iridescently colored moth is considered by many to be the most beautiful of all Lepidoptera (the order of “scaly winged” insects, i.e., butterflies and moths). A day-flying moth endemic to Madagascar, it was originally described as a butterfly due to its resemblance to the swallowtails. The rainbow of colors on both upper and lower wing surfaces that make this species so sought after by collectors are not due to pigments, but result from the scattering and reflecting of light by microscopic ridges and pits on the highly curved scales covering the wings.

The museum has several hundred specimens of this moth.  It is relatively common in its native habitat, where it periodically undergoes massive one-way migrations when the hostplants for the caterpillar stage (they feed on trees in the spurge family) increase the amount of distasteful toxins in the leaves.  Interestingly, after the migration has lessened pressure on the hostplant, the amount of toxins in the leaves subsides to normal levels.  In the American tropics, a close relative, the green Urania moth (Urania fulgens), also makes mass migrations for the same reason.

Learn more about moths and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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

100 years – 100 Objects: Jamaican Giant Swallowtail

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 Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections,that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

Jamaican Giant Swallowtail – Papilio homerus

Jamaican Giant Swallowtail-4x6This swallowtail species, endemic to the island of Jamaica, is the largest butterfly in the western hemisphere.  Today it occurs only in two small, isolated populations of tropical rainforest and is considered endangered.  We have two males and a female in our collection.

Learn more about moths and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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

100 Years – 100 Objects: Muga Silk Moth

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 Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections,that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

Muga Silk Moth – Antheraea assamensis

Muga Silk Moth - Antheraea assamensis resize

This large moth from the lowland forests of India and Burna is related to our polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), the most common giant silk moth in Houston.  Here the smaller male, with brushier antennae, is shown on the left, the female on the right.  Muga silk moths are not particularly spectacular or endangered, but they are the source of a very special, very expensive fabric called Muga or Muga silk.

Muga silk moth caterpillars eat leaves of trees in the laurel and magnolia families.  The silk with which they construct their cocoon when pupating is a rich amber color.  Silk “farmers” care for the caterpillars, moving them from tree to tree until they are ready to pupate.  The caterpillars pupate inside small boxes made of twigs provided by the farmers, who then harvest the cocoons, unwinding them to make silk thread that is woven into a luxurious fabric.  For 600 years, muga silk was worn only by the kings and noble families of the Assam state in northern India and was unknown to the outside world, until it was discovered by a French traveler to the area in 1692.  Today muga silk is available from specialty shops, but is very expensive.  It is used to make fine saris and other garments.

The silk fabric made from muga silk moth cocoons does not need to be bleached or dyed, but has a natural shimmering golden color that becomes more lustrous the more it is washed.  Muga silk is extremely strong and durable (garments often outliving their owners), as well as being stain resistant and absorbing moisture, making it very comfortable to wear.

The muga silk “industry” continues to be mostly the domain of small, local farmers, unlike the hugely industrialized production of the more common mulberry silk (from Bombyx mori, an unrelated moth species).

Learn more about moths and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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