Tree frogs! Serpents! Monkey-eating birds! Peel back the layers of the rainforest with our new Wildlife on Wheels

Our latest wild and wonderful Wildlife on Wheels (WOW) program focuses on the animals of the rainforest — from tree frogs and slithering snakes to millipedes and rainbow boas.

photo 5WOW presenters break down the layers of the rainforest — the forest floor, understorey, canopy and emergent layers — and impart the important role rainforests play in contributing to our natural resources.

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For example: Did you know that more than half of the world’s plants, animals and insects reside in the rainforest? Its vitality is crucial to the world’s oxygen supply, and its rich plant life is the source of lots of modern medicines.

photo 6Using live animals and specimens, HMNS educators also teach students about the rainforest’s unique quirks. For example: Did you know that 50 percent of rainforest rainfall never even hits the ground?

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HMNS Wildlife on Wheels programs can be booked as supplements to a field trip or delivered straight to your school for an in-class presentation.

For more information on the Rainforest Wildlife on Wheels or other Outreach programs, click here!

 

Glimpse: Spirits & Headhunters [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Seventh Day of HMNS! In the spirit of the classic holiday carol, we’re taking 12 days to feature 12 different videos that preview or go behind-the-scenes of a holiday museum activity, here on the blog (or, you can get a sneak peek at all the videos on 12days.hmns.org – we won’t tell).

Many of the exhibits we host here – like Genghis Khan or the Terra Cotta Warriors – present objects from long-dead cultures, and the wonder comes from the experience of coming face-to-face with artifacts that were created so long ago. And when you walk through our current Spirits & Headhunters exhibition, and contemplate the absolute beauty of the vibrant, intricate feather art and objects on display, it’s easy to forget that the cultures that created these works are very much alive – though also fast disappearing.

Learn more from Adam Mekler, associate curator for Amazonia, who believes, “When a culture disappears, I think an aspect of all humanity disappears.”

Click play to explore the exhibit and discover these vanishing worlds.

Need to catch up?

The First Day of HMNS – Explore: Snow Science
The Second Day of HMNS – Preview: The Chronicles of Narnia Exhibition
The Third Day of HMNS – Preview: Disney’s A Christmas Carol
The Fourth Day of HMNS – Investigate: The Star of Bethlehem
The Fifth Day of HMNS – Shop: The Perfect Gift
The Sixth Day of HMNS – Marvel: Faberge

Get into the holiday spirit! Visit our 12 Days of HMNS web site to see the videos and get more information about each event, exhibit and film: 12days.hmns.org Happy Holidays!

Book List: The Amazon and Rainforests

Kayapo Mekragnoti headdressThe Museum currently has an exhibition titled Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon, so this month’s books feature the rainforest and the Amazon. For over 40,000 years, people have lived in the rainforests, hunting, gathering food and raising vegetables in addition to using the tropical plants for medicine, without harming their environment.

Today, rainforests cover approximately 7% of the earth’s surface.  However, according to author Richard Platt, the rainforests are disappearing at the rate of an area the size of 16 tennis courts every second.  Platt continues to say that by preserving the rainforests we are safeguarding our health and the health of our planet.

Rainforest living up to its name
Creative Commons License photo credit: pfly

Gail Gibbons has written innumerable nonfiction books for young children.  Her books provide easy to understand information with colorful, appealing illustrations. Although it is fifteen years old, Nature’s Green Umbrella is a wonderful explanation of the importance of rainforests to the people of the world and to the environment.

The book contains a simple map of the world so it is easy to see the location of the rainforests.  In addition, vocabulary words are provided so children can learn the appropriate terms that relate to “nature’s green umbrellas.”  You will learn about transpiration, an ecosystem, chlorophyll, emergents, a canopy, an understory, the forest floor, epiphytes, parasites, nutrients, leaf litter, leaching, selective cutting, extractive reserves, “greenhouse effect” and “slash and burn.”

The illustrations are simple drawings of the plants and animals in the rainforest.  Their interdependence is easy to comprehend as the cycle of life is explained in terms a child can understand.  Gibbons also provides a brief explanation of medicines, fruits and vegetables the rain forests of the world have provided.

When attempting to explain a nonfiction topic to a child, Gail Gibbons’ books are always a great place to start.

A very unique, more mature approach to investigating the rainforest is One Small Square: Tropical Rainforest by Donald Silver.  First, picture a transparent four-foot cube–four feet long, tall and wide.  “Place” this imaginary cube on the rainforest floor and picture the plants and creatures that could be found inside. In this layer of the rainforest you might find sloths, moths, hummingbirds, bats, boas, bloodsuckers, army ants, scorpions, Hercules beetles, roaches, spiders, lizards, worms, centipedes, lizards, wasps and more.

What lays beyond the fog?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Armando Maynez

Next, using the same four-foot transparent cube investigate one small square of the understory, one small square of the canopy and one small square of the emergent layer.  Doing this, you will become familiar with the layers of the rainforest and the plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. that might be found in each.

After the information is presented you will find a Match Game where children will match the plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. that are found in each layer of the rainforest to the appropriate layer.  You will also find colorful drawings of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, invertebrates, plants, funguses, monera and protists associated with the rainforest.

Gail Gibbons presents a basic introduction to the rain forest, and Donald Silver provides additional information for older children in a colorful, attractive book.  Choose the one that meets your needs.

Lynne Cherry wrote and illustrated The Shaman’s Apprentice based on a true story first written by Mark Plotkin.  When you open the book you see colorful illustrations of some of the useful plants from the rainforest, their uses and their English names if available.  Who knew you can use Tonka Beans or Custard Apples for fevers or Snakeweed for snake bites?

run forest, run!
Creative Commons License photo credit: mugley

The Shaman’s Apprentice is the story of Kamanya, a young boy who is sick, from the Tirio village of Kwamala.  The shaman goes into the forest to gather leaves, roots and bark and uses these to heal Kamanya who never forgets how the shaman saved his life.

Kamanya liked to follow the shaman into the rainforest and learn about the plants used for healing.  One day a man from another village came to tell the people of Kwamala about men who had come to his village carrying a disease that the shaman could not cure.  Some of the Kwamala tribesmen became sick or died.

Several months later, missionaries visit the village of Kwamala and give the tribesmen quinine to cure the “mystery” disease, malaria.  The missionaries changed life, and the shaman was no longer the most important person in the village because his medicine had failed and the missionaries’ medicine had succeeded.  Life continued for four years until the missionaries left.

Soon another stranger, named Gabriela, arrived in the village.  Gabriela came to study the healing properties of rainforest plants.  She told the tribesmen that the quinine had come from the bark of a tree–the shaman had been right after all!

Gabriela followed the shaman through the forest as she learned about the healing plants.  After several months she left, but returned each year to learn more from the shaman.

On one trip, Gabriela brought the tribe a book containing information about all the medicinal plants.  The chief thought the book was very important and decided that the shaman should teach Kamanya all he knew.  Gabriela knew that in her absence the shaman’s work would continue. So, Kamanya became the shaman’s apprentice, and when the shaman passed into the spirit world, Kamanya became the shaman who healed his people.

The Vanishing Rainforest by Richard Platt is the story of Remaema, a child of the Yanomami tribe and how the tribe adjusts to the coming of the nabe (white people) who, with the exception of Jane, want to destroy the forest.  As trees are destroyed the animals leave, and without animals there can be no forest and all will starve.

Rikomi is a member of the Yanomami tribe who works for the government, but has not forgotten the battles against the nabe.  Rikomi devises a plan to save the tribe and satisfy the nabe, too.  With the nabe’s money, the Yanomami could pay for education and better health care, and with the Yanomami’s help, the nabe could learn about the rainforest.  Readers know that the plan will succeed when the animals return to the forest.

Whether you choose a nonfiction book or a fiction book that tells a story, you will gain insight into this important, unique part of our planet.

My love affair with the tropics (how and why I became a biologist)

 Our fearless leader
Dr. Larry Gilbert

My introduction to the tropics was in the summer of 1983, when I lucked into accompanying Dr. Larry Gilbert (UT Zoology) and his students on a field course to Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.  Not being a student at the time (I’d gotten a BA in linguistics a couple years before but was working as a secretary on the UT campus), but having some proficiency in Spanish, I was hired by Dr. Gilbert as his assistant and translator since his regular teaching assistant was off making a film in New Guinea. 

After several weeks in Patterson Hall on the UT campus, translating documents and readying equipment, we left for Costa Rica, flying into the capitol, San Jose.  Here our party (5 graduate students plus Dr. Gilbert – Larry to his students – and myself) spent a couple of days at the “Costa Rica Inn” – a rambling one-story labyrinth of a hotel near the downtown area.  San Jose is a typical Central American city, with lots of traffic and pollution, no interesting architecture to speak of…but great ice cream and plenty of activity – and in those days, very safe at all hours.  We visited the Natural History Museum and the local university, picked up some supplies (foam mattresses and rum are what I remember!), and made our flight arrangements.  We were flying in to the park in two 5-seater Cessnas; there was no other access to the remote field site location. 

View of the Corcovado canopy from the plane.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The day arrived and we boarded the tiny planes.  I was quite nervous as I had never flown in such a small plane before, and the pilot warned us that it might be a bumpy ride due to rising air currents as we crossed the mountains.  And Larry joked about the two wrecked planes that decorated the end of the airstrip in the park… 

The flight took about an hour, and it was indeed turbulent.  Finally we flew out over the Osa Peninsula and saw nothing but forest below us, and then the Pacific Ocean beyond. We suddenly turned at right angles to the coastline to land at a tiny airstrip cleared in the rainforest, ending at the beach…and there, indeed, were the two wrecks.  Welcome to Sirena Station of Corcovado National Park!

We pitched tents in the clearing/horse pasture behind the rustic park station building; this would be our home for the next six weeks.  The students included Darlyne, studying heliconius butterflies; Kirk, studying the fish communities in freshwater streams; Jamie, studying howler monkeys, and Peggy and John, new students who had not yet decided on projects.  Two senior students, Peng Chai and Sue Boinski, were already in the park.  Peng was studying bird predation on butterflies.  “Bo” as she was called, was the equivalent of a mountain man, in my somewhat awed view.  She had spent the past several years following troupes of squirrel monkeys to learn about their behavior and mating habits, sometimes staying in the park for over a year at a stretch. In the course of her wanderings she had dodged fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes, and had some (very shaky) video footage of a pair of jaguars lazily playing together, oblivious of their nervous human watcher. 

Fruits of the
Corcovado rainforest.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The Sirena station was a bustling place.  Since in those days (before the gold miner crisis of 1985) it served as the park headquarters, it was the central point in Corcovado for communications and supplies, which were all brought in by plane.  The park director was stationed here, along with about 5-6 park guards.  Other park guards travelling by horseback from the outlying stations came in to pick up their allotment of supplies, or to rotate out for a week’s holiday.  The radio crackled all day long:  “Sierra Papa Norte Dos a Sierra Papa Norte” (National Park Service station 2 to headquarters).  I learned all sorts of things in radio lingo – “Cambio” meant over, “Dos” meant good, “Dos y medio” was so-so, “Tres” meant bad, “un 22” was a telephone call, “10” was crazy, etc. 

The station in those days was rustic.  Electricity was provided by generator only at lunchtime and for a couple hours in the evening.  Running water was ingeniously piped in from a nearby stream.  Course participants and park guards all ate together in a little open-sided building:  generous portions of rice and beans, smaller portions of meat and vegetables, inventive desserts, and drinks made from fresh tropical fruits, all deliciously prepared by Maria, the feisty and attractive cook.

Buttress of a tropical giant.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The first few days Larry led his students and me on long, sometimes wild walks through the forest – up over the steep knife-edged ridges, crashing down through stream beds, slogging along the beach or sweltering through open areas.  What an amazing place!  I was in love with the forest from the moment I saw it.  So many plants – so many insects, birds, monkeys, frogs, snakes, etc.  But especially plants.  It was like being in the most amazing botanical garden.  Here things I’d only seen as houseplants grew rampantly everywhere.  Ferns were not just ferns but trees.  And trees, with their huge buttresses as big around as a house, towered into the canopy.

Squirrel Monkies are common
near Sirena

After a week or so of our introductory walks, the students settled down to their research projects.  Since I wasn’t a student and didn’t have my own project, I helped some of the others where I could.  I soon was spending most of my time with Kirk, helping him census the fish in the many small streams that cut across the peninsula – streams so clear and clean that we drank out of them.  I learned a lot about fish that summer!  At night, we all sat in the little screened porch behind the radio room, burning candles and mosquito coils while we read or wrote up our field notes, or listened to one of the students give a status report on his or her project.  Larry often regaled us with funny stories of his past students…considerably embellished over the years, I am sure!

 Tropical leaf-footed bug

All too soon the summer came to an end, and we had to leave the park and head back to Texas to begin the new semester.  We packed the tents and our supplies into coolers to keep out the mildew.  Said our goodbyes to the park guards and to Maria.  Cleaned up the area we had taken over as our evening “lab.”  While we waited for the planes to arrive I took a last walk up the Claro trail to a ridge where, sitting on the buttress root of a huge strangler fig, I could see over the forest and out to sea.  What an adventure it had been!  What a lot of amazing biology I had learned!  Nostalgia for the place swept over me – but I heard the drone of the plane and had to rush back to camp.  We boarded the Cessna, and as it rumbled down the bumpy airstrip and began to lift into the air, I thought – if the plane crashes on the way back, I will die happy.  I have just spent the most amazing summer of my life.

I ended up becoming one of Larry’s students and spending several more summers in the park and elsewhere in the tropics.  However, that first experience stays with me as one of the real highlights of my existence on this earth. 

 Ornate flower of a tropical passionvine
 Red-eyed treefrogs.