Behind the Scenes: HMNS Greenhouses [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Eighth 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).

For most people, the beauty of the Cockrell Butterfly Center is, well – the butterflies. Thousands flit and flutter around each visitor to this butterfly conservatory – and they are stunning. But have you ever wondered about the exotic plants they land on?

The botanists and volunteers at the Butterfly Center spend much of their time nurturing the plants that the butterflies eat and live on – and much care is taken to ensure that their habitat is both healthy and representative of the rainforest environment to which the butterflies are native.

If you’ve visited the Butterfly Center, you know the plants there are healthy, hearty – and adult. So, where do they grow up? I am so glad you asked. In the video below, you can see for yourself – as Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig takes you on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum’s greenhouses!

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
The Seventh Day of HMNS – Glimpse: Spirits & Headhunters

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!

On the Eighth Day of HMNS…Meet the Entomologists

There is never a shortage of cool jobs at HMNS – fossil hunter, bug chef, snow wrangler just to name a few – but Erin and Laurie, entomologists and chief caretakers for all our live insects – are probably in pretty stiff competition for the all-time coolest job award.

On top of raising exotic insects like giant katydids and Madagascar hissing cockroaches and caring for butterflies from chrysalid to conservatory, they also get to experience the awesome combination of kids + creepy crawlies with their Bugs on Wheels program. In the video below, they’ll take you behind the scenes of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and through their typical day – from feeding the insects to getting the butterflies ready to flutter – plus show you some amazing insects up close.

You can see their creepy crawlies – and the beautiful butterflies – at a visit during a visit to the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The walk-through tropical rainforest habitat makes a nice burst of springtime in the winter and it’s perfect for families with kids of any age. 

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is just one of the fun and fascinating options for families at the Houston Museum of Natural Science during the holiday season. In a take-off of everyone’s favorite holiday classic, The 12 Days of Christmas, we’ve got 12 ideas for fabulous family fun this holiday and we’ll be sharing the possibilities here every day until Christmas Eve. Best of all, most are activities that last past the holiday season – some, year round. You can also check them all out now at the spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site.

Check out the first seven days of HMNS:
On the first day of HMNS, explore The Birth of Christianity.
On the second day of HMNS, shop for Sci-tastic gifts.
On the third day of HMNS, meet Prancer the reindeer.
On the fourth day of HMNS, discover the making of The Star of Bethlehem.
On the fifth day, move it, move it with Madagascar 2 in the Wortham IMAX Theatre.
On the sixth day, hunt dinosaurs with Dr. Bob Bakker.
On the seventh day, look inside the human body in BODY WORLDS 2.

Exploring Sri Lanka

Most people know that Sri Lanka is the post-1972 name for Ceylon, the large island off the southeast coast of India.  But most people – myself included before this trip – probably don’t know much more than that about this fascinating country and its ancient culture.  For two weeks in late September/early October, I had the chance to visit and learn more.

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

My three travelling companions were Paul, a herpetologist who worked for 25 years at the Houston Zoo; his wife Barbara, formerly head of the zoo’s primate section; and Lynn, who currently works in the primate section.  My interests are in plants and insects – so the trip had a broad biological orientation.  Our in-country guide was Anselm De Silva, a herpetologist and professor who has written many books about the reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka.  He put together quite an itinerary for us natural history geeks, taking in seasonal forest, dry forest, cloud forest, a huge botanical garden, but also some famous archeological sites, a tea picking operation and processing factory, and the bustling city of Kandy, one of the country’s former capitals.

Things I learned about Sri Lanka…one, it has an incredibly ancient (and violent) history.  We visited several ancient archeological sites, including Anuradhapura, which reminded me very much of Tikal in the Peten area of Guatemala:  both are ancient metropoli that were abandoned and subsequently covered by jungle.  Both flourished during the same (long) time period:  about 400 BC to 1000 or so AD.  Both were mainly religious sites (Buddhist and Hindu, in the case of Anuradhapura; polytheistic in the case of TIkal) with many temples and extensive living quarters for the monks and/or priests of the religious class.  The architecture, carvings, and other art work found in the two sites are amazingly similar. 

Polonnaruwa is another historical site we explored – it dates back to the time of William the Conqueror.  The nearby fortress city of Sirigira was also impressive.  Like some of their counterparts in the New World (Tikal, Palenque, etc.), these archeological sites in Sri Lanka are great for seeing wildlife.  Macaques and langurs ran about the ruins, lizards basked on the ancient brickwork, and exotic birds flew among the trees. 

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

In addition to its archeological riches, I learned that Sri Lanka has protected about 8% of its land area in 15 impressive national parks and other reserves (over 100 protected areas in all).  We visited just a few of them.  My favorite was Ruhunu or Yala, the largest park in the country, comprising over 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of dry forest on the southeast coast.  Visitors to Yala are only allowed to travel safari-style with a driver and guide; there are too many large and potentially dangerous animals to let people wander on their own.  It was the end of the dry season, so the shrinking water holes were the best place to see wildlife.  We had hoped to see leopards, as Yala has the highest concentration of these animals of anywhere in the world – but we missed on this one.  However, we saw dozens of elephants, axis deer, water buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles, along with langurs and macaques, mongooses, a variety of lizards, and dozens of birds. 

Langur family

Langur family

Flying fox

Flying fox

In Bundala, another large park along the southern coast that was mostly lagoons and swamps, we saw many of the same animals but also many water birds – herons, egrets, storks, flamingos, lapwings, stilts, etc., etc.  Our best views of elephants was at Minneriya, where we watched two bull elephants in must mingle with a large herd of cows and youngsters, while in the distance a pair of jackals yipped back and forth, and spectacular Brahminy kites flew overhead.  Wild peacocks and jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka – ancestor of the domesticated chicken) were everywhere in all these parks.  Flying foxes (giant fruit bats) were everywhere, hanging chittering in the trees by day, flying off en masse in the evenings.  They were spectacular!  Sadly, we noticed many caught (electrocuted) in electrical lines, especially near roost areas. 

I learned that tea, coconuts, rubber, fish, coffee, and spices are all major export crops in Sri Lanka.  We had a chance to spend a couple of days in the refreshingly cool tea-growing area in the central mountainous area.  The plantations themselves – hills covered with carefully pruned tea bushes, coral bean (Erythrina) or other trees providing some shade – looked and felt very much like the coffee-growing areas of Costa Rica’s central plateau.  However, the brightly dressed Tamil workers reminded me that this was the East and not the West. 

Tamil women

Tamil women

I also learned that Sri Lanka has a relatively high standard of living (the highest of any Asian country,according to WIkipedia) and a literacy rate of over 90% – among the  highest in the developing nations.  The country is predominantly Buddhist, but Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are also represented, and all appear to co-exist quite peacefully (the Tamil Tiger rebels are Hindu, but their rebellion is based on ethnic and economic problems, not religion).  The people we met were friendly, and I didn’t notice any who were desperately poor.  Most people spoke at least a few words of English, and there was a lot of interest in our upcoming election!  I loved the clothes – most women wore colorful saris – in all colors of the rainbow.  I saw only a few women, and only in the cities, wearing pants.  Men had a wider range of possibilities – some wore pants, others shorts, and many wore long or short sarongs.  Sandals and flipflops were the footwear of choice for both sexes.  Muslim men often wore caps on their heads, and the women covered their hair with a scarf.   

 

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

The food was good – although I did crave a bowl of cold cereal or a simple peanut butter sandwich more than once.  “Rice and curry” is eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their hands (the right hand only is used).  That took a little getting used to since I have been discouraged from putting my hands in my food since I was about two years old – and this was not discrete finger food, but rice and helpings of often soupy curried vegetables, or meat, or lentils, etc.   But, we managed (and sometimes broke down and ate with a fork).

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Our time was short and there were things we didn’t get to do – we missed seeing the traditional dancers in Kandy, for instance.  And I would have loved to check out some of the beaches, which were fabulously beautiful, with clear blue water and pinkish sand.  Colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, and endless skeins of fishing nets, were strewn over some of them; others were completely pristine.  Although most areas have been extensively repaired, we saw some evidence of the devastating 2004 tsunami in places along the coast.  Seeing the bare foundations of houses, and hearing people’s stories, reminded us that Sri Lanka lost over 35,000 people in that disaster, with over half a million displaced – making our recent hurricane “Ike” seem benign by contrast.

Fishermen and nets near Galle
Fishermen and nets near Galle

All in all it was a very interesting visit.  If I go back, I’d like to have more time to explore on my own and get to know the people.  I’d especially want to go back to Galle, an old Dutch outpost on the southwest coast.  The colonial part of the city in particular was very picturesque.  The highland village of Ella had marvellous views and plenty of accomodations for tourists.  I would definitely want to get to Sinharaja, a rainforest preserve with many endemic plants and birds.  And I’d want to spend at least a bit of time on any of the gorgeous beaches – and do some shopping! 

 

Hindu temple entrance

Hindu temple entrance

Picking tea

Picking tea

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Street scene in Gampola

Street scene in Gampola

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

LEGO: The building blocks of science

Our guest blogger today is Ian Wilkinson, one of the museum’s IT geniuses. Besides being a computer guru, he is an avid science fan and a LEGO enthusiast. Put the two together, and… 

As a life-long fan of both Lego bricks and science, I was thrilled when the announcement for the “Brick Science” contest was posted on one of my favorite Lego fan-sites, Reasonably Clever, this August. The contest had four categories: “Good Scientist”, “Evil Scientist”, “Laboratory Diorama”, and “Real Scientist”. The last category had the most interest for me, and I set about creating a list of the scientists I would like to render in Lego bricks.

Just for fun, I put a few figures together to get started; Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, the mad scientist Rotwang from the film Metropolis (for the Mad Scientist category). A glow-in-the-dark piece I had recently acquired inspired me to make a Lego Madame Curie, which led to the addition of her husband Pierre and a radioactive research lab.

As I photographed them in normal light, it occurred to me that some “lights out” photos would also be needed to demonstrate the glow effect. While taking photos in the dark, I remembered that I had a black light and wondered how the parts would look under that. The photo turned out rather fuzzy, but looked keen.

While helping Dr. Bakker with some IT issues at work the next day, I decided it would be extra cool to make a Lego version of him for the contest and maybe get him to endorse it by getting photographed with it. That evening, I put together a Lego vignette of Dr. Bakker using a tiny shovel to dig up some animal bones.

I was a bit concerned that the only Lego animal skeleton in my collection is that of a horse, but Dr. Bakker assured me that he has actually dug up horse bones before, and therefore the model was accurate. After selecting the cowboy hat for his figure to wear (there was a fedora available as well), I got a very nice photo of Dr. Bakker holding up his Lego effigy for the contest.

Because only one entry was allowed per category, I had to submit Dr. Bakker under “Real Scientists”, and the Curies as “Good Scientists.” After that, I had to wait until the end of September to find out the contest results.

Finally, the contest winners were announced last Tuesday. I was a bit disappointed that my Dr. Bakker vignette did not win, until I saw the very amusing depiction of “Theoretical Physicist Moog creating fire in the laboratory.” (To see it, click here and scroll down to “Class Four.”) It’s a good thing I took the black light photos of the Curies, as they seemed to appeal to the judges- “Curies in the Lab” won first place for “Good Scientists,” garnering me a Lego kit featuring Lego Alligators!

All in all, it was a very fun contest. I would have been happy not winning a thing; it’s fun to build Lego scientists, especially when I can get the real scientist in on the game! Special thanks to Dr. Bakker for being a good sport and participating in the contest with me!