Stay cool in the rainforest: summer events unfold at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Summer is here and the kids are out of school, so what better time to escape the heat and join us here at HMNS for some cool and educational arthropod experiences! The Cockrell Butterfly Center will be welcoming back a popular summertime program and introducing a couple of new ones which will be sure to excite the bug lover in everyone! Every week this summer, we will be giving you a chance to get up close and personal with some of our famous residents on three different days. Here’s a little about what we’ll be up to…

Small Talk: Tuesdays at 1 p.m.

Small creatures, big information! Every Tuesday, in the Children’s Area on the main level of the CBC, we will be introducing you to a different resident of the Brown Hall of Entomology. Our entomologists will bring out our biggest and most exotic creatures as well as some familiar (or not-too-familiar) Houston natives. Giant katydids, Atlas moths, and odd arachnids are just some of the creatures you will meet. Each talk will fill your head with all kinds of cool information and facts about our feature creatures. Afterward, we will answer any questions you may have. Up-close viewing and sometimes touching will be permitted, and definitely feel free to bring the camera!

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Wing It!: Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.

At the CBC, you can watch brand-new butterflies emerging from their chrysalises, pumping blood into their newly formed wings, and preparing for their first flight. After this, enter the rainforest filled with lush tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies fluttering through their naturalistic habitat. But, how do they get there? Every Wednesday morning, join our entomologists outside of the Chrysalis Corner in the Brown Hall of Entomology. We will talk about a typical butterfly release and answer questions. Then, you can walk into the rainforest and watch as brand new butterflies take their first flight in their new home. Touching of the delicate butterflies will not be permitted, but please feel free to take as many pictures as you want.

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Friday Feeding Frenzy: 9:30, 10, 10:30, and 11:30 a.m.

The main event! Get ready to see huge, ferocious, carnivorous insects and other animals feast on their prey in front of your very own eyes! This Friday and every Friday throughout the summer, the Cockrell Butterfly Center will be feeding a live animal for your viewing pleasure. We have several arthropods and even some reptiles that we will showcase. Here is a little about the line-up…

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Green Tree Pythons (Morelia viridis): Our green tree pythons, Kaa and Nagini, will be ready to dine on mice! These snakes are native to Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea. Pythons are non-venomous snakes that subdue their prey by constricting. Their food consists mostly of small mammals and the occasional reptile. They lay in wait, curled around a tree branch, and when potential prey approaches, they strike from an “S” position, using their tails to anchor themselves to the branch. Once their prey is snagged, it’s lights out!

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Giant Asian Mantis (Hierodula membranacea): This praying mantis, one of the largest species, comes from Southeast Asia. Mantises are ambush predators and have several features that ensure their success in catching prey. Their amazing camouflage allows them to resemble either living or dead parts of plants, flowers, tree bark, stones, or sticks. Not only does this help conceal them from predators, it also keeps potential prey oblivious to their presence. An insect that wanders too close is snatched by raptorial front legs (legs specialized for grabbing) and held still by several tough spines. The mantis uses chewing mandibles to eat its victim alive. Mantises have excellent vision at close range and can see as far as 20 meters. Their eyes are large and located on the sides of their head, allowing the insect to see all around itself. They can keep their eyes on potential prey by inconspicuously moving their heads up to 180 degrees. Nothing can escape their field of vision. Most mantises feed on smaller insects, but some giant species can take down small reptiles, amphibians, and even rodents!

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Giant Centipede (Scolopendra heros): Centipedes are predatory, long-bodied arthropods with many pairs of legs – one pair per body segment. Centipedes are venomous and can be dangerous, so they are not to be confused with the congenial millipede, which poses no threat to humans and has four legs per body segment. This centipede, AKA the giant red-headed centipede, can run very quickly to pursue and catch its prey, which it immobilizes with repeated bites from two venomous fangs. Once dead, the prey is devoured. Giant centipedes of this and similar species are found in Mexico and the southwestern United States. The coloration, known as aposematic or warning coloration, serves as a message to other animals: “Touch me, and you’ll get more than you bargained for!” A bite from one of these can cause intense pain that lasts for hours or days and can cause a severe reaction in someone who is allergic. These hunters take down smaller arthropods, small reptiles and amphibians, small rodents, and have even been known to hunt tarantulas!

Wolf Spider (Hogna carolinensis): This is the largest species of wolf spider found in the United States! Most wolf spiders are large and can sometimes be confused with tarantulas. The name wolf spider refers to their hunting behavior. Instead of building a web, they wait to ambush their prey and at other times, they chase it for a short distance. Wolf spiders inject venom into their prey to immobilize it. They then use digestive enzymes to liquefy the insides and then slurp it up through a tube that leads to the stomach. Wolf spiders have no interest in biting people, but will if provoked. The severity of their bite has been compared to that of a bee sting.

Goliath Birdeater Tarantula (Theraphosa blondi): This is the big mama of all tarantulas and regarded as the largest spider in the world. They can reach a weight of 5.3 ounces (more than a quarter pounder) and have a leg-span of 12 inches (about the size of a dinner plate). The name birdeater is a misnomer as they do not eat birds, although they could. They are native to marshy swamplands in South America, and like other large spiders, they feed on mostly insects. However, because of their size, they often go for small reptiles, amphibians, and rodents. If threatened, these tarantulas can produce an eerie hissing noise by rubbing together setae on their legs. If that doesn’t creep you out enough to stay away, watch out for the urticating hairs they kick off their abdomens into the air. If these hairs come into contact with your skin, you get really itchy, and you don’t even want to know what happens if they get in your eyes! Birdie is our resident birdeater and she’s a thrill to watch as she shoves as many crickets into her mouth as possible!

So if creepy crawlies are your thing, visit the CBC this summer, and witness the goings-on of our staff and our tiny, fascinating residents.

Meet Boo and Hiss the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Newest Additions!

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is excited to announce that we have two new residents.

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Hiss and Boo the latest additions to the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

“Boo” and “Hiss” are baby green tree pythons, and they are on display in the “lizard crevice” next to the large aquarium on the main level of the rainforest.  That exhibit housed a lonely, shy male Cuban Knight Anole for many years, but we were looking for something showier.  Our friends in the Reptile House at the Houston Zoo recommended emerald boas or green tree pythons as good display animals that would “fit” in a rainforest setting.  And, they just happened to have a large litter of green tree pythons and would be happy to donate a couple!  (The Knight Anole, I’m happy to say, went to join a harem of female Knight Anoles at Moody Gardens.)

The baby snakes were born at the zoo last January, part of a litter of 18 eggs.

Green tree pythons are usually green (as the name implies) as adults, but juveniles may be yellow, or brick-red, or sometimes orange.  All of these colors can appear in a single litter.  Our Boo is yellow and Hiss is dark brick-red.  I’m sure some of you have read “Verdi” to your children; if so, you will know what Boo looks like (and see attached photos).

Green tree pythons (Morelia viridis) are native to the rainforests of Indonesia, New Guinea, and northern Australia.   They are one of the world’s most beautiful snakes.  Adults range in color from bright green to yellow, and occasionally blue-tinted specimens (called cyanomorphs) are seen.  Young snakes, born yellow, brick red, or orange, slowly change color as they mature; the complete color change may take several years.  Smaller than many python species (adults are typically from 3 to 5 feet long), these snakes are mostly arboreal and nocturnal, spending the day coiled up along the branch of a shrub or tree, unwinding at night to explore and hunt.  Their prehensile tails help them to hold on to branches as they climb.  They primarily eat rodents.

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Hiss being fed.

Emerald tree boas (Corallus caninus) are the South American equivalent of tree pythons, and the two share many characteristics.

Both are green as adults, but come in a range of colors as juveniles.  Both share a distinctive way of coiling when at rest, making sort of a saddle shape with two loops and resting their head in the middle.  However, the two species are not particularly close relatives.  Their impressive similarities in appearance and behavior are due to convergence – the fascinating phenomenon whereby two unrelated species have evolved similar characteristics because they live in similar habitats (another great convergent pair among reptiles is the North American “horny toad” and the Australian thorny devil lizard).  Pythons are found in the Old World tropics (Asia, Indonesia, and Africa), have heat-sensitive pits along their upper lip, and lay eggs.  Boas are New World (Central and South American), have no heat pits, and are ovoviviparous – i.e., they give live birth (the eggs hatch while still inside the mother snake).   Both boas and pythons are considered primitive among snakes in general – for example, both have two lungs wheras more derived snakes have only one. 

While very beautiful, neither green tree pythons nor emerald boas are recommended as an “easy” snake for beginning snake enthusiasts.  They don’t become particularly tame, even when bred in captivity, and are prone to bite if disturbed (they are not venomous, but who likes to get bit?).  Despite their somewhat crabby disposition, we are very fond of our beautiful babies and hope you will stop by to meet them soon!

Road Trip!

Many people come to our Museum for a visit.  In fact, last year, we had over 2.5 million visits. But have you ever had a museum come to you for a visit?  Well, the Houston Museum of Natural Science can do that, too!  The Museum has several different outreach programs where we bring specimens to students for some hands-on learning. 

Recently the Museum brought its El Paso Corporation Wildlife on Wheels to Kipp (Knowledge is Power Program) Dream Elementary School. In this picture, you can see some of the specimens used during our Reptiles and Amphibians topic. Snake skin, tortoise shells, fossil casts (center), coprolites and even caiman skin are valuable teaching tools and definitely more portable and safer than a large, live caiman!

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In this picture below you can see some of the cutest kindergartners touching a Surinam Toad. They were very attentive and while some were nervous, most were very excited. They were also practicing safe touching technique: two finger touch, sitting “criss-cross-applesauce”, and as I learned that day, “with their spoons in their bowl” (meaning hands in their lap). The toad was pretty good too.

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Here you see a Savannah Monitor behaving himself so that the children could touch him. If you have ever worked with a monitor, that is saying something! No hesitation here, these kindergartners were ready to touch the lizard even though he was big. Behind me in the photo is a good view of the table setup for that day. All of the specimens are something the children can touch like the crocodile skull, unless of course it is fragile enough to be in a jar or behind glass like the snake skeleton in the back.

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At the end of the presentation, the children have the opportunity to come past the table and touch the specimen I had been using as part of the discussion. Here you can see the interest on their faces as they touch real crocodile teeth (without the risk of a bite!), a tortoise shell, and with only a little hesitation, fossilized dinosaur dung! This is often where I wonder what they are thinking: should I really touch poop, or would my head fit inside the croc’s mouth?

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We don’t know who had more fun during El Paso Corporation’s Wildlife on Wheels…the students or the animals!  For more information on the Museum’s Outreach Programs, visit http://www.hmns.org/education/teachers/outreach_programs.asp.

The Earth’s First Apocalypse: Texas Red Beds, 285 Million Years Ago

At a dig site in North Texas, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is investigating the animals that would have died off when this first mass extinction event occurred. Recently, a production crew from the History Channel came along on-site – and their footage of Dr. Bakker and the Museum’s team airs tonight at 8 p.m. as part of a two hour special called (aptly) First Apocalypse. UPDATE: In case you missed it, the special re-airs locally Saturday, Jan. 10 at 9 p.m. and a few hours later, Sunday morning at 1 a.m. (Check your local listings.)

In this post, Dr. Bakker explores several extinction events, including the first, Permian extinction you’ll see featured on the History Channel tonight.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Yogi

ICE AGE DISASTER: MAMMOTHS & SABER-TOOTHS.

In the early 1800’s, paleontology astounded the world when fossils documented the phenomenon of mass extinctions, times when the whole menagerie of big terrestrial critters went extinct.

The first mass die-off that was discovered killed the gigantic mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, saber-tooth tigers and dozens of other large mammals. This extinction event occurred during the Ice Age. The Ice Age Event didn’t hit small species – if you were a vole, mole, rat, bat or chipmunk, your species had a good chance of surviving.

Today, we know that the extinction took place between 2 million and ten thousand years ago.

DINO-DIE OFF – 65 MILLION YEARS AGO.

By the 1830s, a second giant extinction event was revealed. All the huge Dinosauria disappeared at the end of the Age of Reptiles. Small creatures – birds and salamanders, lizards and frogs, snakes and furry mammals – survived in great numbers.

DINO-DIE-OFF BOUNCE – OPPORTUNITIES FOR FURBALLS.

Mass extinctions weren’t all negative. Dino-die-offs kick-started evolution in the survivors. From the little furry mammals who survived came a wonderful new evolutionary wave of big predators and herbivores – horses, rhinos, hippos, water buffalo, elephants, bears, tigers, cheetahs and wolves. This Darwinian bounce happened every time there was a catastrophic extinction.

THE LATE PERMIAN DISASTER – 250 MILLION YEARS AGO.

Digging in oceanic strata during the mid-1800s showed yet another catastrophe, when the Permian Period ended. Most common species of marine life disappeared, including trilobites, corals, and many species of shellfish.

Die-offs struck the land too – most of the big land reptiles, who filled the role of Top Predator and Top Herbivore, died out. Many small species persisted and from these humble survivors came the next wave of big land animals, including the dinosaurs.

WHAT KILLED THE LAND GIANTS?

Many theories sprung up to explain the great die-offs: the agent of extinction was identified as:

sudden increases in earth temperatures, or

sudden decreases in temperature, or

changes in atmospheric gases, or

changes in humidity, or

abrupt rise of mountains, or

abrupt disappearance of mountains, or

draining away of shallow seas, or

increase in volcanic eruptions, or

sudden impacts of meteorites, or

invasion of foreign species from one continent to another.

TEXAS RED BEDS – EXTINCTION # 1, 285 MILLION YEARS AGO.

Diadectes, side and top view. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

To sort through all the possible solutions, it would help to find the very first case when large land animals evolved and then died-off. North Central Texas preserves this earliest apocalypse in the red-stained rocks laid down in the Early Permian. This extinction was long before the event that struck at the Late Permian.

Beginning in 1877, Texas excavations showed how the earliest large land herbivores evolved. These plant-eating pioneers were wide-bodied, low-slung reptiles known as “Cross-Biters,” Diadectes. Diadectes and its kin were the first large land animals to acquire the wide molars and big guts needed to digest leaves and branches from terrestrial bushes and trees.

The members of the Diadectes Family were the commonest land herbivore for fifteen million years…..and then, suddenly, they went extinct. The pattern at this first die-off matches what we’ve seen in the other land extinctions – small species were far more successful in living through the event.

RED BEDS BOUNCE – EXTINCTION #1 OPENS OPPORTUNITIES FOR FAUNA # 2 – THE TEXAS WIDE-BODIES.

This first die-off opened niches for the survivors. New and spectacular large herbivores evolved from small ancestors. In the Texas Red Beds, we find super-wide-bodied caseid reptiles who reached weights of more than a half ton.

The wide-bodied caseid reptile. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

EXTINCTION #2 OPENS OPPORTUNITIES FOR FAUNA #3 – THE DOME-HEADS.

The wide-bodied caseids flourished for millions of years in the Middle Permian – then, the second extinction struck. Caseids disappeared. Evolving into the gap were advanced mammal-like reptiles with thick bone foreheads. There were both giant carnivores (anteosaurs) and giant herbivores (keratocephs).

Keratocephus, having a bit of trouble with anteosaurus. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

The Houston Museum continues digging in north Texas, where the Red Beds record the earliest waves of large land animal evolution and the first extinction events. Many mysteries remain. But one pattern seems confirmed:

Mass die-offs on land are targeted like smart bombs. If you’re a big herbivore or big carnivore, you have the highest probability of going extinct.

Learn more about the First Apocalypse, and see Dr. Bakker and the Museum’s paleontology team in action, tonight at 8 p.m. on The History Channel.