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.

Boo and Hiss
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.

Offering Hiss a pinkie
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.

Big Hairy Elephant
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.



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.