New Furry Friends for the Butterfly Center!

I am used to needing to replace insects on display. There are several factors that have an effect on their longevity and for the most part they do very well, but insects only live so long. I get so preoccupied with them that I forget about the more long-lived species such as the arachnids – like tarantulas and scorpions.

I recently realized that I have had the same 3 tarantulas on display for about 3 years. Female tarantulas can live upwards of 30 years if properly cared for. And as long as they are alive, I keep them on display. I started thinking, duh, why don’t I get some new tarantulas so people will have something different to look at? This is not to say that the ones on display aren’t gorgeous! I curently have a Mexican red-knee, an Indian ornamental and a Goliath birdeater. All three are strikingly beautiful animals! The birdeater will stay because it is the largest spider and people are definitely curious about that. The other two can retire, for now, to the peace and tranquility of the containment room.

So, I have got to go shopping! Ordering tarantulas is so much fun because there are so many to choose from. They come in an unbelievable array of colors; it can be so hard to choose! I wanted to pick those that are better suited for display and not for handling. We do handle tarantulas for our outreach program, Bugs on Wheels, but for that we have Rosie, a 17 year old Chilean rose hair that is such a doll and quite possibly the sweetest, most patient tarantula that ever lived!

Once I perused what was available, I picked the only two that I could get as adults and one spiderling that I can raise. It should be an adult in about a year. Getting a box of live bugs in the mail is like Christmas, it’s so exciting! When I saw these tarantulas for the first time I was overjoyed, they look even better in person. They are very shy, which is why they are not appropriate for handling. They will live in the containment room until I have a chance to put them on display for everyone to see. Let’s meet them!

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Antilles pinktoe spider
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

First, let’s meet the Antilles pinktoe (Avicularia versicolor). Spiders in the genus Aviculariaare very common in the pet trade. They are native to the rainforests of South America and a few Caribbean islands. These tarantulas are pretty docile but can move very quickly! They actually have a habit of shooting excrement, also called guano, at their pursuers and they can actually be quite accurate. They are all characterized by pink tarsi, giving rise to the name pinktoe. The Antilles pinktoe is native to Martinique and Guadeloupe. They are tree-dwelling and spend their time in funnel shaped webs made in palm fronds or bromeliads. They are absolutely beautiful with a green carapace or head, a red abdomen and green legs, all covered with reddish pink hairs. They are very hairy! I took pictures of my new friends, unfortunately, they don’t really do them justice.  She is a sub-adult, so she needs to shed one more time to be fully grown. She will look great on display.

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Brazilian red and white spider
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

The other large female I purchased is called a Brazilian red and white or Nhandu chromatus, formerly, Lasiodora cristata. This spider is swiftly gaining in popularity. They are very large and sometimes called a white-striped birdeater. They have a grayish white head, white and black striped legs and a bright red abdomen. These are terrestrial tarantulas from Brazil. This species is nervous around people and will bolt if they feel frightened. I briefly held her the other day and she did quite well. I hope to have her feeling at home on display very soon!

The 3rd tarantula I purchased is one of the most popular species of spider and definitely one of the most beautiful. It’s called a Greenbottle Blue Tarantula (Chromatopelma cyaneopubescens). Wow, that’s a mouthful! The only ones available were spiderlings about .5-.75 inches long (very tiny). We used to have one of these spiders and they are really magnificent so I thought I’d try raising one. I only hope that it’s a female. They are very hard to sex at this size, but I will find out when it gets a bit larger.

The only drawback to having a male is that it would only live for a couple of years compared to the long-lived female.  When I opened up the box, I thought I had gotten the wrong thing. It looks completely different from the adult! I knew it would, but I was not expecting it to look so drastically different. When full grown, this spider will have metallic blue legs, a bluish green head and a bright red abdomen They are very striking.  They are native to the desert areas of Venezuela. They live in burrows lined with silk to protect them from the harsh climate.  They tend to be skittish and run very fast when disturbed. Maybe since this one is so young, I can get it more acclimated to being handled. I can’t wait to see how beautiful it will become!

Greenbottle Blue Tarantula
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I think these tarantulas will have long and happy lives here, especially since I spoil everything in my care, but in a good way! I hope they will be around several years from now when I’ll be training a new entomologist to care of them. In the mean time I hope you’ll stop by to take a look at them in the Entomology Hall. Hopefully, even if you think you’re arachnophobic, you can gather up the courage to take a close look and see how colorful and beautiful a spider can be! Happy bug watching!

Punkin, my Halloween spider

Today’s guest blogger is Cletus Lee. Mr. Lee is a native of Virginia and received a BS in Geology from Virginia Tech.  He tells us that, after an interesting career in the Oil & Gas industry, followed by another in information sciences, he retired in 2008 and is pursuing nature photography, cycling and other long time hobbies.  He is an amateur arachnologist and resides in Bellaire, TX, just a few blocks from the Nature Discovery Center – his photos of spiders are fascinating and we thought we’d share them – along with Lee’s thoughts on the subjects of his photos – with you.

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Click to view large: Spinybacked Orbweaer
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

It was Punkin’s “grandmother” that started my current interest in spiders.  One morning in May 2007, while opening the blinds in our den, I noticed a spider building a web just outside our den window in a corner between the den and the dining room.  From that point on, each day, I would eagerly open the blinds to greet the sun and my new little friend.

Spinybacked Orbweavers (Gasteracantha cancriformis) have long been one of my favorite spiders because they are colorful and decorate a neat orb web. Smaller than a dime, they can be found in the Houston area in shades of white, yellow and orange.   Their most prominent feature is the abdomen, which sports spike-like spines around its edge and a series of spots that create a smiley face pattern across the back.

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Click to view large: Yellow Orbweaver
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

I continued watching the spider outside my window through the rest of May and into June.  One morning in late June, I was saddened to find the web and spider gone. I was disappointed to have my daily spider-watch ritual come to an end, but I was not disappointed for long.  A few days later, I was working outside near the old web’s location and saw two very small orb webs nearby.  A closer inspection revealed two tiny Spinybacked Orbweavers. As they grew, they molted and built larger webs. One spiderling disappeared and the other gradually moved over to the same corner of the house formerly occupied by her parent. I watched this spider, probably the daughter of the first, for about two months.  Near the end of August, she also disappeared during the night.

Once I knew the routine, I began searching the nearby bushes looking for the next generation.  Early in September, I found another Spinybacked Orbweaver. Unlike her mother and grandmother, she was orange and had a perfect jack-o-lantern face. With Halloween approaching, I decided to name my new spider Punkin.

"Punkin"
Click to view large: Punkin
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

Late in September 2007, Punkin set up housekeeping in the same spot previously occupied by her mother and grandmother.  I was not certain how long spiders lived, but those earlier spiders seemed to last about two months as adults.  October came and went.  So did November and December.  To encourage Punkin to stay, I caught live bugs and tossed them onto the web.  She was one well-fed spider.  During the winter, Punkin received a lot of care and attention and stayed around my den window until late February 2008.

Observing three generations of spiders during the summer and fall of 2007 was an education.  Being able to see nature up close, right outside my window, was a treasured experience which has broadened my horizons and fostered a new respect for spiders.  With a flashlight, I now explore my backyard and the grounds of the neighborhood Nature Center nightly to check on my little friends and make some new ones.

Is that a Brown Recluse??

Adult Male Jumping Spider Hiding in Leaves - (Habronattus coecatus)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Opo Terser
adorable jumping spider

Poor, poor spiders! People are always saying “I hate spiders,” “I’m arachnophobic,” and “I kill any spiders I see!” Hearing these things just breaks my heart! Spiders are some of the most feared and completely misunderstood creatures in the world. 50% of  women and 10% of men have at least a mild case of arachnophobia, and even more claim that they do. I find that most people will tell me that they have arachnophobia, but after being coaxed to pet my 15 year old tarantula Rosie, they become absolutely fascinated by spiders!

Arachnophobia is a real, irrational fear that can cause panic attacks in people who are afflicted, but most people don’t actually have it! My uncle, for example, claimed to be so afraid of and grossed out by spiders. One day, he noticed a large St.  Andrews Cross spider residing outside of his office window. At first he was repulsed, but after a little research, he found out that it was harmless, beneficial, and actually quite attractive. He then started asking me questions about it and now this self -proclaimed bug-hater is buying lady bug kits for his 5 year old daughter. I’m so proud!

The Business End

Creative Commons License photo credit:
Furryscaly

Why do so many people fear spiders? Possibly because it’s learned from our parents, or because of the way they are portrayed in movies and on TV, or maybe it’s just the way they look! Whatever it is, just a little bit of knowledge can go a long way in helping you get over your fear. Probably the most feared spider in the United States is the brown recluse. This poor little spider has found itself caught in the middle of a string of urban myths which have led to the deaths of tons of innocent spiders!

How bad is a brown recluse bite? It can kill you! It will make your body parts fall off! It will scar you for life! False, false, and false! The brown recluse, as evidenced by it’s name, is a very shy and reclusive spider. They are not aggressive and certainly don’t seek out anything to bite that cannot be it’s prey. They have extremely small fangs that cannot bite through clothing. In fact, they have a heck of a time biting unless they are smushed up against your skin. This is often the case when people are actually bitten by these spiders. They roll over onto it in a bed, it gets tangled up in clothing or shoes, whatever it is, they will only bite in response to pressure that they can’t escape from. But don’t be afraid of your bedding, clothes, and shoes all of a sudden! Recluses seek shelter in undisturbed areas, so best to check or wash your guest room bedding before people stay with you, and shake out those shoes or clothes you haven’t worn in years!

Actual brown recluse bites are extremely rare and the large majority of bites heal fine with no need for medical intervention at all. Bites are misdiagnosed all of the time even by medical professionals! There are tons of other conditions that have very similar symptoms to a brown recluse bite, including, but not limited to: Staphylococcus infections, gangrene, herpes, diabetic ulcer, fungal infection, chemical burns, dermatitis, squamous cell carcinoma, vasculitis, syphilis, toxic epidermal necrolysis, sporotrichosis, and lyme disease or other insect bites. Conditions such as these are way more likely to be the culprit if you find yourself with necrosis of the skin.

Approximately 80% of bites are misdiagnosed and can prevent proper treatment of what could be a serious disease. There HAVE been cases reported of significant reactions and even deaths associated with actual brown recluse bites, but usually only with the very young, elderly, or people with a weak immune system. All in all, the chances of you getting a bite and having any severe reaction are extremely slim. The best thing to do is exercise caution when dealing with old linens, shoes, clothing, boxes, and other things that have been undisturbed for quite some time. Other insects and other arachnids such as scorpions can also make homes of these things, so better safe than sorry!

People often think that every spider they see is a brown recluse, because they fear getting close enough to properly identify them.

Here are some tips to help you figure out that the spider you’re looking at is NOT a brown recluse…

- It is in a web: recluses often line their hiding places with an irregular web, but they are active hunters that do not use a web to catch prey. If you see a web outside or even in a corner of your house, there is no brown recluse in it.  House and cellar spiders are commonly seen in your home, but don’t be afraid of them. They are harmless and can actually eat brown recluses. If I have a small web in the corner of my home, I leave it be!

- It is a very large spider: the brown recluse is a medium to small spider, usually about the size of a dime or nickel at the largest. They are not very big at all!

- Brown recluses are not native to your state: They are not found all over the United States. If you live along the west coast, the east coast, or in the far north, you do not have them!

- It has colorful markings or patterns: The brown recluse is just that, brown! Their color can range from very light to darker tan, but they have very few marks. The violin shaped marking on their head can be darker than the rest of their body, or close to the same color and their abdomens have no markings.

- It has 8 eyes: the brown recluse is a sicariid spider meaning it has only 6 eyes. They are arranged in pairs in a specific pattern.

- You are seeing it!: again, they stay hidden during the day and hunt at night. Most people will never see a brown recluse in their lifetime!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Not a brown recluse!

There are lots of spiders that resemble the brown recluse. Several have markings similar to the violin marking. Many have a similar body shape. Others also have similar eye number and arrangement.

So what is the best way to identify a brown recluse? Practice! We always have one on display here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, be sure to look at her closely next time you visit. There are several pictures online as well as pictures of spiders that are often mistaken for them.

If you find a suspicious spider in your home, bring it in for an identification, we’d be happy to look at it for you. If we do identify it as a brown recluse, remember not to panic, your home could be overrun with them and you will still probably never be bitten.

I hope I’ve shed some light on this shy little spider. We can all live with spiders, they shouldn’t be feared, but respected. They are largely harmless, shy, beneficial, and some are out of this world gorgeous! So until next time, happy bug watching!

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An actual Brown Recluse

Attention: Butterfly Enthusiasts!

Have you ever wondered to yourself, “when is the best time to visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center?”  or “when can I come and enjoy exhibit without being surrounded by school children?” Well, this is it folks, right now – the best time ever to come and enjoy the exhibit halls of HMNS in relative calm and quiet.

September is a very slow month for us here. Children have just returned to school, field trips have not started and most everyone is too busy to even think about a trip to the museum. I would guess that most museums in the district go through this in the fall as well. It gives us some much needed time to slow down and work on things that we’re not able to get to during the busy spring and summer. I really enjoy the quiet and we can literally hear crickets chirping in the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

Butterfly - London Butterfly House, London, England - Sunday September 9th 2007
Creative Commons License photo credit: law_keven
The Indian Leafwing

What does this mean? This is a perfect time for a nice, relaxing visit, especially to the Butterfly Center. We still have plenty of sunny warm days where you can see a thousand butterflies flying around. If you are a photographer that is discouraged by the crowds, this is a great time to come and get some nice pictures. If you are a mother or father that stays home with small children, what a wonderful time for you. The noise and chaos of large school groups can be very intimidating to small children, especially if they have never been here before. I can’t stress enough what a great time this is to visit, so if you’re working, take a day off and take advantage of the amazing places that make up Houston’s famous Museum district!

Right now, we have some absolutely amazing butterflies flying and  awesome insects in our Entomology Hall. If you are wild about blue morphos (who isn’t?), you’ll love these! The Indian Leafwing (Kallima paralekta) is a rare treat for us from Southeast Asia! Their camouflage is incredible. They look exactly like a leaf while at rest, but when they open their wings, they display brilliant blue and orange. They are one of my very favorites!

Another one we’ve been getting lately is the one-spotted prepona (Archaeprepona demophon). This butterfly, from Central and South America, is often mistaken for a blue morpho, but upon closer inspection, you can see that it’s quite different!

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Archaeprepona demophon
Glasswing Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: wwarby
Clear Wing Butterfly

If you have very, very good eyes, you may be able to spot our tiny Greta oto, also known as the clear wing, or glass wing. They are so small, but very beautiful and elegant! They also come from Central and South America and despite their size, have a big personality! As caterpillars, they feed on poisonous plants. They retain these toxins into adulthood, making them distasteful to predators. The males exhibit a type of behavior known as lekking. This is a mating behavior where males gather on a daily basis, in the same area, and assume the same position within a circular arena. Here, they put on mating displays, dances, and even engage in fighting, depending on the animal. Females come to the lek to be fertilized.

You will not find these butterflies on our identification chart. We don’t get them often, so hopefully you will make the trip to see them! As always, we have some spectacular insects on display as well, including exotic and native beetles, katydids, walking sticks, spiders, scorpions, and creepy roaches! Well, not creepy to me.

I hope you will take advantage of this quiet time of the year. Come and bask in the peace and serenity of an almost empty butterfly center and hopefully have one of your favorite visits here at HMNS! Happy bug watching!