The other day I was on one of my three-mile walks, fighting off those extra pounds that come with my new, sedentary office job. The sun was coming down earlier than I expected, an unwelcome consequence of changing seasons, and I found that the pretty tree-lined lane I live on had become a particularly dark and foreboding tunnel through an already dark night. The instant this realization struck me, a scrambling, scratching of claws against pavement was heard right beside me. I nearly jumped out of my sneakers!
Of course, what did it turn out to be? A raccoon… an animal too cute to be feared when seen, but whose nocturnal actions have managed to scare the living daylights out of many a night-time pedestrian. In fact, recent reports of Albino raccoons are shedding light on the possibility of a true fright! Dr. Dan Brooks, our Curator of Vertebrate Zoology has recently co-authored with former intern Adrian Castellanos an article on the phenomenon.
In early January 2001, a phone call was received from Barbara House indicating the League City Animal Control had obtained an albino raccoon that had died of distemper. The uniqueness of this specimen warranted getting it mounted (taxidermied) in a life-like pose.
As part of HMNS’ centennial celebration, an internet blog was created featuring 100 of the museum’s most unique objects. The albino raccoon mount from our Vertebrate Zoology collection was featured. Several individuals responded to the post that they had observed albino raccoons in nature. James Oberg posted on 11 July 2011 that he saw an albino raccoon the night prior feeding from his cat’s outdoor food bowl. Oberg successfully photographed the raccoon and indicated it was in League City.
On 20 April 2012, Joe Butler trapped an adult leucistic raccoon approximately 7 km south of Cleveland, (Montgomery Co.) Texas. This site is approximately 100 km north of League City. The animal was reported as an albino… however, the presence of tail rings and an otherwise ivory colored coat suggested a leucistic (very light colored) specimen rather than a true albino.
While there are several cases of aberrant color documented in birds, including several on display here at HMNS , aberrantly colored mammals are not documented as often. It is interesting that both of the albino raccoon specimens were from League City. Further observations or specimens of albino raccoons from League City might indicate the presence of a population that are genetically pre-disposed to albinism.
I definitely plan on keeping an eye out for these ghostly creatures during my evening walks, and so should you. For those of you who prefer not to walk around in the dark, we have our raccoon, as well as other mammals showing albinism, including an entirely albino bobcat and partially albino specimens of skunk and plains gopher, on display right now in our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife.
One of the things I have been working on lately is an exhibit, Trains over Texas, which will open in the near future. The exhibit is a masterpiece of art and engineering recreated in miniature. There is a certain adventuring elegance to travelling by train, the scenic journey is as important as the destination. The same is true with this scale model railroad. The miniaturized journey passes through most of the natural wonders Texas has to offer, all recreated in miniature.
One of the fringe benefits of being a curator is the opportunity to learn new things, these projects invariably will take you unexpected places, always mentally, sometimes physically. I have been assigned to work on the Trains over Texas project. The train research triggered a long forgotten, possibly repressed, memory of family vacationing. The excursions consisted of long treks along a “vacation triangle” that involved the highways connecting Alabama, Florida, and West Virginia. Being wedged in the back of an International Harvester Scout, entertainment options were limited, it was after all the ‘60’s, even outside of the car with room to maneuver, chores, or a longish stick and an ant bed might be as good as it got.
Singing was one of the ways we would pass the time on these trips. My father taught a course, American history through folk songs, so the sing along selections had nothing to do with whatever I liked that was popular. As a child I was sure these songs actually weren’t popular anywhere. Working on this model train exhibit reminded me of one of those road trip songs, The Wreck of Old 97. The version of this song recorded by Vernon Dalhart, made a mark in music history. Dalhart was a Texan and was arguably the first country music super star. Childhood suspicions aside, the song actually was popular, in Dalharts’ 1924 recording was the first million selling record in the United States. Not surprisingly it also became the subject of the first major music copyright lawsuit. The song had a profound effect on the genre of country music as well. It is fortuitous timing as the anniversary of this American rail disaster is September 27, 1903, 113 years ago today. The lyrics are historically accurate and tell a sad story that gripped the nation, not unlike more familiar, more recent events. The effect on the national psyche being akin to the Challenger disaster.
As the song has been covered by many artists over the decades the lyrics have varied slightly. What I did not understand then, was the odd uncool songs of my youth are living history . The words get memorized and repeated but the original story, the historical data, hides in plain sight just below the surface, waiting to be discovered by the curious. There is history written, and there is history sung, history sung is intimate and personal. My father knew it then, I know it now. The lyrics I was taught go:
He picked up his orders in Monroe Virginia
Saying Steve you’re way behind time
This is not 38 but old 97
You must put’er into Spencer on time
He turned ‘round and said to his blackened, greasy fireman,
Shovel on a little more coal
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain
You just watch old 97 roll.
It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
Going on a three mile grade
It was on that grade that he lost his airbrakes
You should have seen what a jump he made
He was rolling down the tracks doing 90 miles an hour
When his whistle broke into a scream
And they found him in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
Scalded to death by the steam
A telegram came from Washington Station and this is what it said
That the brave engineer driving Old 97, is lying up in Danville dead
So come all you ladies, you must take warning
From this time on and learn
Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband
He may leave you and never return
The trains’ engineer, Joseph Broady, nicknamed “Steve” by his friends and crew, was at the controls of the 4-6-0 class locomotive at the time of the disaster. He was part of a replacement crew of 18 that boarded the train in Monroe Virginia. At the moment the new crew took over they were one hour behind schedule. Old 97 was a Fast Mail Train. The train had a punctual reputation, but also a contract with the postal service that stipulated the railroad would be fined for each minute the mail delivery was late. The railroad ordered Engineer Broady to make up the time. After the accident the railroad would deny they instructed the engineer essentially to “speed”. After the investigations, recriminations and legal haggling, the accident was blamed on the engineer. Placed back in historical context, the lyric, He picked up his orders in Monroe Virginia points out that the Railroad was at least partially to blame.
It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchberg to Danville. The rail line from Lynchburg to Danville was indeed treacherous, being a mixture of tight curves and rolling terrain. Signs were posted along the tracks to warn trains of upcoming dangers. The run featured a three mile stretch of line along a downhill grade approaching the Stillhouse Trestle.
It was on that grade that he lost his airbrake. Many historians believe Engineer Broady was speeding and using the brake aggressively to slow the train near hazards, whittling away at the time deficit. As the train approached the down hill grade and trestle, the air brake was either depleted or inoperative. Engineer Broady reversed the engine but it was not enough. The train derailed and plunged into the Stillhouse Branch ravine, erupting into an explosion of steam and fire.
You should have seen what a jump he made. Train derailments were a common rail accident at that time. Sometimes minor, sometimes major, these mishaps would result in varying degrees of damage to rolling stock and humans. The wreck of Old 97 was different, thousands of onlookers would visit the site of the accident, to personally witness the aftermath and salvage efforts. Of the 18 on board, 11 died, many survivors credited leaping from the train before it plummeted into the ravine for their survival.
Ladies, please take warning. The poignant end of the song, refers to the fact that many of the victims of the disaster were married men with families. Engineer Broady was engaged to be married. None of those people 113 years ago suspected that the words spoken to their loved ones as they left for their jobs, would be their last. That admonition is as true today as it was then.
Trains and railroads are one of the primary themes in country, folk and blues music. I am hoping to create the opportunity to explore the music connected with railroads as part of the experience.
Guess what guys, it’s my birthday and I got to celebrate it at Disney World! A year ago I was officially adopted by my HMNS family and since then have had the greatest year of my life! This past year has been full of adventure, fun, and new experiences as I have had the opportunity to travel to amazing new places and try new things. When I was first adopted, I thought I was one lucky dinosaur, but I had no idea how lucky I really got. I belong to the greatest, most amazing family! From trips abroad to Europe and the Middle East, to exploring the beauty of our National Parks here at home, immersing myself into life at the museum, and celebrating my birthday in the most magical place on earth, my new family has literally shown me the world.
On my very first adventure I crossed the pond and rambled around London a while before taking the Chunnel to Paris. The sites were amazing! I also spent an amazing week in Germany visiting excavation sites with our Adult Education program (sorry, too busy exploring for photos!).
I then jotted off to attend with the 2016 Special Events Conference in Orlando, Florida where I learned all about the newest and most popular trends for the year. I was super excited to hear that one of the colors of the year was Serenity Blue! What do you think, do you think I resemble a certain color of the year? Immediately after the conference I rushed off to Saudi Arabia where I had the chance to train an awesome group of people on what we do in the museum and how we do it! King of the lab! (shhh, let’s keep that between us)
This year we also celebrated the 100 year birthday of our national parks with our new Giant Screen Theater movie, National Parks Adventure 3D. After watching this incredible film, I got inspired to check out a few of our parks myself! I started with visiting Big Bend National Park and checking out the cool local fossils. I then flew up to Maine to explore Acadia National Park and saw my first lighthouse! A little later in the year I decided to really go for it and strapped in for a road trip spanning 3 states and 8 more national parks!
While traveling has been amazing, there is so much to see and do right here at home at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I have spent time with our awesome group of volunteers learning all sort of fascinating information spanning from mummies to gemstones! I even checked out our Cockrell Butterfly Center and got up close and personal with a moon moth.
This has been an absolutely amazing year, and I can’t wait to get started on the next! Who knows where I will go and what I will learn next. There’s still so many exhibits here at home I haven’t explored yet, and I can’t wait to get started.
If you would like adopt your own dinosaur friend to join you on your amazing adventures, you can visit our store where Archie’s friends live.
If there was ever any doubt whether an asteroid impact killed off the dinosaurs, field scientists continue to bring back proof from ongoing research in the Gulf of Mexico. Last week, geologists working in the Yucatán Peninsula reached a major milestone in an offshore drilling project of the Chicxulub Crater, now known to be the remnant of a 66-million-year-old collision of a gargantuan asteroid into the Earth’s surface. Reaching a depth of 670 meters (2,198 feet) in the crater’s peak ring for the first time, the scientists brought up core samples of the original granite bedrock that occurred as a result of this Earth-shattering impact.
Discovered in 1978 by geophysicists Antonio Camargo and Glen Penfield, the crater has been the subject of study and controversy for some time, but this is the first time scientists have dug this deep offshore, into the inner ring of the double-ringed crater. From the core samples, taken from below 66 million years of sediment piled onto the original molten rock formed at the time of the impact, paleontologists now have a completely new data set to study the earliest moments of Earth after the Cretaceous.
With this evidence, we can now put to rest a point of contention regarding the exact border between the Cretaceous and the next age in the life of the Earth, the Paleogene, known as the K-Pg boundary. Prior to this project, paleontologists defined the K-Pg boundary with the appearance of foraminifera, fossils of small shelled creatures. In a sense, the drilling project took science back in time through rock layers never before investigated and passed the K-Pg boundary at ground zero. Because this layer of ancient rock is so thick and and so unique, the drilling team is considering re-naming it the “event layer.”
This news highlights a great number of phenomena in both natural history and astrophyics. Astronomers have studied peak rings in craters on the moon, Mars and Mercury, but never before on our own planet. The Chicxulub now offers a local opportunity to study this type of supermassive impact.
Apparently, peak rings form in a matter of minutes when an asteroid is so big, its impact liquefies rock, causing the center of the crater, while it’s in motion, to splash upward in a cone shape like a drop of water into a filled sink. This molten rock creates a distinct layer of minerals that only form from asteroid collisions. As the team continues to bore deeper, now working more slowly to study this unique type of rock, they will search for rock layers “out of order,” testing a proposed model for this type of impact. Theories state when these impacts occur, older rock layers are tossed above younger rock layers.
The discovery of Chicxulub is a fascinating story in itself, and shows how difficult this thing was to find. Essentially, the crater is so old, the only evidence of it is a trough that forms a faint semi-circle on the western portion of the Yucatán Peninsula and a system of thousands of cenotes, sinkholes formed as a result of the impact. (We’re still unable to explain why.)
Prospecting for oil drilling sites for the Mexican oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Penfield noticed a huge underwater arc 40 miles across in his geophysical data. He found another arc on land years later. Penmex suppressed specific data to the public, but allowed Penfield and Camargo to present the findings at the Society of Exploration Geophysicists conference in 1981, which was poorly attended.
In 1980, unaware of Penfield’s discovery, Alan R. Hildebrand, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, published the first paper proposing the Earth-impact theory and was searching for a probable crater. He and his team found evidence of an impact in shocked quartz, a type of deformed quartz created by intense pressure and limited temperature (the conditions of an impact crater), and tektites, beads of glass shaped like drops of water that form when molten rock is ejected into the atmosphere. Both of these materials occur in large deposits in the Caribbean basin.
Carlos Byars, reporting for the Houston Chronicle in 1990, connected the dots between Hildebrand’s theory and Penfield’s discovery, and Hildebrand and Penfield obtained Penmex drill samples stored in New Orleans for Hildebrand’s team to study. The samples matched Hildebrand’s theories.
Further research into the crater in the late 1990s using gravitational anomaly imaging showed the crater is a system of two concentric circles, the outer circle measuring 190 miles in diameter, nearly five times the diameter of the inner circle.
Personally, as a Texan, a Houstonian and a dinosaur nerd, I take pride in these developments. 1. The Chicxulub crater was discovered by a Mexican oil company. 2. A Houston reporter identified the crater as the one that killed the dinosaurs. Two points for Texas, a state steeped in petroleum science and Mexican culture.
For a grandiose, and slightly terrifying, example of how an asteroid impact can change the face of the Earth (the Chicxulub crater was created by a much smaller asteroid), watch this Discovery Channel simulation set to Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.”