2016 African Hall Updates

Dan Brooks, Ph.D.

HMNS Curator of Vertebrate Zoology




The Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife, built 2002-04 was a new variation of a common traditional theme at HMNS, in that we wanted to portray more than just the Serengeti ecosystem.  Prior versions of the hall focused on the Serengeti, which while a very important ecosystem, was a mere fraction of the continent.  In late Fall of 2003, Phase I debuted, featuring dioramas representing the Congo Basin, West African Forest, Ethiopian Scrub and Serengeti Savannah.  In late Spring of 2004, Phase II debuted, featuring dioramas representing Okavango Delta, South African Lowveldt, Saharan Desert, and a rotating case.


The new exhibit was a smash hit, not only for portraying various ecosystems within the continent, but also for providing various themes in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.  The result was, what the visitor could see is the whole ecosystem, with elements of time and space removed, so that the species and landscapes are all brought to full view simultaneously in one ‘snapshot’.


As exciting as the new hall was, some updates were in order since the opening was already well over a decade.  In total, we added 23 new specimens representing 13 new species not currently on display, along with adding a couple of other species that are already on display.  This brought the total number of specimens on display in the hall to over 125, representing around 90 species.



West African Wetland

Perhaps, the most exciting addition is the West African Wetland diorama featuring an African Elephant (Loxodonta africana).  Elephants have the distinction of being the largest living land animal on the planet.  There are actually two species in Africa, those from the Savannah (Loxodonta africana) that you see in this diorama, and a smaller species that lives in forest, aptly called the Forest Elephant (L. cyclotis).  Additionally Asia harbors several subspecies of Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), including the Pygmy Elephant endemic to Borneo.  These living species are the last of a lineage of much more hairy relatives that walked the planet during the Pleistocene, known as Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) and Mastodons (Mammut americanum). 


Elephants are vital landscape architects in the tropical regions they inhabit.  They are important for seed dispersal, carrying seeds to spawn and grow away from the parent plant.  Moreover, they are important at molding landscapes, removing plants that would otherwise monopolize a habitat, providing a variety of refugia for smaller animals by toppling trees onto their sides, and other important roles.  Indeed, in areas where elephant populations have exceeded the number that can be comfortably supported at a given site, the landscape becomes quite denuded. 

Unfortunately elephants are tied for the one thing that is as coveted by some cultures as gold or diamonds – ivory.  The demand for the illegal trade in ivory has pushed elephants to the brink of extinction in many areas.  In some regions of Africa, tuskless elephants have been evolutionarily favored over their tusked brethren.  If elephants don’t have tusks they are of little value to poachers and thus not hunted, which means tuskless genes are carried forth to future generations.


Several species of aquatic and semi-aquatic bird species round out the West African Wetland diorama, including small flocks of Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) and White-faced Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna viduata), as well as Black Crowned Crane (Balearica pavonina) and African Open-billed Stork (Anastomus lamelligerus).


If the Cattle Egret looks familiar to you, it is perfectly understandable.  They are commonly seen in Texas pastures, usually near the cattle that the bird follows in order to snatch up the insects that they panic into movement.  But the Cattle Egret perfected this foraging technique on the African plain, following antelope and other large grazers.  It arrived in the New World via storm systems that carried the bird across the Atlantic, from the west coast of Africa to northeastern Brazil, whereupon the birds gradually dispersed to the south, west and north.


While similar in appearance to a duck, White-faced Whistling Ducks are actually closer related to swans, which they share a long neck in common with.  Several species of whistling ducks are distributed throughout the globe, occupying every continent except for Antarctica.  They get the name whistling duck from their call, but are also known as tree ducks do to their habit of perching and nesting in trees.  The closely related Black-bellied Whistling Duck is ubiquitous around Houston.  Like Cattle Egrets, White-faced Whistling Ducks dispersed across the Atlantic on their own, thus populating both Africa and Latin America.


Found in the tropical belt of Africa, Black Crowned Cranes are rare and classified as Vulnerable due to habitat loss and trapping for food and commerce.  They are typically associated in bonded pairs that mate for life, occupying grasslands and wetlands such as depicted in the diorama.  Cranes are well known for their loud duet calls, with contributions by both male and female simultaneously.  In contrast to most cranes (genus Grus), crowned cranes give loud honking noises, similar to a clown’s horn on a circus car!  For the different voice and other reasons, crowned cranes are placed in their own genus, including both this species and the Blue Crowned Crane (B. regulorum) from East and Southern Africa.


The African Open-billed Stork gets its name from the space between the mandibles of its bill.  This modification of the bill aids in handling molluscs to consume; freshwater snails are their preferred food.  Although they may be in flocks up to 7000 individuals, they prefer to feed alone.  Like many species, their breeding season is in the spring when resources are abundant.  African Open-billed Storks perform complex displays, involving head-bobbing, bill-clattering, and rocking back-and-forth with the head held between the legs.



African House Bat/Evolution Kiosk

To the right of the new West African Wetland diorama is a new kiosk featuring a label about ‘speciation and describing new species’, using as the model, new species of African House Bats (Scotophilus) I described in 2014 with my colleague John Bickham.  Featured are one of the four new species, Andrew Rebori’s House Bat (S. andrewreborii) along with the species it was split from, African Yellow House Bat (S. dinganii). 


New species evolve via a number of different modes, the most common of which involves isolation.  Oceanic islands are perhaps the first and most extreme form of isolation, but such ‘islands’ can also form on mainlands – imagine a mountaintop where the species inhabiting the very top is unable to exist at lower elevations – that’s an island barrier.  Other examples include species cratered in valleys between mountains or rivers, or other barriers created by contrasting habitats.  Over evolutionary millennia, those species with a common ancestor undergo separate trajectories with their own unique set of adaptations, such that ultimately they are very different.  Distinguishing and describing these new forms is the job of a museum zoologist.


On occasion one stumbles upon a new species while examining museum specimens and noticing something distinct, or running DNA analyses and also noticing something distinct.  These tandem situations led to the description of four new species of African House Bats: Livingstone’s (Scotophilus livingstonii) of tropical central Africa, Andrew Rebori’s (S. andrewreborii) and Trujillo’s (S. trujilloi) of Kenya, and Ejetai’s (S. ejetai) from Ethiopia.  Firming this up with morphological and DNA analyses led to the description of these four new species. 



Ethiopian Scrub

Several birds were added to the Ethiopian Scrub diorama, including a pair of Yellow-necked Spurfowl (Francolinus leucoscepus) which are endemic to this ecosystem, and have bright yellow bare patches on their throats, as the name implies.  Other endemics were added, such as individuals of Vulturine Guinea Fowl (Acryllium vulturinum) and Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus), to help build social groups of current individuals already represented in the diorama.


Yellow-necked Spurfowl are actually a species of Francolin, which are gamebirds found throughout Africa.  Spurfowl tend to associate in pairs (a male and female) as depicted in the exhibit.  Like other gamebirds they will use their powerful claws as a digging tool to expose grubs, roots, tubers, and other delicacies they enjoy eating.  They have a very powerful voice that can be heard at quite a distance.  Genders are identical, although the male is a bit larger. 


Except when breeding, Vulturine Guinea Fowl occur in medium to large flocks that spend the day scratching on the ground looking for food.  They are, however, strong fliers and roost in trees overnight.  Although they will take water when it is available, they can exist for long periods without drinking.  In spite of its name, the Vulturine Guineafowl is not a carrion eater, but rather an omnivore who will take a variety of invertebrates, seeds, and fruit.  Its featherless head gives it a superficial resemblance to vultures, which accounts for its common name.


The spectacularly colored Superb Starling is a common East African bird.  It feeds mainly on the ground, eating a range of seeds, fruits and insects.  It will devour food scraps and small flocks will often gather where people offer it food, making it popular with tourists.  While this species will nest in cavities like most starlings, it often builds large domed nest in low thorn bushes.  Sometimes a breeding pair is assisted by non-breeding offspring from earlier broods.



Saharan Desert

The Saharan Desert diorama was always a bit barren, lacking more examples of migratory birds and carnivores, so it was exciting to be able add both.  Mammalian carnivores include Pale Fox (Vulpes pallida) and Caracal (Felis caracal), the latter of which is carrying off a hyrax from the small familial group on the cliff.  Additional migrants include a flock of the European Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus), as well as an example of the exquisite Demoiselle Crane (Grus virgo) standing next to the date tree. 


The Pale Fox lives in the latitudinal band across the southern Sahara of Africa known as the Sahel Strip.  A species of the desert, the Pale Fox is more active at night to opportune cooler temperatures.  During the daytime they rest in the cool environment of underground burrows that can reach nearly 50 feet in length, while several feet underground.  The large ears are adaptations for enhanced hearing, and the sand-colored pelage helps them blend into their environment.  Another adaptation for desert life is the ability to obtain all needed water from their food, they drink little water (if any).


The Caracal is also known as the African Lynx, owing to the tufts of hair tipping the ears which it shares in common with the true Lynx (Lynx canadensis).  It can live from sea level to 10,000 feet in a variety of habitats – not only in Africa, but also northeast through the Middle East to western India.  While it may take a variety of game, the majority of its diet is comprised of mammals ranging in size from rodents to large antelope.  The speed and agility of the Caracal permit it to take mammals up to three times its size.  Caracals were apparently important symbols to ancient Egyptians.  Sculptured Caracals guarded tombs of Pharoahs, and ancient paintings and bronze figurines have been discovered as well.  


The smallest of the world’s 15 species of cranes, the Demoiselle Crane was given its name by Marie Antoinette.  Demoiselle means young lady or maiden in French, the queen was enchanted by the crane’s demure and maidenly appearance.  The geographic range covers a wide latitudinal band across Asia, with the Mongolian/Chinese population migrating to India for the winter, and the population between the Caspain and Black Sea, including Turkey, migrating south to spend winter in the Saharan Desert.


The largest of the grain-eating pigeons, the European Wood Pigeon can be found in a variety of habitats from city parks to woodland.  This species is one of the most commonly seen birds in Europe, ranging southwest to the Saharan Desert, as far east as parts of Mongolia and China and south to India.  Like most pigeons they have a clutch of two white eggs laid atop a flimsy platform of twigs; the squabs fledge at approximately three weeks of age. 



Ethiopian Highlands

Last but by no means least, is the Ethiopian Highland microcosm to replace the Bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus) in the rotating case.  Like many animals living in Ethiopia, the Gelada Baboon (Theropithecus gelada) and Erckel’s Francolin (Francolinus erckelii) are endemics that occur in no other country on the planet except for Ethiopia.  In fact, both of these species are among several that are restricted to the Highlands of Ethiopia rather than the Lowlands depicted in the circular diorama. 


The Gelada is so unique, it is in a monotypic genus, meaning that it is the sole member of the genus Theropithecus and has no closely related living relatives.  Many characteristic make the Gelada totally unique from other species of baboons (genus Papio).  Large troops of Geladas spend the night perched below a cliff ledge on rocky cliff face for protection from predators.  Not only is their nighttime cliff face bunking behavior unique among monkeys, but they are the only species of primate that subsists entirely on grass blades and grains.  After scaling back up the cliff face in the morning, they spend the day foraging in grassland above the cliff. 


Francolins are gamebirds that fill the ecological equivalent of pheasants and partridge in Asia, or grouse and quail in North America.  Overall they are closest related to partridge.  Approximately 25 species of francolins are found throughout Africa, with an additional five species hailing from Asia.  They vary extensively in size and color.  Like other gamebirds they will use their powerful claws as a digging tool to expose grubs, roots, tubers, and other delicacies they enjoy eating.  They have a very powerful voice that can be heard at quite a distance.  Males and females are identical, although the male is a bit larger. 


Ghostly Creatures of the Night: A True Raccoon Story!

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.

Dispatches from the Gulf: Film examines the effects of Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster may no longer be a buzzword in the media, but the effects of history’s largest oil spill on the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico are still on the minds of marine scientists around the world. Gulf seafood seems to be recovering, but biologists are keeping a close eye to the seafloor, where much of the oil has settled into the sand. Take a closer look at the lingering effects of the spill Tuesday night at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with a special screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf.

This April 20 will mark the sixth year after the massive failure and subsequent explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, also known as the Macondo Prospect, an offshore drilling platform 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The blast claimed the lives of 11 workers and from a depth of 5,000 feet, pumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas into the Gulf over a period of 87 days. A month after the disaster, BP, the operator of the prospect, announced it would commit $500 million over 10 years to the study of the effects of the spill.

GULF OF MEXICO - APRIL 21:  In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana.  An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon's 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

GULF OF MEXICO – APRIL 21: In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana. An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon’s 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

In addition to the tragic loss of life, many environmentalists expected a total collapse of the ecosystem leading to further economic effects in the fishing and seafood industry, yet as early as five years later, CNN reported fish landings had returned as well as the oyster population.

“According to the Food and Drug Administration, tests on edible seafood show no excess hydrocarbons in the region’s food supply,” Drew Griffin, Nelli Black and Curt Devine of CNN.com reported. “The spill’s effects on other species are less clear. … But perhaps the greatest unknown is what, if anything, millions of gallons of oil on the deep seafloor are doing to the overall environment of the Gulf itself.”

Our own Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway is one of the scientists keeping watch. She flew over the disaster while the oil was still free-flowing, visibly bubbling above the surface of the water from the break at depth. To her, the Texas coastline is the least of her concerns.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

“The oil can wash up in globs, which is bad for folks walking or playing on the beach,” Petway said, “but the real problem is that the oil stays in the environment even though they have removed a huge quantity of it. A lot of it has sunk.”

On the bottom of the Gulf, the oil has created a mat of tar, leaving the sand impenetrable to oxygen and light, Petway explained, eliminating everything beneath the mat from the habitat. Chemicals from the oil are leaching into sandy and muddy seafloors, making hydrocarbons difficult, if not impossible to dissolve or wash away.

“Just because you don’t see anything on shore anymore doesn’t mean it’s not still out there,” Petway said. “Ongoing research is being done as to the effects, and it is constantly being updated.”

Watch the screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The film will recap the unprecedented response effort following the disaster and delve into the research of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Tickets $18, members $12. For one night only!

You can learn more about the delicate Texas coastal ecosystem at the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology.

Food chains link the creatures of coastal ecology

Don’t stick your hand in that shell! You don’t know who might be home. It could be a carnivorous snail or a “clawsome” crab. Take a look at our Texas state shell, the lightning whelk or left-handed whelk, which feeds on bivalves like oysters and clams. Perhaps the snail that makes the shell is still hiding inside, or perhaps the shell is home to a hermit crab. Unlike most crabs, hermit crabs use the shells of snails as homes to protect their soft bodies.

Hermit Crab

Hermit crab taking residence in an empty lightning whelk shell.

Texas is home to some fascinating creatures, and our coast is no exception. In addition to the Gulf side beaches, there are salt marshes, jetties and the bay to investigate. Our coastal habitats are just waiting to be explored, and with the right gear, you can see organisms at every trophic level. (You knew I was going to talk about food chains, didn’t you?) 


Lightning whelk snail retracted into its shell, operculum blocking the opening.

Most folks will notice some of the upper-level consumers: birds like pelicans and gulls. Who could miss the gull snatching your unattended hotdogs? Or the pelicans plummeting into the water face first to catch fish? Maybe you’ve noticed fishermen along the beach as they pull in small bonnethead sharks. Some animals may require good timing and tons of mosquito repellent to see, like our rare and critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. If you pay attention, there are even rattlesnakes catching mice that are feeding on insects and plants in the dunes!Food Web

As you follow a food pyramid from the apex down to the base, top predators like humans and sharks feed on the organisms in the level below. There you might find the larger bony fish we feed on, like redfish or snapper, and below them you can find some of the crustaceans and mollusks they feed on in turn. Crustaceans, like our blue crabs, stone crabs, and the smaller ghost crabs, often scavenge in addition to feeding on mollusks, worms, or even plant matter. Many of our mollusks are filter feeders, like oysters, pulling algae and plankton from the water. Finally, at the base of the food pyramid, there are the producers. The phytoplankton and algae make their own food with energy from the sun.

A food chain pyramid is a great way to show different types of food chains on one example. I used a pyramid created by my friend Julia and drew examples of food chains from our coast on it. One side has the trophic levels on it and the other three sides have example food chains. What’s on the bottom of the pyramid? The Sun, of course!Pyramid

Coastal ecology isn’t just about sand, shells, and dodging gulls. It’s also about the interactions between plants, animals, and their environment. The plants anchor the dunes, the dunes protect and replenish the beach sand, the sand houses animals like mole crabs and mantis shrimp, and we get to enjoy it when we protect it.

If tracking home beach sand in your shoes, car, towels, and suits doesn’t excite you, our new Hamman Hall of Coastal Ecology may be just the air-conditioned trip to the coast you need on a scorching summer day in Texas. Members, come join us Memorial Day weekend to see wonders of the Texas coastline!