Spotlight on Outreach: Embrace the oddballs with the Vertebrates version of HMNS’ Wildlife on Wheels

When you want to see a degu, an African Burrowing frog or an echidna, where do you go? You’re probably thinking the Zoo, or maybe on the National Geographic channel.

So where do you go to touch a degu, an African Burrowing frog or an echidna? Would you believe . . . a natural science museum? Even better, would you believe the museum could bring these fascinating creatures to you?

HMNS Outreach: Wildlife on Wheels

The best way to understand the different vertebrates is to meet them!

HMNS has a plethora of outreach programs that do just that. One of our most popular (and my favorite) outreach programs is Wildlife on Wheels. The Vertebrates theme can bring the aformentioned live fuzzies, squishies and stuffed pokies to schools, scout meetings, church groups, festivals or anywhere a group wants to learn. I love seeing the looks on kids’ faces when we present slick amphibians like salamanders or show them the actual size of an emu’s wing.

One of the best parts is having kids (and the occasionally squeamish adult) touch our live animals. You can see the excitement, trepidation and — hopefully! —understanding on their faces as they interact with something they may have only seen in a movie.

HMNS Outreach: Wildlife on WheelsA frog makes friends.

The Vertebrates theme brings an array of back-boned animals — both stuffed specimens and live creatures — up close and helps people make connections. Because the Vertebrates theme covers all five Vertebrates groups, it’s easy to illustrate the similarities and differences between fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

It is also, I think, our loudest theme — but what can you expect with live birds in tow and tons of inspired kiddos? Even our toads will sometimes get in on the “chorus” if you hold them just right!

HMNS Outreach: Wildlife on WheelsWildlife on Wheels students examine some of our specimens

It seems like a simple enough idea, but we can also adapt the program for different age groups. We love to talk about cool stuff, like what we call “the Rule-Breakers.”  By “rule breakers,” I mean those animals that don’t seem to fit in our carefully constructed categories.

Think about egg-laying mammals like the echidna. What about snakes that have live birth? Consider the endangered sawfish, a family of rays that traverse both fresh and salt water. How about a fish with lungs? There are so many oddities and so little time.

I love our Vertebrates topic. You can simplify the program and use it as an introduction to back-boned animals, make it an energizing refresher, or even make the first scientific connections in a child’s mind.

Ready to learn more about HMNS’ outreach programs or book your own visit from our critters? See it for yourself!

Just another day at HMNS: Angry rattlesnakes, gecko cooling and non-stop learning in the Education Department

The conversation starts innocently enough. “So, how was your day?” asks my husband. “Well,” I say, “the short version goes like this: After I spent an hour with my arms held over my head wedged inside the gecko tank to extend its misting system, I asked my Director of Education to help me transfer our very large (and angry) rattlesnake so I could clean out his tank.

Nicole conversing with Archie

After I scrubbed out the rattlesnake tank, we wrangled him back in again. Then I think I paid some standard bills: fruit flies, crickets, you know — the basics. Oh, but the best part was during my test dissection of an owl pellet for an upcoming class, when I found an entire bird skull in the pellet. It was so cool! How was your day?”

Bird Skeleton found in Owl PelletMy husband pauses to let all of that to sink in and finally says, “Fine.” Another pause. “Did you say angry rattlesnake? You didn’t touch it, did you?”


So begins another conversation about my day-to-day with an incredulous spouse. I assure him once again that, yes, all of that is in my job description. And it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when you think about the Overnights, Teacher Workshops, Outreach Programs, or overarching if-you-don’t-know-ask-Education requests our Department solves daily.

One thing is for sure, it’s never routine, and there’s never a dull moment.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (behind glass)

To learn more about HMNS’ Education Department, what it does and the amazing programming it offers, click here.

September Flickr Photo of the Month: Baby Alligators!

_DSC8853_R1_C1BM-LR by Mark L 2010.
Shared with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS – as well as our satellite facilities in the Sugar Land area. When we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we highlight one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, we’re featuring a photo from Mark L 2010, taken in Brazos Bend State Park – home to the Museum’s George Observatory. Spending the day there wildlife spotting is a perfect lead in to stargazing at the Observatory on a Saturday night. And as you can see – the animals are really cool!

Here’s what Mark had to say about his photo:

On Labor Day, 2011, we visited Brazos Bend State Park to take a look around and shoot a few photos. Just beyond the shore line of 40 Acre Lake against the fishing pier we saw a dozen or so baby alligators. The duck weed coated them completely, making an interesting sight.

Maybe more striking was the fact that as they were sleeping in the sun they were laying on one another much like you would expect of puppies. It was just a nice view of young wild life. We all wish our area could break out of the grip of this destructive drought, but it is surprising how beauty remains available in this park. Thanks to all who participate in making it available to the rest of us.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Authenticating Peru’s Unique Unicorn

Over four decades ago, two well-known scientists, John Weske and John Terborgh were on expedition in central Peru when they rescued an unusual looking black, turkey-sized bird from the camp cook’s dinner prep table.  They suspected it to be a subspecies of an existing curassow from Bolivia called the Horned Curassow (Pauxi u. unicornis), and described it as the same in a peer-reviewed journal.

Sira Curassow (Pauxi koepckeae) in nature
Photo by Melvin Gastañaga

For many years the ‘Peruvian Horned Curassow (Pauxi unicornis koepckeae)’ was believed to be only a subspecies of the Bolivian form, until recent evidence showed otherwise.  The bird in question is a unique species endemic to Peru’s Sira mountain range, and thus was renamed the Sira Curassow (Pauxi koepckeae).

The fact the Peruvian form is separated at least 1000 km from the Bolivian species is a strong indicator that these are both distinct species.  Some of the parameters distinguishing the Sira Curassow from Bolivia’s Horned Curassow include thriving in different habitat at higher elevations, different behavioral patterns including the call, and of course different morphology.

In former posts I’ve explained my interest in Cracids – the rarest family of birds in the Americas, to which the Sira Curassow belongs.  While preparing Action Plans to prioritize and direct Cracid conservation efforts, whenever we came to status of the Peruvian Horned Curassow we just sort of sat around scratching our heads, as nobody definitively knew if it was a valid species.  I always had the hunch that it was valid, but without the proof of data, we’d just be telling a good story.

About a decade ago I put out a call for expeditions to locate the bird in nature to determine its status.  Melvin Gastañaga bravely answered the call, venturing solo into the Sira Mountains in search of ‘Peru’s unicorn’.  It was challenging work – of the several expeditions into the region the bird was not located during the first three, but Gastañaga remained tenacious, returning to find the bird in March 2005.

The work conditions were difficult, with several hours of hiking mountainous terrain just to locate the birds.  The efforts and results obtained by Melvin and her husband Ross MacLeod are nothing short of miraculous.  It goes without saying that they are the heroes in this story – the bird still would not be a species today if it wasn’t for them.  Indeed, weather conditions and other elements were less than cooperative, making the work all the more challenging.  I was honored to be a part of the new discovery, providing the morphological assessment.

Despite the exciting news, this new species is in serious trouble, with the threat of extinction looming over the Sira Curassow.  The range of the species is tiny and unfortunately the species is apparently being poached inside the reserve despite educational efforts.