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.

New varmits in Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife

Dan Brooks, Ph.D.
Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, HMNS

When I first arrived at the museum in 1999, I ‘inherited’ the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, and the Frensley Hall of African Wildlife.  Well the latter was fully updated a few years ago with generous support from Robert and Annie Graham.  But the Farish Hall is another story – it will wait a few years to receive a full makeover, as part of the HMNS’s exciting expansion.

Anyway, back to the new halls I ‘inherited’, as I made the initial rounds as a young Curator 11 years ago, I realized there were some truly rare (e.g., Black Bear), endangered (e.g., Attwater’s Prairie Chicken), and sadly in some cases extinct (e.g., Red Wolf) species in Farish Hall.  Despite this fact, some rather common Texas mammals were missing – most noticeable were the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk.

So I bided my time, wondering how long it would take until the Docents noticed this overlooked fact and began to bug me to do something about it.  Well, for those of you keeping score, it took about six or seven years.  But alas, as of 23 November 2009, I’m thrilled to report that we now have representation of both the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk in the Piney Woods and Carnivore dioramas, respectively.  Following are some natural history notes.

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)


This is the most common species of skunk in our region.  Few people realize that there are at least 10 species of skunks distributed throughout the New World.  In North America, there are a couple of species each of the striped (Mephitis) group and spotted (Spilogale) group, with the hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus) dispersing southward, where it radiates into several species in South America.

Skunks are members of the Carnivoran Family, Mustelidae. This includes otters, badgers, weasels and other similar forms.  Like many medium-sized Carnivorans, the skunk has a strong musk gland.  So strong in fact, that the skunk has a well-known reputation for its scent gland, which produces a musky odor.  This odor is not uncommon when skunks are involved in roadway mortalities.  They can also voluntarily shoot the scent directly at whatever varmint (including a person) is bothering them.  Just like rattlesnakes sounding off their warning before striking, a skunk will stamp its feet and flag it’s tail before spraying.

Skunks are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, including cannibalized carrion – it’s not unusual to find more than one road mortality at a give site, since live skunks will forage upon road killed skunks, then becoming a victim of vehicle mortality themselves.


Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)

Of the more than 300 species of Marsupials extant today, 230 are found Australia and surrounding islands, and 85 are endemic to the New World.  Of these, only one occurs in the United States and Canada – the Virginia Opossum, or simply ‘Possum’ as it’s known in this region.

Like all marsupials, the young are not as fully developed as other mammals when born.  They claw their way to the mother’s pouch, where they develop for a couple of months.  As the young get older they will ride on the mother’s back, and there can be several young per litter.

Creative Commons License photo credit: graftedno1

To ward off predators, they can open their mouth very wide and display their vast array of teeth – 50 teeth in all!  They may hiss and make noise as well, but the famous saying ‘playing possum’ comes from this marsupial’s ability to feign death by going limp.  Possums are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, and it’s not unusual to find them rummaging through a garbage can.  Their sense of smell is well developed to compensate their poor eyesight.  Although their tail is prehensile, it’s not strong enough to support their weight, such as a New World monkey’s prehensile tail for example.  They do use the tail for balance however.

Range across seven biomes to explore the entire continent of Africa in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.