Animal Espionage: Meet the Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs of the Wild

This week, you’ll have the first chance to experience our new special exhibit, Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America – examining nine major periods in U.S. history when America faced threats from enemies within our borders. But did you know HMNS already features a few “sneaks” of our own? They’re just of the animal variety!

In our HMNS Outreach Programs, we highlight several examples of crafty creatures who have adapted creatively to their environments to prolong survival. Want to meet a few of these smart cookies? Come to our free Shell Educators’ Preview Sept. 29!

How do you become a spy? First, blend in!

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Our first spy is a familiar animal to the Gulf Coast – the American alligator! One of the alligator’s strongest adaptations is its amazing camouflage. I remember fishing as a kid on the Sabine River and my dad pointing out a gator in the distance. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t spot it! Only as we neared could I see the bumpy “dead log” silently watching us float by. Alligators are extremely well-adapted to ambush. With nostrils that stick out of the water like a snorkel and a clear inner eyelid to protect their eyes while they swim, their whole body can stay submerged as they await their prey. While too dangerous to approach in their natural habitat, our Wildlife On Wheels program Texas Wildlife often includes one of our baby alligators, still small enough to keep safely!

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Several of our other spies star in our Bugs On Wheels: Amazing Arthropods program and are masters of disguise. The giant long-legged katydid, for example, is the world’s largest katydid, native to Malaysia. These awesome insects mimic leaves, and during the daylight hours they can safely remain motionless, cloaked in foliage, waiting to become active at night. They don’t only come in green though; these insects can have an endless array of shades and patterns to match the leaves of their unique habitats. And like many things that get better with age, so does their camouflage, as their back edge grows brown and tattered like an old leaf.

Traitors mean false friends.

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In the natural world, traitors come in many guises, even that of seemingly innocuous plants! The pitcher plant, masquerading as a source of tasty nectar, lures in insects (sometimes even rodents) and traps them. Their victims cannot escape the waxy walls and sticky fluid inside. As their prey drowns, digestive enzymes help break down the body, allowing the plant to absorb the released nitrogen. You can meet three species of this unusual carnivore in our Cockrell Butterfly Center!

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Another unique traitor native to our state is the Texas tortoise, often seen in our Wildlife On Wheels programs, though a threatened species in the state of Texas. Deceptively fierce, this desert dweller is extremely territorial, and males will fight to the death if a fellow tortoise challenges. Competitors rise up on front legs to charge, using the pronged gular scutes protruding from the shell to hook under the trespasser, attempting to flip him over. This is a deadly situation for a tortoise as all of the animal’s internal organs press down on the lungs, which causes him to suffocate if he cannot turn back over. Yikes!

The Science of Sabotage

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Crushing prey with an estimated force of 60,000 Newtons, the bite of Tyrannosaurus rex would be lethal enough as it is, but some paleontologists, such as Farlow and Abler, debate that a more insidious biological superweapon could be concealed in those fearsome teeth. Fine serrations in each tooth provided strength and cutting power, but may have also allowed meat from T. rex’s last meal to linger, lending a perfect source for bacteria to feed on. Similar to that of a Komodo dragon, it is theorized that the bite of T. rex could deposit overwhelming amounts of bacteria, causing the wound to fester and become septic. Want to touch a T. rex tooth and feel the serrations? (We promise, ours are clean.) A visit from Dinosaur Discovery, part of Chevron Earth Science On Wheels, makes it possible!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our last saboteur certainly employs a most unusual method of dispatching enemies —how about getting licked to death! The lightning whelk, a carnivorous snail, uses the sharp edge of its shell to pry apart bivalves. Once open, the whelk uses its radula (think scratchy cat tongue, but much worse!) to lick and scrape the hapless victim into smaller pieces for consumption. Fun fact: this ruthless snail is the state shell of Texas, and can often be found on gulf coast beaches. Look for a “left-handed” (sinistral) shell, shaped so it’s easier to put your left hand in. Another great place to see a whelk? In our Wildlife On Wheels: Invertebrates program, or in the Strake Hall of Malacology!

Interested in bringing these super-cool, sneaky creatures to your school or group? Send an email to outreach@hmns.org or call (713) 639-4758 to book your Outreach Program today!

HMNS in the Classroom: Amazing arthropods model for middle schoolers

Those expecting a typical runway show were in for a surprise; the models all had at least six legs, nobody was showing off the latest fall collection, and the paparazzi consisted of a group of art students at Johnston Middle School.

A student concentrates while sketching one of the eight legs on Peanut, the Costa Rican Curly Hair Tarantula. Peanut was very cooperative and stood still the whole day for the classes.

A student concentrates while sketching one of the eight legs on Peanut, the Costa Rican Curly Hair Tarantula. Peanut was very cooperative and stood still the whole day for the classes.

HMNS’ LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels traveled to Christina Gutierrez Gonzalez’s art class October 1-2 to model for a group of talented middle school artists. Exotic specimens from the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s insect zoo spent the days playing muse as the students learned about the arthropods and practiced their sketching.

A student smiles while observing a Giant African Millipede attempt to escape its plexiglass enclosure. While it is just a little too small to get out right now, this millipede is expected to grow up to one foot long.

A student smiles while observing a Giant African Millipede attempt to escape its plexiglass enclosure. While it is just a little too small to get out right now, this millipede is expected to grow up to one foot long.

In February 2013, Gonzalez booked the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels program for the same purpose, and after the presentation yielded fun and fantastic artwork, she decided to try it again, this time with bugs.

A student sketches a Giant Prickly Stick, who is just trying to blend in with his stick. This species of walking stick will curl its abdomen and mimic a scorpion if threatened.

A student sketches a Giant Prickly Stick, who is just trying to blend in with his stick. This species of walking stick will curl its abdomen and mimic a scorpion if threatened.

Many students got the chance to draw multiple of the five live and five once-living arthropods present.

HMNS Bugs on Wheels

A student colors in the wings of a Blue Morpho butterfly. While the butterfly’s upper wings are a brilliant, bright blue, the undersides are a darker brown with eye spots.

While the bugs lounged around, the students were hard at work, carefully drawing outlines in their sketchbooks and filling in gaps with pencils.

Two students draw the outline of Stewart, the Giant Long-Legged Katydid. This species of katydid may be the largest and loudest in the world, but they are herbivorous and very gentle; Stewart was a very good model!

Two students draw the outline of Stewart, the Giant Long-Legged Katydid. This species of katydid may be the largest and loudest in the world, but they are herbivorous and very gentle; Stewart was a very good model!

The event was a hit once again. One young man stopped the HMNS presenters as they left for the day and gave them a thumbs up, saying, “Thanks for the awesome sixth period!”

A student colors in the legs of Peanut with alternate bands of black and yellow. Peanut, like all arachnids, has eight legs and two main body segments.

A student colors in the legs of Peanut with alternate bands of black and yellow. Peanut, like all arachnids, has eight legs and two main body segments.

Bugs On Wheels and our other Outreach programs, such as TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels, ConocoPhillips Science On Stage, and Chevron Earth Science On Wheels, bring the wonders of the Houston Museum of Natural Science to you through hands-on and interactive presentations. For further information on these programs and more, visit our HMNS Outreach website or send us an email at outreach@hmns.org!

A student shows off his finished rendition of an Atlas Beetle behind the specimen itself. While its horns look scary, these beetles are not harmful to humans and are often kept as pets.

A student shows off his finished rendition of an Atlas Beetle behind the specimen itself. While its horns look scary, these beetles are not harmful to humans and are often kept as pets.

For more information on HMNS’ outreach programs, click here.

For more information on LyondellBasell Bugs on Wheels, click here.

Bringing the wonder to you: Science on Stage

We’ve got permanent exhibit halls, special exhibitions and an entire basement full of classrooms for camp and education. But did you know that we can bring HMNS to you?

HMNS outreach programs — which include Science on Stage, Docents To Go, Wildlife on Wheels, Discovery Dome, Bugs on Wheels and more — can be booked for school appearances, youth groups, or nearly anything else you can dream up.

Our largest program, Science on Stage, can serve an audience of up to 250 people, and offers three compelling programs: Exploring Energy, Cool Chemistry and Motion Commotion.

Science On Stage - HMNS Outreach Programs

Each program lasts about 45 minutes and can be customized for certain age groups or group sizes. Each program includes live demonstrations and strives to make learning visual by bringing student volunteers on stage and weaving a question-and-answer portion throughout. HMNS provides all the supplies needed for each program and manages clean-up — how great of a house guest are we?!

Youth Educator Carolyn Leap walked us through the Cool Chemistry program. “We start off demonstrating chemical reactions versus physical reactions, usually through combustion. Things on fire on stage usually get people’s attention.”

“In this program, the audience learns how fireworks function and engage in color-changing reactions, as well as experimenting with water-absorbing polymers,” Leap explained. “And, depending on the age of the audience, we make our own slime.”

Leap continued, “We use a concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide to create a foam reaction we call Elephant’s Toothpaste.”

“We dip all sorts of stuff in liquid nitrogen with the assistance of our student volunteers, who love to shatter frozen flowers and dunk balloons,” she said.

Science On Stage - HMNS Outreach ProgramsHMNS’ catalogue of outreach programs covers many fields, from life sciences with Wildlife on Wheels and Bugs on Wheels to anthropology with Docents to Go to our Discovery Dome portable planetarium  — and much more, thanks to a wealth of programming.

Most of our Science on Stage programs are hosted by Leap, who was this year named Educator of the Year by the Texas Association of Museums.

Science On Stage - HMNS Outreach ProgramsTo reserve Science on Stage for your students or group and get introduced to one of the best educators Texas has to offer, call 713-639-4766 or click here.

New Addition to the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

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Phyllium giganteum
Creative Commons License
photo credit: emills1

Today was an exciting day here at the Butterfly Center, as we welcomed a new species, Phyllium giganteum. This is a type of walking stick or phasmid that is native to Southeast Asia. We have a relative here already, Phyllium celebicum. We have enjoyed them immensely as they are very attractive on display and calm enough to go out with our Bugs on Wheels program and visit children. People are absolutely taken aback by how much they resemble a leaf, and most visitors are drawn to this particular insect since it resembles such a harmless object.

Well, if you were blown away by our original leaf mimics, hold on to your hats and meet Phyllium gigateum! While celebicum can reach a modest 2-3 inches, giganteum is an impressive 4-5 inches long! The flaps on skin surrounding their legs and abdomen are very broad with brown edges that match a dying leaf.  You really need to meet these guys in person!

Well, I should say girls. This species is parthenogenic in captivity, meaning they don’t need to mate to have babies. Males are rarely seen, even in the wild. Each female can lay a couple hundred eggs which take about 5 -6 months to develop.  The eggs are dropped to the ground by the female who dares not leave the safety of the canopy. When the nymphs hatch, they scurry up the tree, hopefully fast enough to avoid being on someone’s menu.

You may be wondering why these phasmids have such a camo-advantage while other harmless insects are much easier to spot. If an insect is lacking in the camo department, you can bet it has one of many other safety features including: being able to run or fly very quickly (cockroach), having  a very hard exoskeleton or one covered in spines (beetle), being poisonous or distasteful to predators (lubber grasshopper), having the ability to emit or even project a noxious chemical (swallowtail caterpillar), or the ability to mimic something dangerous or show a scary display(giant prickly stick). An insect’s life is pretty much all about escaping predators among other dangers of the natural world! Phyllium can do nothing else mentioned above, so it’s all about the camouflage for them!

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a giganteum nymph
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Caring for these insects is easy. I only have to meet their basic needs of food, warm temperature, and high humidity. Luckily, they will eat a variety of plants that can easily be found right here in Houston. Since these insects are parthenogenic, raising them should be a snap! We hope to have them as a permanent fixture at the Butterfly Center for years to come.

I hope you will come see them on display or be excited to have one visit your child’s classroom in the very near future. Fall is upon us now and winter will be here before you know it, so bugs everywhere will be chilling out for the season, not to be seen again until spring. So if you want to see some great bugs, native and exotic, pay us a visit! Until next time, happy bug watching!