Home Is Where The Heart Is

They say, “home is where the heart is”, and in my case that is true. However, home is also where you say things like, “Don’t kill that Black Widow. I need it…,” or “So………do you have any plans for that dead armadillo?

My parents live on a working ranch, complete with cows and buzzards, hay rakes and snakes. This affords me the opportunity, after chores are done and frankly sometimes during, to go science-ing.

Here’s everyone getting ready for vaccinations and the bovine version of OFF!

Here’s everyone getting ready for vaccinations and the bovine version of OFF!

This last visit, when various assignments were being discussed and doled out, I jumped on the wood pile. The premise of this chore was that a gate was left open or a latch broke somewhere, allowing the cows through a fence and into the yard around the house. Cows, being kind of curious by nature, ended up everywhere. One of those wheres landed the cows between the workshop and the wood pile because the cows wanted to scratch on all those log ends sticking out. Unfortunately for my parents, a 1,400 pound cow determined to scratch an itch is no match for a metal pipe rack and stacked wood and so over it went. Fortunately for me, critters live in wood piles….

My mom’s instructions were clear: make the wood pill neat. My instructions to my nephew and my sister-in-law were also clear: don’t smash anything good. The first new friend we found was this guy.

Who has eight legs and two pedipalps and is HUGE? This guy…

Who has eight legs and two pedipalps and is HUGE? This guy…

He is some species of wolf spider and he was GIGANTIC. This guy ended up getting some soapy water thrown on him because I wanted to pin him out (and he was also terrifyingly large), but everyone else we caught got to live.

spider 2The next new friend we found was a cousin to that wolf spider. I collected her because she has this beautiful blue egg sack. When we got her back to the Museum and put her in her new apartment, she was hungry! Several snacks later, she settled down under some leaves for a nap. (Update: She is loving living at the Museum! She has rearranged the furniture and plumped up a bit in anticipation of the arrival of her brood. Wolf spiders are great moms, so we will take some pictures of her and the fam once they arrive!)

black widowNow about the time I said, “Man, I’m super bummed we haven’t found any black widows,” this little lady showed up. I was super excited because we have been making some efforts to collect for an upcoming exhibit called Death by Natural Causes. She is a beautiful, fully grown Latrodectus mactans. How can you tell that she is fully grown? The juveniles have a red strip that runs down the back. When the spiders molt, the strip gets shorter and shorter until all you have is the tell-tale hour glass.

spider 3The next log I picked up, after scooping up the Black Widow, had this sweet little girl on it. What’s that you say? It’s a Brown Recluse? Why, yes it is. Both the Brown Recluse and the Black Widow have a bad reputation. Yes… both can potentially cause humans some problems, but they will also go above and beyond to avoid people if at all possible. Generally, the only time they bite is if they get pinned by a finger or arm or foot and are trying to defend themselves. You be nice to them; they’ll be nice to you.
spider 4At this point, I ran out of collecting containers but the day had just begun! The next critter that crawled out from under a log was this little Triatoma sanguisuga. Commonly known as kissing bugs, this little guys is possibly a vector for Chagas. There have been a number of studies initiated of late to keep track of Chagas transmission, but there isn’t a lot known about where it is and what it is infecting because most states don’t require anyone to keep track of the confirmed human cases.

The fastest new friend we made, and the only one we didn’t collect because I didn’t have the right parts with me, was this little guy. He was at the bottom of the pile eating all the critters we were trying to collect. He zipped out and under the rack when we disturbed the log he was under. My parents have lived on their ranch for about 15 years. In that time I have only seen four snakes: One was the little ribbon snake below, the second was a smaller version of this ribbon snake we saw the same day under a pile of hay, the third was a juvenile water moccasin sunning in the tank and the fourth was a coach whip. Conclusion: Snakes are good at hide and seek.

spider 5Later that day, after chores were done, we were sitting on the back porch with a Lone Star to cool off and this friend stopped by for a visit. Cicada nymph molts are generally what people know or see of Cicadas in Texas, although you are probably familiar with the noises they make as well. You will find the molts attached to tree bark or the brick of your house, split down the back. During their two to five-year life span, these cicadas spend just a couple months in the form you see in the picture. They are big but they are also 0% harmful to humans. They just want to chill out with you while you share a beer.


Also on the porch wanting to join the party? This female ox beetle. How can you tell it is female? The guys have these cool horns on their thorax that make them look like little beetle-y triceratops. Ox beetles live just a couple of months and are active during the summer. Their main job is recycling plant matter into compost, but that mostly happens in the larval form when they are just little, white, C-shaped grubs. They do fly in the adult form and, while it can be a little scary to unexpectedly find a big, brown, two-inch bug all up in your business, this guy is not harmful to humans at all. If you see one out, it is probably just cruising for a rotten log to lay some eggs.

ox beetle

The last critter of the day was this armadillo who met with an untimely death the night before when he ended up with the pool. As part of the shady, after chore discussions I asked my dad what he planned on doing with that armadillo. Ya know… because he had dibs. He indicated that his actual plan involved putting it in the woods to be recycled by the decomposers. I asked if I could have it for our education collections.

A little known fact, or at least something that most folks don’t think very hard about, is that all the specimens we use for teaching have to come from someplace and generally, you can’t get a pinned butterfly or a bobcat skull at Wal-mart. This being the case, we have to make or find all of our specimens for the teaching collection. Sometimes this is reeeaaalllly unpleasant.

It was the armadillo that causes my mom to question all of her life choices that led me to this point my life and wonder what she had done wrong. After dinner I hopped up to go skin the armadillo before it got dark. There was a lot of care taken on my part to keep clean because armadillos are known to carry leprosy. They are vectors for leprosy because armadillos and humans are about the same constant temperature and so the leprosy can snuggle right in and get comfy. People think that armadillos are giving leprosy to humans, but in reality humans probably gave it to them originally. You never see an armadillo exhibiting the signs of leprosy because they only live a short while. Two other fun facts about armadillos, the Aztecs called them āyōtōchtli, which translates to “turtle rabbit”; and, there are 21 extant species of armadillo that range from 5 to 59 inches long and 3 ounces to 120 pounds.

So, what do we do with all this stuff? It depends on the stuff. Most of these animals will get used in our live animal programs, labs, and summer camps. For those animals that are dead, or die after a long life of cricket pops and mealworm snacks, we try to preserve them for our educational collections. They may get used in the same programs, like the labs and the camps, but they also get put on display inside the classrooms, or for the special few, inside the Cabinet of Curiosities for you to come check out. So, if you do get the opportunity to check out some of our educational specimens, please be careful with them! It takes a couple of months to find, collect and/or make each one!

Mala-what? Walk Through our Malacology Hall

One of the most spectacular – if under-appreciated – exhibit halls here at HMNS is the Hall of Malacology. Maybe it’s the fact that “malacology” is such an unfamiliar term. (It means “the study of mollusks.”) Maybe it’s the fact that it’s just steps away from the stunning Hall of Gems and Minerals. Whatever the reason, it seems this hall just doesn’t get the foot traffic (I think) that it deserves.

The Hall of Malacology is so-named because it features the amazing animals that live inside shells – not just the beautiful homes they leave behind. The collection on display includes stunners like the world’s largest shell (it’s HUGE) and Busycon perversum, or Lightning Whelk – the Texas State Shell – as well as tons of fascinating information on these soft-bodied wonders.

In the video below, associate curator David Temple walks us through the HMNS Hall of Malacology and shares some of the most interesting items on display. Enjoy!

Can’t see the video? Click here.

“Bird-Airplane” Collisions and Forensic Ornithology

The New York Times recently published an article, Trafficking in Contraband that Sings, on birds from Guyana that were being smuggled into the US for singing competitions. Strangely enough, these competitions are judged by humans and not by female birds. The part of the article that intrigued me the most, however, also aired on NPR, about the Forensic Ornithologist (Dr. Train) called upon to testify in court regarding these birds. This was a field of science new to me and, curiosity piqued, I did a little research.

Forensic Ornithology has been used in a variety of ways and with a variety of methods including DNA or by “eyeballing” the species. Experts in the field have been called upon to help solve such problems as bird-airplane collisions, homicide investigations, and endangered species’ poaching cases. It is an interesting field of study where you have to incorporate a lot of information on feather structure, bird bones and even DNA.

Credit: NASA

In the wrong place at the wrong time, a bird is silhouetted against the clear blue Florida sky (upper left) as it falls away from Space Shuttle Discovery after hitting the external tank during liftoff of mission STS-114 in July 2005. Credit: NASA

Take bird-airplane collisions like the Hudson River Landing. By knowing which bird(s) collided with the airplane, a management plan for that bird species can be made to prevent such collisions in the future. (As an aside, is it really fair to put the bird first in “bird-airplane collision”? Or what about “Bird hits External Tank during Shuttle Launch”? As if the bird was the one traveling with boosters strapped to its keel.)

All kidding aside, analysis of the bird remains can help focus on which species may need management. Leading to alternate aircraft routes during peak bird activity to avoid potential collisions, using bird radar to track flocks of birds such as NASA uses and even sound cannons strategically placed to keep birds out of the aircraft’s flight path.

So where does one go to have birds or their remains identified? If it is a larger sample, the Museum’s very own collection can help. Dr. Dan Brooks, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, has identified parts of birds for museums and the USF&WS (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) to ascertain whether or not it was a species listed as Threatened, Endangered or CITES. He has also used the collection (and his own vast knowledge) to identify feathers in Indigenous people’s ornaments, including the “Ice Queen” mummy of National Geographic fame. Pretty cool! For the high-tech study of bits and pieces used as evidence in court cases, professionals usually turn to the NMNH’s Feather Identification Lab.

 black vultures
Creative Commons License photo credit: ljmacphee

In another article by the NY Times, the initial forensic analysis performed by the Lab of the remains collected from a collision produced deer DNA. That seemed odd, since the collision took place at 1500 feet. Analysis of a feather sample that was also collected identified the bird as a Black Vulture, evidently with deer remains in it’s stomach. Science is awesome!

Here is a link to NPR’s interview “The Tale of a Bird Detective.” So turn up your speakers and learn something new today!

On the Eleventh Day of HMNS…Odyssey Through Indian Country

War bonnets on display in
The Quest for High Bear.

Imagine this: it’s the 1920s and you’re a five year old Texan. Though young, you’ve already heard endless tales of your family’s pioneer history – the legend and the reality mingle freely in your heart. Your biggest dream is to one day meet one of the tales’ most fascinating characters – a living American Indian. On a family trip to a state park, you not only meet one, you meet one of the nation’s most famous – Two Guns White Calf, a chief considered so representative of American Indians that he was one of three chosen to model for the Indian Head Nickel

Your fascination with his culture marks a stark contrast to most of America at the time – and because of this, he likes you, asking you to return the following day for a gift. You do – of course – and he presents you with a small leather rattle, as well as a picture he has signed with a pictogram: two guns and a white calf.

I imagine you’d be inspired to find out more. Gordon W. Smith – whose story you’ve just been reading – did just that, and the collection he amassed over the next several decades is now on display in the Hall of the Americas at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Upon entrance, the very first thing you’ll see is the leather rattle that started it all – and the signed photo. From there, you can explore a series of fascinating American Indian cultures Smith met and befriended, through the objects they used every day – beautiful beaded dresses (one of which has over 320,000 individual beads) and moccasins, fleshers and scrapers used to prepare animal skins (including one made out of the barrel of a gun – a common fate for weapons when ammunition ran out), pipes, bison story skins, stunning necklaces, ceramic vessels and much more.

Everything is gorgeous, but some of the items that stand out most are a gun owned by legendary American Indian Chief Crazy Horse and a feathered War Bonnet Smith made himself. What stood out even more was Smith himself, a born storyteller who was kind enough to share his extraordinary story with us in the video below.

The Quest for High Bear exhibition is just one of the fun and fascinating options for families at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. In a take-off of everyone’s favorite holiday classic, The 12 Days of Christmas, we’ve got 12 ideas for fabulous family fun this holiday and we’ll be sharing the possibilities here every day until Christmas Eve. Best of all, most are activities that last past the holiday season – some, year round. You can also check them all out now at the spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site.

Check out the first ten days of HMNS:
On the first day of HMNS, explore The Birth of Christianity.
On the second day of HMNS, shop for Sci-tastic gifts.
On the third day of HMNS, meet Prancer the reindeer.
On the fourth day of HMNS, discover the making of The Star of Bethlehem.
On the fifth day, move it, move it with Madagascar 2 in the Wortham IMAX Theatre.
On the sixth day, hunt dinosaurs with Dr. Bob Bakker.
On the seventh day, look inside the human body in BODY WORLDS 2.
On the eighth day, meet the HMNS Entomologists.
On the ninth day, peer into the Gem Vault.
On the tenth day, explore the cosmos at the George Observatory.