Hey, Texas! Get outside and visit your wild neighbors.

Texans! Want to see exotic birds? Look out the window! Want to see 250,000 bats? Just go outside tonight and look up! As a wildlife teacher and outreach presenter for the museum, I’ve had a chance to talk with future generations about the amazing wildlife found in Texas. Usually students think you have to travel to exotic lands to see the really cool animals, and they’re shocked to hear about all of the incredible animals they’ve been living right next to in Texas.

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Texas wildlife artifacts for the mobile classroom. Sahil Patel

That’s why I was excited to see the new HMNS at Sugar Land exhibit Treehouses: Look Who’s Living in the Trees!, because it makes these critters more accessible and feeds a natural curiosity that most children already seem to have about wildlife. After visiting this exhibit, young naturalists may start asking questions like, “Who made those track marks?” and exclaiming things like, “I know what that scat came from!”, which would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. Luckily, Texas is the perfect place to raise a young naturalist.

Look in our trees and under our bridges, and you might have a chance to see the only true flying mammal: bats! (Sorry, “flying” squirrels. Gliding doesn’t count.) Texas has tons of bats. In fact, we have so many that they are often picked up on radar used for weather reports.

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Radar around the Bracken Cave in San Antonio shows a cloud of bats. Every blue dot is one in flight.

Everyone’s heard about the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, but visit these locations in the winter and you might be disappointed to find they have migrated for the season. Drive just 15 minutes away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you can see bats year round at Waugh Bridge. This bridge has roughly 250,000 Mexican free tailed bats who would love to meet you. Before you go, be sure to get them a Thank You card, because the bats under this one bridge in Houston eat up to 2.5 tons of insects each night!

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This Mexican free-tailed bat might look cute and cuddly, but don’t pick them up like you see in this picture. Being mammals, they can carry rabies. Report any bats that you find on the ground in the day time or behaving strangely. They could be sick.

This is the perfect season to visit Waugh Bridge, as baby Mexican free tail bats test out their flying skills for the first time in early July. Just be sure to watch nearby towers for local birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, who are keeping a watchful eye on these bats as a source of food.

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This peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 200 mph diving to catch its prey. This is a preserved specimen that travels to school with our Wildlife on Wheels program. Sahil Patel

In fact, Texas is a huge birding state. Individuals travel from all over the United States just to see the colorful migrants that pass through here, like Cerulean Warblers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatcher. Our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife does a really nice job of highlighting some of the phenomenal birds that pay us a visit, for those of us (me) who do not have the patience for actual birding.

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Vermillion Flycatcher

Another adorable, and partially arboreal animal is the North American Porcupine.

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North American Porcupine

Looking for a kiss under the mistletoe this winter? This rodent is happy to oblige. Porcupines have been known to slowly amble up trees in search of mistletoe and pine needles when their preferred shrubbery is coated with snow. However, you may wish to rethink this close encounter, not only because of their dangerous defensive quills, but also because of their orange teeth.

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The orange coloration of the North American porcupine’s incisors is due to the high amount of iron in their enamel.

These teeth are not orange due to poor hygiene, but rather because of iron found in the enamel. This iron oxidizes, forming a rusty color. It’s the same reason your blood is red.

So Texans, get your wildlife education with HMNS and HMNS Sugar Land, then go out and explore! After all, now that you know their home address, it would be rude to ignore your neighbors…

The Things I Made at Summer Camp

Xplorations Summer Camp has been an integral part of summer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science for decades, and it was a large part of my childhood too. Over the years, I took all sorts of camps covering subjects like butterflies, cultures in the Americas and roller coasters. I made so many things at camp that I could probably have an entire exhibit called “Things I Made at Camp!” However, like fossils and artifacts, not all of my camp collection has survived to the present day. I wanted to see which items survived the decade since their creation, so I went on an excavation in my childhood home to uncover some of the lost artifacts.

First stop, my childhood bedroom. Among the stuffed animals and children’s books, I find many remnants of my childhood. Papers from school, photos from birthday parties, but no sign of Xplorations Summer Camp. Then, in the distance, I spot a woven basket. The woven basket (ca. June 1997) was made in a camp covering the cultures in the Americas. While I toiled weaving the reeds in and out, we talked about how many cultures wove baskets to hold food and water. To be honest, this woven basket is not my best work. It could certainly not hold water, and there aren’t many foods that can fit inside. In fact, it has a very distinct lean. It looks like it shares some characteristics with a cornucopia.

20150530_162901Onwards! As I search through my desk, I find the remnants of my emergency kit (ca. 2001) made in Survivor Camp. The original kit was encased in a convenient fanny pack, but the fanny pack has since vanished. All that remains is an emergency blanket, glow stick, and some matches in a waterproof container. If need be, I can survive a cold, dark evening with only these three supplies and the skills I remember from camp. I do miss the fanny pack though. Now that was survival and convenience all in one.

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My search continues. I have combed through all of the things in my room, and in a last-ditch effort I turn my search to the closet. Attached to my navy JanSport backpack, I find a handmade bead animal (ca. 1999). I was an after-camp kid, so I got the chance to make some fun crafts like bead animals after we finished the normal camp day. This particular bead animal was very special because of the rare sparkle blue pony beads that were used for the eyes. In the after camp world, those beads were a prized commodity.

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Eventually, I realize that my search has run cold. There are no more camp crafts to be found. I remember how some of them have been lost. In a medieval camp, I made potpourri and planned to give it to my dad for Father’s Day. Unfortunately, I was a clumsy kid and dropped the glass jar of potpourri on the floor. It did not make it home from camp. I’m sure a number of other camp crafts were dropped in puddles, broken in backpacks, or simply left behind. For all of those lost camp crafts, there are a number of memories that stay with me. As summer camp 2015 commences, I like to think that new campers will make some memorable camp crafts too! Let’s hope that they all make it home!

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Editor’s note: HMNS is in its first week of Xplorations Summer Camp right now! Registration is open to children ages 6 to 12. Camp runs Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and care is available before camp from 8 to 10 a.m. and after camp from 3 to 5:30 p.m. for an additional fee. Live near Sugar Land? Register for camp at our sister location, HMNS Sugar Land. Be a part of the tradition at HMNS Xplorations Summer Camp, and like Kelsey, let your child learn and build lasting memories at the museum.

Educator How-To: Crystals, Geometry and Chemistry

Math is beautiful and inescapable. Especially in nature, patterns and equations just keep showing up.  The path of an orbiting planet, the growth of a nautilus, arrangements of leaves on a stem, the efficient packing of a honeycomb; we can find rules and algorithms and make predictions from them.

Crystals, with their obediently repeating structure, are an elegant manifestation of the ‘rules.’  To be a crystal, your building blocks (atoms, molecules, or ions) must follow patterns over and over and over and over and over.  Atoms, being predictable, simply do what their chemical properties and the conditions (temperature, pressure, etc.) indicate.  So what exactly does it take to go from a mess of elements and compounds to this example from the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land?

If you’ve ever tried making rock candy from sugar water or ornaments from borax solution, then you have some idea what it entails: something dissolved that is capable of making crystals has to slowly come out of solution – usually the longer you give it, the bigger it can grow and the slower it grows, the more perfect the crystals.

Freezing water into ice also gives you crystals; they just don’t stick around and let you handle them conveniently at room temperature. Water and solutions in water aren’t the only way to get crystals; molten rock cooling (slowly) can also give crystals, but that’s a little tricky for home experimentation.

So time is your friend for crystal growth, pressure is a factor, and it needs to be easier for atoms to attach to the forming crystal than to stay in solution.  Having a solution that is saturated or supersaturated so it can barely hold all of the dissolved material helps. It also helps to have places for the crystals to start forming; a tiny ‘seed’ crystal or sometimes even just a rough spot on a surface can provide the nucleation sites to kick off crystal growth. Are there other ways crystals and the things we consider ‘gems’ can form? Yes!

For those of us with shorter attention spans, a cool way so see the process is with crystallizing hand warmers – a pouch holds a saturated solution of sodium acetate. When you flex a metal disk inside the pouch, you kick off a chain of crystallization and end up with solid material (and released heat energy).  Because the process is so fast in the hand warmer, the individual crystals are very small and jumbled up (polycrystalline); oriented in all different directions, and as a mass they are opaque (light is refracting all over the place) and relatively dull rather than shiny and smooth as slower-forming large crystal faces can be.  The structure of most metals is also polycrystalline, and things like plastic and glass (even the kinds misleadingly labeled “crystal!”) are amorphous.

The external crystal shapes we see are related to the internal structure – there are a lot of different ways atoms can pack together.

Practically, there will always be some disruption in a crystal structure, no matter how perfect it may appear, which allows for some very cool effects – crystals “twinning,” impurities that alter the color; the reason ruby and sapphire (both corundum crystals) appear different.

Crystals aren’t always pretty! Sometimes we want to prevent crystallization to avoid things like kidney stones, but crystals are useful for all kinds of things; optical equipment and lasers, X-ray crystallography to figure out structures of proteins (and once upon a time, DNA), and silicon chips used in electronic devices. 

Whether you prefer your crystals practical or decorative, they are amazing!

Can’t get enough crystals? Check out the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land (free for members!)

 

 

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening this week (12/8-12/14) at HMNS

R_rating_WBust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

Film Screening & Lecture
Dinosaur 13
Tuesday, December 9
6:00 p.m.

Join paleontologists Peter Larson and Dr. Robert T. Bakker for a candid discussion on the discovery of Sue—the largest, most complete T. rex ever found—and the ensuing battles that Larson and his crew faced after their monumental find. This talk will be followed by a screening of Dinosaur 13—the new film from Lionsgate and CNN Films that tells this riveting story, and features Larson and Bakker. Click here for more info.

Opening of Special Exhibition: Crystals of India at HMNS Sugar Land
Friday, December 12
Discover the Crystals of India at HMNS at Sugar Land. Originating from India’s Deccan Plateau, a large geologic formation that comprises most of the southern part of the country, the exhibition features a never-before-seen collection of almost 50 of the most beautiful and most perfectly formed natural mineral crystals ever found anywhere in the world.
For this exclusive engagement, the temporary exhibition hall at the HMNS at Sugar Land will be transformed into a jewel box that will highlight these exquisite mineral masterpieces in a setting more befitting an installation of the crown jewels—made complete with dramatic lighting and custom display cases.

Crystals of India is organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Local support is provided by the City of Sugar Land, Frost Bank, and Sudha Chittaluru, M.D (Internal Medicine) – First Colony Primary Care.

Frozen
Saturday, December 13 & Sunday, December 14
10:00 a.m. & 4:00 p.m.
Fearless optimist Anna sets off on an epic journey-teaming up with rugged mountain man Kristoff and his loyal reindeer Sven-to find her sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. Encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom. Arts and crafts will follow this showing of the movie. Costumes are encouraged! Click here to purchase tickets.

Holiday Trunk Show – Mirta Tummino and Sarah Stewart
Saturday, December 13
12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Two Houston designers are teaming for this special trunk show. Mirta Tummino’s delicate wirework showcases colorful gemstones. Sarah Stewart designs beautiful silk and wool scarves that are batiked and woven in Indonesian by master textile artists.

Geminid Meteor Shower
George Observatory
Saturday, December 13
Open until Midnight
Enjoy the annual Geminid Meteor Shower at the George Observatory. Not rising until past midnight, the Moon will be favorable this year. The peak of the shower will be 9:00 p.m. to midnight. Dress warmly and bring lawn chairs. Telescope viewing will be open until 10:00 p.m. Cloudy skies will prevent viewing of meteors.