HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.


Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.


As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.


Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.


Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.


This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.


These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.


The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

Food chains link the creatures of coastal ecology

Don’t stick your hand in that shell! You don’t know who might be home. It could be a carnivorous snail or a “clawsome” crab. Take a look at our Texas state shell, the lightning whelk or left-handed whelk, which feeds on bivalves like oysters and clams. Perhaps the snail that makes the shell is still hiding inside, or perhaps the shell is home to a hermit crab. Unlike most crabs, hermit crabs use the shells of snails as homes to protect their soft bodies.

Hermit Crab

Hermit crab taking residence in an empty lightning whelk shell.

Texas is home to some fascinating creatures, and our coast is no exception. In addition to the Gulf side beaches, there are salt marshes, jetties and the bay to investigate. Our coastal habitats are just waiting to be explored, and with the right gear, you can see organisms at every trophic level. (You knew I was going to talk about food chains, didn’t you?) 


Lightning whelk snail retracted into its shell, operculum blocking the opening.

Most folks will notice some of the upper-level consumers: birds like pelicans and gulls. Who could miss the gull snatching your unattended hotdogs? Or the pelicans plummeting into the water face first to catch fish? Maybe you’ve noticed fishermen along the beach as they pull in small bonnethead sharks. Some animals may require good timing and tons of mosquito repellent to see, like our rare and critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. If you pay attention, there are even rattlesnakes catching mice that are feeding on insects and plants in the dunes!Food Web

As you follow a food pyramid from the apex down to the base, top predators like humans and sharks feed on the organisms in the level below. There you might find the larger bony fish we feed on, like redfish or snapper, and below them you can find some of the crustaceans and mollusks they feed on in turn. Crustaceans, like our blue crabs, stone crabs, and the smaller ghost crabs, often scavenge in addition to feeding on mollusks, worms, or even plant matter. Many of our mollusks are filter feeders, like oysters, pulling algae and plankton from the water. Finally, at the base of the food pyramid, there are the producers. The phytoplankton and algae make their own food with energy from the sun.

A food chain pyramid is a great way to show different types of food chains on one example. I used a pyramid created by my friend Julia and drew examples of food chains from our coast on it. One side has the trophic levels on it and the other three sides have example food chains. What’s on the bottom of the pyramid? The Sun, of course!Pyramid

Coastal ecology isn’t just about sand, shells, and dodging gulls. It’s also about the interactions between plants, animals, and their environment. The plants anchor the dunes, the dunes protect and replenish the beach sand, the sand houses animals like mole crabs and mantis shrimp, and we get to enjoy it when we protect it.

If tracking home beach sand in your shoes, car, towels, and suits doesn’t excite you, our new Hamman Hall of Coastal Ecology may be just the air-conditioned trip to the coast you need on a scorching summer day in Texas. Members, come join us Memorial Day weekend to see wonders of the Texas coastline!

Mala-whaaa? Discover the incredible world of mollusks in the Strake Hall of Malacology

One of the most awesome parts of working for a Museum (especially one as large as ours) is how many people you get to meet and work with – all with something different that gets them excited about science! It’s easy to celebrate your inner geek when you can find fellow geeks who you can geek out with in a geeky fashion while geekily reveling in unique parts of the Museum.

You could ask anyone here and they’d be able to tell you which part of the Museum brings this out in me: the Strake Hall of Malacology.

“Mala-whaaaa?” you may ask.

Malacology is the study of mollusks, an incredible group of creatures that includes octopi, scallops, and my favorite, snails (but more on them later). They’re invertebrates belonging to the phylum Mollusca, and there are over 85,000 species of them in the world!

These invertebrates all have three features in common but are otherwise extremely diverse. They have a mantle containing a cavity used for breathing and excretion; a radula, which is used for feeding; and the same structure to their nervous systems, with two pairs of nerve chords: one serving the internal organs and another for locomotion.

Mollusks are also able to use their internal organs for multiple purposes. For example, their heart and kidneys are used in their reproductive, circulatory, and excretion systems.

Mollusks are more varied than any other phylum. Think about it: squids, octopi, cuttlefish, nautili, clams, mussels, oysters, conch, slugs, snails — they all have many diverse species and yet they’re all still mollusks! And this is due, in part at least, to how long they’ve been around. While there’s still significant scientific debate about their precise lineages, we know that they’ve been around since the Cambrian period (541 to 485 million years ago). This has allowed them to diversify to fit in many, many niches all around the world — from the depths of the ocean to mountain tops.

Now for my favorite: SNAILS! Perhaps it’s because of my name (Gary, like Spongebob’s pet snail) but I think snails are really cool. They account for 80% of mollusks, and are perhaps the most diverse of them all. They’re found everywhere, in part because some have evolved to have gills while others have lungs.

But that’s not all! Some species with gills can be found on land, others with lungs are found in freshwater — with a select few even found in marine environments! They’re in ditches, deserts, large bodies of water and everywhere in between. Most are herbivores, but there are also omnivores and predatory snails. They’re also found in many sizes, from giant African land snails 35 cm in length to some just 1.5 mm long.

So come to HMNS to the Strake Hall of Malacology to learn everything there is about these marvelous mollusks!

World-renowned malacologist Guido Poppe visits HMNS’ “magnificent” Hall of Malacology

HMNS’ Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway got a special treat last week in the form of one exceptionally dapper shell expert. World-renowned Belgian malacologist Guido Poppe traveled to Houston for the express purpose of visiting our museum and surveying our utterly impressive (and at times underappreciated) Hall of Malacology.

Renowned malacologist Guido Poppe visits the HMNS Hall of Malacology | June 27, 2012It was Poppe’s first visit to HMNS and was spurred on after he met Petway at a malacology conference in Philadelphia. “We’ve never had someone at this level come and visit,” Petway said of Poppe, who has authored numerous reference books on shells in the Phillipines — where he now lives — and has named nearly 200 new species.

Renowned malacologist Guido Poppe visits the HMNS Hall of Malacology | June 27, 2012Guido Poppe with HMNS Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway

Poppe was particularly impressed with a yellow Spondylus, or spiny oyster, on display.

“These are really rare; there are less than a dozen in the world,” Poppe said.

And even this world-traveling diver was impressed by the world’s largest sea shell, on display here at the HMNS Hall of Malacology. “I’ve never seen one this big!”

Renowned malacologist Guido Poppe visits the HMNS Hall of Malacology | June 27, 2012To schedule your next visit to our impressive Hall of Malacology, click here for tickets, and check out our Flickr photo set of the visit here.