On Land and Water: the Southern Ocean and the Importance of Correct Names

As a representative of the Early Millennials, I can say with confidence most of us grew up with four oceans in our geographic vocabulary — the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans. Granted, to impress our teachers (and by impress, I mean annoy), some of us may have raised our hands to announce our awareness of the dual identities of the first two in this list, divided into the north and south Atlantic and the north and south Pacific.

“Miss, the north and south portions rotate in different directions, so they have to be different oceans,” we’d say.

“I see,” Ms. Miss would reply, suppressing the instinct to roll her eyes. “Is that what your science teacher’s been telling you?”

Well, here’s a new one on our youngest group of graduates now entering the work force, a piece of information the upcoming generation of students will no doubt annoy us with — there aren’t four oceans, nor even six counting the subdivisions of the Atlantic and Pacific. There are seven!


National Geographic map from 1922 showing the “Antarctic (Southern) Ocean.”

I was disappointed to discover recently that the Southern Ocean has been a thing for 16 years, officially, and even as early as the 1920s on some maps. While we were fretting over the Y2K bug, the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) was working to re-imagine the landscape of our planet according to the most current science. Because the waters surrounding Antarctica rotate independently of any other ocean current, the area below the 60th parallel was known to be an independent ecosystem, but didn’t yet have its own name. In light of this information, the IHO, comprising 68 countries with saltwater shorelines, requested of its members a recommendation on how to handle this wrinkle in natural science. Of the 68, 27 nations responded with preference for a fifth ocean, and Argentina alone wrote to say it was unnecessary. Out of those 28 responses, 18 advocated for the naming of the new ocean as the Southern Ocean, while the rest preferred the Antarctic Ocean.


A general delineation of the Antarctic Convergence, sometimes used by scientists as the demarcation of the Southern Ocean.

As a result of less than 42 percent of responses from IHO’s membership, the organization published the third edition of Limits of Oceans and Seas (S-23) in the year 2000, entering the new “Southern Ocean” into the annals of history. I’m guessing their decision-making process doesn’t work on a majority-rules system.

Fifteen years later, perhaps as a result of this continued debate, the Southern Ocean still has yet to enter into common parlance, evidenced by brief interviews with my younger brother and three of the youngest employees in the Houston Museum of Natural Science Marketing Department. None of them knew what the heck I was talking about. You’d think information 15 years old would’ve at least made it into the minds of those younger than 23. Even the fact that some countries, though not all, recognize a fifth ocean ought to be enough to make it into public school curricula. But alas, this information has flown under the radar for so long, this 31-year-old professional internet researcher has beaten his younger contemporaries to the punch. And like the IHO member-countries who abstained from their recommendations, I’m uncertain whether I should be proud of this personal discovery. In any case, there is a new ocean, and its name is the Southern.


More details The Pacific Ocean as example of terminology concerning seas: the area inside the black line includes the seas included in the Pacific Ocean prior to 2002 and the darker blue areas are its informal current borders, following the recreation of the Southern Ocean and the reinclusion of marginal seas.

Perhaps the reason for this “secret” of Earth’s modern hydrography lies in the hesitation of many nations to even care about it. After all, the great waters of our planet are in a sense one big ocean flowing between the continents, and the demarcation of oceans seems more a semantic debate between map-makers than a pressing scientific issue. But I’m totally for it — I believe in the Southern Ocean!

As a species, we name things to better understand our world and enter into discussions about it. Science, though not perfect, strives to be exacting. We seek answers and work to classify the things we know into categories that make the most sense because, simply put, it makes things easier to understand. From my word-nerd perspective, the people who care about language work toward accuracy. By nature, language can never be as exact as science, but concision helps scientists create precise explanations. I mean, come on; how much simpler is it to say, “The Southern Ocean is home to the planet’s largest ocean current” than it is to fumble around with something like, “The waters surrounding Antarctica rotating separately from the other three oceans bordering it creates the planet’s largest ocean current”?


The “seven seas,” at one time or another.

New names for old things also place our society in historical context, and as humanity’s understanding of the world develops, so does our perspective. Remember the phrase “sailing the seven seas”? To the Ancient Greeks, who knew only Europe, Persia and North Africa, the extent of their hydrographical purview was limited to the Mediterranean, Black, Red, Adriatic, Aegean, and Caspian seas. They threw in the Persian Gulf because they didn’t know any better. To Medieval Europeans, the phrase referred to the Baltic, North, Mediterranean, Arabian, Black and Red seas and included the Atlantic for the same reason. In the time of colonialist expansion to North America, sailors saw the oceans as great seas, lending credence to the idea that the world shrinks as knowledge grows. These mariners considered the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic Ocean, the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific all seas, as well as the Caribbean and its eldest relative, the Mediterranean.

Now, in 2016, in an age of scientific and lingual precision, we invoke the phrase in the times we wish to wax poetic, when no other phrase will do, but with the advent of the Southern Ocean, it’s no less accurate. The seas of our millennium include two Atlantics, two Pacifics, one each of Arctic and Indian, and now the Southern. I’ll move we call these The Magnificent Seven.


“The Tall One”: Denali, formerly Mt. McKinley, formerly Denali.

The waters of our world aren’t the only thing changing names. Last September, near the centennial of the national park system, President Obama visited Denali National Park in Alaska, home to the tallest peak in North America. Reaching a whopping 20,237 feet into the sky, the mountain was formerly known as Mt. McKinley. During the visit, Obama announced the United States would officially recognize the mountain’s ancient title of Denali and scrap the name of the 1896 presidential candidate William McKinley (who, incidentally, lost the race). The name “Denali” is a derivation of “the tall one” in Koyukon, one of 11 Athabascan languages traditionally spoken in Alaska.

The return of the mountain to its former name observes the viability of the Athabascan naming system, which links places to one another to help orient travelers more effectively. For example, the names of several tributaries of the same main river will all share similar roots. The re-naming also comes as a sign of respect to the peoples who for thousands of years have called Denali by the same name in spite of its federal designation less than a century old.

You see how important a name can be. So the next time a kid corrects you, instead of rolling your eyes, rein in your pride and smile. Then ask the kid this: “Okay, smarty-pants. Now tell me why it has that name.”

Finding the flora and fauna: Butterfly Center staff conduct a BioBlitz in Memorial Park

Editor’s Note: The term “BioBlitz” was first coined in 1996 for intense attempts to record all the flora and fauna within a designated area. National Geographic, which has partnered with parks around the country for various BioBlitzes, describes them as “a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible within a designated area.”  These quick and dirty surveys are used both to gather information about the biodiversity of a given area, and since members of the public and other non-experts (students, etc.) are often included as participants, as ways of sparking public interest in local flora and fauna.

The “Eco-Tech” panel of the Memorial Park Conservancy recently recruited the Butterfly Center to conduct a preliminary survey or “mini-BioBlitz” of the insect fauna throughout Memorial Park, with the idea of inviting members of the public to help on future surveys. One of the goals of the panel is to get some baseline data on the biodiversity of all the creatures that live in Memorial Park, and from there, make plans on how best to preserve and manage or enhance this wildlife.

We were asked to survey several different natural habitats in Memorial Park (i.e., not the golf course). On a sunny morning in early July, Butterfly Center staff members, our summer intern, and a couple of volunteers drove out to Memorial Park armed with insect nets and containers.  While some surveys (such as birds or trees) can be done without collecting, there are so many kinds of insects (and so few experts) that at least some specimens have to be collected in order to make identifications.  

We decided to sample 10 transects — 100 feet long by about 8 feet wide — each one in a different area. Our first couple of sites were in open prairie vegetation, so we used sweep nets and aerial nets to collect samples. In case you are not versed in insect collection techniques, a “sweep net” is a canvas net bag on a sturdy metal frame that is swished through the vegetation. Periodically, the contents are emptied into Ziploc bags or other containers. 

This giant fishing or nursery web spider was nearly three inches across! (photo by Zac Stayton)

This giant fishing or nursery web spider was nearly three inches across! (Photo by Zac Stayton)


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We found lots of these small millipedes (and a few slugs) in the leaf litter in the forested areas. (Photo by Zac Stayton)

Aerial nets are the more familiar “butterfly nets”: a much lighter, more delicate net bag that is swung through the air (it should NOT be dragged on the ground, used in water, or swiped through bushes!). These nets are more for catching fairly large, individual insects, especially ones that fly, so samples are put directly into a glassine envelope, or vial, or other appropriate container (or, if it is something readily identifiable, simply noted and released). Sweep nets generally collect things like grasshoppers and katydids, walkingsticks, mantids, leaf hoppers, stink bugs, the odd caterpillar, spiders, etc. Aerial nets are useful for larger flying insects such as butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, wasps, bees, some beetles, certain flies, etc. 

In the more forested areas, sweep nets were not really appropriate, so we used the aerial nets and also took litter samples (scraping up leaf litter and bagging it). Litter samples are typically brought back to the lab to process in a so-called Berlese funnel. Many small arthropods who live in the litter of the forest floor, including springtails and cockroaches, ants, small beetles, millipedes, etc., can be collected in this way.

 Another find in the leaf litter:  a “woolly bear” caterpillar.  This is the larval form of the Giant Leopard moth, Ecpantheria scribonia.  The caterpillar rolls up in a ball, showing red stripes between segments covered with black “fur” (these caterpillars do not sting but probably taste bad so are warningly colored).  (photo by Nancy Greig)

A find in the leaf litter: a “woolly bear” caterpillar. This is the larval form of the giant leopard moth, Ecpantheria scribonia. The caterpillar rolls up in a ball, showing red stripes between segments covered with black “fur” (these caterpillars do not sting but probably taste bad so are warningly colored). (Photo by Nancy Greig)

There are many other collection techniques, none of which we used in this preliminary survey. Pitfall traps are always fun; they are empty cans or jars set into the ground with their mouths at ground level. Sometimes bait (a little raw chicken or fish, for example) is put in the bottom.

Crawling insects, especially those interested in odorous food, fall into the “pits” and cannot get out. Such traps need to be checked every couple of days — often they will contain different kinds of beetle, maybe a cockroach or two, etc.

Malaise traps are screen tents or baffles that trap small flying insects. The insects get caught in the folds of the screen and since they typically crawl upwards to escape, can be funneled into a container filled with alcohol.

Yellow pans are any wide, shallow container with a yellow (painted or otherwise) bottom.  These are partly filled with water and a bit of liquid detergent. Wasps and pollinating flies, etc., are attracted to the yellow color and cannot escape once they fall into the soapy water. Yellow pans need to be used in open areas in sunny weather and the samples removed every day or two.

Our final survey site was along the banks of Buffalo Bayou, which was much higher than usual so there was not much shore. Here, we mostly used aerial nets. We saw several things in this area that were not seen other places, especially tiger beetles, damselflies, etc. Here, we mostly used aerial nets (or grabbed things with our hands). 

The gorgeous Ebony Jewelwing a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park

The gorgeous Ebony Jewelwing, a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.


The vibrantly colored Vivid Dancer is a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park

The vibrantly colored Vivid Dancer is a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.

By noon, it was blazing hot and we were all soaked in sweat, so we bagged things up and stopped at the Shandy Café (great little place on Memorial Drive) for lunch on our way back to the Museum. 

Although we only collected for about three hours, we have our hands full in identifying everything. We first have to sort things to order, identify what we can, and then we will probably have to send some things off to experts in the various insect groups. I’m sure it will take us several weeks! 

Some of the coolest things we found: 

It’s always fun to open up the sweep net and find walkingsticks or praying mantids, or a colorful leafhopper. We picked up quite a few different grasshoppers and a few katydids.  We noted but did not catch too many butterflies (we can identify most of these by sight, so no need to collect).

I like wasps and bees; we saw several of the large red Polistes wasps, carpenter bees, leaf cutter bees, and a really cool “digger” bee starting her nest tunnel in the sand (see attached video clip). A medium-sized beetle that looked like a wasp was visiting flowers in several places. 

The very fast tiger beetles mostly eluded us down at the bayou’s edge, but we did catch a few damselflies there. The most common one there was the lovely Ebony Jewelwing.

Tiger beetles are extremely fast moving, long legged, predatory beetles that often occur in open sandy areas, especially along streams.  We saw many of these, probably Megacephala virginica – and managed to catch a few – along the bayou.  (photo from BugGuide.net by Chris Wirth)

Tiger beetles are extremely fast moving, long-legged, predatory beetles that often occur in open sandy areas, especially along streams. We saw many of these, probably Megacephala virginica – and managed to catch a few – along the bayou. (Photo from BugGuide.net by Chris Wirth)


Hibiscus bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis

Click here to watch a video of a female Hibiscus bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis, a solitary species as she digs a nesting tunnel into hard-packed earth as we found on our BioBlitz.

Once we have compiled our results and reported them to the EcoTech Panel, they will then make plans for another survey sometime in the fall. I believe they intend to invite more general participation, so if you are interested in the insects of our area, keep your ears open!

The 10 Kinds of Pandas You Find on the Internet

Everyone knows cute animals basically run the Internet. But what’s the best of the best when it comes to Internet cuteness?

panda bear wallpaper 9

I hereby put forth that pandas are the epitome of Internet animal cuteness, and should reign with their ever-powerful cuteness over the masses from a bamboo throne … which would have to be replaced constantly, because they’d eat it (in an adorable fashion, of course).

Don’t believe me? Check out the 10 kinds of pandas you find on the Internet:

(Or perhaps you’re already panda savvy, in which case you should totally come see Pandas: The Journey Home now playing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre.)


Because nothing’s more adorably sad than a sad panda.



When you’re this cute, A-listers can’t get enough photo ops — even though the pandas obviously hog the spotlight.



You’d wear a hat of your own face, too, if it were this cute.



Nothing is filled with more joy than a happy panda.



Because when the going gets tough, the tough get going.



Don’t even pretend your baby’s this cute. #SorryNotSorry



Sometimes you just need that extra push and WHO COULD EVER GET MAD AT A PANDA?!



Everyone’s trying to rip off their adorableness.



Tell me what’s cuter than a giant panda scared by a surprisingly loud sneeze from an eensie weensie panda. TELL ME.



Unfortunately, the endangered status of these miraculous creatures makes me a sad panda. However, these crazy-cute guys and gals are starting to make a come back! Learn all about the conservation programs in their native China and see how their population is beginning to rebound in Pandas: The Journey Home, now playing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre.

The heart of the world: The star of Jerusalem 3D talks about her hometown and seeing herself on the Giant Screen for the first time

Farah Ammouri and her brother Mohammed after viewing Jerusalem 3D in our Giant Screen Theatre for the first time.

If you haven’t yet heard the mountains of praise for the wildly stunning Jerusalem 3D movie, climb out from under your rock right now. This epic film from National Geographic Entertainment whisks and winds you through one of the world’s most important cities with arguably one of the most storied pasts of all time.

But in a city as multifaceted and layered as Jerusalem, how do you do justice to its many tales without focusing on its politics?

Well, you hear it from the perspectives of those who live it every day.

The production team of Taran Davies, George Duffield, and Daniel Ferguson said in a press release, “Our goal is to look at the roots of the universal attachment to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. We hope the juxtaposition of these different religions and cultures — all with profound spiritual and historical connections to the city — will reveal how much Jews, Christians and Muslims have in common and inspire all of us to better understand each other.”

So the team asked three girls — a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim — to lead them around their city for a day. Each girl revealed surprisingly different perspectives — perspectives that form the backbone of Jerusalem 3D‘s magic.

Farah Ammouri, an 18-year-old Muslim, was one of these young women. She spent her entire life in Jerusalem, and she currently attends college in Dallas. We sat down to talk with Ammouri after she traveled to Houston for her very first viewing — ever! — of Jerusalem 3D.

So this was the first time you’d seen the full movie. What did you think?

It was awesome. I loved it. Most of my own footage I’d seen — they’d shown me the clips of what was happening and how they were filming — so I was up-to-date on how it was going to be. But I didn’t see [any of the other girls’] footage; [Director Daniel Ferguson] only showed me mine.

How did you end up in the movie anyway?

First of all, I’m not an actress, obviously. [laughs] I went to a Catholic school, and our nun asked for girls whose families originate from Jerusalem to be interviewed for a movie. A lot of my good friends were auditioning for the movie. It was awkward for awhile, being selected out of a lot of girls that you know. I auditioned in October and I found out in January of the next year. It was a shock; I didn’t know what to expect. [Ferguson] told me about the movie; that it was going to be about religion but nothing political, and I was fascinated by the idea.

You didn’t want to be a part of it because you have acting aspirations?

Nooooo. [giggles] The girls who casted for the movie … we’re all going into something scientific. I have no aspirations to become an actress.

Did you know either of the other girls [Nadia Tadros, from a Greek Orthodox and Catholic family, and Revital Zacharie, a Jew] before the movie?

I knew the Christian girl [Nadia Tadros]. She’s really good friends with me; she used to go to my school and graduated two years before me. I didn’t know she was a Christian girl, and once I knew, we started talking to each other even more. She helped me a lot [throughout the filming of the movie]; we would give each other mental support and encourage each other.

Has your life changed at all as a result of the film?

It has given me experience. I’ve met a lot of new people, and I’ve learned a lot. My personality has gotten stronger from the movie. Imagine seeing yourself walking down the stairs [referring to a scene in Jerusalem 3D], and everyone looking at you and they are trying to tell them not to look at you. When they don’t look at the camera, they’ll be looking at me, and they tell them, “Don’t look at the girl; act normal.” It’s funny.

How do you view your relationship with Jerusalem now that you’re in the United States?

I’m a bit homesick. I do want to go back to live. I came here to study Genetic Engineering and it’s really hard to study that in Jerusalem. After that, I really want to go back home to my family.

Explore the cherished land of Jerusalem in our Giant Screen Theatre. Get your tickets to Jerusalem 3D.