New varmits in Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife

Dan Brooks, Ph.D.
Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, HMNS

When I first arrived at the museum in 1999, I ‘inherited’ the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, and the Frensley Hall of African Wildlife.  Well the latter was fully updated a few years ago with generous support from Robert and Annie Graham.  But the Farish Hall is another story – it will wait a few years to receive a full makeover, as part of the HMNS’s exciting expansion.

Anyway, back to the new halls I ‘inherited’, as I made the initial rounds as a young Curator 11 years ago, I realized there were some truly rare (e.g., Black Bear), endangered (e.g., Attwater’s Prairie Chicken), and sadly in some cases extinct (e.g., Red Wolf) species in Farish Hall.  Despite this fact, some rather common Texas mammals were missing – most noticeable were the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk.

So I bided my time, wondering how long it would take until the Docents noticed this overlooked fact and began to bug me to do something about it.  Well, for those of you keeping score, it took about six or seven years.  But alas, as of 23 November 2009, I’m thrilled to report that we now have representation of both the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk in the Piney Woods and Carnivore dioramas, respectively.  Following are some natural history notes.

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

skunk

This is the most common species of skunk in our region.  Few people realize that there are at least 10 species of skunks distributed throughout the New World.  In North America, there are a couple of species each of the striped (Mephitis) group and spotted (Spilogale) group, with the hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus) dispersing southward, where it radiates into several species in South America.

Skunks are members of the Carnivoran Family, Mustelidae. This includes otters, badgers, weasels and other similar forms.  Like many medium-sized Carnivorans, the skunk has a strong musk gland.  So strong in fact, that the skunk has a well-known reputation for its scent gland, which produces a musky odor.  This odor is not uncommon when skunks are involved in roadway mortalities.  They can also voluntarily shoot the scent directly at whatever varmint (including a person) is bothering them.  Just like rattlesnakes sounding off their warning before striking, a skunk will stamp its feet and flag it’s tail before spraying.

Skunks are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, including cannibalized carrion – it’s not unusual to find more than one road mortality at a give site, since live skunks will forage upon road killed skunks, then becoming a victim of vehicle mortality themselves.

possum

Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)

Of the more than 300 species of Marsupials extant today, 230 are found Australia and surrounding islands, and 85 are endemic to the New World.  Of these, only one occurs in the United States and Canada – the Virginia Opossum, or simply ‘Possum’ as it’s known in this region.

Like all marsupials, the young are not as fully developed as other mammals when born.  They claw their way to the mother’s pouch, where they develop for a couple of months.  As the young get older they will ride on the mother’s back, and there can be several young per litter.

Opossum
Creative Commons License photo credit: graftedno1

To ward off predators, they can open their mouth very wide and display their vast array of teeth – 50 teeth in all!  They may hiss and make noise as well, but the famous saying ‘playing possum’ comes from this marsupial’s ability to feign death by going limp.  Possums are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, and it’s not unusual to find them rummaging through a garbage can.  Their sense of smell is well developed to compensate their poor eyesight.  Although their tail is prehensile, it’s not strong enough to support their weight, such as a New World monkey’s prehensile tail for example.  They do use the tail for balance however.

Range across seven biomes to explore the entire continent of Africa in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Living Fossils Living Large

Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches

Frances and I were asked if we would set up a living fossils table for the HMNS’s annual Dino Days celebration that took place here last week. Not having had any history or paleontology classes I was a little clueless as to which of our living animals would fit into the category of living fossils, other than our alligator.

We did some research and what we read lead us in several directions for what it means to be a living fossil. Some animals, like the echidna and platypus, are nicknamed living fossils because they exhibit “primitive” characteristics – like oviparity, or egg-laying, in mammals. The overall consensus is that a living fossil is an organism that originally lived during the time of the dinosaurs (or even predates them), has remained unchanged morphologically and appears the same as a species otherwise only known from the fossil record, has no close living relatives and has survived major extinction events.

Chambered Nautilus

There are several examples that fit this description: the crocodilians, horseshoe crabs, turtles, opossums, salamanders, roaches, millipedes, dragonflies, and the nautilus. These are some of the critters we have in our collection and you can also add ferns, ginkgos, gar fish and the coelacanth to the list. There remains a healthy debate over which plants or animals can and should be included. I have included some pictures of our fossils, both living and non-living at the end of this entry.

All in all, we had a great time in sharing our casts, skins, skulls and live animals with everyone who came up to the table during Dino Days. Hope to see you there next November!

Dino Days Baby Gator

Tiger Salamander - too cute

Fossilized crocodilian scute and modern scutes

Volunteers manned the Touch Tank giving visitors a chance to touch these little fellows - Horseshoe Crabs.

Cast of fossil turtle shell









Mammal on Board

As caretakers and general animal friends, we try to make sure our animals are happy as well as healthy. The majority of our collection travels to schools and are viewed and touched by thousands of kids annually. This can cause a lot of stress on animals, especially those new to our program. To acclimate these animals, we often spend time (in and out of the Museum) handling them.

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Fashion faux pas,
but I work underground

It is not unheard of for an exotic animal to be wrapped around our wrists, snuggled under our collars, or just hanging out in a pocket as we walk around the Museum. Sometimes we have to be careful – while we do want the animals to get used to being handled and touched, we also do not want to frighten the general public. A snake is a snake, but people react very differently – and in some cases, quite vocally.

One of our newest additions is a Short-tailed Opossum. To get her used to our smell (so she sees us as a friend, not foe), I have been carrying her around in a small pouch. Very unobtrusive as you can see in the photo at right – though it is an odd fashion accessory.

Once word got out to staff about this new darling, several tracked me down to see how she was getting along. The next picture is her answer to their question. While she seems to feel secure inside the pouch (so much so I often have difficulty getting her out) she takes intrusion very seriously. A typical opossum reaction, and yet friends find her adorable. She is what we like to call “spunky.”

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Who dares intrude
upon my solitude?!

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Opossum extraction during quality time

I have also been transporting her home with me (much to my dog’s dismay – “what, another mammal?!”) and spending quality time in the bathtub. As escape artists go, STOs are some of the best, but the bathtub is fairly escape-proof.

That’s not to say she hasn’t surprised me. She once used the drain chain to climb up to the edge – opposable digits are awesome!

Here is a picture of me (left) during quality time (composing my blog no less). I’ve just removed her from a new hiding place – up my pant leg. (It tickles!) Thankfully, it’s the leg bent at the knee – otherwise I’m sure the little critter would have hiked up further. One of her favorite raceways is up and down my head.

After some free-range time, it is more pouch training complete with treats and then she’s raring to go for a full night of fun. Me, on the other hand – I’m off to bed.