Animal Espionage: Meet the Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs of the Wild

This week, you’ll have the first chance to experience our new special exhibit, Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America – examining nine major periods in U.S. history when America faced threats from enemies within our borders. But did you know HMNS already features a few “sneaks” of our own? They’re just of the animal variety!

In our HMNS Outreach Programs, we highlight several examples of crafty creatures who have adapted creatively to their environments to prolong survival. Want to meet a few of these smart cookies? Come to our free Shell Educators’ Preview Sept. 29!

How do you become a spy? First, blend in!


Our first spy is a familiar animal to the Gulf Coast – the American alligator! One of the alligator’s strongest adaptations is its amazing camouflage. I remember fishing as a kid on the Sabine River and my dad pointing out a gator in the distance. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t spot it! Only as we neared could I see the bumpy “dead log” silently watching us float by. Alligators are extremely well-adapted to ambush. With nostrils that stick out of the water like a snorkel and a clear inner eyelid to protect their eyes while they swim, their whole body can stay submerged as they await their prey. While too dangerous to approach in their natural habitat, our Wildlife On Wheels program Texas Wildlife often includes one of our baby alligators, still small enough to keep safely!


Several of our other spies star in our Bugs On Wheels: Amazing Arthropods program and are masters of disguise. The giant long-legged katydid, for example, is the world’s largest katydid, native to Malaysia. These awesome insects mimic leaves, and during the daylight hours they can safely remain motionless, cloaked in foliage, waiting to become active at night. They don’t only come in green though; these insects can have an endless array of shades and patterns to match the leaves of their unique habitats. And like many things that get better with age, so does their camouflage, as their back edge grows brown and tattered like an old leaf.

Traitors mean false friends.


In the natural world, traitors come in many guises, even that of seemingly innocuous plants! The pitcher plant, masquerading as a source of tasty nectar, lures in insects (sometimes even rodents) and traps them. Their victims cannot escape the waxy walls and sticky fluid inside. As their prey drowns, digestive enzymes help break down the body, allowing the plant to absorb the released nitrogen. You can meet three species of this unusual carnivore in our Cockrell Butterfly Center!


Another unique traitor native to our state is the Texas tortoise, often seen in our Wildlife On Wheels programs, though a threatened species in the state of Texas. Deceptively fierce, this desert dweller is extremely territorial, and males will fight to the death if a fellow tortoise challenges. Competitors rise up on front legs to charge, using the pronged gular scutes protruding from the shell to hook under the trespasser, attempting to flip him over. This is a deadly situation for a tortoise as all of the animal’s internal organs press down on the lungs, which causes him to suffocate if he cannot turn back over. Yikes!

The Science of Sabotage


Crushing prey with an estimated force of 60,000 Newtons, the bite of Tyrannosaurus rex would be lethal enough as it is, but some paleontologists, such as Farlow and Abler, debate that a more insidious biological superweapon could be concealed in those fearsome teeth. Fine serrations in each tooth provided strength and cutting power, but may have also allowed meat from T. rex’s last meal to linger, lending a perfect source for bacteria to feed on. Similar to that of a Komodo dragon, it is theorized that the bite of T. rex could deposit overwhelming amounts of bacteria, causing the wound to fester and become septic. Want to touch a T. rex tooth and feel the serrations? (We promise, ours are clean.) A visit from Dinosaur Discovery, part of Chevron Earth Science On Wheels, makes it possible!



Our last saboteur certainly employs a most unusual method of dispatching enemies —how about getting licked to death! The lightning whelk, a carnivorous snail, uses the sharp edge of its shell to pry apart bivalves. Once open, the whelk uses its radula (think scratchy cat tongue, but much worse!) to lick and scrape the hapless victim into smaller pieces for consumption. Fun fact: this ruthless snail is the state shell of Texas, and can often be found on gulf coast beaches. Look for a “left-handed” (sinistral) shell, shaped so it’s easier to put your left hand in. Another great place to see a whelk? In our Wildlife On Wheels: Invertebrates program, or in the Strake Hall of Malacology!

Interested in bringing these super-cool, sneaky creatures to your school or group? Send an email to or call (713) 639-4758 to book your Outreach Program today!

Amazon Scavenger Hunt: a Fun Way to Explore Rainforest Sustainability

Recently my daughter and I were making cookies when she asked me, “Where do chocolate chips come from?”

I considered the glib answer, “From the chocolate chip factory,” but decided to take advantage of a teachable moment and said, “Well, chocolate is made from seeds of the cacao tree that grows in the South American rainforest.”

If you know any six-year-olds, one question inevitably leads to another. So began a conversation about rainforest plants, animals and people that tested the limits of my understanding — all for the love of cookies.


Chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla beans, all from the Amazon.

As we enjoyed our cookies, we talked about other things in our house that came from rainforests. A quick online search later and we were off counting different foods, checking out the furniture and even kicking the tires on the car. As it turns out, a lot of things in our home originate in a rainforest. We easily found 30 items!


Example of mola on a quilt.

 Indigenous peoples sustainably use rainforest resources. Besides food, clothing, tools and homes, some cultures harvest rainforest animals and plants for ceremonial clothing that is passed from one generation to the next. Many cultures trade in non-food items like handmade baskets and bowls, and art produced by some cultures has found its way into our lives. The ornately patterned molas made by the Kuna Indian women of Panama can be found on purses, wall hangings or even quilts.


Example of another mola.

As a consumer, supporting companies and artisans that sustainably harvest these products can make a difference a world away. To raise awareness and enrich your child’s education, why not have your own Rainforest Celebration Day? Get your kids involved and try a rainforest product scavenger hunt or have a rainforest food-tasting party. Feeling crafty? Try making a mola out of fabric you have at home, or if like me you’d probably appliqué yourself to it, try making it out of construction paper instead! Brightly colored craft feathers (chicken, peacock, and pheasant) can be used to make necklaces, arm bands or if you’re really excited, headdresses or crowns for the little princesses in your life. 


Macaw feather headdress.

For more information on indigenous peoples, check out our John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas or the upcoming exhibit Out of the Amazon: Material Culture, Myth and Reality in Amazonia. The Cockrell Butterfly Center offers a taste of the rainforest, literally! Check out the vending machine downstairs, complete with edible bugs. Ask about our Wildlife on Wheels Rainforest topic to bring to your child’s school.

Experience a rainforest close to home with these ideas and your imagination. Happy hunting, and may all your scavenger hunts include cookies!

Unmasking Everyday Superheroes with HMNS Outreach!

Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Wait, no, it actually is a bird, flying faster than most cars.

Superpowers, such as the Flash-like super speed of the peregrine falcon above, are abundant throughout the natural world and specifically highlighted by several specimens in the HMNS Outreach collection.

Superhero Hamilton

Meet Hamilton the blue-tongued skink, who has the ability to regrow most of his tail should it be separated from his body!

In addition to a stuffed peregrine falcon that travels with our Texas Wildlife program, the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels lineup is full of noteworthy unlikely heroes. Like Wolverine of X-Men, traveling specimens such as our blue-tongued skink from Reptiles & Amphibians or starfish from Invertebrates exhibit regeneration after loss of tail and limb, respectively.

Ed Bugs 3

Vinny the vinegaroon has an awesome superpower, the ability to spray acid with his abdomen!

Our newest LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels program, Awesome Arachnids, gets your Spidey-Sense tingling with a few undercover superheroes. The program will bring out specimens such as an emperor scorpion, which glows electric blue under ultraviolet light, and a vinegaroon, which sprays an acetic acid and caprylic acid mixture from its abdomen when threatened. And don’t forget about the wall-crawling creatures that spawned Spiderman! Awesome Arachnids also features two tarantulas, who can climb with special retractable claws! 

Superheroes like Batman and Iron Man use science and technology to their advantage when fighting crime, and after a ConocoPhillips Science On Stage presentation, your knowledge of chemistry or physics can rival theirs! Learn about the super heat used to produce colors in fireworks with Cool Chemistry, or explore the tricks anyone can use to acquire super strength through simple machines with Motion Commotion!

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Stepping back in time 70 million years could have brought you face to face with these supersized T. rex teeth!

Very few superheroes have the ability to travel through time, but kids can harness this ability through Chevron Earth Science On Wheels! Shift back millions of years and explore the characteristics and adaptations of prehistoric life with Dinosaur Discovery, or combine time travel with super smarts in Know Your Rocks, in which students save the day by classifying different types of rocks.

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Children and adults alike love the Discovery Dome for its superb selection of shows, available in English and Spanish!

We certainly can’t forget about the superhero qualities of the men and women working in outer space. With hazards ranging from freezing temperatures to rapidly moving matter to a lack of air, outer space is a place fraught with danger. Learn more about the extremes of life in space and much more with our Discovery Dome, which features a wide selection of shows from the Burke Baker Planetarium!

Every hero has a story, and you can unmask your own with HMNS Outreach, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood science museum.

Contact us at or (713) 639-4758 to book your HMNS Outreach program today!

Welcome to the HMNS Animal Alcove: Where the wild things are

You’ve seen the animals on display in our African and Texas wildlife exhibits. While realistic, none of these mounts actually slither, wiggle or do much of anything, really.

But HMNS has a live animal collection that much of the public never even sees. These animals are not on display, but used to educate at our outreach programs. Outreach programs like Wildlife on Wheels (WOW) give students a unique and hands-on opportunity to learn the basics of animal life.

I was fortunate enough to take a tour of the Animal Alcove that houses more than 40 of the animals used in the outreach programs. Right when you walk into the room, you feel like you have stepped into a completely different environment. In fact, this is exactly what the staff in charge of these animals is shooting for.

My first thought was, “Does the Museum have any snakes?” Absolutely we do! The Museum houses both venomous and nonvenomous snakes ranging from a rattlesnake to a bald python. One of the newest snake residents at the museum is a rainbow boa. This particular boa is a female, and she is known to the staff as being a bit of a diva — which is her right, considering how pretty she is.

The Museum also has an in-house baby American alligator. The alligators that come through the Museum do not stay here long. The Museum has a foster program through Brazos Bend State Park and houses these alligators until they begin to mature and then they send them back out into their natural habitats.

Even though the snakes and reptiles were the first animals I asked about, they were not the first animals that caught my eye: that would be two green-cheeked conures. These two little guys are very beautiful to look at and they are also very charismatic. But be careful! These little guys draw you in with their charm and pretty feathers and then reward you with a little bite on the finger. They are a good example of the look-but-don’t-touch rule.

However, they are not the only birds that call the museum home. There are also two ring-necked doves. These love to be petted and held and will even make little laughing sounds for visitors.

Moving away from scales and feathers, let’s talk about the furry friends here at the museum. There are several adorable mammals here that can make you smile. There is a short-tailed opossum, two ferrets, and two degus, in addition to a sweet black rabbit.

The degus were my personal favorites. Degus are rodents, but they are more closely related to chinchillas and guinea pigs than they are to rats and mice. These two will greet you at the door of their cage begging for treats and will even crawl out onto your hand for some petting and loving. Then when they have had enough attention, they are happy climbing onto their exercise wheel for a little cardio.

In contrast to that were the two ferrets on the other side of the room. Both of these laid-back fellows were fast asleep in either a hammock or the corner of their cage.

All of these animals were very interesting, but I am one who picks favorites. My favorite member of the live animal collection at the museum is the axolotl.

I know, you’re thinking, “What on earth is that?!”

An axolotl is a salamander that is closely related to the tiger salamander (which you can also find at the Museum). What is so interesting about the axolotl is that it resembles a tadpole more than it does a full grown salamander.

Even though you may not have heard of an axolotl, you might already have an idea of what it looks like. Toothless, the black dragon from the movie How to Train Your Dragon, was modeled after an axolotl! If you look below, you can see the striking resemblance:

Meet our Axolotl!