Monday, September 27, 2010

Our Most Recent Babies!

Readers might recall that our last article about our naked mole rat colony discusses the complexity of pup life and their survival. We were once again reminded of these facts when our two queens recently gave birth to litters within six days of each other.

On September 7th, Elphaba gave birth to eight pups. Of the eight, six were either stillborn or died shortly after birth. The remaining two died within three days without any signs of having been nursed.

Then, Galinda gave birth to 26 (!) pups on September 13th. All were extremely small and underdeveloped. Sadly, none survived their first day.

Here are some interesting observations:

• This six-day difference is the shortest time span yet between the two queens’ litters. Readers might recall that at one time their litters were born 45 days apart.

• Previous to the last two births, we’ve been able to accurately predict the queens’ “due date” – 90 days for Elphaba, 80 days for Galinda – making Elphaba 19 days late and Galinda just four days late.

If they both follow their historic trends, Galinda will give birth on December 2nd (day 80) and Elphaba will give birth on December 6th (day 90). Should some survive, this four-day difference will make the closest aged cousins in the colony. It will be interesting to observe how they interact and whether the colony treats the pups from each litter differently.

But there are a lot of reasons to suspect that more time will pass before Elphaba’s next pups –if any – are born. Why is Elphaba’s gestation becoming longer? Is this connected to increased competition between the two? Has something changed in their environment? Elphaba may not actually have longer pregnancies – more likely she does not get pregnant for the first ten days. Galinda may interfere with immediate mating and Elphaba "sneaks in" mating opportunities as she can. The queens have a receptive cycle that dictates when they can be pregnant. If Elphaba misses her first opportunity, the next will occur about 10 or 11 days later. If Galinda delays her yet again, it will be another ten days or so until she is again at a part of her cycle that allows her to become pregnant. With fewer opportunities to mate, we would see smaller litters spaced further apart in time.

As December nears, the Animal Care team will be busy preparing for pups. We want to provide the healthiest and most welcoming habitat possible for them. The rest is up to the two queens. Stay tuned!

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Fresh Sheet – September 24, 2010

Pacific Science Center reopens tomorrow with a spanking clean Tropical Butterfly House and 445 emerging pupae. Come visit us!


36 – Papilio palinurus (Banded Peacock)
67 - Papilio rumanzovia (Crimson Swallowtail)
80 - Idea leuconoe (Paper Kite)
20 - Pachliopta kotzeboea (Pink Rose)
50 - Graphium agamemnon (Tailed Jay)
06 - Doleschalia bisaltide (Autumn Leaf)
55 - Parthenos sylvia philippensis (The Clipper)
30 - Cethosia biblis (Red Lacewing)
50 - Papilio polytes (Polite Swallowtail)
51 - Hypolimnas bolina (Great Eggfly)

“Fresh Sheet” is our weekly shipment report of pupae on display in the emerging window. Visit Pacific Science Center’s Tropical Butterfly House and meet our newest residents.
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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What’s on the Shopping List?

At some point in her career, Life Sciences Manager Sarah Moore got used to the phone calls from accounting. “Is your staff eating seafood on Pacific Science Center’s dime?” “Somebody is buying baby cereal and it’s coming out of your budget!” or even “Who on earth eats SPAM®?”

A glance at our weekly shopping list shows what a variety of foods our animals eat.

Pop Quiz! Match each food item to the animal that you think eats it. Answers are below. Disclaimer – some foods have more than one right answer. Go ahead and give it your best guess!

1. Grapes
2. Spam
3. Manila clams
4. Crickets
5. Romaine lettuce
6. Baby cereal
7. Root vegetable peelings
8. Dog food
9. Bananas
10. Bay scallops

A. Cockroaches
B. Sea stars
C. Naked mole-rats
D. Spiders
F. Sea anemones
E. Millipedes
G. Dermestid beetles
H. Velvet ants
J. Butterflies
I. Banana slugs

1=H: The velvet ants suck the juice from grapes. Give yourself a half point if you picked the naked mole-rats. They love to carry them around in their mouths.

2=G: SPAM® is the exclusive diet of the dermestid beetles.

3=B: The clams go to the sea stars and occasionally the larger anemones in the tide pool.

4=D: Crickets are popular with our carnivorous arthropods: The Chilean rose tarantula, black widow spiders, emperor scorpion, centipede, and vinegaroon. Lydia the leopard gecko likes to chow down on them too.

5=I: Banana slugs love to munch on romaine lettuce, but they’re not the only ones. Naked mole-rats, grasshoppers and millipedes will all eat romaine as well. In an emergency, sea urchins can eat romaine instead of sea weed; though it is obviously not something they would have available in the wild!

6=C: Naked mole-rats actually eat a large variety of food, and this includes the baby cereal. We mix it with rodent chow and turned into dough balls, which is a favorite treat in the colony. They also eat apples and kale, as well as rutabagas, jicama and other root crops.

7=A: But the mole-rats say hold the skins please. To prevent any traces of soil, we peel our root veggies and give the outside to the herbivorous arthropods – the cockroaches, blue death feigning beetles, and even the millipedes. This is their main source of nutrition.

8=E: Millipedes don’t just eat veggies though. They have unusually high calcium needs, which we meet by supplementing their veggies with small amounts of dog food.

9=J: If you’ve ever visited our Tropical Butterfly House, you may have noticed the dishes of rotting fruit in there. While most butterflies like to drink nectar from flowers, a few species love to suck up the juice from bananas and other fruits.

10=F: The truth is, most of the animals in our Saltwater Tide Pool like to eat bay scallops. It’s something we offer them every day. It’s the staple food for our sea anemones and it’s always fun to watch them close up around a new piece of scallop.

Some animal caretakers have commented that the unusual veggies and other foods we work with have caused them to experiment with trying new foods at home. Rutabagas are delicious mashed with butter, and jicama is awesome with just about any dip. Anyone have a good recipe for SPAM®?

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Escape That Never Happened

Running a butterfly house is rewarding in so many ways, but keeping the little guys from escaping can be a real headache. Pacific Science Center maintains a permit with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which includes language describing the importance of containing our butterflies and outlining penalties for non-compliance. Butterflies from other habitats could disrupt native species or otherwise upset our local ecosystem, so aside from avoiding trouble, keeping them from escaping is simply good citizenship. We teach our guests to respect the environment and we want to do the same.

We periodically review the layout of our plants, the training we give our staff and the types of species we purchase, with the goal of making the butterflies in our exhibit happy to stay, while reducing their chances of getting out by accident.

Imagine our surprise while doing a walk around the perimeter of our campus the other morning. There on the glass wall above the door into the Ackerley Family Gallery, we saw a black and red butterfly basking in the morning sun.

Horticulturist Jeff Leonard saw it first. He had a moment of panic, and then got down to business, fetching a ladder while Life Sciences Manager Sarah Moore went for the telescoping net. The butterfly was safely captured and brought back indoors for identification.

That’s when we got our second surprise. Running through the species in our exhibit, it didn’t match up with anything. Furthermore, it looked strangely familiar. A few minutes thumbing through our beloved tome, “Lepidoptera of the Northwest” by Paul C. Hammond and Jeffrey C. Miller, revealed the truth. The butterfly was a Vanessa atalanta or red admiral. This species is native to the Pacific Northwest. It didn’t escape at all – it lives here.

We uttered a quick apology to the butterfly and sent it on its way. The question still remains – why was it sitting above the door into our exhibit? Perhaps it was trying to get in.

The photograph of the red admiral is in the public domain. Our photographer took the day off.
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Monday, September 13, 2010

Trouble in a Pretty Package

In anticipation of the Pacific Science Center closing the next two weeks, the Tropical Butterfly House is without a pupae shipment, hence no “Fresh Sheet.” This break has Life Sciences manager, Sarah Moore reflecting on her pupae procurement responsibilities.

When I describe my job to people, a common question is whether I get to choose the butterflies we display Pacific Science Center’s Tropical Butterfly House. The answer is, yes and no. Butterfly rearing, like much sustainable farming, is seasonal, diversified and unpredictable. So although there are tried and true species we nearly always have, we end up getting a unique blend in each shipment. But once in a while, a species of butterfly will distinguish itself in some way, for good or bad, and will go on my short list of “must have” or “don’t send” species.

One example of a “must have” species is Prepona omphale, the blue belly button. It has extremely healthy pupae, powerful flight and not one but two shades of brilliant blue on its wings. In short, it’s a keeper.

A butterfly that has caused more deliberation than the blue belly button is the Idea leuconoe or paper kite butterfly. I almost took these butterflies off my wish list due to poor emergence numbers. Even with the best husbandry practices, we lose a disappointing 20% of the pupae before they emerge. But once emerged, the adult is a unique and gorgeous creature. Add to that its unusual, leisurely flight patterns and an exceptionally long lifespan, and you have a species that nothing else can replace. This butterfly is always welcome in our exhibit.

The harder choices can be identifying those species that are not compatible with our exhibit. Recently, I reviewed the patterns of butterflies that make it into our vestibules and occasionally beyond.

One species stood out as a problem. Colobura dirce, the zebra mosaic, is a personal favorite butterfly. I love its distinctive stripes, its habit of roosting head downward, and its crazy, zigzag flight patterns. What I don’t like is the possibility that one of these butterflies may eventually escape from our museum. Their small size, cryptic coloration and habit of making short flights with frequent rests means that it often lands on people, and is rarely noticed when it does.

The information on this species was compelling enough that I have asked our vendors to stop sending them. While I will miss these fascinating butterflies, I know there will be other favorites ahead. What are your favorite butterflies in our exhibit?

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

More Snake Science

Have you ever read an account of a thirty, forty or more foot snake, and wondered if that could be true?

If the measurement came from the shed skin of the snake, it should be viewed with skepticism.

A couple of weeks ago, Estrella the boa constrictor shed her skin. To our delight, the shed was very complete with no scales scraped off and few broken pieces. We like to find sheds like this because it is one of the signs that a snake is healthy. Snakes with illnesses or injuries will often shed in patches, leaving loose scales throughout their cage.

Estrella’s skin was so perfect that we decided to do an experiment. We measured the skin, holding it straight but loosely so as not to stretch it. We also measured Estrella herself. Snakes are not cooperative about being measured. Even with two people holding her and two measuring, she did not stretch out completely straight. We compensated for this by adding 1 foot to her measurement - the estimated length of her curved section.

The results: Estrella’s length = 7’ 6” (213 cm). Estrella’s shed skin’s length = 10’ 8” (305 cm). That’s right. Estrella’s shed skin is 143% of her actual length.

Why is this? When a snake is “wearing” her skin, the scales overlap with thin connective tissue holding each thicker scale together. When she sheds, the scales lie flat, the connective tissue stretches out, and voila! The skin is longer than the animal who wore it.

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Fresh Sheet – September 4, 2010

“Fresh Sheet” is our weekly shipment report of pupae on display in the emerging window. Visit Pacific Science Center’s Tropical Butterfly House and meet our newest residents.


20 - Mechanitis polymnia (Polymnia Tigerwing)
50 - Nessaea aglaura (Aglaura Olivewing)
30 - Dryas iulia (Julia Longwing)
59 - Heraclides anchisiades (Ruby-spotted Swallowtail)
20 - Heliconius melpomene (Postman)
15 - Prepona demophoon(Two-spotted Prepona)
40 - Caligo memnon (Owl Butterfly)
50 - Anartia amathea (Scarlet Peacock)
05 - Heraclides thoas (Giant Swallowtail)
10 - Colobura dirce (Mosaic butterfly)

Total = 299

El Salvador

07 - Battus belus (Belus Swallowtail)
20 - Caligo memnon (Owl Butterfly)
18 - Catonephele numilia (Numilia)
15 - Consul fabius (Tiger Leafwing)
05 - Doxocopa laure (Silver Emperor)
14 - Heliconius erato (Small Postman)
30 - Heliconius hecale (Tiger Longwing)
20 - Heliconius hortense (Mountain Longwing)
80 - Morpho peleides (Blue Morpho)
30 - Myscelia ethusa (Royal Blue Butterfly)
30 - Papilio erostratus (Dusky Swallowtail)
10 - Papilio torquatus (Band-gapped Swallowtail)
08 - Parides montezuma (Montezuma Cattleheart)
16 - Prepona omphale (Blue Belly-Button)
06 - Tithorea harmonia (Harmonia Tigerwing)

Total = 309

Grand Total = 608

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