Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and that means one very important thing in the Dallas area. As of today, you can be reasonably sure that we’re not going to have any more subfreezing weather until next December. I wouldn’t recommend planting any tomatoes or peppers for at least another week past this, but gardening season starts today. If you’re looking for inspiration for this year’s horticultural carnage, head out to the Texas Discovery Gardens for some well-placed inspiration on Texas-friendly plants. While you’re at it, spend some time in the butterfly garden, just for relaxation’s sake.
Oh, and while you’re at it, keep an ear open for possible TDC events involving the Texas Triffid Ranch. Nothing’s cast in stone, but here’s a hint:
While it may not seem obvious immediately, wandering around the butterfly garden at the Texas Discovery Gardens brings up a very good question: how does the garden get its butterflies? Well, one could just let them go wild, lay eggs, and let their caterpillars pupate and metamorphose on their own. Considering how most caterpillars find secure and discreet locations to pupate, though, most visitors would never get the chance to see those pupae before the butterflies emerged. In addition, many butterflies and moths have wasp exoparasites that lay their eggs within the pupa and emerge as adult wasps, killing the pupa before it ever gets a chance to develop.
The best option for a compromise that both promises maximum visibility for visitors and maximum protection for the butterflies is the one used by the Texas Discovery Gardens. Toward the back, near the exit airlock, is a rear display full of collected butterfly pupae, carefully pinned to the ceiling. If you’re lucky, during your visit, you might witness a fresh emergence. If you’re really lucky, you might see two separate species emerge at the same time.
Want a firm demonstration of the phrase “I love living in the future”? Look at what can be done with jellyfish enclosures. Jellyfish tanks aren’t absolutely new, but changing lighting that fluoresces the jellyfishes’ internal structures? You need color-changing LEDs for that. In the process, you get a slow, stately progression and circulation that you could watch for hours.
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One of the advantages to a public aquarium is the opportunity to show animal and plant species too dangerous or too invasive to risk general importation. The red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri) is both, but not quite for the reasons one would expect. While legal for individuals to own in states with cold winters, possessing or transporting red-bellies in Texas understandably tends to rub authorities the wrong way. Contrary to popular expectations, the danger of some irresponsible fishkeeper letting piranha loose in Texas waterways isn’t the threat to humans. In their native habitats in the Amazon and Orinoco river networks, they tend to avoid humans. However, as fish-eaters, they’d strip out everything from minnows to alligator gar, and ultimately would leave nothing in our streams, rivers, and reservoirs besides piranha. Better to view them in circumstances such as these, where they aren’t going to get out due to carelessness or neglect.
On the other scale, the other big advantage to a public aquarium is in viewing species too rare or high-maintenance to justify private ownership. For example, the Children’s Museum has a very nice collection of Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri), a species both extremely protected and not suitable for general fishkeeping. Considering the size of adult lungfish, few private aquarists could afford a tank large enough to give one room, much less the three at the Children’s Aquarium. Get three of them together, and you practically have a party.
More to follow….
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Contrary to popular opinion, adult butterflies and moths aren’t all nectar-drinkers. Oh, many are, but many species go for other options. You may have seen photos of Orinoco River turtles covered with white and yellow butterflies perched on their heads, but the butterflies aren’t just using the turtles as resting sites. Instead, they’re taking advantage of the salt secreted from the salt glands resting by the turtles’ eyes. Many species augment sodium or other elements from sweat, overripe fruit, manure, and, sometimes, blood.
Considering the number attracted by fermenting fruit, it’s not really surprising that the Texas Discovery Gardens butterfly garden has a large loquat tree along its entry ramp. The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), sometimes known as “Japanese plum,” is a rather common ornamental tree throughout Texas. While the foliage can handle a typical Dallas winter without problems, the fruit sets and grows through the winter, and that can’t handle our sudden subfreezing stints. Therefore, to see fruit, loquats in Dallas need to be under cover.
Most people in the US who have encountered loquat fruit did so in Chinese buffets, where canned loquat in light syrup is extremely popular. That was where I had my first experience with the succulent and slightly crunchy fruit, and rapidly became enthralled with both the flavor and the consistency. Because of its winter-growing habits, fresh loquat is nearly impossible to get north of Austin, but friends there relate the popularity of trees grown in front yards among local kids. The fruit needs to be peeled and pitted, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
In comparison to the fruit, loquat flowers don’t appear to have much going for them. Possibly because of their mutual relations within the family Roseacea, loquat flowers have a rough similarity to apple blossoms. I’m curious about how they fluoresce under ultraviolet light, because between their bland coloration under visible light and the relative lack of scent, they need something else to attract pollinators.
All things considered, a loquat tree makes excellent sense in an indoor butterfly garden. Voluminous flowers, fruit that remains on the tree when ripe, plenty of foliage for hiding…now I just want to know what sorts of caterpillars feed upon the leaves.
While not as rare in captivity as they used to be, the Children’s Museum at Fair Park is still the place to see the world’s largest freshwater turtle in optimum conditions. The alligator snapping turtle, Macrochelys temminckii, ranges through Texas into the Gulf Coast, and occasionally as far north as Dallas. In 1987, I was lucky enough to see a large female in Carrollton, north of Dallas proper, during a very rare land excursion while she was hunting for a nesting site. The Children’s Aquarium alligator snapping turtle is about as big as the one I saw back then, with the help of a rich diet and a lot of care.
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Okay, let’s try a thought experiment. Your organization inherits a classic Art Deco historical building, with a huge adjoining conservatory. The conservatory both looks and shows its age, with leaks coming from the roof and lots of rust along the support pillars, but demolishing it isn’t an option, for a lot of reasons. For reasons of temperature and humidity stabilization, the original conservatory contained collections of various succulents, including aloes and cacti, but they don’t have quite the oomph of rainforest trees reaching for the ceiling. You want to put in plants that fill the enormous conservatory space, but you also have maybe one-quarter the space of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden conservatory. You also want a reason for attendees to visit the conservatory all year round, knowing they’re going to see something new every time they return. So what do you do with the conservatory space?
Well, if you’d answered “Renovate the space with state-of-the-art fixtures and irrigation systems, put in an airlock system to minimize escapes, replant the interior with friendly and impressive flowering and fruiting trees, and turn the whole thing into a gigantic butterfly garden,” congratulations. You did better than I would have. You also thought the same as the Texas Discovery Gardens crews, because they blew out the stops on the design and operation of the facility.
Having seen several butterfly gardens at big facilities as of late, particularly at Moody Gardens in Galveston, it’s surprising to see such a large space turned solely into butterfly garden. Here, though, it works. Entry is from the upper floor of the TDG building, with a long, slow ramp around the periphery of the interior toward ground level. In the process, you get a view of trees, vines, and shrubs from the top, giving a better impression of exactly what butterflies and other flying insects look for when it comes to food and egg-laying sites. As the ramp swings around, it passes through different layers of foliage, revealing unique bloom and leaf patterns. Finally, directly below the entrance is the exit, and if you’re already overloaded, the trip ends there. Or…or you can keep going around, looking for feeding stations, fountains, and the undersides of flowers and leaves usually too low to the ground to appreciate.
Based on the name, you might assume that the main focus of the Children’s Aquarium was on fish. Well, that’s partly true, but the Aquarium has a longstanding reputation for exceptional reptile specimens, both of indigenous Texas species and introduced ones. For example, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans features “Spots”, a leucistic alligator, but the Children’s Aquarium has a full-on albino one.
More to follow…
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Besides its main butterfly garden conservatory, the Texas Discovery Gardens building boasts an extensive interior dedicated both to touring exhibitions and to local art events. At the moment, it also features a semi-permanent set of animal enclosures, transported there from the old Dallas Museum of Natural History. In keeping with the theme, the majority are of indigenous Texas species, such as the Texas coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum), but it contains a contrast between our local and more exotic spider species.
Compared to the beautiful Brazilian tarantula on display, our local tarantula species, 14 of which in Texas, appear both dull and boring. Succumbing to that assumption means missing out on a gentle-tempered, agreeable spider with plenty of fascinating behaviors. Having burned out an extremely intense case of arachnophobia in my teenage years thanks to one, I have a soft spot for all of our local species. Seeing one in captivity brought back a lot of memories, all of them good.