3 Things that You Can Start Doing Right Now to Reduce your Environmental Impact

We all know how tricky and expensive it can be to alter your daily routine and make changes to reduce your environmental impact. While making those big changes are great, we all need an easy place to start! Here’s what you can do right now to help our planet:

Western Hampshire of Earth
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org
Western Hampshire of Earth
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org

1. Delete those old emails! That email sitting in your spam folder for an expired 20% off coupon to a store you shopped at once surprisingly has a negative impact on the environment. While emails may seem like an eco-friendly alternative to traditional mail since there is no physical waste of paper, the process of sending and storing emails on servers uses electricity, and oftentimes that electricity is created with fossil fuels that release carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It is estimated that just one email can create 0.3 to 50 grams of carbon dioxide. To put that in perspective a paper clip is about 1 gram, so while 0.3 of that may seem like a small number those emails add up!

Insect on a yellow flower
Insect on a yellow flower

2.Cut the strings on your disposable masks when you throw them away. A lot of us have heard about cutting up the plastic soda can holders and this same practice can be used on the ear loops of the single-use face masks. When these strings are left uncut and they find their way into the environment,  animals can get stuck and tied up in the strings. This can really hurt that animal as it may limit their movement if they need to search for food or make a quick escape from a predator. 

3. Stop idling your car in drive through lanes. The next time you’re in the drive-through lane picking up your coffee consider turning your car off in between moving forward. Some newer cars already do this on their own! If you speculate that you will be idling your car in a drive through lane for longer than 10 seconds, you are saving yourself gas and reducing carbon emissions by turning your car off and then restarting before pulling forward. An alternative to this would simply be parking and going in to place your order so that your car can be completely shut off while you make your purchases. 

The idea behind this blog post is to inform the reader on ways that they can make small changes in their life to make an impact. If you have more suggestions please comment on one of our posts we’d love to hear your ideas!

Samantha King
Naturalist

What’s Blooming at River Legacy?

After a week stuck indoors from the snowstorm that hit us mid February, we are all excited to see some first glimpses of spring. While some plants may have suffered from the cold, we are seeing a lot of plants that benefited from the precipitation. Come to River Legacy and see if you can find these 5 plants that are blooming NOW!

Eastern Redbud

1. Redbud. This plant is a member of the legume family which means it grows bean pods. The flowers that are blooming now will bloom for a total of 2-3 weeks and are a bright magenta color that becomes a light pink over time. When the red bud’s leaves emerge they are heart shaped, look reddish and slowly change to a dark green and are about 2- 6 inches long. If you plant this tree in your yard you can attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and honey bees!

Wood Violet

2. Wood Violet. This small flower can be seen directly off of the trail and comes in many different shades of purple, blue, and even white. Wood violets have heart shaped leaves that are a good source of vitamins A and C. However, don’t eat the wood violets you see in the park because eating the wrong plant can cause some serious illnesses!  

Bedstraw on pant leg

3. Bedstraw. This plant is very abundant and is in the same family as coffee! Bedstraw, commonly called catchweed, has tiny hooks that act like Velcro. If you get close enough to this plant while walking by it may hitch a ride on your pant leg or your dog’s hair. 

Mexican Plum

4. Mexican Plum. This tree has snowy white flowers that appear in clusters before the leaves develop. While the flowers resemble snow, the blooming of this tree in March has traditionally meant that for Texans winter is over! Phew, that’s good news! *wipes sweat off brow* Like the name of this tree suggests, there are plums that ripen in late summer that are great for attracting birds and fruit eating mammals.

Golden Groundsel

5. Golden groundsel. This plant is one of the earliest bloomers of the year. If you come to River Legacy Living Science Center you will notice plenty of these yellow flowers in our parking lot now! When this plant goes to seed it forms a white fluff that helps disperse the seeds, like dandelions. Because of this, it is said that the botanist who named this flower was reminded of their grandpa and so the golden groundsel is often referred to as “Old Man.”

Some of these gorgeous blooms can only be seen for a few weeks so make sure to get out and stop by River Legacy to experience these spring blooms!

Samantha King
Naturalist

What’s Up with Tarantulas Having Bald Butts?

Brazilian Black and White Tarantula
(Nhandu coloratovillosus)
shows off two bald patches on abdomen where urticating hairs have been flicked

If you have visited River Legacy Science Center recently and had the opportunity to see the 100 arachnids in The Art and Science of Arachnids traveling exhibit, you may have noticed some tarantulas with bald patches on their bottoms (aka abdomens). What could the reason for this possibly be?

A lot of animals have defense mechanisms; opossums play dead, lizards lose tails, even humans have fight or flight reactions to avoid danger. When you think of a tarantula’s defense mechanisms your first thought is probably their bites and/or venom. However, they also have urticating hairs located on their abdomen. Urticating hairs are thorny bristles that can be flicked by the back legs that can then lodge themselves in the attacker’s skin and cause an allergic reaction. One way these hairs are used is as a passive defense. Tarantulas place the urticating hairs in the egg sac to protect it from other arthropods looking for a snack. Urticating hairs are also used as an active defense against predators. When used for active defense, the tarantula uses its back legs to flick the hairs from the abdomen into the air thus forming a flying cloud of ouchie! If these predators are unlucky and any of the hairs make contact with their skin it can cause an uncomfortable rash. This rash is meant to deter predators from eating the tarantula. When tarantulas molt to grow in size the lost urticating hairs are replaced along with any legs that may have been lost!

Mexican Red Knee Tarantula
(Brachypelma smithi) 
has all urticating hairs intact

When you check out The Art and Science of Arachnids exhibit, you may notice that not all of the tarantulas have this bald patch. While some of the tarantulas have a calmer temperament and simply do not flick the hairs as often, there are also some that do not have any hairs to flick. Tarantulas can be divided into two groups; old world and new world. This classification refers to the parts of the world the tarantulas come from. Old world being from Asia, Australia, Africa, and Europe, and the new world being North and South America. The classification also refers to a few other characteristics, including those urticating hairs we talked about. Almost all new world tarantulas have urticating hairs and old world tarantulas do not. 

If you haven’t had the opportunity to see The Art and Science of Arachnids exhibit, there is still time! This limited-time exhibit runs until February 27th, 2021. Want to learn more about another arachnid we have on this exhibit? Check out the Nature Notes blog post on scorpions and why they glow!

Once in a Blue Moon

Full Moon Photographed From Apollo 11 Spacecraft, www.nasa.gov

The year 2020 has been remarkable for many reasons, but especially for stargazers and astronomers alike. This year we have had/will have 13 full moons, two being super moons, and one which is a blue moon on Halloween! 

Let’s break this down a little more. On Halloween, October 31st, there will be a full moon. The timing of a full moon on Halloween only happens every 18-19 years! One might even say it happens once in a blue moon… This year’s full moon on Halloween is also considered a blue moon. Unfortunately, that does not mean the moon will be tinted blue. The term blue moon has to do with timing. Moon cycles are 29.5 days long, so there is usually only one full moon each month. However, sometimes months are longer than 29 days, so it is possible to have two full moons in one month. That second full moon of the month is considered a blue moon.

Full moons may sound like a spooky sight, and they can even cause some interesting animal encounters. Imagine you are outside at night going for a walk in the woods and you see a bright blue/green glowing animal creeping across the forest floor. You may think you are seeing some alien life form, but it’s actually just a scorpion! 

Scorpions under UV light. Credit: Lizardguy/Flickr

So why on earth would a scorpion need to glow? To answer that question you need to understand scorpions and their lifestyle. Scorpions are nocturnal predators that hunt for their food at night. When there is a full moon, scorpions can be seen glowing, which is actually fluorescing. Fluorescing is when the molecules become excited by energy, usually from a light source, and then the molecule relaxes back to its ground or “normal” state. This phenomenon can be recreated with scorpions during the sunny hours of the day by using a UV light. There are a few theories as to why scorpions fluoresce under the moonlight. Some scientists think that the glow may help scorpions find each other. Another possibility is that scorpions use it like sunscreen. However, the leading theory being developed by California State University arachnologist Carl Kloock, is that the scorpions use their fluorescence as a way to tell if they should go out and hunt or not. If scorpions are really desperate for a meal, then they will hunt regardless of the moonlight outside. However, if the scorpion is not particularly hungry and there is a full moon out, they may decide to stay hidden and avoid the moonlight. But none of these theories have been fully proven, so your guess is as good as ours!

If you are interested in seeing a scorpion fluoresce then be sure to come see our new traveling exhibit, The Art and Science of Arachnids, featuring 100 live arachnids! Exhibit opens December 1. Click here to learn more!

Daphne the Opossum

Daphne, June 2020

Here at River Legacy, we are a home to many animals that cannot be released into the wild for one reason or another. Our newest animal ambassador, Daphne the opossum, is no exception. 

Before we get into Daphne’s story, we should cover some opossum basics first. When baby opossums are born they find their way into their mother’s pouch. Yes, you read that correctly! Opossums have pouches and they are the only marsupial in North America. Those babies will stay in the pouch for 55-60 days and then they climb out and ride on the mother’s back for 4-6 weeks. Daphne was about three month old when she would have been riding on her mother’s back and unfortunately, was attacked by a dog. Thankfully, Daphne survived due to the great care given to her by some amazing rehabbers. However, Daphne did lose the external part of her ear and an eye on her right side. Daphne doesn’t let it slow her down, as she is very curious and loves to climb and explore. 

Daphne, September 2020

Daphne has earned the nickname “Hou-daphne” (like Houdini). The next morning after Daphne arrived, our Naturalist found her enclosure empty with the latches still in the closed position. After searching the entire animal room, Daphne was safely found on the second shelf wrapped up in a pouch inside a box and sleeping soundly. Since the incident, we have made sure that her enclosure is “opossum” proof and she has not wandered out again! Daphne was only 5 months old when she came to River Legacy on June 9th and was small enough to squeeze out of her enclosure. Daphne isn’t so small now and is growing fast from all the yummy treats she gets. Daphne’s favorite treats are boiled eggs, cheese sticks, and grapes. 

Opossums are misunderstood by many and are sometimes treated poorly by people. Opossums play a really important role in the ecosystem because they eat about 5,000 ticks every year, and if you didn’t know, ticks can cause some pretty harmful disease in humans. Opossums very rarely get rabies due to their body temperature being slightly lower than most other mammals. Opossums also eat venomous snakes and are immune to the venom that they inject through their bites. The next time you see an opossum, now you’ll know a bit more about them and the important role they play! We hope you get to meet Daphne soon!

What You Might Not Know About Venom

Snake venom is a substance that is injected via fangs into the body that can cause harm and sometimes death. Snakes use venom to help defend themselves as well as to demobilize their prey. There are a handful of venomous snake species in North Texas that we all keep an eye out for when walking the trails here at River Legacy. In North Texas alone there are several venomous snakes including the coral snake, several different rattlesnakes, cottonmouth aka water moccasin, eastern copperhead, and the broad-banded copperhead. 

Certainly, getting bit by a venomous snake is the opposite of beneficial, but do you know that copperhead venom is being used in today’s research as a treatment for cancer? You read that right! There can be a beneficial side to the venom that we do our best to avoid at all costs.

There are reports dating back to the 1930s of copperhead venom being used to treat cancer. Cancer is a well known disease that happens when the cells that make up our body “loose control” and over replicate and grow, causing tumors that can cause other health problems. Snake venom works by stopping the clotting/clumping of blood cells and also hurting the nervous system. The proteins in copperhead venom have been shown to prevent cancer cells from attaching to other cells. The venom has also been shown to decrease the formation of new blood vessel cells in breast cancer in mice studies.

The research doesn’t stop with copperheads; many other venoms are being looked at for treatments for other diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and strokes. So while venomous snakes may scare you next time you see one, you will be reminded of the important role that they have in our lives other than being free rodent control! 

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6162746/

The Many Benefits of Native Plants!

River Legacy Living Science Center is honored to be partnering with The Native Plant Society of Texas to help us restore, maintain and beautify our grounds using native plants. Member Josephine Keeney and her crew come once a month to plant and maintain beds around the Science Center and pond. If you are a regular visitor, you have probably seen the beautiful wildflowers along our pond.

Did you know that you can also add or convert your yard into a “native plant yard?” There are many benefits to incorporating native plants into your landscape, especially during the long, hot and dry Texas summers!

Why use native plants? They tend to be more tolerant of the climate and water availability for a particular area. Texas is considered to be home to about 5,000 native plants! Once established, these plants require little maintenance and are more drought tolerant than non-natives allowing the conservation of this precious resource. Just think, lower water bills!

Saving money is not the only benefit from having a native plant yard. Local wildlife is well adapted to them as food sources for seeds, nuts, fruit, and even eating the plant itself. Animals use them for shelters and habitats. Native plants support local pollinators who are vital for our food production. These plants are representatives of our regional biodiversity and preserve our history.

Where do we find them? How do I know what plant to put in the sun or in a shady or wet area? These questions and more can be answered by The Native Plant Society of Texas (npsot.org). Their mission is to “promote research, conservation and utilization of native plants and plant habitats of Texas through education, outreach and example.”

There will be even more beautiful beds in the months to come at the Science Center. Keep your eyes open and come back to visit often to see the variety!

Horsemint
Red Yucca

The Armadillo and the Bobcat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exiting the back doors of the Science Center, I headed out for a walk. To my right was a Texas persimmon, bordered by layers of the scarlet turk’s cap, a beautiful plant with flowers deeply red. The large stone steps escorted me down to the level of the trails.

Overhead hung vines, whose mustang grapes quietly tumble to the ground and are squished by herds of wandering feet. I walked further, passing the American pokeweed, a plant which hides its toxicity behind its blueberry-like appearance. To my left, a forking trail leads to an alleyway of poison ivy, appropriately labeled so that onlookers can observe without risk.

Finally, I reached my destination – the pedestrian bridge, whose sturdy wooden panels are upheld by the strength of red metal framing. Beneath this bridge flows Snider Creek, which on this day was dry from weeks of Texas heat and drought. I leaned over the edge to look.

Along the dry creek bed I saw movement. What was this bizarre creature? A medium-sized body, slender, coated in a thin layer of light brown fur. I struggled to identify it. But as it turned its head upward, facing me, the uniqueness of its facial structure with its tufted ears, disclosed its identity. I was looking at a bobcat, my first time seeing one in the park.

I was mesmerized by this sighting; I’d wanted to see a bobcat for quite some time. But as the cat ran away, and I began to excitedly return to the building, I heard another noise, this time along the bank that lines the creek. I looked to my left to see an armadillo just beside the bridge digging in the dirt, slowly heading in the same direction as the bobcat.

What an incredible walk this had been. To see a bobcat in the park is a rare privilege, but to see one within 50 feet of an armadillo is remarkable. These creatures are vastly different. Both are mammals, but that concludes their overlap. One is lengthy and thin, walking with the elegance of the feline family. The other is spherical and armored, trudging along. How strange, then, to see these incredibly different animals in such close proximity.

But this is what one encounters along the River Legacy trails. Each walk is different. Some are calm and quite; others are filled with the humming of cicadas and the chirping of birds. During some, one sees young turtles, ribbon snakes, or eastern cottontail rabbits. On a rare occasion one might spot a beaver wading in the pond, its uppermost layer of fur made dark by the water. And on some lucky days, as I was fortunate enough to experience, you may see the astounding variation of the natural world displayed in front of you, as bobcats and armadillos wander along the same creek.

Come visit our trails and let us know what you find.

Written by Josh Ripple, a Summer Intern at River Legacy Living Science Center and student at Stanford University.

Meet a Few of Our Wildlife Ambassadors!

Smokey the Western Rat Snake

Hi guys!! I am Smokey, a Western Rat Snake. I am the newest Animal Ambassador to River Legacy Living Science Center and the latest resident to our public exhibits. I was brought from the Fort Worth Nature Center because I needed a larger home.

I am 6 years old with a beautiful yellowish, tan color and irregular blotching from head to tail. I am active during the day, especially when I’m hungry! Hey, you can come see me eat every Friday at 4:30! Sometimes when I get disturbed I let out a hiss, but not to worry, I‘m not venomous, merely voicing my opinion.

Actually, my relatives and I get confused with rattlesnakes because we look alike and we both shake our tails, but Western Rat Snakes do not actually have a rattle. Generally, though, I am a nice girl so come on over and see me! I am so excited that I just got a larger home with lots of room to climb! I might be hiding up high, so look closely.

 

 

 

Poppy the Virginia Opossum

Poppy the Virginia Opossum found her way to River Legacy Living Science Center after she was rescued and rehabilitated from being hit by a car. Due to the injuries sustained, she was not able to be released back into the wild. This is unfortunate due to the many positive benefits opossums provide to an ecosystem.  She is very sweet and curious about her new home. She loves eating hard-boiled eggs, crickets and strawberries.

When people encounter this ambassador in the wild, the feelings are a mixed bag. Some think this nocturnal creature is either cute or ugly; others think it looks like a giant rat. The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is a very unique creature. It is North America’s only marsupial, which means it has a pouch. Average life span of a wild opossum is 1 to 3 years; life span of a captive opossum is 2 to 5 years.

Opossums have a remarkably robust immune system and show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other pit vipers. (Remember, North Texas only has two venomous snakes, the rattlesnake and copperhead.)  Opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs. This is due to the fact that their core body temperature is lower than most mammals and the virus cannot live in this cooler environment.

Another benefit from having opossums in your neighborhood is that they will eat and therefore kill ticks that are in their fur.  Opossums are fastidious groomers.  A study by the Cary Institute for Ecosystem shows that an opossum may eat up to 5,000 ticks in a season. Ticks can cause a variety of issues for humans, including Lyme Disease.  Now, the opossum is not single-handedly stopping Lyme Disease, but if the opossum takes care of ticks in its own body, then those are less ticks in our yards and natural areas.

Mistletoe Plants: Fascinating Group

Have you ever wondered why, during winter, some deciduous trees (trees that let their leaves fall to the ground) still have a clump of leaves on a branch? It turns out that these leaves do not belong to the tree; they actually are a different plant, a mistletoe. Mistletoe plants occur in every continent on the planet and they belong to different families and genera. The most common found mistletoes in North America, including here at River Legacy, are species that belong to the genus Phoradendron.

Mistletoe plants are hemiparasitic plants, meaning they are parasites of trees most of the time but can still undergo photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the regular process through which the majority of plants produce their own food, using sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to produce nutrients. They attach themselves to the tree at the stem and start absorbing from the tree or shrub. Though they are considered pests and can damage significantly and even kill trees, mistletoe plants may not be all that bad. Research suggests that some mistletoe species can actually help the tree disperse its seeds, as it attracts birds that eat the fruit of the tree.

As we approach the final days of winter, walk the trails at River Legacy and take a look at the leaf-less trees and see if you can spot any mistletoes on a tree or shrub.