Tortoise Hatchlings

At the Science Mill, our focus is bringing STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math - to life. One of our favorite ways to do this is through living exhibits, like our odd little axolotls and our aquaponics greenhouse. We are also home to some pretty adorable tortoises!

The African Spurred Tortoise exhibit is a great place to focus on biology disciplines, including zoology and life sciences. Visitors get an up-close look at these gentle giants in their outdoor tortoise habitat. Weekend visitors to the Science Mill are invited to join us for our Tortoise Talks to learn more about what they eat and how they behave.

“The tortoises were my favorite,” said Pete S., 10, a recent Science Mill visitor. “They are giant, and also so cute, plus I liked watching them to see how they move and eat.”
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On March 25, 2019, one of the Science Mill’s African Spurred Tortoises, Tortilla, laid a clutch of 24 eggs, which Science Mill biologists dug up and placed in an incubator to protect them from predators. Over the following months, the eggs were observed for signs of development. Not all eggs were viable, but we’re thrilled to report that after 106 days in the incubator, six eggs hatched between July 9 and 12. Weighing in between 29-36 grams each, these tiny tortoises will grow quickly, eventually weighing over 100 pounds when they are adults (the males could even break 200 pounds!).

These fascinating animals are the only animals that have both a shell and a backbone, but that’s just one of many cool tortoise facts. Did you know…

  • They are the largest mainland tortoise species, and only island tortoises from Aldabra and Galápagos are bigger.

  • What makes it a tortoise, and not a turtle? According the San Diego Zoo, “It depends on who you ask or where you are in the world, but most people recognize tortoises as terrestrial or land-loving with stubby feet (better for digging than swimming) and a heavy, dome-shaped carapace. Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles are known as just that, turtles. Turtles tend to have more webbed feet (but not always) and their shells are more flat and streamlined.”

  • They are native to the the scrub and grassland found south of the Saharan desert.

  • Tortoise shells are made of keratin, like our fingernails. They can feel pressure and pain through them.

  • African Spurred Tortoises can live over 100 years if provided with proper dietary needs and husbandry (the science of breeding and caring for animals).

  • Speaking of diet, they are herbivores. It is important to offer them a high fiber diet, such as grasses and leaves, in captivity. Too many fruits and veggies can upset their digestive tract.

  • At the Science Mill, we feed our tortoises a variety of lettuces, spinach, bramble, sorrel, and leaves from fruiting plants such as papaya, cucumber, and pumpkin.

  • About 2 months after mating females will dig a nest and will normally lay about 15-30 eggs. Eggs will typically incubate for 100-120 days before hatching.

  • Baby tortoises are about the size of ping pong balls when they hatch out of their eggs by using a specialized egg tooth that drops off shortly after hatching. What a cool tool!

The Science Mill got to see these egg teeth in action when we welcomed our baby African Spurred Tortoises to our family this summer.

Babies as special as these deserve names just as unique, and we need your help choosing the perfect names. Please vote for your favorite name today!

Was it a Sharknado? Local STEM Museum Swimming in Sharks!

July 2019, Johnson City Texas - The Science Mill in Johnson City, TX has discovered that their property contains a fully intact prehistoric Megalodon shark jaw, hundreds of shark teeth buried in the sand in one of their outdoor exhibits, and... a flying shark. This phenomenon occurs once a year at the Texas Hill Country science museum, which is many miles from the nearest ocean.

“We think it’s going to take community involvement to uncover the shark teeth, and learn everything we can about them,” said Science Mill Director of Operations, Portia Marchman. “We hope visitors from all over Central and South Texas will come help us unravel this phenomenon.”

As part of their effort to figure out the mystery, The Science Mill has acquired a film, Great White Shark 3D, to help them study sharks and understand their behavior. They are inviting the public to view the film, as well.

“Please help us by coming to the Science Mill, watching the 3D movie, digging for shark teeth, taking photographs of the giant Megalodon jaw, and letting us know what you’ve learned,” said Marchman.

The Science Mill is hosting Shark Week, July 31-August 4, during regular business hours. Visitors are invited to get hands-on with shark-related activities, like:


Special showings of Great White Shark 3D Movie*

Misrepresented, maligned and misunderstood, the Great White Shark is an iconic predator. Shot on location in South Africa, New Zealand, Mexico and California, the film looks to find the truth behind the mythical creature forever stigmatized by its portrayal in the world’s first blockbuster movie, JAWS.

*3D movie is included in museum general admission. See front desk for movie showtimes. Note: EarthFlight 3D will play between scheduled showings of Great White Shark 3D; check at the front desk for schedule.

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Dig for Real Shark Teeth!

Grab a shovel and take home some real shark teeth hidden in the Fossil Dig in our Science + Art Park. While you’re at it, discover dinosaur bones and other prehistoric fossils hidden beneath the sand.


Take a Photo with a Prehistoric Megalodon Shark Jaw!

Step inside our life-sized Megalodon shark jaw, fabricated on site at the Science Mill, for an out-of-this-world photo op coveted by any true shark lover!


Shark Week Trivia

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Megalodon Shark Teeth 3D Printing 

Watch a giant megalodon shark tooth get 3D printed right before your eyes. Stop by the gift shop and take home one of your own!



Become a Science Mill Member in July, and your Shark Week adventures will be free! The Science Mill is also giving away one shark or bug book per membership, while supplies last. Get more information and join now!

Pollinators and Assassins

Nope, that’s not a new Netflix original series, even though we’d totally watch that. Pollinators and assassins are two types of beneficial bugs you may find around your garden and home.


 Butterflies, moths, bees, flies and other winged insects all pollinate plants, helping your garden bloom and thrive. This post will focus primarily on the assassins, but we do have some super informational tips about attracting pollinators, too. For all the details, read our blog post, Creating a Butterfly Destination. You’ll find a list of plants to incorporate into your yard, and details about how much sun those plants require.

 Now, on to the killers.


Assassin bugs, like spiders, praying mantises, ladybugs, lacewings, and even some wasps, eat pests that like to destroy your plants. Most of us perform some version of a flailing jig when faced with insects, but as much as your family and neighbors may love your sweet, panicky dance moves, we should learn to coexist with - and even to attract - our multi-legged friends.

 To attract helpful assassin bugs, add mulch to your yard. The mulch creates cover for predatorial insects, allowing them to sneak up on their prey. Given a nice, mulch-covered environment, you’ll find that predators move right in.

 “These guys are going to be all around in a healthy garden or backyard,” said Lisa Keys, Science Mill Animal & Plant Care Technician. “Spiders and praying mantises are generalists and will eat a wide variety of pest species, such as caterpillars, grasshoppers and flies.”

 It’s also important to plant a wide variety of native plants. Planting many different types of plants will attract more species of insects, and establish a healthy ecosystem in your area. To find out which plants will thrive in your yard, talk to a local nursery. They understand the specific challenges of your environment, and have ideas for what, and how, to plant in your yard. A great Central Texas resource is The Natural Gardener. Their website is full of useful info.

 No discussion of assassin bugs is complete without some wasp talk. Lisa noted that many people shy away from attracting stinging bugs, yet some of them are definitely worth having around.

 “Wasps are particular about their prey, and don’t bother humans unless they are aggravated,” said Lisa. “Mud daubers, cicada killers, red wasps, and many others help control caterpillar, spider and fly populations, reducing the numbers of those pests in your yard.”

 So don’t be afraid. By cultivating many native plants, you can create a garden home to the right kinds of wasps and other assassins, as well as a host of pollinators. (4).gif

 Come to the Science Mill on July 13 for our Incredible Insects event to learn more about pollinators, assassins and all of their friends. Our resident biologist will be in the greenhouse with information about beneficial bugs, Radford's Roach Roadshow is bringing their world-famous Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and don't miss a very special presentation by Associate Professor Dr. Nels C. Elde from the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Utah on " Insect Zombies Controlled by Viruses." Plus more fun hands-on activities and a special showing of Bugs 3D in our 3D movie theater! 

 Incredible Insects! activities and presentations are free with admission. Pre-purchase tickets to reserve your spot in the 11am or 1pm "Insect Zombies Controlled by Viruses" presentation. 

 All this and a membership bonus, too? You bet! Purchase or renew a Science Mill membership in the month of July and get one free insect or shark book per membership. We have books for all ages, so come pick out your favorite!

Local Students Recreate Apollo 11 Moon Landing

Emily Cicchini’s son, Remi, is fascinated with the idea of exploring our final frontier.

“When I was 8, I got a space suit for Christmas, and I’ve always been interested in the concept of going to space and doing something important with my life,” said Remi.

So when Emily and Remi were looking for summer activities, they checked the NASA website, where they found the Apollo Next Giant Leap Student (ANGLeS) Competition.


This year’s ANGLeS Competition was conceived to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The challenge, open to students in grades 5-12 across the United States and territories, is to recreate the Apollo 11 moon landing using a drone and a LEGO Mindstorm robot. 

Emily and Remi decided to assemble a team of Dripping Springs Middle School students to participate in the challenge. 

“We are inspired and humbled by the success of the Apollo 11 astronauts and scientists, and are looking forward to seeing NASA continue to reach for the stars for years to come.  It’s thrilling to be even a small part of this important work,” said Emily.

Members of the Marvelous Earthling Moon Explorers (M.E.M.E.) Team are:

Commander:  Ethan Miller, 14
Lunar Module Pilot:  Remi Cicchini, 14
EVA Officer:  Macallister (Mackey) Weikert, 13
Science Officer:  Cosimo Crespi, 13
CAPCOM:  Reese Alford, 13

Remi said that the group of friends has worked well together.

“There’s a great synergy on this team, which has helped us get things done pretty quickly and easily.”

The M.E.M.E. Team has to complete a sequence of tasks that mirror the original mission of the Apollo 11 landing team, from designing and building a lander and a rover, to using coding skills to pilot the lander.

“Our main obstacle is time,” said Emily. “We must start, complete the mission, and return to base within 15 minutes. If we are successful, we may be invited to participate at the regional and national levels.”

In the spring, Emily saw a presentation that the Science Mill gave about the Mill’s summer programs, and decided to reach out about a collaboration. Bob Elde, Science Mill Science Director, and Portia Marchman, Science Mill Director of Operations, were excited to host the students and be part of the ANGLeS Competition. M.E.M.E team members have been meeting at the Mill to develop their lander and rover, and to practice the mock moon landing.

“We’re always looking for ways to get involved with our community and support students who are seeking out STEM related activities outside of the classroom,” said Marchman.


 On June 22, the M.E.M.E. Team is participating in the Science Mill’s Drones & Droids event. They are going to fly their drone-based lander about 20 feet to a target on a map of the lunar surface. Next, they will pilot a droid-like rover to deposit a payload of a cultural artifact and pick up a sample moon rock, followed by returning to base where the Science Officer, Cosimo Crespi, will identify the rock sample.

 “We’re a little nervous,” said Remi. “If we don’t take it seriously, that leaves room for error, and we want it to go well so we can go on to the next round. This Saturday is going to be a trial by fire.”


 Join us on Saturday, June 22 to watch this incredible team reenact the Apollo 11 landing. To show his support, former NASA Astronaut Tom Henricks will be in attendance to meet the M.E.M.E. team and watch their moon landing demo. Meet Mr. Henricks and R2-D2, as well! All event details can be found on our website.

Drones & Droids activities and presentations are free with admission. Share your photos at the Science Mill with us! #sciencemill #dronesanddroids #explorejctx