June 23, 2010
Roses are Red, Bees Are… Not Blue..: Channel your inner Shakespeare to celebrate the arrival of the National Zoo’s new honeybee colony. The Zoo is asking visitors to send in original honeybee poems and favorite honey recipes to display on the Zoo’s Pollinarium website. And that’s not all—the Zoo will randomly select one entrant from each category to win a tour of the Zoo’s Pollinarium and Invertebrate Exhibit (with their family, of course) on the Zoo’s Garden Day event on July 10. If you’re looking for inspiration: Honeybees in the United states pollinate more than $10 billion worth of crops; and when the colony becomes too large, half of the hive will leave to search for a new home, with the queen in tow. You have until July 6 to enter. (Our working title is “My Queen Up And Left Me.”)
Snap and Go: You can help digitize Smithsonian Institution buildings during the upcoming Folklife Festival (which starts tomorrow, June 24) with the new PhotoCity “Reconstruct the Mall” game. Visitors earn points for taking pictures of the museums with their cell phones or digital cameras and uploading them to the game’s map. You can also compete against other teams of visitors to see who can reconstruct all the buildings on the mall first. At the end of the festival, on July 5, winners will receive prizes. Get your cameras ready! But please, don’t try to run between buildings and upload your photos at the same time—crashing into Mariachi bands could get messy.
Pieces of the Puzzle: Do you have an eye for detail? Test it with the new PixPop Smithsonian Air & Space app, which brings users through a virtual tour of the National Air and Space museum one picture at a time. It’s a cross between a puzzle and a matching game: The app provides users with select tiles from an image of a scene inside the museum, and users match the tile to where it appears in the larger picture. The game lets you choose how many tiles you have to match (from an easier 4 to a challenging 20) as well as the size of the tiles, making it both a child and adult-friendly game, even for those of us whose eyes aren’t as sharp as we’d like them to be. You can purchase the app for $0.99 from the iTunes store. Let the matching begin.
Digitizing Art Stories: The Archives of American Art has more than 2,000 oral interviews. But what do you do when some of those interviews, which date back to the 1950s, begin to deteriorate, or their medium becomes obsolete (When was the last time you saw someone use a sound reel)? Over at Archives of American Art Blog, Jennifer Snyder walks us through what it takes to preserve oral stories. See how she keeps artists’ voices alive.
June 22, 2010
We’ve got news for all of Costa Rica’s insect-eating birds: Those fierce eyes that popped out of the foliage may not actually belong to a snake. They likely belong to an insect just inches tall.
Hundreds of species of butterflies and moths in Costa Rica have evolved to develop markings or “false eyes” that trigger an instant reaction in their bird predators to make them fly away, according to a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by University of Pennsylvania scientists, and husband-and-wife, team Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, along with John Burns, the curator of lepidoptera at the National Museum of Natural History.
The form of mimicry was studied over several decades in the Área de Conservación Guanacaste in northwestern Costa Rica, where Janzen and Hallwachs have trained native Costa Ricans to gather the insects from the forest and raise them. The study argues that the caterpillars have actually manipulated birds’ instinct, over time, to avoid potential predators.
We spoke with John Burns in his office at Natural History, where he explained how exactly such tiny creatures can make much larger bird predators head for the hills.
Tell us a little of the history of insect mimicry?
One [theory] is what’s called Batesian mimicry, proposed around 1852 by Henry Bates, an English naturalist who spent a lot of time in the Amazon. He noticed that many butterflies looked like other butterflies even though they weren’t really closely related. He figured out that many butterflies that had showy color patterns were using these color patterns as a warning to the fact that they were distasteful, or poisonous. Birds would learn to leave these kinds of color-patterned butterflies alone, which they learned by trial and error: Eating the butterflies would make the birds sick. So Bates realized that through evolution, there were perfectly edible, non-toxic butterflies who looked almost exactly like, if not exactly like, these poisonous butterflies, and the non-toxic butterflies were copying, or mimicking, them and thereby gaining a degree of protection from their potential predators.
What did your recent study find?
In this case with Dan Jenzen, we’re studying caterpillars. Daniel Janzen and his wife, Winnie Hallwachs, are rearing many lepidoptera caterpillars in the Área de Conservación Guanacaste in northwestern Costa Rica. They’ve been doing this for a few decades now. They actually have a huge team of trained Costa Ricans who go out into the forest and hunt for the caterpillars and bring them back and rear them individually to the adult stage. Many of the caterpillars, and the pupa they turn into as they metamorphose to butterflies, develop paired structures that look like the eyes of a snake, or a vertebrate animal. Now most of these caterpillars, or pupa, are perfectly good food for the small insectivorous birds that feed on them. But if you can imagine a small bird suddenly coming across a pair of eyes on something it’s thinking about attacking, it’ll have second thoughts because those eyes might belong to a snake or a larger bird that would attack it and it would become the prey. We figured out that the birds would have to be already genetically programmed to fly away when they are faced with these false eyes. Much earlier in evolution birds have run up against this kind of threat and if they’re caught, they’re killed, so the birds have developed this innate response—an instant startle and a fear flee reaction. Because if they hesitate in this kind of real situation and decide, “Well you know is that something I can eat, or is that going to hurt me?” In that instant they might get killed. It’s in the bird’s favor to reject that little piece of food and go look for another one rather than linger. This is a form of mimicry—the development of eyes that aren’t real eyes—but it’s not a case where birds have to learn to leave these alone. They are already genetically programmed to do that.
So what do these eyes look like?
Actual caterpillar eyes are tiny little structures, they don’t look anything like eyes as we know them, or like vertebrae eyes. They are just very small structures several on each side of the head. But the false eyes we’ve seen, there’s been everything from a pair of little black dots that are sort of the beginning of a suggestion of eyes, to ones that are just extraordinarily complex. There can also be features of the body surrounding the false eyes that will even resemble that of the birds’ predator. There are a few pupa who have markings that look just like the scales of a snake and it’s just amazingly good mimicry. It usually is not that well advanced.
How does this study help the evolution of birds and insects? What does it do for future research?
I would say it’s an interesting result of evolution so far, that this kind of thing has arisen. I can’t say exactly where it’s going except that it will certainly persist as long as birds look for caterpillars. I can imagine over time in many species that the false eyes that caterpillars have may look more and more like an eye—not like those of another caterpillar or any particular kind of snake, but it may become a better copy.
To learn more about the caterpillars and conservation efforts to save their environment, visit Dan Jenzen’s Web site.
June 16, 2010
Well folks, it looks like we’re missing a cow: Not at the National Zoo—at the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum in Second Life. Sometime last Thursday, the museum’s virtual cow, Rosita, went missing unexpectedly. But “would would sequester a cow?”, the museum asked when it sent out an e-mail blast hoping to find some clues (“What’s next, the Olmec heads?” they asked in the same message). Like actual field scientists, who use a technique called “camera trapping” in real life to help photograph and document species, the employees who run the Latino Virtual Museum use virtual camera trapping to keep track of their own inhabitants—including Rosita, who was last seen in the Northern rainforest habitat. Though it’s been almost a week and there’s still no sign of Rosita, there are some suspects in the case, says museum employee Melissa Carillo. A picture caught by the museum’s trapping camera shows a haunting gray alien face peering into the screen. And a photo sent by a LVM visitor shows poor Rosita beaming up into what looks like an alien spacecraft. Carillo says she has seen aliens around the island lately—”We’ve been invaded, I think,” she says—but they’re still trying to find suspects. Until then, Rosita, we’re pulling for you!
The man behind the pop: Matthew Reinhart, a paper engineer, has contributed to several books featured in Smithsonian Libraries’ upcoming exhibition, Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn. The exhibition features more than 50 books from the 15th century onward, all of which have some kind of moving part—think accordion books, peep shows, volvelles and pop-up books. But what exactly does a paper engineer do? On Smithsonian Libraries Blog, Reinhart leads you through one of his recent collaborations, Gods and Heroes, in this video (spoiler: the eyebrow disappearing trick that starts around time mark :43 is pretty cool).
A Drivin’ and Flyin’ Machine: Our friends at The Daily Planet are right: We do want one of these Distributed Flight Arrays. A-say-what, you ask? Distributed Flight Arrays, built by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, are made up of multiple vehicles, each with fixed propellers. Alone, these vehicles aren’t very savvy—they can fly, but it’s not pretty. But when the vehicles join together (which they do on their own), they can launch and lift together to form a ” multi-propeller system capable of coordinated flight.” One day, the creators hope, they’ll be used to airlift objects. Check out the array in action in this video (be sure to stay tuned until the end, when it flies).
June 15, 2010
The red-billed hornbill chick isn’t the only baby that made its debut at the National Zoo’s Bird House last week.
A pair of Temminck’s Tragopans (pronounced trag-uh-pan—like a frying pan) also introduced a newborn baby chick: a small, golden and browned colored bird that will grow to become an adult colored in brilliant shades of red and blue.
Tragopans are native to the forests of China, India, Tibet and Vietnam. And unlike other pheasants, tragopans live in trees.
They have short bills and horns; and their tails are shorter than their wings. Tragopans are also unique because the chicks are up and running within just 24 hours of being hatched, and by three days old, they can fly.
The species isn’t considered endangered, but their native habitats are disappearing quickly because of deforestation.
The Zoo’s tragopan mother first laid three eggs in early May, said Christine Stout, the birds’ keeper, but only one chick survived when the eggs hatched on May 24. The other two chicks were positioned incorrectly in their eggs, she said, which meant they could not fully hatch.
“Normal challenges for any egg is if the parent or parents are incubating and turning the egg correctly and if the chick inside is positioned correctly,” Stout said.
We’ll be waiting with anticipation as the Tragopan baby grows up and starts to sport its beautiful feathers. But, for those of you waiting for another chance to name a Zoo animal, Stout says there are currently no plans to give the little chick a special moniker.
June 14, 2010
In the early 1900s, before American pilots tried to fly airplanes across the Atlantic Ocean, there was another challenge taking place in the skies: flying across the ocean in airships.
Last week, the National Air and Space Museum acquired an artifact important to those early attempts—the Airship Akron lifeboat, which was attached to two of the early (though failed) dirigible flights across the ocean.
“It played an important role in two really interesting flight attempts,” said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the museum. “It reminds us of those early dreams of flying the Atlantic.”
The 27-foot lifeboat was purchased in 1910 by Walter Wellman, an American newspaper publisher who was funding an attempt to cross the ocean in the airship America. Lifeboats were attached to the bottom of the airships as a means to rescue the crews, Crouch said. But crews also climbed down into them to use them as a pantry, kitchen, smoking lounge and makeshift radio control center to communicate with the ground.
In fact, the first ever aerial radio message was sent from the lifeboat on that flight, Crouch says. Wellman’s navigator, Murray Simon, secretly brought a cat, named “Kiddo” onto the airship shortly before the crew took off on October 16, 1910. When the airship left the ground, Crouch says, the cat began to yelp, howl and run around—apparently creating an unbearable ruckus for Wellman, who made history by using the radio to contact his secretary and son-in-law, Leroy Chamberlin, on the ground with the phrase “Roy, come and get this @#$%^&* cat!”
Unfortunately, returning the cat to the ground was possible sooner than Wellman expected. About 38 hours into the trip, while flying above Bermuda, the airship began to have engine problems. The crew was rescued—in the lifeboat—by a steamer.
That was the last trip for Wellman, Crouch says. But Melvin Vaniman, Wellman’s chief engineer on the America flight, decided to retry the flight on his own.
Vaniman contacted the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, who agreed to help build a new airship for the journey: the Akron, Goodyear’s first airship, named after the company’s hometown in Ohio. Vaniman re-used the lifeboat from the failed America flight. There were several test flights before the Akron took off on July 12, 1912. Sadly, the Akron caught fire just 500 feet in the air. Neither Vaniman nor his crew survived the crash.
But the lifeboat did. It was recovered and sent back to Goodyear’s warehouse in Akron, Ohio, Crouch says. There, it remained for the next 98 years. Crouch has always known it was there, but didn’t get the chance to bring it to the Smithsonian until last year. Goodyear was cleaning out storage units, found the lifeboat and contacted Crouch to see if the museum wanted it.
So this past Thursday, Crouch waited eagerly as a large truck arrived at the Udvar-Hazy Center’s warehouse in Chantilly, Virginia. After examining the lifeboat, he said it was in great condition. The boat won’t need to be restored, Crouch said, but it does need “quite a bit of cleanup.”
Though Crouch is not sure when the lifeboat will make its debut at the museum, he does know exactly where it will go—between the gondola of the the Double Eagle II, which made the first balloon flight to Europe in 1978, and the nose of the Concorde, an aircraft that helped pioneer supersonic travel.