October 30, 2012
For everyone who hunkered down for Hurricane Sandy yesterday, it might be the animals at the Zoo who enjoyed it most. “For the most part all the animals were fine. It’s a cooler day and they like cooler days,” says animal keeper Juan Rodriguez. “Having a quiet day was good for them, they are so used to having noisy crowds around that they appreciated a day off.”
As Washington, D.C. was shaking itself off this morning and getting a look around at the hurricane damage, animal keeper Juan Rodriguez, who incidentally didn’t get any chance to hunker down, was already at work.
The Zoo weathered the storm just fine. “It’s pretty much, with exception of a lot of foliage,” says Rodriguez, “not that bad. I’ve been hearing a little chain sawing around the bird house where a tree may have come down. But that’s it. The soil is very saturated, and we’re keeping an eye on the trees now, but there’s no damage to any of the yards.”
As for the animals, did they notice the low pressure as the storm headed inland? Any odd behaviors? Nope, says Rodriguez. “Basically like everyone wants to do during a storm, the animals, particularly the bears and the pandas, just wanted to stay in a comfortable bed, and eat, and chill-ax.”
The museums and the National Zoo, which report no damages from the storm, will reopen tomorrow at their regularly scheduled times. Check here for a schedule.
October 26, 2012
An orchid bloom, so delicate and elegant, arises out of a complex symbiotic relationship with, of all things, fungi. It’s a classic case of beauty and the beast, or gorgeous meets gross. But the fundamental relationship between the much-admired botanical family known as the Orchidaceae, which make up more than ten percent of the world’s plants, and the little-understood fungi that live in the soils of a forest floor, is one of the more complex mysteries being studied by Smithsonian orchid ecologists. And as more and more orchid species disappear from North American forests, botanist Dennis Whigham of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, says it’s another example of the canary in the coal mine, a warning that must be heeded. “When orchids are present,” Whigham says, “that means the ecosystem is in good shape.”
Recently, to help foster a better understand of the optimal conditions it takes for native wild orchids to survive, if not thrive, Whigham and his colleagues announced the formation of the North American Orchid Conservation Center, a public-private partnership that includes several regional botanical gardens as well as the U.S. Botanic Gardens. The plan is to establish a national seed bank for the 250 known species of North American orchids and to identify the genetic diversity of the fungi that are central to the life-cycle of each species and figure out how to propagate them. “There were just a few people working on conserving native orchids,” says Whigham, “but now we’ve created a national network.”
September 23, 2012
Sad news this Sunday, the National Zoo reports that the Panda Cub has died. Details will follow. “We are very upset,” says one official.
Born just a week ago on September 16, to the Giant Panda Mei Xiang, the cub appeared to be doing well with the Zoo releasing a number of videos showing the mother attending to the little cub, grooming it and appearing to cuddle and nurture it. The cub was born after Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated earlier this year. This is the second panda cub born at the Zoo. The first Tai Shan was born seven years ago on July 9, but by agreement was returned to China in 2009.
UPDATE 3:16 pm: In a statement released on the Zoo’s Panda site, they said:
We are brokenhearted to share that we have lost our little giant panda cub. Panda keepers and volunteers heard Mei Xiang make a distress vocalization at 9:17 a.m. and let the veterinarian staff know immediately. They turned off the panda cam and were able to safely retrieve the cub for an evaluation at 10:22 a.m., which we only do in situations of gravest concern. The veterinarians immediately performed CPR and other life-saving measures, but sadly the cub was unresponsive. We’ll have more updates as we learn more, but right now we know is that the cub weighed just under 100 grams and that there was no outward sign of trauma or infection. We’ll share information with you as we learn more.
At a press conference held today, National Zoo director Dennis Kelly called the death “extremely devastating.” Chief veterinarian Suzan Murray added,”Beautiful little body, beautiful little face, the markings were beginning to show around the eyes. [The cub] could not have been more beautiful.”
September 17, 2012
This morning Washington, D.C. woke up to joyful news. For the first time in seven years, there is a new little cub hanging out with her mother, the Giant Panda Mei Xiang. Visitors flocked to the Zoo when baby Tai Shan was born. Because of an agreement with Chinese officials, all giant pandas born at the Zoo have to be returned for breeding. The Smithsonian wished Tai Shan a heartfelt farewell with a charming video.
The Zoo reports the new cub was born at 10:46 p.m., Sunday, September 16.
“Mei Xiang is behaving exactly the same way she did when Tai Shan was born,” says chief veterinarian Suzan Murray. “She is cradling her cub closely, and she looks so tired, but every time she tries to lay down, the cub squawks and she sits right up and cradles the cub more closely. She is the poster child for a perfect panda mom.”
For now, the staff will have to monitor the giant panda from afar, giving the mother time to bond with the cub. One of the caretakers, Juan Rodriguez says the team is now surveying the pair 24-7; “We’re rotating amongst the keepers, overnight shifts.”
The cub was first discovered when one of Rodriguez’ colleagues just happened to turn on the panda cam at home and noticed some funny noises, indicating Mei Xiang might have some company.
“They’re very vocal when they’re young,” explains Rodriguez. The team has largely been observing the pair of pandas through audio cues. “We really havent gotten the chance to get a good visual yet, just a few glimpses here and there, but we have been hearing the baby.”
According to Chinese tradition, says Rodriguez, the cub won’t be named until 100 days after the birth, just in time for holiday season. Name suggestions have already come rolling into Smithsonian magazine’s twitter feed, including Shu Yun, which means gentle cloud and Country Crock, a riff on older brother Tai Shan’s nickname Butterstick.
Like Tai Shan, the new cub will eventually have to go to China for further breeding. Though that transfer usually occurs when the panda is around two years old and would be independent in the wild, Tai Shan was granted a two-year extension.
After seven years and five failed pregnancies, the giant panda population (only around 1,600 in the wild) can claim another victory.
“Everyone’s very, very excited,” says Rodriguez. “Just statistically, the numbers were very, very low, so this is a very pleasant surprise. We’re ready to take on the responsibility now.”
Rodriguez explains, “The first month is one of the most crucial in terms of the survival of the cub,” but, he says, the team has no reason to worry. “She’s a very good mom.”
Rodriguez says the entire effort has been immense. “It’s a lot of work from different departments working together to help an endagnered species, the fact that you have the rebirth team, the veterinary staff, the animal care staff and even the public relations staff, it’s just so intricate and everyone is working together as a team and that team effort is what brought about the whole process.”
“Now we’re just very eager to see this cub develop and partake in the betterment of the species,” says Rodriguez.
For now, the public can get updates on the cub from the camera feed online. Staff expects the new baby will be on view in four to five months.
Leah Binkovitz contributed reporting to this article.
August 20, 2012
Phyllis Diller, the much-loved comedic star of zany wigs, painful gag lines and an inimitable blast of a laugh, died this morning at her home in Brentwood, California. She was 95.
Last fall, the National Museum of American History debuted a collection of highlights from Diller’s multifaceted career. The show, entitled “Have You Heard the One . . ?” included a relic from the star’s life that might be among the most unique artifacts in the history of the performing arts—Diller’s joke file. The 48-drawer, steel file cabinet, which the star called “my life in one-liners,” contains 50,000 jokes, each typed on an index card and filed under such prophetic taglines as “Science, Seasons, Secretary, Senile, Sex, Sex Symbols, Sex Harassment, Shoes, Shopping…” and “Food Gripes, Foreign (incidents & personalities), Foundations (bra & underwear), Fractured Speech, Freeways, Friends, Frugality, Frustrations, Funerals, Funny Names…”
Diller’s famous one liners took self-deprecation to new limits. “When I first got into this business, I thought a punchline was organized drinking.” One can almost hear the ensuing blast of her famous laugh. And of course her relationship with her husband Fang was without exception, always good fodder. “Fang has some very strange ideas about housework. He thinks I should do it.”
“The [joke] file is like a tree,” Diller told the magazine’s Owen Edwards in 2007. “Leaves drop off, and new leaves are added—the new stuff pushes out the old.”
Diller, it turns out was not only the boisterous comic of late night television. She was a multifaceted artist who besides stand-up comedy enjoyed painting and sculpture and was a classical pianist. According to American History’s curator of the performing arts, Dwight Blocker Bowers, she also harbored tendencies toward museum curation. Bowers remembers arriving at Diller’s home in 2006 to arrange for the donation. “She was the most organized donor I’d ever met.”
“She had a rack of her costumes that she wished to donate. Each costume came with a plastic bag attached to it and inside the bag, she had carefully included not only the props—her cigarette holder, the head-dress, the gloves, the shoes—but also a photograph of her wearing the entire ensemble. She was better at curation than I was,” Bowers jokes.
The museum is now home to an impressive Diller collection that includes ten of her costumes, a wig, and a cigarette holder, one of Diller’s signature props. (The cigarette was wooden: “I’ve never smoked,” Bowers says she always insisted.) The cache also includes a number of photographs—including one of her wearing the green and gold lame gown from her Vietnam tour with Bob Hope in 1967—three of her comedy albums, and the scripts from two of her 1960s television shows. She also donated several of her sculptures including a self-portrait bust and one made of her hands. A curious relic of her artistic talents includes the painting she called “The Phyllis Fuge.” It depicts the notes of a musical score that she wrote.
“She was an artist,” Bowers says. “She was an accomplished pianist, she painted, she sculpted and she did stand-up comedy.”
“We even received two recordings of her singing,” Bowers added.
But did she have a good voice? “Well, she was not the recording industry’s best singer,” Bowers demurs, “but she was the best comedian.”
“I think the most important thing I can say about Phyllis Diller,” says Bowers, “is that she was like Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique. Just like Friedan, Phyllis Diller chronicled the daily lives of woman. But she did it with laughs.”