March 28, 2013
Friday, March 29: The Secret Life of Parasitic Wasps
Parasitic wasps are some of the creepiest bugs on the planet. To further their species, they hunt down other insects and inject eggs into them. When the eggs hatch, the baby parasitic wasp larvae feed on the host’s insides and grow, until they burst out Alien-style—eeeewww!! Today, Dr. Matthew Buffington of the USDA Systematic Entomology Lab is in the house to tell you everything you wanted to know about these wicked wasps. (You might want to avoid eating anything too heavy for lunch before you go.) Free. 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Natural History Museum
Saturday, March 30: Historic Theater: Meet Joseph Henry
Just how did the Smithsonian Institution begin, anyway? Joseph Henry, the first secretary, is cruising the American History Museum’s halls today (actually, he’s a historical reenactor) to talk about the Smithsonian during the Civil War and Henry’s great influence on the Institution from during the years 1846 to 1878. Ask him about electromagnets! Free. 10:30 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. American History Museum.
Sunday, March 31: “Pictures in the Parlor”
Family portraits were a luxury reserved for the rich in until the 1840s, when the invention of photography allowed Victorian-era America to begin documenting—and flaunting—their loved ones. “Pictures in the Parlor,” a newly-opened exhibition, features more than 50 portraits that show how seemingly simple decisions about where and how to display these new status symbols reflected a quiet revolution overtaking the middle-class home. Great for comparing and contrasting with your own living room! Free. Ends June 30, on display during regular museum hours. American Art Museum.
Also, check out our Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
March 27, 2013
Though you might not know it judging from the forecast most places, spring has indeed arrived. And despite the unpredictable D.C. weather, the snow, sleet, cold rain and wind hasn’t kept the tourists away. Crowds are gathering in the nation’s capital for the first glimpses of the cherry blossoms. For those of you interested in making the most of your visit, the editors over here have released two new spring-themed tours to help showcase the seasonal delights both inside and outside along the Mall.
The Gardens tour will take you to our many well-maintained plots around the Mall to see more than just a few pink blooms by the Tidal Basin, including heirloom plants, geometric splendors reminiscent of the grandest of European gardens and even a Victory Garden.Meanwhile, our Spring Fling tour will take you inside to show off the riches of the Smithsonian’s arts and sciences collection and celebrate the season with baseball legends, a tree you can wish on, bouquets in paint and even a spring from space.
Head here to download the visitor’s app and get your step-by-step directions, custom postcard feature and greatest hits from the museums.
March 14, 2013
If you’re afraid of spiders, you’re in good company–at least according to the Wikipedia page on arachnophobia, which lists Justin Timberlake, Kim Kardashian and Jessica Simpson as sharing the affliction. As star-studded as the fear may be, however, it’s not particularly well-founded.
For example, one of the most infamous spiders, the brown recluse, has earned a terrible and outsized reputation for its supposedly deadly bite. Doctors often blame the species for spider bites, even in states where the brown recluse isn’t present. Researchers like Rick Vetter of the University of California, Riverside work tirelessly to clear the brown recluse’s name and fight “media-driven hyperbole and erroneous, anxiety-filled public hearsay.”
Vitter describes himself as, “a highly volatile arachnologist who is bloody tired of everybody claiming that every little mark on their body is the result of a brown recluse bite and who believe with a religious zeal that brown recluses are part of the California spider fauna despite the incredibly overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Even where the species is present, says Dan Babbit, insect keeper at the Natural History Museum Dan Babbitt, “They don’t often bite people–they’re recluses, they tend to hide.”
Growing up with nature, Babbitt says he was never afraid of spiders, but that he was definitely not wildly fond of them when he began working with them at the museum in 1998. After spending time with them, though, he’s come to appreciate their unique qualities and even species personalities, something he thinks all people can do and which National Save a Spider Day, held every March 14, helps encourage as well.
On any given day, the museum displays nine different spiders, while the remaining 40 rest in the laboratory where they can burrow and hide and do all the things they might not when on view.
More often than not, visitors come seeking the much-maligned brown recluse and black widow, says Babbitt. Then they spot the crowd-pleaser, the Goliath bird-eating tarantula, whose body can fill your palm and whose legs can stretch up to 12 inches across. The species got its name from a Victorian explorer who witnessed one eating a hummingbird in the rain forests of South America.
Babbitt’s personal favorite is the pinktoe tarantula, a South American spider with pink-tipped legs that give the impression of freshly-painted nails. Because the pinktoe spider comes from the rainforest, it’s one of the few tarantulas that can climb trees, survive falls and even swim. Where other tarantulas would be killed by a drop of just a few feet, these spiders “can essentially parachute down” from the treetops.
Aside from their hidden talents, spiders also offer humans benefits in some surprising ways. Their venom has been used in research for new medicines, their super strong webs (ounce per ounce stronger than steel) are helping designers dream up new industry technology and they’ve even inspired artworks and clothing products.
There are even new spiders still being discovered, like when spelunkers found a previously unknown family since dubbed Trogloraptor, or cave robbers, in southern Oregon. Taxonomy and spider expert as well as associate director for science at the Natural History Museum John Coddington told the Associated Press the finding was unique: “To walk out in the woods and find an example of an ancient lineage that no one has ever seen before is special.”
We’re still a long way from ridding ourselves of arachnophobia, but Babbitt believes we’re improving “I think there’s a chance for spiders but it’s a tough one, it’s a big fear people have.” He says every time a new group of visitors crowds around the tarantula cage for one of the thrice-daily feedings held Tuesday through Sunday at the museum’s insect zoo, they come away with a new appreciation for the creature and its relatives.
“They still might not be the biggest fans of tarantulas but at least they’re starting to ask questions about them and they’re not wanting to immediately smash them or run away from them.”
And for more fun with spiders:
Check out a slideshow of eye-catching spiders from around the globe.
See how one photographer locks eyes (all of them) with spiders.
Check out a 3-D rendering of a spider that lived 300 million years ago.
Find out why urbanization may be supersizing spiders.
March 8, 2013
In a relatively short time, global emissions of carbon dioxide increased massively. Through the greenhouse effect, they raised temperatures around the planet by an average of 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit; they also changed the chemistry of the oceans, triggering a surge in acidity that may have led to mass extinctions among marine life. Overall, during this era of rapid change, global sea levels may have risen by as much as 65 feet.
Reading this, you could be forgiven if you assume we’re talking about a scenario related to the present-day climate crisis. But the previous paragraph actually refers to a 20,000-year-long period of warming that occurred 55 million years ago, an event scientists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (or PETM for short). Scott Wing, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum who has studied the PETM for more than 20 years, says, “If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially what we’re doing right now.”
As we embark on an unprecedented experiment with the Earth’s atmosphere and climate, the PETM is suddenly a hot topic among scientists in many disparate fields. “It’s an event that a lot of people are interested in, because it is the best example we have of a really sudden global warming connected to a large release of carbon,” Wing says.
Although scientists still don’t fully understand what triggered the PETM, it is clear that more and more carbon was injected into both the atmosphere and the oceans, initiating the climate change. This carbon may have been supplied by volcanic activity, the spontaneous combustion of peat or even the impact of a particularly carbon-rich comet. Additionally, the initial warming likely led to a release of methane gas from the seafloor, acting as a positive feedback that led to even more climate change. It’s also clear that all this warming wreaked havoc on the world’s ecosystems, leading to extinctions and altering the ranges of numerous plant and animal species.
There is, of course, one key difference: During this previous episode, all that warming took several thousand years. This time, carbon emissions are rising ten times faster than during the PETM, with the warming happening in a century—the geologic equivalent of a blink of an eye.
Scott Wing researches the PETM by digging for ancient plant remains in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. Over several decades of work, he has constructed a general picture of what types of plants thrived before, during and after the warming period, attempting to identify the sorts of trends in plant life we can expect as we change the climate going forward.
“During the warm period, essentially none of the plants that had lived in the area previously survived—their local populations were driven extinct,” Wing says. The area had been dominated by ancestors of the types of plants that live in temperate deciduous forests today, such as dogwood, sycamore and redwood trees.
But as the region heated up, these were replaced by a variety of plants related to the present-day bean family, most commonly found in warmer, drier areas such as southern Mexico or Costa Rica. “We believe that what happened is the dispersal into this region of plants that were living somewhere else, probably much farther south,” says Wing. His team has also uncovered evidence that the warmer climate led to a greater level of insect pest damage on the plants that did survive the PETM.
His research has, however, turned up one trend from the PETM that could be a reason to hope ecosystems can someday rebound from climate change. After roughly 200,000 years, long after the PETM subsided and temperatures returned to normal, many of the temperate plants that had lived in the Bighorn Basin finally returned.
“One possible explanation,” Wing says, “is that there were cooler climates in the nearby mountains that served as refuges for these species.” In that scenario—one that he and his research team plan to more closely investigate as they continue to excavate and piece together the fossil record—these types of plants would have waited out the PETM in the relatively cold highlands, then returned to recolonize the basin afterward.
If our climate continues to change as rapidly as it has over the past few decades, though, such a scenario seems less likely—immobile organisms such as plants need hundreds of years to gradually migrate from one area to another. Thus, one key aspect of preserving our planet’s ecosystems, in addition to limiting climate change as much as possible, is slowing it down as much as we can.
March 6, 2013
Looking for something to do today, while the snowy weather conditions persist? The Smithsonian museums will be open for business today. But the National Zoo will be closed Wednesday, March 6, 2013.
Plan your visit, using our convenient Tours app, a free download is available here.