September 8, 2010
(Ed. Note — This is our 1000th post. More to come later, but thanks to everyone for getting us this far!)
It’s a Big Year for Natural History—We’ve mentioned that the Natural History Museum turns 100 this year before, but as part of the celebration, they’ve been giving us a peek into their diverse staff by posting video interviews of them on the museum’s Web site. Some are already available to watch, including interviews with photographer Chip Clark and Carole Butler, Chief of Collections for NMNH. My personal favorite is a video of some NMNH staff members tasting a smorgasbord of crunchy crickets, cockroach cookies and other buggy delicacies.
Labor Day Has Come and Gone… To ring in the start of school, the Ocean Portal blog recommends getting passionate about exploration. They’ve compiled a list of the best known ocean explorers, from Robert Ballard, who explored the Titanic shipwreck, to John Walsh and Jacques Piccard, the only two humans ever to descend the depths of the Challenger Deep, part of the Mariana Trench.
What Would You Have Asked? A couple weeks ago, we announced that several Smithsonian museums would be taking part in the Twitter-hosted Ask a Curator Day. Whether or not you participated, Pushing the Envelope has posted the best questions and answers asked of their curator at the event. What’s the rarest stamp at the Postal Museum? Do curators get scared being in museums at night? What letter from throughout American history do you wish the museum had?
First the Bureau of Bureaucracy, and Now… The cabinet of curiosities! Aside from alliteration, what curiosities are contained in this new furnishing acquired by the Smithsonian Institution Archives American Art Museum last fall? According to Bigger Picture, the cabinet’s doors open to reveal rows of 35 millimeter slides of Smithsonian artifacts and buildings. The cabinet recalls the mass of images (likely over three million) in the Smithsonian Institution Archives from before the dawning of the digital age. Though it is not currently on view, Bigger Picture does have some photos to share.
Cholesterol Through the Ages—The second installment of a two-part post on Oh Say Can You See features everyone’s (least?) favorite heart-stopper. An intern at the National Museum of American History describes the trials and tribulations of telling the story of cholesterol through documents and objects of the past.
This post has been updated. The “cabinet of curiosities” is not among the collections of the American Art Museum. It was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. ATM regrets the error.
July 27, 2010
What’s Up, Doc? His buck teeth and long ears may be timeless, but Bugs Bunny has reached a ripe old age. It was 70 years ago yesterday that everybody’s favorite “wascally wabbit” first popped his head out of his rabbit hole and posed the notorious aforementioned question to arch nemesis Elmer Fudd. Arguably the most famous cartoon character of all time, Bugs Bunny ushered in the Loony Tunes era that enraptured adults and children alike. Complete with slippery banana peels, plummeting planes and extensive carrot chomping, the Smithsonian Libraries blog posted a 1943 video of Bugs, alongside other links of interest, in tribute to his life in television.
Introducing the Art-O-Matic: Following the ban on cigarette vending machines in the late 1990s, artist Clark Whittington co-opted the machine and re-purposed it as an art dispenser for cigarette-sized, original works of art. The “Art-O-Matic” took off, and now Whittington oversees 83 over 90 such machines, one of which just arrived at the Luce Foundation Center for American Art. According to Eye Level, at five dollars per work, you can get your own miniature art straight out of this 60-year-old vending machine. Works include everything from jewelry to sculptures to collages, all handmade by an international array of artists.
It is an exciting time… As a result of a recent effort to broaden accessibility and searchability of all the Smithsonian has to offer, Smithsonian has produced a prototype of the Smithsonian Commons, a centralized online forum for the “Smithsonian research, collections and communities.” Featured recently by We Love DC, the Commons will open the doors to a global audience interested in the Smithsonian who aren’t necessarily able to travel to the museums in Washington, D.C. Explore, vote and comment on the prototype in order to shape the final product!
For lucky iPhone and Android owners, the Collections Search Center (CSC) has recently enhanced their mobile web portal, so that you can find any object in the collections that strikes your fancy while on the go. Simply visit the CSC Web site on your phone, and you’ll get to see the new and improved version.
Holy Mangrove! This past Monday, the National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Portal blog celebrated International Mangrove Action Day. If you missed out this year, you can still listen to a podcast of Dr. Candy Feller of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), in Edgewater, Md., speaking with SERC ecologist Dr. Dennis Whigham about the importance of these twisted, tropical plants. If you did take a moment out of your day for the mangroves, they invite you to share your celebration with other readers.
May 13, 2010
On Tuesday, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Environmental Protection Agency reached a settlement that requires the agency to create certain regulations by specific dates to reduce pollution across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Some of those regulations will take place within the next few years; some won’t be in place until 2025.
It was a victory for locals like former Maryland State Sen. Bernie Fowler, who grew up along the shore of Broome’s Island, wading and swimming in the inlet waters along the Bay. As a young man, Fowler, who stands about six feet tall, could wade into the water until it reached his mid-chest, when he’d stop and look down to see crabs and other critters swimming around his feet. Today, at 86, Fowler says he can go just barely wade in more than two feet before he can no longer see the bottom of the river.
Fowler first noticed the water’s declining health in the 1960s and 1970s, when he owned Bernie’s Boats, a fleet of about 60 oyster boats. The aquatic vegetation began to wither, and the water was getting cloudy.
Soon, Fowler became a county commissioner, and spoke to the residents of southern Maryland about the need to preserve the region’s water; about his experience wading into the river. A friend suggested instead of just talking about wading into the water, Fowler should bring some people down to the river and wade with them himself.
So in 1988, five years after he became a state senator, Fowler dug out the coveralls he waded in as a young man and used them to lead local residents into the water. He stopped when he could no longer see his feet, and when he came back out, somebody measured the watermark on his clothing.
Soon, other communities began to catch on, and 23 years later, the tradition has amassed a wealth of informal data about the area’s water quality. This year the tradition will continue in 20 different Maryland communities, starting this Saturday at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s open house in Edgewater, Maryland. The open house is from 10 to 3; Fowler, himself, will lead the wade-in at 11:30 a.m.
“It was a way to engage the people here in a very meaningful way,” Fowler said. “Not everyone understands the scientific terms of what’s happening to the water, but if you wade out into the river, you understand the message.”
In past years, as many as 150 people have joined Fowler at each of the wade-ins, some in coveralls, like Fowler; some in bathing suits or trousers; and some, like the governor and state representatives, wear shorts, Fowler said.
The water has been worse in recent years, Fowler said. Last year, he was only able to walk into the water until he reached about 27 inches.
The best period in recent memory was in the early 1990s, Fowler said, right after a bill was passed that set regulations for the area’s wastewater treatment plants. During that time, he could wade in about 44.5 inches.
“The grass was coming back, transparency of water was better,” Fowler said. “I was just jubilant. It looked like we turned a corner.”
Fowler says now that a legally enforceable commitment is in place, he’s jubilant again—and when residents wade-in during the next 15 years, they are bound to see improvements.
“The waters here are an economic engine just waiting to be restarted,” Fowler said. “If we can get this water quality cleaned up and get our aquatic life back not only will it be a healthier situation for aquatic life and the humans who live around the watershed, but the water men will be able to make a living again.”
If you can’t make the wade-in this Saturday, there are other wade-ins scheduled across the region, including the 23rd anniversary of the wade-in Fowler has traditionally held on the second Sunday of each June, this year at at 1 p.m. on June 13 at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.
Stop by to get your coveralls a little dirty, and watch a “jubilant” Fowler speak about restoring the area’s aquatic bounty.
February 8, 2010
When we recently heard about a “huge” find made by Sharyn Hedrick, a phytoplankton taxonomist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland, we wanted to see it—except, we couldn’t. The phytoplankton, Amphisolenia quadrisipina, that turned up in Hedrick’s lab, while really large by phyto standards, was only about 600 to 700 microns: just smaller than the tip of a needle.
Curious about what exactly these microscopic creatures do for the ocean, I recently spoke with Hedrick.
Tell me more about the type of phytoplankton, Amphisolenia quadrispina, you saw in samples sent from the Bay of Bengal. Why was it so different for you?
It was originally identified in 1907. . . and again in 1933. . ., but this is the first time I actually saw it in one of my samples. For a taxonomist its like hitting the Lotto. I’ve looked at samples from the coastal areas of Belize and Florida for over 20 years and never run across one. I believe they are rare; at least on the western side of the Atlantic. It is prolific in that [particular] area, I can tell you that. I don’t know who eats it, but it must be very large, I would say
When the average person thinks about marine life, phytoplankton probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. But they produce a good amount of the earth’s oxygen—about half of the total amount produced by all plant life. Could you explain what they are, and what role they play in the ocean?
Phyto is a Greek word that means plant. So the phytoplankton group comprises all of the plant-like microscopic organisms in the water. If the planet was completely dissolved of phytoplankton, nothing in the river, or in the bay, or in the ocean would survive because these guys are the basis of the food chain. They’re eaten by all kinds of things, actually, but in the Chesapeake Bay area, they’re usually eaten by zooplankton, which are considered animals, and then by larvae to fish and larvae to crabs. Phytoplankton are what they survive on, and those things work their way up on the food chain until we end up having them on our plate. There are thousands of species, freshwater, brackish and salt water species, and each one is different even if only slightly. Diatoms, for instance, can’t propel themselves, so they’re at the whim of the tide current and the wind and they can’t do anything but go with the tide. Dinoflagellates have flagellas, which help them go in any direction they want. Through photosynthesis, phytoplankton also take carbon dioxide out of the water and release oxygen as a by-product. That’s a big job for them.
Can phytoplankton be dangerous?
Sometimes. People are generally familiar with water that turns green from large mats of stringy, slimy goo. That is caused usually by Spirogyra or Ulothrix phytoplankton in freshwater ponds, which can go from farm pond to farm pond on the feet of birds and geese. They are also [associated] with red tides or mahogany tides. This is caused by several different species depending on the area. That’s just the color of the chlorophyll that that species have. When I go out on the water everyone here can tell you I’m a fanatic with colors on the water and what kind of phytoplankton they mean. They think I’m nuts, but I’m usually right.
Here on the Chesapeake our main culprit is Prorocentrum minimum. It is a dinoflagellate. It’s hazardous when the population reaches a non-sustainable level and starts to die off because the cells sink to the bottom, leaving oxygen-depleted waters, which in turn kill off fish. In some parts of the world this species is reported to have a poison that they excrete to kill off fish. There are only a handful of dino species that excrete poisons that affect people. A few years ago there was a large bloom of Dinophysis acuminata on the lower Potomac River that caused shellfish poisoning in people. The shellfish beds were shut down until the bloom was over. So these blooms can hurt the economy, too.
You studied marine biology at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. How did you become interested in phytoplankton?
I lived on Cape Cod while I was going to school at Bridgewater State College and one morning I got up and the news on the local Cape Cod station said there were 34 whales stranded down in Wellfleet, off the coast of Cape Cod, not very far from where I lived. So I called my professor and he called a couple of other people and we got permission to come down and see what we could do for the whales. But by the time we got down there they had already been euthanized. They landed in an marsh and there was no way they would let a backhoe in to move them. So, our job was to cut up the whales and let the pieces be carried out to the Bay, which was really so very tragic.
I was later curious about what the pieces of whale meat that were left in the tidal pond would do, and what kind of nutrients they would add. I got permission to go into the marsh and do a study in there. I worked in there a couple of months collecting samples and right away, as soon as I started looking at the samples, I realized, “Oh my God. There are all these diatoms [a species of phytoplankton] in here, these are fantastic!” And my natural history professor gave me a book about them. I spent the next six months identifying phytoplankton, and that in turn got me my first job as a phytoplankton taxonomist: I went to work for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. All because of those whales.
You have two short non-fiction stories published. One is called “Potheads,” about the stranding of the Pilot whales in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, where you first “fell in love” with diatoms. What’s the story behind the title?
That’s what those whales are called; that’s the common name. They have this huge melon on their head. If you look at a humpback whale they’re very smooth—they’re bumpy with knobs and barnacles, but there’s no shape to the head. It’s very flat. Potheads like the Pilot whales are different. If you can picture a cartoon whale, they have a big head and they stand there and smile. Potheads are just like that. They have a huge head and it’s called a melon right on top, and supposedly it helps them with sonar and helps them navigate where they’re going. The name goes back to whaling days, they were named potheads a long time ago, long before the pilot whales came along.
February 2, 2010
Geoffrey Parker has been tracking the growth of trees since September 8, 1987—his first day working as a forest ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland.
Parker estimates that he and his colleagues have made about 250,000 measurements of tulip poplars, sweetgums, American beeches, southern red oaks and others in 55 designated plots. The plots are stands of trees that range in age from five to 225 years. Since the plots represent the forest at different stages of development, the researchers have been able to use them to create a “chronosequence” from which growth predictions can be made.
However, according to a study by the scientists in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more than 90 percent of the trees monitored grew two to four times faster than they predicted. And it’s a recent phenomenon. They have found that the forest, on average, is growing by an additional two tons per acre annually—an amount that translates to a new tree with a diameter of two feet each year.
Parker and his team attribute the growth spurt to climate change, particularly the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, higher temperatures and longer growing seasons. According to measurements taken at SERC over the past 22 years, carbon dioxide levels at the scientific facility have risen 12 percent, mean temperature has increased by almost three-tenths of a degree and 7.8 days have been tacked on to the growing season.
“We suspect this is a widespread trend,” says Parker. “Other researchers may have similar data but have not yet examined it in the way we have.”
The finding raises new questions. Parker wonders if the accelerated growth is affecting the trees’ cycling of carbon, water and nutrients and how much longer this growth spurt can continue.