May 14, 2013
The chemistry of the ocean is changing. Most climate change discussion focuses on the warmth of the air, but around one-quarter of the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere dissolves into the ocean. Dissolved carbon dioxide makes seawater more acidic—a process called ocean acidification—and its effects have already been observed: the shells of sea butterflies, also known as pteropods, have begun dissolving in the Antarctic.
Tiny sea butterflies are related to snails, but use their muscular foot to swim in the water instead of creep along a surface. Many species have thin, hard shells made of calcium carbonate that are especially sensitive to changes in the ocean’s acidity. Their sensitivity and cosmopolitan nature make them an alluring study group for scientists who want to better understand how acidification will affect ocean organisms. But some pteropod species are proving to do just fine in more acidic water, while others have shells that dissolve quickly. So why do some species perish while others thrive?
It’s a hard question to answer when scientists can hardly tell pteropod species apart in the first place. The cone-shaped pteropod shown here is in a group of shelled sea butterflies called thecosomes, from the Greek for “encased body.” There are two other groups: the pseudothecosomes have gelatinous shells, and the gymnosomes (“naked body”) have none at all. Within these groups it can be hard to tell who’s who, especially when relying on looks alone. Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History are using genetics to uncover the differences among the species.
This effort is led by zoologist Karen Osborn, who has a real knack for photography: in college, she struggled over whether to major in art or science. After collecting living animals while SCUBA diving in the open ocean, she brings them back to the research ship and photographs each in a shallow tank of clear water with a Canon 5D camera with a 65mm lens, using three to four flashes to capture the colors of the mostly-transparent critters. The photographs have scientific use—to capture never-before-recorded images of the living animals—and to “inspire interest in these weird, wild animals,” she said. All of these photos were taken in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Mexico and California.
Although sea butterflies in the gymnosome group, like the one seen above, don’t have shells and are therefore not susceptible to the dangers of ocean acidification, their entire diet consists of shelled pteropods. If atmospheric CO2 continues to rise due to the burning of fossil fuels and, in turn, the ocean becomes more acidic, their prey source may disappear—indirectly endangering these stunning predators and all the fish, squid and other animals that feed on the gymnosomes.
For years, sea butterflies were only collected by net. When collected this way, the animals (such as Cavolinia uncinata above) retract their fleshy “wings” and bodies into pencil eraser-sized shells, which often break in the process. Researchers then drop the collected pteropods into small jars of alcohol for preservation, which causes the soft parts to shrivel—leaving behind just the shell. Scientists try to sort the sea butterflies into species by comparing the shells alone, but without being able to see the whole animals, they may miss the full diversity of pteropods.
More recently, scientists such as Osborn and Smithsonian researcher Stephanie Bush have begun collecting specimens by hand while SCUBA diving in the open sea. This blue-water diving allows her to collect and photograph fragile organisms. As she and her colleagues observe living organisms in more detail, they are realizing that animals they had thought were the same species, in fact, may not be! This shelled pteropod (Cavolinia uncinata) is considered the same species as the one in the previous photo. Because their fleshy parts look so different, however, Bush is analyzing each specimen’s genetic code to establish whether they really are the same species.
This string of eggs shot out of Cavolinia uncinata when it was being observed under the microscope. The eggs are attached to one another in a gelatinous mass, and, had they not been self-contained in a petri dish, would have floated through the water until the new pteropods emerged as larvae. Their reproduction methods aren’t well studied, but we know that pteropods start off as males and once they reach a certain size switch over to females. This sexual system, known as sequential hermaphroditism, may boost reproduction because bigger females can produce more eggs.
This pteropod (Limacina helicina) has taken a beating from being pulled through a trawl net: you can see the broken edges of its shell. An abundant species with black flesh, each of these sea butterflies are the size of a large grain of sand. In certain conditions they “bloom” and, when fish eat too many, the pteropod’s black coloring stains the fishes’ guts black.
Not only is the inside of this shell home to a pteropod (Clio recurva), but the outside houses a colony of hydroids—the small pink flower-like animals connected by transparent tubing all over the shell. Hydroids, small, predatory animals related to jellyfish, need to attach to a surface in the middle of the ocean to build their colony, and the tiny shell of Clio is the perfect landing site. While it’s a nice habitat for the hydroids, this shell probably provides less than ideal protection for the pteropod: the opening is so large that a well equipped predator, such as larger shell-less pteropods, can likely just reach in and pull it out. “I would want a better house, personally,“ says Osborn.
Gymnosomes are pteropods that lack shells and have a diet almost entirely composed of shelled pteropods. This species (Clione limacina), exclusively feeds on Limacina helicina (the black-fleshed pteropod a few slides back). They grab their shelled relative with six tentacle-like arms, and then use grasping jaws to suck their meal out of the shell.
This post was written by Emily Frost and Hannah Waters. Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
April 17, 2013
Artist Fujiko Nakaya believes in the transformative power of fog.
The first time she realized that her fog sculptures could change a person’s memory was in 1976 during the run of Earth Talk, a fog sculpture made for the Biennale of Sydney, Australia. After seeing her sculpture, an electrician told her how he had taken his family to see the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. The mountain was fogged in at first and he couldn’t see it, but the fog cleared and the view of the mountain was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“The instant he saw the fog it changed his experience, and I liked that very much,” explained Nakaya. It was then she understood that her sculptures could feed back to personal experience and improve a person’s feeling about fog. After the electrician’s story, she was determined to reach more people, and not just those in the art world.
For forty years, Nakaya has been creating public fog sculptures all over the world. Currently, she has seven projects going in five countries. Fog Bridge is her first in San Francisco, and is one of three inaugural outdoor artworks created for the new waterfront home of the Exploratorium.
The museum, which mixes science and art in its exhibits, was previously housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, but its new site—three times as big as the last, and at Pier 15—opens its doors to the public today. The 150-foot long Fog Bridge enshrouds pedestrians with fog for ten minutes every half hour; it will be lit at night, and so promises to be a spectacular sight. The bridge is located within the free, 1.5-acre outdoor area that encircles the Exploratorium and features artwork that honors the environment of the bay.
Nine days before the grand opening, Nakaya leaned against a railing to watch test runs of Fog Bridge. The 79-year-old artist was dressed comfortably in layers of black, though the day was warm enough for shorts. Coit Tower rose out of Telegraph Hill against a clear blue sky behind the bridge. Nakaya didn’t have to pull any wizard-like levers to release bursts of fog; the system is pre-programmed and designed to interact with real-time weather data. Each side of the bridge is divided into three sections and controlled by programmed valves in the pump room. For example, an eastern wind will prompt the valves to make fog on the east side of the bridge only.
In this way, an invisible wind is made visible with brush strokes of fog. The process starts with four pumps that force high-pressure water into pipes studded with 800 petite nozzles. At the tip of each nozzle is a hole six thousandths of an inch wide where the pressurized water is forced and meets a pin that explodes the water into droplets 15 to 20 microns wide. Nakaya developed the technology in 1970 with physicist Thomas Mee, and Mee Industries continues to use the patented technology for industrial and agricultural applications.
Nakaya’s fog is, of course, a simulation of the misty blankets that spread over the “cool gray city of love” each summer when cold oceanic surface water interacts with warm moist air offshore. As warm air rises over the inland valleys, the fog is pulled through the Golden Gate, providing needed summer moisture to coastal redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.
“I hope I’m doing homage to San Francisco fog,” said Nakaya adding, “that the bay fog will devour this fog sometimes.”
The Exploratorium sees itself as a place for tourists to learn about the Bay Area’s land and seascapes, and so some of its displays and artwork educate visitors about things like the tide cycle and fog. San Francisco’s fog, however, has declined 33 percent in the last 60 years, according to a study published in 2010 by UC Berkeley biology professor Todd E. Dawson and climate analyst Jim Johnstone, and the trend is expected to continue as climate changes. Dawson says they aren’t sure of the reason behind the decline, but that it may be due to warmer sea surface temperatures. “Fog formation is really about the contrast between temperatures,” he says. “If you warm the water up, the temperature difference goes down and the fog formation goes down with it.”
That said, Nakaya adds that fog always exists as water vapor even when we don’t see it. Only when conditions change is it visual.
In the first week that the museum is open, tens of thousands of people will walk across the bridge and be enveloped by fog. The sensation, I imagine, might feel like walking on clouds. Nakaya, reportedly, is particularly intrigued by the way that fog obscures one’s sight and heightens the other senses as a result. Perhaps this is why the artist believes that fog can improve memories and change thinking. “If you have even one little experience with fog, you start to see things differently,” said Nakaya.
The artist watched the artificial fog pour out of the northeast quadrant of the bridge where it hovered for a windless moment. “Nature is so complex. We can’t understand its complexity,” said Nakaya. “If you just tap one spot it will open up so many things and enlarge imaginations.”
Fog Bridge can be experienced at the Exploratorium through September 16, 2013.
March 26, 2013
When I step into the newly installed Laib Wax Room at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the floral smell of beeswax wafts through my senses. Psychologists say that scents can quickly trigger memories, and this one transports me back to my childhood: The fragrance of the amber beeswax coating the walls instantly reminds me of the crenellated sheets of beeswax, dyed pink and purple, that came in a candle making kit I had as a kid. I remember rolling the sheets into long tapers for Advent.
The warm glow of the closet-sized space is equally comforting. A single light bulb dangles from the ceiling, giving a sheen to the room’s waxy walls. Standing in its center, the spare room has a calming effect—it is a welcomed “time out” in an otherwise overstimulating world. As Klaus Ottmann, curator at large at the Phillips, puts it, the room has the “ability to temporarily suspend reality.”
Wolfgang Laib, a 63-year-old conceptual artist from Germany, created the meditative space. Over the course of a few days in late February, he melted 440 pounds of beeswax, minding the liquefying material carefully because temperature swings could have resulted in batches of varying yellow. Then, he used a warm iron, spackle knives and spatulas to evenly apply the inch-thick coat of wax, like plaster, onto the walls and ceiling of the 6-by-7-by-10-foot space. The Laib Wax Room, as the museum is calling it, opened to the public on March 2.
In his career, spanning more than four decades thus far, Laib has turned many raw, natural materials, such as milk, rice and pollen, into artistic mediums. Earlier this year, in fact, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City exhibited the artist’s Pollen From Hazelnut, an 18-by-21-foot installation made entirely of bright yellow pollen he harvested in the last 20 years.
Beeswax, however, happens to be one of his favorite materials. Since 1988, Laib has created a temporary wax room for MOMA as well as for two museums in Germany and one in the Netherlands. For these, he nailed sheets of beeswax to plywood walls, so that the installation could be disassembled. Then, he developed a more intensive, irreversible process by building a couple of outdoor wax rooms in the past 15 years, in a cave in the French Pyrenees and on his own land in Germany. The Phillips Collection is the very first museum to have a permanent beeswax room.
Visitors to the Phillips Collection are encouraged to enter the Laib Wax Room—titled Where have you gone – Where are you going?—one or two at a time. ”Here this is a very, very small room but it has a very beautiful concentration and intensity,” says Laib, in an audio tour and video produced by the Phillips. “When you come into a wax room, it is like coming into another world.”
February 20, 2013
Thomas Shahan came eye to eye with a jumping spider in his backyard about seven years ago when he was living and attending high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since that first encounter, he has been “smitten,” according to a December 2011 spread of his macrophotography in National Geographic. “I began learning about their names and their ways, then looking for them in local parks and reserves like the Oxley Nature Center,” he wrote in the magazine.
For the past seven years, Shahan has developed a hobby of photographing arthropods—insects, such as robber flies and horse flies, and spiders—in his native Oklahoma. He captures their eyes and hairs in such colorful and glistening detail that his images, shared on Flickr, have been featured in Popular Photography, National Geographic and on NBC’s Today Show. (In fact, if you look up “jumping spider” on Wikipedia, you’ll even see, at the top of the page, a close-up of an adult male Phidippus audax jumping spider taken by Shahan.)
“I photograph arthropods because I love them and I want others to love them as well,” Shahan explained to me in an email. “I find them compelling. They are complex, fascinating and diverse animals that are all too often overlooked and unappreciated.”
Shahan prefers to shoot his subjects in their natural environs. “Now that I know where they are—their silhouettes are often visible through the leaves they perch upon—I can spot them quickly,” he wrote in National Geographic. Only occasionally does he bring his bugs indoors to stage them on a coffee table or other surface. Either way, “My subjects are always returned to where they are found and fed for their services if at all possible,” he told me.
Shahan’s ability to clearly capture individual spines on the legs of teensy-weensy spiders (jumping spiders measure anywhere from one to 22 millimeters in length) and the metallic sheen of their eyes might suggest that he uses fancy, top-of-the-line equipment. But, the photographer actually takes a do-it-yourself approach. “You can do a lot with a little,” says the 2011 graduate of University of Oklahoma, in printmaking, on his personal Web site. Currently, he uses a modestly priced Pentax DSLR camera with a set of modified extension tubes, a reversed 50-millimeter prime lens (a garage sale find!) and a diffused (and duct taped) homemade flash for lighting.
The macrophotographer is especially interested in the eyes of arthropods—and it’s the creatures’ eyes that attract the attention of viewers. To look into the face of creatures as small as a 4-millimeter jumping spider and “see yourself reflected in their large glossy eyes is incredibly humbling. To know they’ve evolved relatively little in millions of years is absolutely fascinating to me too; they’ve had those wonderful eyes for a long, long time,” said Shahan in an email. ”Additionally, from a photographic standpoint, the arthropod portraiture anthropomorphizes them considerably. To get down low and look up into their faces and eyes changes our usual perspective and has a propagandistic quality to it making them seem more important and powerful than us.”
In changing our visual perspective, Shahan ultimately wants to change our general feelings about bugs. ”I want to turn revulsion to reverence,” he said. “Arthropods are amazing animals and a good first step to appreciating and loving them is to simply take a closer look.”
“Beautiful Beasts: The Unseen Life of Oklahoma Spiders and Insects,” featuring 12 of Shahan’s photographs as well as the video, shown above, is on display at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History through September 8, 2013.
February 14, 2013
Taxidermy: dying trade or resurgent art form? As an outsider—I have never hunted, let alone stuffed and mounted an animal—I was tempted to think the former. Then, I spoke with Paul Rhymer, a former Smithsonian taxidermist and model maker.”Taxidermy is alive and well,” he says. “Commercial taxidermy, for hunters, has probably never been stronger than it is now—and probably never been better. The skill levels have just gotten so good with all the different advances in materials and techniques.”
Rhymer is a traditionalist. He hails from the museum world, where he spent 26 years (1984 to 2010) creating realistic taxidermy for display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Rhymer and his colleagues produced 274 mounted specimens for the museum’s Behring Hall of Mammals, which opened in 2003; he also had a hand in the now four-year-old Sant Ocean Hall. A bunch of his critters—a maned wolf, a grévy’s zebra, several primates and a pair of penguins, among others—still inhabit the museum. When he wasn’t making new mounts from donated animal carcasses, he was restoring existing ones. In 2002, he gave the museum’s panda a dye job, bleaching its yellowed hair white and dying it’s dark fur a deeper black.
But, even with his institutional background, the second-generation taxidermist is quick to express his appreciation for a new sect of bold artists working in the field. Armed with the know-how to skin, clean and stuff animals, these “rogues” place animal specimens in fantastical contexts; they even build strange hybrids of different species. “This element has been around for a very long time too. You have Victorian guys making whole wedding scenes with little kittens dressed up in wedding dresses,” says Rhymer. “But rogue taxidermists are just taking it to another level.”
“Immortalized,” a new television show premiering on AMC tonight (10/9c), pits taxidermists of both types against each other in what its host, Zach Selwyn, calls “creative combat.” I was able to screen two kooky episodes in the series’ first season, and although the show seems to lack the shiny finish one might expect from a big network, I have to admit I got a kick out of its premise. Oh, and its tagline too. “Immortalized,” says Selwyn, at the close of each segment, “where it is not whether you win or lose, but how you display the game.”
The concept of the show is this: There are four superstars in taxidermy—two traditionalists and two rogues—who, for the purposes of the show, are called “Immortalizers.” Each episode, one Immortalizer takes on an outside “Challenger.” The challengers, like the veteran immortalizers, can be artists or commercial taxidermists. The two contestants are given a theme—some examples include “End of the World,” “First Love” and, the even more confounding, “Self Portrait.” They prepare a piece at home over the course of a few weeks and then return to the studio for a face-off. Rhymer was tapped to be one of three judges; he is joined by artist-taxidermist Catherine Coan and the nasally-voiced comedian, actor and writer, Brian Posehn. Together, the trio scores each submission on craftsmanship, originality and adherence to the theme in each submission, and the total score determines the winner.
“I thought this could really be a lot of fun, and it was! I had a great time doing it,” says Rhymer. “I have my favorites. But, I thought that, by and large, the work that all of the taxidermists brought to it was really, really neat.”
Rhymer has competed extensively at taxidermy conventions, but “Immortalized” was different. “The competitions I had been to in the past were ‘mount this duck,’ ‘mount this fish,’ ‘mount this deer.’ These [challenges on "Immortalized"] were much more open to the imagination, and just much crazier scenarios. Someone put a lot of thought into figuring out which themes would really produce some provocative pieces,” he says.
In one bout, immortalizer Page Nethercutt, the award-winning proprietor of Moore’s Swamp Taxidermy in New Bern, North Carolina, and challenger CJ Fegan, an up-and-coming taxidermist from Edgewater, Maryland, presented two very different pieces meant to convey the same theme, “End of the World.” Nethercutt created a mount of a fierce bobcat attacking a quail; Rhymer describes it as “very intimate, natural, very precise.” Then, in the opposite corner, Fegan prepared a “sci fi and epic and colossal” scene capturing multiple animals in a panic.
Taxidermy is a unique blend of science and art. Any taxidermist with years of experience will have a solid understanding of animal anatomy. But that alone does not make for great mounts. “As an artist,” adds Rhymer, “you have the deer head that is just sticking on the wall and it is looking straight ahead, or there is a way of creating that thing, mounting it and doing something that is not only natural and scientifically accurate but also beautiful.”
Rhymer hopes that “Immortalized” will show that someone who prepares taxidermy can still respect animals. “I would like the general population to see taxidermy in a new light,” he says, “that it’s not just rednecks who do it and that even we who define ourselves as rednecks, and I count myself among them, have a real deep appreciation for wildlife.”