September 16, 2013
Ocean acidification has taken up an unlikely mascot: the shelled pteropod. While “charismatic megafauna,” the large creatures that pull at our heartstrings, are typically the face of environmental problems—think polar bears on a shrinking iceberg and oil-slicked pelicans—these tiny sea snails couldn’t be more different. They don’t have visible eyes or anything resembling a face, diminishing their cute factor. They can barely be seen with the human eye, rarely reaching one centimeter in length. And the changes acidification has on them are even harder to see: the slow disintegration of their calcium carbonate shells.
Even without the threat of more acidic seas—caused by carbon dioxide dissolving into seawater—pteropods (also called sea butterflies) look fragile, as if their translucent shells could barely hold up against the rough ocean. This fragility is what attracted artist Cornelia Kavanagh to sculpt the miniscule animals. Her series, called “Fragile Beauty: The Art & Science of Sea Butterflies,” will be on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall starting September 17.
“By making visible that which is essentially invisible, my pteropod sculptures could dramatize the threat of ocean acidification in a refreshing new way, causing the pteropod to become a surrogate for a problem of far-reaching implications,” says Kavanagh.
Ocean acidification is expected to affect a panoply of ocean organisms, but shelled animals like corals, clams and pteropods may be hardest hit. This is because the animals have more trouble crafting the molecular building blocks they use to construct their shells in more acidic water.
Pteropods and other shelled animals that live near the poles have an even bigger challenge: they live in cold water, which is historically more acidic than warm water. Acidification is expected to hit animals in colder regions first and harder—and it already has. Just last year, scientists described pteropod shells dissolving in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica. These animals aren’t just struggling to build their shells; the more acidic water is breaking their shells apart.
While Kavanagh’s sculptures were made before this discovery, she still tried to portray the future effects of acidification by sculpting several species of pteropod in various stages of decay. Some of her pteropods are healthy, with whole shells and “wings”—actually the snail’s foot adapted to flap in the water—outspread. Others have holes in their shells with folded wings, so the viewer can almost see them sinking to the seafloor, defeated.
Before starting this project, Kavanagh had never heard of pteropods. She wanted to make art reflecting the impacts of climate change, and was searching for an animal with an appealing shape for abstraction. One day she stumbled upon the image of a pteropod and was sold. She found the animals both beautiful and evocative of the work of Modernist artists she admires, such as Miro, Arp and Kandinsky.
She based her aluminum and bronze sculptures off of pictures she found in books and on the internet, blown up more than 400 times their real size. But when she finished sculpting, she panicked. “While I tried to symbolize the danger pteropods faced by interpreting their forms,” Kavanagh says, “I became increasingly concerned that my sculptures might be too abstract to be recognizable.”
She contacted Gareth Lawson, a biological oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who studies the impacts of acidification on pteropods. To her relief, when he looked at pictures of her sculptures, he was able to easily identify each down to the species. After that, the pair teamed up, writing a book together and curating a show in New York, called “Charismatic Microfauna,” with scientific information alongside the sculptures.
“What drew me to [Cornelia's] work in particular is the way in which, through their posture and form, as a series her sculptures illustrate pteropods increasingly affected by ocean acidification,” says Lawson. “Through her medium she is ‘hypothesizing’ how these animals will respond to the changed chemistry of the future ocean. And that’s exactly what my collaborators and I do, albeit through science.”
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.
December 28, 2012
This New Year’s Eve, in addition to the typical resolutions to exercise more or spend more time with family, consider resolving to take better advantage of the cultural offerings of America’s cities and towns. Whether you seek to attend concerts, listen to lectures by authors and visiting scholars or become regulars at area museums, a few exhibitions slated for 2013 on the intersection of art and science will be must-sees in the New Year.
The skyline of New York City will be transformed next summer when 300 water tanks in the five boroughs become public works of art, calling attention to water conservation. Artists, including Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, Lawrence Weiner, and even Jay-Z, have agreed to participate in the project. Their original designs will be printed on vinyl, which will be wrapped around the mostly wood tanks, which typically measure 12 feet high and 13 feet in diameter, perched on top of buildings. The art will be a welcome addition to the city’s rooftops, while also providing more awareness of the global water crisis.
Teaching the Body: Artistic Anatomy in the American Academy, From Copley, Eakins, and Rimmer to Contemporary Artists
Naomi Slipp, a PhD candidate in art history at Boston University, is organizing an ambitious exhibition of more than 80 sketches, models, prints, books, paintings and other works that tell a full story of artistic renderings of human anatomy in America. On display at the Boston University Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery, from January 31 to March 31, the exhibition spans two and half centuries, from the very first anatomy text by painter John Singleton Copley, dating to 1756, to works by contemporary artists, such as Lisa Nilsson, who creates paper sculptures depicting cross sections of the human body. ”This exhibition examines both what that study of artistic anatomy meant for these artists and for the way we, today, think about our own bodies and how they work,” said Slipp, in her successful bid to raise funds for the project on Kickstarter. ”In looking at artworks created by artists and doctors, I hope to unite this diverse audience, bringing together people who are interested in art and those who are interested in medicine for a rich, shared conversation about what it means to occupy, treat and picture our own bodies.”
“I believe my most important role remains as artistic interpreter of all that I see. I need to understand the science, but I want to capture the poetry,” writes Brian Skerry, in his book, Ocean Soul. A National Geographic wildlife photographer with decades of experience, Skerry has captured enchanting portraits of harp seals, Atlantic bluefin tuna, hammerhead sharks, beluga whales, manatees and other creatures of the deep. His line of work requires loads of equipment—underwater housings for his cameras, strobes, lenses, wetsuits, drysuits, fins—to get the perfect shot. “While no single image can capture everything, in my own work I am most pleased when I make pictures that reveal something special about a specific animal or ecosystem, pictures that give viewers a sense of the mysterious or in effect bring them into the sea with me,” says Skerry, in a dispatch on Ocean Portal. Earlier this fall, Ocean Portal asked the public to vote for a favorite among 11 of Skerry’s photographs. The viewers’ choice and other images by the underwater photographer will be on display at D.C.’s National Museum of Natural History beginning April 5.
On May 18, 1980, stirred by a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, Mount St. Helens in Washington state’s Cascade Range erupted, forever changing the landscape surrounding it. Separate from one another, American photographers Emmet Gowin and Frank Gohlke documented the devastation (and in Gohlke’s case, the gradual rebirth) of the area. The Cleveland Museum of Art is bringing the photographers’ series together, side by side, in an exhibit, on display from January 13 to May 12.
Interestingly, the museum will also play host to “The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection,” looking at art by masters ranging from the 18th and 19th century artists Piranesi and Ingres to more modern contributions from Duchamp, Rothko and Warhol, all inspired by the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The exhibit will be on display from February 24 to May 19.
Gogo Ferguson and her daughter, Hannah Sayre-Thomas, live on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia. Morning, noon and night, the pair walks the beach, collecting interesting skeletons, seaweed and seashells brought in by the tide. “Nature has perfected her designs over millions of years,” writes Ferguson, on her Web site. And so, the artist incorporates these organic designs into jewelry, sculptures and housewares. Her first museum exhibition, at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from January 19 to July 7, features more than 60 works, including a six-foot by eight-foot wall sculpture modeled after seaweed from New England and an ottoman fashioned after a sea urchin.
Photographer Michael Benson takes raw images collected on NASA and European Space Agency missions and enhances them digitally. The results are brilliant, colorful views of dust storms on Mars and Saturn’s rings, among other sights. The American Association for the Advancement of Science Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. will be exhibiting images from Planetfall, Benson’s latest book, as well as his other titles, including Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle (2009) and Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes (2003), from mid-February through the end of April.
If you missed it at New York’s American Museum of Natural History this past year, there is still time to see “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence” at its next stop, Chicago’s Field Museum, from March 7 to September 8. The exhibition highlights the diversity of animals, from fireflies and glowworms to jellyfish and fluorescent corals found upwards of a half-mile deep in the ocean, that use bioluminescence, and the variety of different reasons for which they do. A firefly, for instance, glows to catch the attention of a mate. An anglerfish, meanwhile, attracts prey with a bioluminescent lure dangling in front of its mouth; a vampire squid releases a cloud of bioluminescence to befuddle its predators. The show also explains the chemical reaction that causes the animals to glow. “The one real weakness,” wrote the New York Times, at the opening of the exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, “is that with only a few exceptions—like the tanks of blinking ‘splitfin flashlight fish’ found in deep reefs of the South Pacific—this is not an exhibition of specimens but of simulations.”
December 10, 2012
“The earliest evidence we have of tattoos, not surprisingly, is cosmetic,” says Lars Krutak. Tattooed on the upper lip of a 7,000-year-old mummy from the Chinchorro culture of northern Chile and southern Peru is a thin pencil mustache. “But, the second oldest we have is medicinal,” he adds.
Krutak, sitting at his desk in the bowels of the National Museum of Natural History, is referring to Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old mummified “Iceman,” so named by researchers because he was discovered in the Ötztal Alps on the Italy-Austria border in September 1991. The preserved body has a total of 57 tattoos—short lines etched in groups on his lower back and ankles, a cross behind his right knee and two rings around his left wrist.
“Incredibly, approximately 80 percent of these tattoos overlap with classical Chinese acupuncture points utilized to treat rheumatism, a medical condition that plagued the Iceman. Other tattoos were found to be located on or near acupuncture meridians [pathways that connect internal organs with specific points located on the skin] that may have had the purpose of relieving other ailments, like gastro-intestinal problems,” writes Krutak in his latest book, Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification, published this fall. The Iceman had a whipworm infection, researchers discovered in 2001.
Krutak works as a repatriation case officer in the museum’s anthropology department, returning human remains, funerary objects and sacred and ceremonial objects to Native tribes in Alaska. But, in addition to these duties, he is an expert in the anthropology of tattoos. As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the early 1990s, Krutak studied art history and anthropology. “Those two things have always been a passion of mine, and tattooing is one way for me to connect both of them together,” he says. In 1998, he received a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and, by 2009, he had earned a doctorate in the discipline from Arizona State University.
Krutak’s introduction to tattoos happened during his graduate school years. For his master’s thesis, he studied a traditional tattoo technique called skin-stitching, performed by the Yupiget women on St. Lawrence Island off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Sea. Skin-stitching is literally sewing geometric designs into the skin; Krutak calls it “epidermal embroidery.” Through interviewing the last remaining women who still practice the art, he also learned that the St. Lawrence Island Yupiget had historically used a therapeutic tattoo method that resembled the joint markings on the Iceman. “It’s a form of tattoo puncture, or acupuncture but leaving behind a pigment,” says Krutak. The residue was thought to be “a magical pigment believed to shut down passageways into the souls of the body,” he explains.
Since this first exposure, Krutak has felt an urgency to study other tribal tattoo and scarification traditions. He feels it is a race against time to get to indigenous communities in remote places across the world before these last tattoo artists and their oral histories—along with their traditional medical techniques—vanish.
Tattooing is “part of our world’s cultural and artistic heritage,” Krutak says. Maybe it is a by-product of his day job, but Krutak strongly believes that in a world where tattooing has become a multi-billion dollar industry, we should be recognizing and honoring the art form’s roots. To communicate the knowledge he gathers, the cultural anthropologist has published several books, filled with photographs that showcase the artistic ability of individuals who create intricate tattoos with natural inks and tools, such as thorns and sharpened bamboo sticks.
Though only one dark dot on the back of his hand is visible when he is dressed in business attire, Krutak has transformed his own body into a canvas depicting the many tribal tattoo techniques he has studied. He has been hand-tapped by the Iban people of Borneo with needles, the Kalinga of the Philippines with thorns and the Mentawai of Indonesia with nails. He has been poked by Buddhist monks in Thailand and pricked by the Kayabi of the Brazilian Amazon with palm thorns. Then, there is the skin-stitching and scarification: Krutak has received more than 100 skin-stitched tattoos and about 1,000 scars, the remnants of incisions made with razors, blades and knives.
Such experiences “help me in some sense when I’m writing and trying to understand what they mean for the peoples who created them,” explains Krutak. “Obviously, I can never be a member of these tribes just because I get a tattoo. But, it gives me some sense of the transformation that takes place.”
Oh, he adds, “And the pain, for sure.”
While filming Tattoo Hunter, a 10-part Discovery Channel series that aired in 2009 and 2010, Krutak took part in a “crocodile cutting” ceremony with the Kaningara of Papua New Guinea. A rite of passage for Kaningara boys becoming men, the ceremony involves an elder cutting a massive pattern of small incisions on a participant’s chest and back. “After 450 plus cuts, my entire chest felt like it was on fire,” writes Krutak in Spiritual Skin. (If you don’t believe him, watch him bear the pain in this episode capturing the process.) River mud is applied to the fresh cuts, which causes them to become infected. The overall effect—in both look and touch—is reminiscent of the scales on a crocodile. The Kaningara believe that with this scarification they appropriate the powers and knowledge of the crocodile spirit.
So certainly tattoos have a spiritual tradition. But medicinal?
Colin Dale, a tattooist in Copenhagen, Denmark, has mastered several traditional forms of tattooing. He has personally sewn all of Krutak’s skin-stitches and shares the anthropologist’s interest in medicinal tattoos. Last year, in fact, for the 20th anniversary of the Iceman’s discovery, Dale conducted a small test, tattooing David Schütze, a client plagued by asthma, rheumatism in several of his joints, headaches, tinnitus in his ear and a loud snoring habit, with marks similar to Ötzi’s and in many of the same spots. Dale had an acupuncturist on hand to recommend locations that aligned with certain acupuncture points. After three months time, Schütze reported that just about all of his pains and symptoms had noticeably eased, if not completely disappeared. By a year, some had returned, but nowhere near the original intensity. The acupuncturist, Irg Bernhardt, compared the results of the one tattooing session to 10 to 15 acupuncture treatments. “In my estimation, this project shows that tattooing of acupuncture points [produces] a sustained therapeutic effect,” said Bernhardt in Spiritual Skin. “And not just for a short period of time, since it actually seems to work for the long term.”
Besides the St. Lawrence Island Yupiget women, Krutak has found two other groups that continue to practice therapeutic joint tattooing 5,300 years after the Iceman lived. Last spring, in Borneo, he met some Kayan men and women who had dots tattooed on their wrists, ankles and knee caps. When he asked about the tattoos, the Kayan explained that whenever they sprained a joint, one woman in their clan would tattoo dots on the swollen area and full mobility would typically return within a week. Krutak noticed that some of the people who had experienced multiple sprains had layers of tattooing. (Actually, Krutak and others believe that the Iceman’s tattoos may have been applied on several occasions, since they are so clear and dark to this day.) More recently, the anthropologist spotted joint tattooing among the Inland Aroma people of Papua New Guinea.
Krutak suspects that medicinal tattooing of this type arose in many places simultaneously, as opposed to diffusing from one specific location. Whether by accident or experimentation, people found tattooing to relieve their ailments, he says.
As one can imagine, there may be “many more possible relationships and connections between organs, points, joints, and tattoos that are waiting to be discovered,” Krutak notes.
October 26, 2012
One of the core missions of the Smithsonian Institution is to understand and sustain a biodiverse planet. Many projects have been implemented across the Smithsonian with this noble intention. One of my personal favorites is the Biodiversity Heritage Library, for which the Smithsonian Institution Libraries is a founding member.
Launched in 2005, BHL is an impressive one-stop web-shop where researchers can access digital copies of thousands of scientific books and journals from 14 natural history museum libraries, botanical libraries and research institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom. Seven years into the ambitious undertaking, the digital library has collected over 39 million pages from nearly 57,000 titles. BHL has also uploaded over 45,000 impeccably detailed illustrations of plant and animal species to its Flickr account.
Scientists around the world report that BHL, in many ways, streamlines their research. The library has allowed botanist Joe Shaw, for instance, to locate the original descriptions of many species of cacti. Joachim Ladwig, an amateur fossil collector in Germany, used BHL to solve a 20-year mystery. By reading the original papers describing two species of cow sharks, he was able to unequivocally conclude that fossil teeth he unearthed belonged to Hexanchus microdon. Not to mention, BHL has allowed the National Museum of Natural History’s Chris Mah, one of the world’s leading experts on starfish, to download foreign texts about different species and quickly and easily translate them in Google Translate.
That said, nonscientists find uses for the catalog as well.
Recently, I found myself happily lost in the colorful creatures inhabiting BHL’s Flickr collections. From lions to lizards, hawks to herring, it is a virtual zoo! I was transfixed by an illustration (shown above) of Natalus stramineus, the Mexican funnel-eared bat, published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in the mid-19th century. The illustrator diagrammed certain physiological features, like the bat’s ears, in the way that an artist might in a study for a particular painting. In a strange way, the piecemeal analysis of the creature reminded me of a sewing pattern. My eyes wandered to an image of a lobster’s claws laid out like sleeves.
What great inspiration, I thought, for Halloween costumes!
If you are still looking for a costume idea, take a gander at these images culled from BHL. Study them, and when you are fashioning wings, ears, eyes and shells, pay close attention to detail. The more scientifically accurate you are, the more recognizable your getup will be!
This illustration of two American lobsters, drawn from life, shows the antennae, walking legs, abdomen, tail fin and other anatomy of the crustacean. The red lobster is a two-pound female caught near Mount Desert, Maine, in 1894. Below her is a 1.5-pound male captured near Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1891. Decide if you want to be a miss or a mister, and note the differences in coloring.
To dress as a cobra, model a homemade headdress after the hood of this Indian species, Naga tripudians. Decorate your hood with this realistic pattern of scales.
A butterfly is a simple costume to construct. Cut a pair of wings out of poster board; attach twine straps, and wear them like you would a backpack. Branch out from the familiar monarch butterfly, and consider painting your wings to resemble these lesser-known (at least in North America) species. The peacock butterfly (on the left), found in Britain, has “large compound eyelets, reddish in the centre, and the inner half of the outer circle of a rich golden yellow, the outer half being of a fine sky blue, with several dark spots in it,” according to The Book of Butterflies, Sphinxes and Moths (1832). The imperial trojan (on the right) is native to Ambon Island in Indonesia. Of this particular species, Carl Linnaeus said, “It may be doubted whether Nature has produced any object more beautiful amongst the insects.”
Great Horned Owl
Owls seem to be in vogue for Halloween. Whether you are crafting a mask or applying face paint, this illustration of a Great Horned Owl from the early 1900s may be a useful guide.
To pull off a tortoise costume, pick up a baggy sweatshirt. Paint the front and back of the shirt to match one of these shells, from two different tortoise species. Then, stuff the back of the sweatshirt with a pillow or several t-shirts.
Lesser Devil Ray
Fashion a cape in the shape of this eagle ray, known to live in the western Atlantic Ocean. The head of the ray can wrap around your own head. Add loops to the underside of the cape, at the tips of the ray’s wings; this way, you can slide your fingers in the loops and swim about.
For more ideas, explore BHL’s Flickr account!