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 19, 2013
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”
—Jules Henri Poincare, a French mathematician (1854-1912)
Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced the winners of its 2013 Cool Science Image contest. From an MRI of a monkey’s brain to the larva of a tropical caterpillar, a micrograph of the nerves in a zebrafish’s tail to another of the hairs on a leaf, this year’s crop is impressive—and one that certainly supports what Collage of Arts and Sciences believes at its very core. That is, that the boundary between art and science is often imperceptible.
The Why Files, a weekly science news publication put out by the university, organizes the contest; it started three years ago as an offshoot of the Why Files’ popular “Cool Science Image” column. The competition rallies faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to submit the beautiful scientific imagery produced in their research.
“The motivation was to provide a venue and greater exposure for some of the artful scientific imagery we encounter,” says Terry Devitt, the coordinator of the contest. “We see a lot of pictures that don’t get much traction beyond their scientific context and thought that was a shame, as the pictures are both beautiful and serve as an effective way to communicate science.”
Most of the time, these images are studied in a clinical context, Devitt explains. But, increasingly, museums, universities and photography contests are sharing them with the public. “There is an ongoing revolution in science imaging and there is the potential to see things that could never before be seen, let alone imaged in great detail,” says Devitt. “It is important that people have access to these pictures to learn more about science.”
This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s scientific community entered 104 photographs, micrographs, illustrations and videos to the Cool Science Image contest—a number that trumps last year’s participation by about 25 percent. The submissions are judged, quite fittingly, by a cross-disciplinary panel of eight scientists and artists. The ten winners receive small prizes (a $100 gift certificate to participating businesses in downtown Madison) and large format prints of their images.
“When I see an image I love, I know the second I see it. I know it because it is beautiful,” says Ahna Skop, a judge and geneticist at the university. She admits she has a bias for images capturing nematode embryos and mitosis, her areas of expertise, but like many people, she also gravitates to images that remind her of something familiar. The scanning electron micrograph, shown at the top of this post, for example, depicts nanoflowers of zinc oxide. As the name “nanoflower” suggests, these chemical compounds form petals and flowers. Audrey Forticaux, a chemistry graduate student at UW-Madison, added artificial color to this black and white micrograph to highlight the rose-like shapes.
Steve Ackerman, an atmospheric scientist at the university and a fellow judge, describes his approach: “I try to note my first response to the work—am I shocked, awed, baffled or annoyed?” He is bothered when he sees meteorological radar images that use the colors red and green to depict data, since they can be difficult for color blind people to read. “I jot down those first impressions and then try to figure out why I reacted that way,” he says.
After considering artistic qualities, and the gut reactions they trigger, the panel considers the technical elements of the entries, along with the science they convey. Skop looks for a certain crispness and clarity in winning images. The science at play within the frame also has to be unique, she says. If it is something that she has seen before, the image probably won’t pass muster.
Skop hails from a family of artists. “My father was a sculptor and my mother a ceramicist and art teacher. All of my brothers and sisters are artists, yet I ended up a scientist,” she says. “I always tell people that genetically I’m an artist. But, there is no difference between the two.”
If anything, Skop adds, the winning entries in the Cool Science Image contest show that “nature is our art museum.”
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.”
March 7, 2013
David Morrow, a 27-year-old aerospace engineer by day and budding photographer by night, was perched at Sunrise Point on the evening of October 6, 2012. From the popular viewing spot in Mount Rainier National Park, he had a clear view of Rainier, the 14,411-foot beastly stratovolcano to his west. As he recalls, at about 9 p.m. the sun had set and the stars began to appear. Filling the viewfinder of his Nikon D800, quite brilliantly, was the Milky Way.
“It is not often that you see the Milky Way line up so perfectly with an earthly object,” said Morrow, when his resulting photograph (shown above) was selected as a finalist in Smithsonian.com’s 2012 photo contest. “The stars almost looked as though they were erupting from the mountain and I knew this was a moment in time that I had to capture.”
For a decade now, Smithsonian magazine’s annual photo contest has been a loving ode to these moments. Each year, photographers from around the world submit entries in five categories near and dear to us: the Natural World, Travel, People, Americana and Altered Images. Our photo editors, who have reviewed more than 290,000 photographs from upwards of 90 countries in the contest’s history, then select 10 finalists in each category.
This week, Smithsonian.com announced the finalists for the 2012 photo contest. At this point, the public is invited to vote on a readers’ choice winner, and, ultimately, our editors will select category winners and a grand prize winner, to be revealed later this spring. We here at Collage of Arts and Sciences have a special affinity for the Natural World images, which beautifully capture animals, plants and landscapes; geological or climatological features; and scientific processes and endeavors.
So what makes a finalist stand out from other entries?
“Quite simply, I look for something that I have not seen before,” says Maria G. Keehan, Smithsonian magazine’s art director. For the Natural World submissions, she and her colleagues sifted through a fair share of photographs of pets, rainbows, mating insects and horses in misty light (“Misty anything has kind of taken its toll on me,” says Keehan) to parse out images that accomplish something truly unique—like capturing an unusual or rare animal behavior. “Of course good technique and composition are always part of the judging structure, but originality is what strikes me. I really look for things that make you gasp or question,” she adds. “Not just, ‘Oooo, beautiful bird,’ but ‘Wow. Look at the perspective on that. They shot the image through the bird’s wings!”
To make the cut, a photograph has to evoke a visceral reaction. Future contestants, take note. Keehan’s advice is this: “Trust your (natural!) instincts about what is peculiar, remarkable or sublime.”
Without further ado, here are the remainder of the 10th annual photo contest’s Natural World finalists:
Phillip Pilkington snapped a portrait of a fluffy, four-week-old Tawny owl (above) at a bird enthusiast’s home in Southport, UK. “I was aiming to do a traditional studio portrait of an unusual studio subject,” he says. The owl was still, and so it made for an ideal sitter, the photographer recalls. “I just concentrated on the photography,” Pilkington adds. “I wanted to do a close-up shot, [but] at the same time I didn’t want to get too close, and that is why I chose to crop the image.”
When Vanessa Bartlett took up photography last year, she needed, in her words, a “subject that wouldn’t shatter my fragile photography ego.” So, she went to the Bronx Zoo. On an October day, she photographed baboons, giraffes and lions, but it was a gorilla that stole her attention. “They’re majestic,” says Bartlett, of the primates. “But the expression he gave was what made me take the photo.”
Bartlett sat with the gorilla for about 30 minutes, just a pane of glass separating them. “Just as a photographer likes a look a model gives in the middle of a shoot, I saw a look I loved from the gorilla,” she says. “What I caught was a personal, private moment. That’s what’s so captivating.”
On May 20, 2012, Americans, especially on the west coast, were privy to an annular solar eclipse—where the moon blocks all but the outer ring of the sun. “My husband and I heard about the eclipse a few days before it happened,” says Colleen Pinski, who captured the image, above. “So, I was compelled to take some photos of it…I couldn’t miss the ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to shoot it.”
Colin Hutton was in the Duke Forest, a 7,060-acre tract of land in North Carolina used for research, when he took this remarkable close-up of a caterpillar of a North American moth (Antheraea polyphemus). He was actually searching for jumping spiders, but this little guy was a welcome diversion. “I really like the glowing quality of the caterpillar’s skin and the devious look of its defensive posture,” says Hutton. “It reminds me of the character Mr. Burns from The Simpsons as he says ‘Excellent…’ while tapping his fingers together.”
Bjorn Olesen was on a week-long trip to Sarawak, Borneo, in November 2010, when he photographed this juvenile Spectacled Spiderhunter (Arachnothera flavigaster) calling out to its parents. “In my view the photo demonstrates the great strength of still photography: to freeze those magic moments that may have otherwise been unnoticed,” says Olesen. “The soft light, the inspiring pose, the color of the bird goes very well together with the beautiful palette of greens of the ferns.”
Neal Piper spent 12 days in Antarctica in February 2012. “I have always been fascinated with penguins and dreamed of visiting Antarctica to see them in their natural habitat,” he says. To get to Damoy Point, where he took this photograph, Piper traveled three days by ship through the Drake Passage and then took a short jaunt on a small motorized raft to his campsite, where he would study a breeding colony of Gentoo penguins.
“Although it was a bitter cold evening, I woke up to a beautiful sunrise. The snow was glimmering upon the majestic mountains,” says Piper. ”I looked over at the colony of Gentoo penguins and saw a few of them overlooking the cliff, almost as if they were enjoying the view. I grabbed my camera and watched them for about an hour until one of the adults and newborn chicks looked into the horizon. I knew right then I had the shot. After taking the photo I looked down at the viewfinder and instantly smiled.”
According to Piper, Gentoo penguins have funny personalities. “After studying them for a week, I discovered that they are very loving and protective to their newborn chicks. To build their nests, they pick up rocks with their beaks, usually stolen from another penguin nest, and place them on their nest. Once the perpetrator places the rock on its nest, the victim often reclaims it and places it back on its own nest. It was a very entertaining scene,” he says.
“A water pipe in Duluth is ‘bled’ every year to ensure it doesn’t freeze,” says Nathan Carlsen, the photographer who captured the finalist, above. “As the water freezes, it builds this amazing ice geyser.” As an experiment, the Minnesotan dangled a rope of LED lights down the geyser. “I knew it would light up well as it is perfectly clear ice, but I had know idea how beautiful it would be. Every year the formation looks a bit different and I go out to it to take a few more [photos]. But this one, the first one, still proves to be my best shot so far.”
Eko Adiyanto stumbled across this scene of ants fiercely gripping seeds in Bekasi, West Java, Indonesia, last April. He felt compelled to take the photograph, above, because it seemed like a super-ant feat of strength. “They are small but very powerful,” says Adiyanto. [Correction, March 13, 2013: As entomologist and Scientific American blogger Alex Wild addressed recently, Adiyanto did not stumble across this scene. In an email, the photographer has explained that he gave the seeds to the ants to bite and then lifted, placed and stacked the ants on the branch himself. Once the ants were in these positions, he took the photograph.]
Don Holland enjoys photographing birds in flight, particularly great egrets and bald eagles. He was driving a stretch of road in Reelfoot Lake State Park in northwest Tennessee when his wife spotted a pair of bald eagles in a dead tree nearby. “I stopped the car immediately and began photographing the eagle pair eating what appeared to be the remains of a coot. Since most of the food was gone, I realized I didn’t have time to mount the lens on the tripod to capture the action. I handheld the camera and lens for the sequence of photos I took in the short time before the eagles flew,” recalls Holland. “The sky was bright-cloudy, and the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds at 20-30 degrees over my right shoulder. With evenly dispersed and adequate light, I worked quickly to take advantage of the special opportunity of capturing the behavior of the eagle pair in an uncluttered background.”
February 26, 2013
Mark Laita captured plenty of photographs of snakes striking, their mouths agape, in the making of his new book, Serpentine. But, it wasn’t these aggressive, fear-inducing—and in his words, “sensational”—images that he was interested in. Instead, the Los Angeles-based photographer focused on the graceful contortions of the reptiles.
“It is not a snake book,” says Laita. As he explained to me in a phone interview, he had no scientific criteria for selecting the species he did, though herpetologists and snake enthusiasts will surely perk up when they see the photographs. “Really, it is more about color, form and texture,” he says. “For me, a snake does that beautifully.”
Over the course of the project, Laita visited zoos, breeders, private collections and antivenom labs in the United States and Central America to stage shoots of specimens he found visually compelling. “I would go to a place looking for this species and that species,” he says. “And, once I got there, they had 15 or 20 others that were great too.” If a particular snake’s colors were muted, Laita would ask the owner to call him as soon as the animal shed its skin. “Right after they shed they would be really beautiful. The colors would be more intense,” he says.
At each site, Laita laid a black velvet backdrop on the floor. Handlers would then guide each snake, mostly as a protective measure, and keep it on the velvet, while the photographer snapped away with an 8 by 10 view camera and a Hasselblad. “By putting it on a black background, it removes all of the variables. It makes it just about the snake,” says Laita. “If it is a red snake in the shape of a figure eight, all you have is this red swipe of color.”
Without much coaxing, the snakes curved and coiled into question marks, cursive letters and gorgeous knots. ”It is as if these creatures are—to their core—so inherently beautiful that there is nothing they can do, no position they can take, that fails to be anything but mesmerizing,” writes Laita in the book’s prologue.
For Serpentine, the photographer hand-selected nearly 100 of his images of vipers, pythons, rattlesnakes, cobras and kingsnakes—some harmless, some venomous, but all completely captivating. He describes the collection as the “ultimate ‘look, but don’t touch’ scenario.”
In his career, marked with the success of having his work exhibited in the United States and Europe, Laita has photographed flowers, sea creatures and Mexican wrestlers. “They’re all interesting, whether it’s in a beautiful, outrageous or unusual way,” he says, of his diverse subjects. So, why snakes then? ”Attraction and repulsion. Passivity and aggression. Allure and danger. These extreme dichotomies, along with the age-old symbolism connected with snakes, are what first inspired me to produce this series,” writes Laita in the prologue. “Their beauty heightens the danger. The danger amplifies their beauty.”
Laita embarked on the project without any real phobia of snakes. “I used to catch them as a kid all of the time. I grew up in the Midwest where it is pretty hard to find a snake that is going to do too much damage to you,” he says. If he comes across a rattlesnake while hiking in his now home state of California, his first impulse is still to try to grab it, though he knows better. Many of the exotic snakes Laita photographed for Serpentine are easily capable of killing a human. “I probably have a little more fear of snakes now after dealing with some of the species I dealt with,” he says.
He had a brush with this fear when photographing a king cobra, the longest venomous snake in the world, which measures up to 18 feet. “It is kind of like having a lion in the room, or a gorilla,” says Laita. “It could tear apart the room in second flats if it wanted to.” Although Laita photographed the cobra while it was enclosed in a plexiglass box, during the shoot it “got away from us,” he says. It escaped behind some cabinets at the Florida facility, “and we couldn’t find it for awhile.”
He’s also had a close encounter with a deadly black mamba while photographing one at a facility in Central America. “It was a very docile snake,” he recalls. “It just happened to move close to my feet at some point. The handler brought his hook in to move the snake, and he inadvertently snagged the cord from my camera. That scared the snake, and then it struck where it was warm. That happened to be the artery in my calf.” Smithsonian contributing writer Richard Conniff shares more gory details on his blog, Strange Behaviors. Apparently, blood was just gushing from the bite (“His sock was soaked and his sneaker was filled with blood,” writes Conniff), and the photographer said the swollen fang marks “hurt like hell that night.”
Obviously, Laita lived to tell the tale. “It was either a ‘dry bite,’ which is rare, or I bled so heavily that the blood pushed the venom out,” he explained in a publicity interview. “All I know is I was unlucky to be bitten, lucky to have survived, and lucky again to have unknowingly snapped a photo of the actual bite!”
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