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What causes disease outbreaks and how can we stop them?

Smithsonian Insider

A hunter touches an infected animal’s blood, a farmer breathes the moist air exhaled by sick cows, contaminated meat is served at an outdoor market—these […]

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How do National Zoo animals beat the heat? Bloodsicles and other frozen delicacies

Smithsonian Insider

When the heat and humidity of the Washington, D.C. summer sends its residents scrambling for air conditioning and iced coffee, the animal care specialists at […]

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Ashkii, a North American river otter, at the National Zoo

Smithsonian Insider

Ashkii, a North American river otter, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park

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Research team creates first carbon map of an entire country: Panama

Smithsonian Insider

A team of researchers has for the first time mapped the above ground carbon density of an entire country in high fidelity. They integrated field […]

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Rising ocean temperatures and acidity may deliver deadly one-two punch to the world’s corals

Smithsonian Insider

A recent experiment by scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama has revealed just how rising atmospheric carbon dioxide will deliver a one-two […]

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Clarifying connections: Navajo Oral History

Smithsonian Libraries
One never knows what kind of material will be next, when cataloging for library branches serving Smithsonian’s 19 museums and research centers.  I recently received a box of DVDs that more »

Folk and Self-Taught Art, Now in the Luce Center

Smithsonian American Art Museum
ThumbnailSAAM's open storage Luce Foundation Center is by no means a static place. With a calendar full of public programs and one of the most Instagrammable spaces in the city (we may be biased), you can see how the space is constantly changing in our folk and self-taught art cases.

Loss of animals spells doom for diversity of rainforest trees

Smithsonian Insider

Soon after a dirt road through the forests of Lambir Hills National Park in Borneo was improved in 1987, local markets selling the meat of […]

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Abraham Lincoln in Civil War era lithography

National Museum of American History

In recent weeks, historical sites and societies throughout the country have been marking the 151st anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the death of Abraham Lincoln. In the Harry T. Peters America on Stone Collection there are numerous prints pertaining to the Civil War, including several on the assassination, death, and commemoration of Abraham Lincoln. The lithographs selected below are just a few examples of how the country used visual print culture to absorb, personalize, and make sense of a national tragedy.

Portrait of Lincoln with black bow tie from shoulders up. Below portrait, three vignettes, including one with log cabin.

Just weeks before his death, Lincoln's features had been mocked by his political adversaries. After the assassination his visage was cherished. According to Page Smith, author of Trial by Fire, some contemporary sources mentioned that his face was "calm and striking." After Lincoln's death, demand for images of the late president dramatically increased, though prints and lithographs of Lincoln were readily available. In the North, many families had hung Lincoln's portrait in prominent spots in their homes during the war. After his death, these portraits were draped in black cloth, as if the families were mourning the death of a family member.

Color illustration of Lincoln's assassination in theater booth.

Lincoln's assassination drew almost instant analogies, as in the print above, in which John Wilkes Booth is compared to the murderous Macbeth in Shakespeare's tragedy. Others saw religious connections. It did not go unnoticed that Lincoln's assassination took place on Good Friday. That Easter Sunday, dark mourning crepe replaced vibrant flowers, and clergymen across the country began to compare Lincoln's assassination to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In fact, Booth became known as a "second Judas" for having betrayed the nation and killing a man some believed to be favored by God.

Illustration in dark colors. Lincoln, eyes closed, in bed with white sheets and pillows, surrounded by standing figures in black suits with somber faces.

Because access to the dying president was limited, there are only a few accounts of his final hours. While as many as 55 people visited the Lincoln's bedside, not all were present at any given time. The bedroom was only 9.5 feet wide by 17 feet long, so it would have been impossible to fit a crowd of 16 adult males and a child around the bed, an artistic license taken in several contemporary depictions. This exaggerated use of space was common in lithography. Though photography existed in the period, photographs were not reproduced in newspapers to report stories. The use of lithographs allowed for audiences to sometimes gain more insight into an event, even if the depictions were overdramatized.

Black and white illustration of Lincoln's headstone. At his feet, a mythical beast lays half dead, near a scroll that says "Emancipation Act." A figure of Liberty(?) covers her eyes, leaning against it. A figure with dark skin holds his hand to his face. Owls and an American flag on top.

Images like the one above demonstrate how commemorative memorial prints were produced to capture and capitalize on the nation's grief. Symbols of Lincoln's great accomplishments surround his headstone. A weeping figure of Liberty drapes herself over the stone memorial, as the slain dragon representing the rebellion of the Civil War lies at its base. In the years after his death, linking symbols to his name and death was necessary to ensure that Lincoln's legacy and sacrifice were not forgotten.

Portrait of Lincoln in lettering

Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 was a contentious act in the politically divided North. The president's supporters likened him to a new Moses, and between 1863 and 1864 there was a dramatic increase in the production of prints related to the Emancipation Proclamation, which would have found a ready place in many Republican households. After his assassination in 1865, calligraphy prints, such as the one above, were widely circulated, as they literally infused the words of emancipation with the image of Abraham Lincoln. The legacy becomes the man.

Sarah Crosswy is a graduate of the College of Wooster and a volunteer in the Division of Home and Community Life. She previously interned with curator Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs and is currently assisting in cataloging the Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection, a recent acquisition.

Sarah Crosswy
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, April 19, 2016 - 08:00
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Watch How One Harlem Storefront Changes Over Nearly Four Decades

Smithsonian Magazine
The Smithsonian American Art Museum's new exhibition goes "Down These Mean Streets"

Meet the Spider With One of the Fastest Spins on the Planet

Smithsonian Magazine

When this spider senses its prey approaching from any direction, it can turn to strike faster than a blink of an eye, taking just one-eighth of a second to make its spin.

Researchers from the University of California Merced and the California Academy of Sciences have found that flattie spiders — from the spider family Selenopidae — make the fastest leg-driven turn of any land animal on the planet. Their findings were published this week in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

According to a press release from the California Academy of Sciences on the research, flattie spiders turn to strike their prey at speeds of up to 3,000 degrees per second. Moving at full speed, they can even make three complete rotations in the time it takes to blink your eye. They rank among the fastest-turning animals, along with hummingbirds and fruit flies.

"About half of all spiders species don't use webs to catch prey," Sarah Crews, an expert on the Selenopidae family and a postdoctoral researcher at the Academy, says in the press release. "Some stalk and pounce, while others are sit-and-wait ambushers—like flattie spiders."

Crews, an author of the new study, searched field sites to locate the spiders, which linger on trees and rocky surfaces, to take back to the lab. The spiders are nocturnal, so the entire collection process all had to be done in the dark. They can be found across North and South America as well as Africa, Asia and Australia.

Because their swift skills aren’t visible to the naked eye, Crews and lead author Yu Zeng of UC Merced positioned two synchronized, high-speed video cameras above and beside the spiders to capture the action. Then, for each trial, they released a cricket and allowed it to walk toward the spider. They slowed down footage about 40 times the original to examine the mechanics behind the spiders’ hunting strike.

This revealed how they’re able to use their long legs to catch prey. The leg closest the prey is used as an anchor in the ground, allowing the spider to pull its body toward its prey. The legs opposite the prey simultaneously push off the ground to help. This combination achieves a twisting force that launches the spider into its spin.

And though spiders have eight eyes, researchers still don’t know if they are actually used for seeing. Instead, researchers believe that flattie spiders can sense prey approaching by changes in air current.

"Flattie spiders are always one step ahead in this evolutionary arms race between predator and prey," Crews said in the press release. "If the prey are positioned further away, spiders move faster both linearly and with increasing rotational speeds—there's truly no escape."

The researchers believe their finding also has practical applications; they hope the spider’s turn can inform technology and innovation. "We are documenting and modeling their fast spins," Zeng says in the release, "to help chart a course for making robots and other machines more maneuverable."

For example, the latest find could influence how robots move in search-and-rescue missions, Alper Bozkurt, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University, tells “The discovery of new features in insects always excite us engineers as we continuously try to learn from these tiny living machines when we are designing our synthetic robotic ones,” he says. “The coordination of the spiders to implement the observed quick maneuver is fascinating and mind blowing, and is a result of an interplay between sensory organs, neural circuitry and biomechanical actuators. Being able to replicate such a maneuver on robots would enable new capabilities in machines used in search and rescue, transportation as well as space missions.”

As Elaina Zachos, reports for National Geographic, one bio-inspired robot that has a 3-D printed shell and eight spider-like legs already exists. It has individual motors to help the machine move. This latest research could eventually help similar spider-like robots twirl with incredible speed.

First Video of Baby Dumbo Octopus Shows They're Fully Formed From Birth

Smithsonian Magazine

According to a popular Disney princess, "flipping your fins, you don’t get too far"–unless, of course, you happen to be a Dumbo octopus. Thanks to their giant fins, these marine creatures bear a striking resemblance to the floppy-eared Disney elephant, and, unlike Ariel the mermaid, they successfully navigate the seafloor while flapping their floppy fins.

Scientists’ understanding of the Dumbo octopus is relatively limited, but a new study in Current Biology sheds some light on the deep sea dwellers, detailing the first observations of dumbo octopus hatchlings. The biggest takeaway? Newly hatched Dumbo octopuses are nearly identical to their adult counterparts, which means their trademark fins are present from the very beginning.

As Newsweek’s Kristin Hugo reports, the team’s findings are significant because dumbo octopuses, or creatures in the genus Grimpoteuthis, are incredibly difficult to study. They live on the bottom of the seafloor (as deep as 13,000 feet below sea level). And even when scientists dive that deep, they typically can't find octopus eggs, which the adults hide on bits of coral.

“If an egg is able to be disguised long enough, then it has a better chance of surviving to adulthood without being eaten,” ​Elizabeth Shea, curator of mollusks at the Delaware Museum of Natural History and lead author of the new study, tells Hugo.

The team's rare specimen dates back to 2005, when Tim Shank, marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and author of the new study​, led a research cruise that used remotely operated vehicles to explore the Northwest Atlantic. According to a press release, he noticed tan, golf ball-like masses stuck on coral branches and decided to collect several samples.

After realizing that the specimen was a type of egg casing, Shank deposited the coral into a five-gallon bucket. Soon, the egg case opened, and a hatchling emerged.

Once the fins were observed while [the hatchling] was still in the bucket, it was clear that it was a 'dumbo' octopod,” Shea says in a statement.

Scientists observed the hatchling for about two hours and recorded a short video of it swimming around a petri dish.

Later, the research team measured the specimen and examined its anatomy with magnetic resonance imaging. As Live Science’s Brandon Specktor reports, the hatchling’s mantle, or casing that contains most of its internal organs, is tiny, measuring just a half inch across. Despite its small size, tests showed that the octopus was born fully formed.

Specktor writes, “[It had] everything it needed to immediately swim with its fins, sense its environment and capture prey (which Dumbo octopi swallow whole). It was even born with a large internal yolk sac, researchers said, which contained enough nutrients to keep the hatchling alive for several days while it learned to catch its first meal.”

The MRI scans, as well as an accompanying 3-D reconstruction of the hatchling, allowed scientists to better understand the octopus’ complex central nervous system and led them to their overall conclusion: Dumbo octopuses hatch as competent juveniles.

“From a biological perspective, this is kind of connecting the dots in an otherwise somewhat poorly understood group of organisms,” Shea tells Hugo.

British Amphipoda of the tribe Hyperiidea and the families Orchestiidae and some Lysianassidae : by [A.M.] Norman

Smithsonian Libraries
"From the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Ser. 7, Vol. V, January 1900."

A Tricked-Out Toolbox, a Teeny-Weeny Coffee Brewer and Other Wild Ideas That Just Got Funded

Smithsonian Magazine

The city of Los Angeles eats nearly 300 million avocados a year. New Yorkers consume well over 100 million, and Chicago residents manage a hearty 60 million. For this year's Super Bowl alone, Americans ate almost 80 million pounds of the trendy fruit.

To help meet the growing demand, German inventor and IT consultant Daniel Kalliontzis, has created AvoSeedo, a new product that helps people conveniently grow their very own avocados at home. In a Kickstarter campaign ending this week, he successfully raised $68,367.

Like other fruit, avocados sprout from the large seed or pit that’s found in their centers. To get the seed to germinate, a grower has to keep it consistently half-submerged in water, which often requires a delicately balanced setup. This is where the AvoSeedo comes in. The plastic container floats on top of a bowl of water, with a space in the center to place the pit. The seed is always hydrated and in the right place—resulting in a healthy avocado tree.

Here are five other quirky ideas that were funded this week:

Coolbox: World’s Smartest Toolbox (Goal: $50,000 Raised: $301,676 on Indiegogo)

The toolbox is more than a century old, and in that time, not much has changed about the household standby. A Los Angeles team, however, has built a Coolbox—a high-tech version with all the tried-and-true compartments of a standard model. The box contains a 20-volt rechargeable lithium battery, USB and electric outlets for charging devices, a tablet stand, whiteboard, LED lights and a Bluetooth-connected speaker system. Equipped with wheels and made of high impact resin and aluminum, the Coolbox has all the tools needed to get the job done, and more.

PIVOT Mobile App (Goal: $30,000 Raised: $33,689 on Kickstarter)

What if it were possible to visit a place and catch a glimpse of what it looked like in the past? This is the premise behind PIVOT, a mobile app that allows users to aim their smartphones at a particular site and instantly see images and video of the location throughout history. Founders Asma Jaber and Sami Jitan, both Palestinian-American, are currently based at Harvard Innovation Lab. They’re beginning with places that bear major historical significance, like Manger Square in Bethlehem, Palestine, and those that have experienced rapid change, such as Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, and then plan to expand the catalogue of sites in their database from there. The pair will be crowdsourcing photographs and personal stories to enhance their collection.

Micro-Portable Coffee Brewer and Coffee (Goal: $7,457 Raised: $8,134 on Kickstarter)

A reusable tiny pod has a stainless steel filter and is just big enough to make brew one cup of coffee. (Kickstarter)

This small orange pod is the smallest coffee brewing machine you've ever seen. From London company Coffee Cuppa, the micro-portable coffee brewer fits in the palm of your hand. Following the same logic as teabags, users pour their coffee grounds into the pod, drop the pod in a mug and pour hot water into the cup. Each pod, made of food-safe materials and a stainless steel filter, is reusable and makes enough for one serving of coffee.

Momento Pearl: Your Cherished Memories Made Wearable (Goal: $50,000 Raised: $52,256 on Kickstarter)

Momento Pearls, available in necklaces, earrings and rings, are white freshwater or black Tahitian pearls—with a techie twist. Embedded in the pearls are NFC chips. By using the Galatea Jewelry mobile app, givers of the pearl can select their favorite images or audio files on their Android phones and upload them to the pearl by tapping the jewelry against the phone. Recipients can then retrieve the photo or message inside by tapping it against their own phones.

PlyFly Go-Kart (Goal: $36,000 Raised: $51,780 on Kickstarter)

In a time of self-driving cars and electric vehicles, Flatworks, a Newport, Rhode Island company, dares to bring back the gas-powered, wooden go-kart. The PlyFly Roadster is designed to be easy peasy for enthusiasts to put together in a day. ("Basically the Ikea go-kart," wrote Gizmodo of the plywood, flat-pack vehicle.) With user-friendly instructions, the kit contains wooden parts, hardware and an engine.

America's Best Fall Color Drives

Smithsonian Magazine

Crisp air, panoramic views, brilliantly colored ash and poplar trees: The exhilarating route to North Carolina's Mount Mitchell State Park—the highest peak in the Eastern United States—is a destination in itself. The scenic 78-year-old Blue Ridge Parkway is just one of the country’s great autumn drives.

The fall foliage season, when the changing palette of deciduous trees is in blazing bloom, is now starting. And the way to maximize your intake of color is to map out a driving route. In September, October, and—in some spots—even November, color seekers can visit 31 states and drive more than 3,000 miles of national scenic byways, plus thousands of other scenic roads.

Some nature lovers, like former Shenandoah National Park guide Hazel Mills, can’t wait to buckle up and get up close and personal with the purple dogwoods and deep burgundy leaves of the Virginia creepers. “It’s like a basketful of fall chrysanthemums in every color,” she says. “Red and yellow, purple, and deep burgundy. When the afternoon sun hits the hickory, it looks exactly like gold, absolutely breathtaking.”

Others, like Mike Boutin, owner of Maine-based Northwoods Outfitters, like to take country drives surrounded by mountains bursting with yellow beeches, scarlet maples, and purple witch hazel around Moosehead Lake. He also loves one of the season’s biggest local adventures—back-road moose safaris. “It doesn’t get better than pulling over to see a huge brown male moose crash through a riot of bright red and yellow leaves,” says Boutin.

Certain areas of the country—the Northeast corridor, the Southeast, along the Appalachian Mountains, and much of the Midwest—produce the most striking and vibrant colors because of mild autumn days and cool (but not freezing) evenings. If daytime temperatures are too warm for an extended period of time, colors are less intense.

If you’re planning a fall foliage trip, choose your route based not only on the timing of nature’s fiery color display, but also around available activities. Horseback ride through the orange hickory trees in Shenandoah National Park. Or stand beneath a quivering golden aspen at Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra while peering through a dusty window in Bodie, the best-preserved ghost town in California.

But no matter where you are, the way to cover the most ground—and take in the biggest eyeful of color—is behind the wheel. Here are some of our favorite fall color drives.

Excerpt from full story on Travel + Leisure.

Why Satellites Are a Biologist's Best Friend

Smithsonian Magazine

Typically, measuring biodiversity entails going out into the field, traipsing through a forest or a swamp, and tallying and documenting the plants or animals that live there. It’s usually an arduous and expensive process. But that's changing thanks to something in the skies, Rebecca Harrington writes for Popular Science: satellites.

Rather than rely on costly, complicated field work, writes Harrington, satellites do the hard part from space. For remote animals like whales, satellites provide a much-needed means of keeping track of populations, especially threatened ones, as Smithsonian’s Rachel Nuwer wrote back in 2014. A project called WhaleWatch combines satellite data with GPS data to track humpback whales and prevent collisions with human ships, Harrington explains.

Other satellite biodiversity projects include counting penguins in the Southern Ocean, tracking condor migrations, picking up on long term changes in coral reefs and keeping tabs on California’s wildfires.

Some of these projects have been going on for years, but scientists are getting to a point where they need to come up with some general rules about how to measure biodiversity from space, Harrington explains. Last month, a group of ecologist writing in Nature suggested using ten universal variables that both space agencies and biodiversity researchers could follow. Ironing out these specifics could help researchers better determine whether governments have actually met biodiversity goals in the future.

In the meantime, the scientific applications of satellites aren’t limited to biodiversity. Some archaeologists use them to find undiscovered ancient sites, while anthropologists have suggested keeping an eye on remote Amazonian tribes from space. Bottom line: If you're looking for cutting-edge science, you might want to look up.

Inspiring Invention the MacGyver Way

Smithsonian Magazine

Thirty years ago, the television character Angus MacGyver captured the essence of America’s self-image as a nation of self-reliant defenders of good with a knack for solving an unsolvable problem, using nothing more than a Swiss Army knife and whatever could be found on hand—a paperclip, duct tape and some chewing gum.

The name MacGyver even became a verb, meaning to "jumpstart a car with a cactus," or rather, to solve the problem with grit and good old American ingenuity (and a serious understanding of engineering and physical sciences). Inspiring a generation of tinkerers and professional engineers alike, MacGyver did for engineering what CSI has done for forensic sciences.

Last year, President Obama called for a renewal of that spirit and to become a “nation of makers.” In early July, the National Museum of American History answered the call with the reopening of its hands-on invention space, Spark!Lab in the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

The original Spark!Lab—which opened in 2008—was closed in 2012 to allow for museum renovations. “It was one of our most popular things then, and it’s that way again already,” says Tricia Edwards, the center’s director. “We had more than 10,000 visitors in the first week.”

Visitors to Spark!Lab are challenged to solve problems with ingenuity and a pile of off-the-shelf items. Worktables are stocked with tools and straws, dowels, odd shaped pieces of plastic, joiners and connectors, cardboard and tape ready for the taking.

Recent visitors have designed such things as a skateboard bus that accommodates multiple riders, and a long board with a windshield to protect the boarder. It’s not about getting it right; it’s about going through the process. (Lemelson Center/SI)

What you won’t find are 3D printers, circuit boards, mini-bots or coding technology. Spark!Lab is decidedly low-tech.

“We were interested in re-engaging with real stuff—with hand making,” Edwards says.

Lee Martin of UC Davis School of education agrees that there’s a lot of value in low-tech tinkering experiences. “It is worth noting that some professional designers create prototypes in cardboard and other low cost materials,” he says. “So this should not be seen as a kids-only activity.” Martin studies informal education and has written about the Maker Movement, arguing that the high-tech tools satisfy only one part of the equation. Low-tech materials “have a number of distinct advantages for getting kids into design work including their low barriers to entry,” he says. Anyone can go home and invent with stuff around the house. What’s more, Lee says low-cost, off the shelf items are less intimidating to work with than things like circuit boards and custom parts. Let’s face it, who cares if they mess up a piece of wood or some cardboard? 
Edwards says the designers of Spark!Lab took their cues from real workshops. “When we talk with professional inventors, they tell us their most valuable tool is still pen, pencil and paper.” Those tools are plentiful in the invention hub. Scribbled notes are on the tables and scrawled on chalkboards, revealing the collective brainstorming process of visitors arriving throughout the day.

Activities are designed with 6 to 12-year olds in mind, and presented as open-ended questions focused on themes that rotate throughout the year. The current theme—“Things that Roll”—includes challenges such as inventing a gyroscope-powered vehicle, a roller coaster or a new kind of skateboard.

Recent visitors have designed such things as a skateboard bus that accommodates multiple riders, and a long board with a windshield to protect the boarder. It’s not about getting it right; it’s about going through the process. Activities for the upcoming themes "Things that Make Sound" and "Things that Help Us See" are in the works.

For inspiration, photographs of real-life inventors and their stories and objects from the museum collection are displayed throughout the 2,000 square-foot space. “We wanted to show the central role invention plays in American history,” Edwards says.

The current theme—“Things that Roll”—includes challenges such as inventing a gyroscope-powered vehicle, a rollercoaster or a new kind of skateboard. (Lemelson Center/SI)

Some of the inventions included are Eddie Van Halen’s electric guitar, the C-Sprint leg prosthetic inspired by the shape of a cheetah's hind leg, the magnifying glass, Krispy Kreme dough cutter, clothes pins and a machine for curling an entire head of hair at once.

On a recent visit, this reporter noted a few parents and older kids hanging back, more inclined to read the success stories than to jump in, but many of them were drawn to the back where a real, live inventor tinkers behind soundproof windows.

Tim Pula, who is the center's interpretive exhibit coordinator, invents all of the activities for Spark!Lab while maintaining his on-site workshop, chock full of the tools of invention: a soldering iron, a glue gun, spools of colored wire, X-Acto-knives, yellow sticky notes, safety goggles and rulers. There’s no laptop in sight, but somewhere in all of his stuff, there is sure to be a roll of duct tape and some paperclips.

Spark!Lab opened its new permanent location July 1 at the National Museum of American History in the new Innovation Wing. Other centers can be found in: Reno, Nevada; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsfield, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California and Anchorage, Alaska.

Nate (left) and Rich Barnard of Fountain Hills, Arizona are enthralled with exhibit coordinator Tim Pula in his workshop (Kimba Cutlip)

The Historic Return of the American Bison

Smithsonian Magazine

When a group of Smithsonian curators began dismantling a taxidermied bison display in the 1950s, they discovered a mysterious metal case embedded underneath. Inside the case was a letter. “My illustrious successor,” it began. “The old bull, the young cow, and the yearling calf were killed by yours truly. When I am dust and ashes, I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction.” It was signed W.T. Hornaday. 

The curators surely recognized the name. Dead for two decades by then, William Temple Hornaday had come to the Smithsonian as a taxidermist in the late 1800s, helped establish the National Zoo, and was considered the founder of the American conservation movement. Of his many contributions to the Institution, however, his message from beyond the grave suggests that he was most proud of his bison collection. Now, the National Zoo is honoring Hornaday’s historic work with an exhibition featuring two bison, the names of which were announced this morning.

"Things are really coming fully circle now with this history," says Doug Coffman, who has studied the history of bison at the Smithsonian. Two animals from Montana make up the Zoo's “American Bison” exhibition. Students from Howard and Gallaudet universities collaborated with the Zoo to name the animals, since both schools use the bison as their mascots. Wilma and Zora, as they will be known, arrived at the Zoo on July 10. Keepers have spent the past month and a half helping them acclimate in time for the exhibition, which opens Saturday, August 30.

The exhibition coincides with the Zoo’s 125th anniversary. Bison were the first animals at the National Zoo, and Wilma and Zora will occupy the same location that the originals did more than a century ago. “These two girls are so amazingly solid,” says keeper Marty Dearie. “We’ve all been blown away by how easygoing they seem to be and how willing they are to try new things.” That’s not what you would expect from a pair of one-year-olds, especially some that weigh at least 500 pounds each. “I love their personalities,” Dearie says, “how inquisitive, how eager they are.”

In addition to the Zoo anniversary, there’s another reason to celebrate the bison; thanks to efforts that began with Hornaday’s work, bison have returned from near extinction. “It’s a great conservation story,” says Steve Sarro, the Zoo's exhibition curator.

As chief taxidermist for the Smithsonian in the 1880s, Hornaday traveled west to collect bison to mount for a collection. Decades earlier, tens of millions of bison had roamed the American prairie. “It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870,” Hornaday wrote in The Extermination of the American Bison, using the term buffalo to mean bison. But when he arrived there in 1886, he was shocked to find that there were nearly no bison left.

“I don’t think it ever occurred to people that they could disappear,” says Pamela Henson, an institutional historian at the Smithsonian. “He’s shocked that this magnificent animal that’s distinctly North American is just about gone.”

After finding a handful of bison to mount, believed to be among the last wild bison in the country at that time, Hornaday convinced his Smithsonian colleagues to allow him to start a live collection. They granted him permission, and upon returning to Washington, D.C., Hornaday established a display of six mounted bison and brought living ones to graze behind the Smithsonian Castle. Within a few years, the National Zoo was born. And so was the conservation movement.

Today’s bison are the first to be on view at the National Zoo in more than a decade. And while they are making a celebrated return, Hornaday’s historic mounted collection almost disappeared forever. After finding his note in the 1950s, the curators donated the six bison to collections in Montana. Over the subsequent decades, Hornaday’s group was split and made its way into storage. No one knew where all of them went, until the 1980s when Coffman made it his mission to find them.

The history of bison at the Smithsonian goes back to the 1880s when William Temple Hornaday mounted a display at the National Museum. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

“I understood something about the symbolic nature of the original group,” says Coffman, who is now 66 and lives in Eugene, Oregon. “I just started asking around…I spent several years scouting around Montana, sleuthing out the specimens.” He eventually found all six, each gathering dust in storage facilities scattered throughout the state.

Those original mounted bison now reside at the Hornaday Smithsonian Buffalo and Western Art Gallery in Fort Benton, Montana. But Coffman’s bison work didn’t end there. “I think it’s an obsession at this point,” he says, laughing. He wrote a book on his search, Reflecting the Sublime: The Rebirth of an American Icon, which he will be signing at the National Zoo on Saturday.

Though the species has made a miraculous recovery, the International Union for Conservation of Nature still considers the animal “near threatened.” The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are around 20,500 in the wild. That number is down from 30 to 60 million from before their late 19th century decline.

“The animals to me represent the old America, the old West,” Dearie says. “This country was responsible for basically the almost complete eradication of the species and then this country was responsible for bringing them back from the brink.”

Meet the First Robot to Ring the NASDAQ Bell

Smithsonian Magazine

You might be ready for your robot overlords, but NASDAQ isn’t. They’ve invited all sorts of humans to ring their opening and closing bell, but yesterday marked the first robot to ever execute the honor. New Scientist has video:

The robot that did the deed is the UR5—a “multi-jointed, people-friendly robot arm,” as New Scientist describes it:

“It is a very exciting step for us, and an exciting step for the robot industry as a whole,” says Esben Østergaard of Universal Robots in Odense, Denmark, which makes UR5. “The world needs robots, and we are very happy to be chosen to represent this important event in the history of robot technology.”

Here you can see how the UR5 arm works in more detail:

Jennifer Hicks, at Forbes, explains exactly how the robot rang the bell:

To ring the NASDAQ closing bell, the UR5 robot arm was integrated with a three-fingered SDH gripper. UR5 weighs only 40 pounds and can handle a payload of up to 11.3 pounds. The programming to ring the bell is through an intuitive 3D tablet touchscreen — or by just grabbing the robot arm to demonstrate the desired movement.

As trading gets more and more automated and computers more integral to the process, it was probably only time before some sort of robot rang the bell. Just one more step to world domination by robots.

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Peeping in on the Process of Turning Caterpillar to Butterfly

Smithsonian Magazine

Photo: dynna17

In elementary school, we learn that caterpillars turn into butterflies and moths through a process called metamorphosis. But what really goes on within the hardened chrysalis has continued to puzzle scientists. Now, computer tomography scans have allowed researchers to peep in on the caterpillar-to-butterfly action taking place inside the chrysalis, The Scientist reports.

Previously, researchers hoping to learn about metamorphosis had to dissect the chrysalis, which killed the developing insect inside. The key breakthrough about this new technique, they say, is that it allows them to study living tissue as it grows and changes.

Using series of dead individuals provides snapshots of presumably sequential development, but it can be unclear whether one insect’s third day in a chrysalis is really the same developmentally as another’s. CT scans can provide a more complete picture of how development proceeds.

In this new study, the team scanned nine painted lady chrysalises. Four of the insects died during the experiment while the other five hatched. In their results, the researchers focused on data derived from one of the insects in particular that provided the most detailed scans.

Here’s a video the researchers put together of their caterpillar’s gradual development into butterfly:

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Rather than rewriting the story of butterfly development, the researchers told The Scientist, this experiment fills in missing details. For example, The Scientist describes:

The trachea did become visible surprisingly fast, within 12 hours after pupation, indicating that the structures either are more fully formed in caterpillars than previously thought or form very rapidly in pupae. While the trachea and the intestines showed up remarkably clearly, the “soft, gooey bits,” such as muscles and the central nervous system, were unfortunately invisible, Garwood said.

Lepidopterists, the scientists who study butterflies and moths, are not the only insect researchers who can benefit from CT scans. Many other arthropods—including beetles, flies, bees, wasps, ants and fleas—also go through metamorphosis.

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New Patch Could Help Reduce Peanut Allergies

Smithsonian Magazine

In recent years, peanut allergies have become a kind of comic short-hand for the failings of modern helicopter parenting. But the allergy is no laughing matter; people die from exposure to peanuts every year and many more of the self-reported .6-1.3 percent of Americans that are allergic to peanuts end up in the emergency room. So a new treatment developed by the National Institutes of Health for combating peanut allergies is a big deal.

According to a press release, after a one-year trial of a new skin patch, which patients apply daily to their arm or between their shoulder blades, study volunteers were able to orally consume at least 10 times the amount of peanut protein as they could before the test without setting off an immune response. The 74 participants received either a high-dose of peanut proteins in their patch (250 micrograms), a low-dose (100 micrograms) or a placebo. In the low-dose group, 46 percent of participants saw benefits compared to 48 percent in the high dose group and 12 percent of placebo recipients.

The greatest benefits were to participants between the ages of 4 and 11, while the benefits for people over the age of 12 were much less. The study is detailed in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

“The clinical benefit seen in younger children highlights the promise of this innovative approach to treating peanut allergy,” Daniel Rotrosen, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation, says in the press release. “Epicutaneous immunotherapy aims to engage the immune system in the skin to train the body to tolerate small amounts of allergen, whereas other recent advances have relied on an oral route that appears difficult for approximately 10 to 15 percent of children and adults to tolerate.”

In fact, the study showed that the patch was easy for participants to use and most of them were able to stick to a daily regimen of using the patch, though it did create a small rash for most participants in the beginning. Despite its promise, the patch still needs to undergo more testing and large scale trials before it is approved for use by the general public.

Until a solution is found, allergy sufferers will need to remain vigilant in avoiding peanuts. According to one study, the prevalence of nut allergies in American children tripled between 1997 and 2008, from .4 percent to 1.4 percent. Reporting for The New York Times, Jane Brody writes that in 2000 doctors began telling pregnant and nursing women to avoid peanut products and to keep children away from peanuts and peanut products until after the age of three. The thinking was that early exposure to peanuts caused allergies to develop. But those measures did not stop allergy rates from climbing, and in 2008 that advice was dropped.

Now, more recent research has completely upended that advice. A 2014 study in JAMA Pediatrics showed that the more nuts a mother ate during the year before and after a pregnancy, the lower her child’s risk for developing nut allergies. Another study published in 2015 that followed children for four years shows that feeding them peanut products, especially in their first year of life, prevents the development of peanut allergies.

It’s not certain whether the rate of peanut allergies will decrease as more parents expose their children to nut proteins early in life or if the increases in allergies over the last few decades have another cause. In either case, there are currently millions of people still in need of treatment.

The Oldest Olive Oil Ever Found Is 8,000 Years Old

Smithsonian Magazine

The al Badawi olive tree in Bethlehem, which researchers peg to somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 years old, is likely the oldest living olive tree in the world. Though the tree is exceedingly old, in this ancient region of the Middle East the practice of squeezing oil from olives is even older. According to new archaeological research, the people were producing olive oil in the region as far back as 8,000 years ago, says the Times of Israel.

In a dig at the site of the Bronze Age town of Ein Zippori, just over a mile west of Nazareth, researchers unearthed shards of broken pottery containers. According to Live Science, chemical analyses of the pottery shards revealed the traces of ancient olive oil:

To make sure the ancient vessels once held olive oil, the researchers compared the chemical residues left on the ancient clay to those from a modern-day clay sample with 1-year-old olive oil inside. The analyses of the two were remarkably similar, they found.

Of the nearly two dozen pottery containers found at the site, two dated to around 5,800 BCE, says the Times of Israel.

According to the researchers in their study, the find pushes back, by several centuries, the onset of olive oil production.

Finding olive oil in ceramic containers from Ein Zippori, together with the finds from Kfar Samir at least, teaches us that the storage of vegetable oil and especially olive oil was a routine custom and had a major role in the diet of the pre-Ghassulian population.

According to the Times of Israel, the find may mark the earliest known case of olive oil production in the Mediterranean basin.

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