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These Pictures Give a Rare Glimpse Into the Heart of the Pluto Flyby

Smithsonian Magazine

Never before in Earth's history has anyone waited so eagerly to see summer travel photos. This week the Internet exploded with rapture as the New Horizons spacecraft sent back its first close-up images of Pluto and its moons after a 9.5-year, 3-billion-mile road trip.

New Horizons spent part of its voyage in cruise control, hibernating and saving its energy for the big event. Upon waking up last December, its instruments started gathering pictures and other scientific readings as it sped toward Pluto. Then, around 9 p.m. ET on July 14, it relayed its most crucial field note: the spacecraft had survived its delicate flyby maneuver, and its computers are now brimming with new information about this strange, icy world.

Over the next 16 months, data sent back from the encounter will help humans finally get to know the last—and arguably most beloved—classical planet. But while pictures from the spacecraft are dazzling scientists, fine art photographer and author Michael Soluri has been turning his lens on the scientists, flight controllers and engineers, so we can get to know the humans involved in revolutionizing our understanding of the outer solar system.

"I have always been struggling to find the humanity in space exploration, on Earth and above," says Soluri. "I brought my sons down to the Air and Space Museum in 1984 or 1985. I took them in, and there was an exact replica of the Viking lander [sent to Mars in 1975]. So we're looking at it, and there's this big robot and I'm seeing all this text, and something's puzzling me: I didn't see the picture of the person who made it possible. And I held on to that for like 20 years."

After a career in fashion photography, followed by work in documentaries and corporate communications, Soluri went looking for a space mission to help him express that humanity. In June 2005, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, he found New Horizons.

"I explained that I wanted to do an interpretive shot of the probe, and I wanted to backlight it. To me, it was like a piece of sculpture. They said sure, come on down. Then I turned to doing portraits of the people." One of Soluri's images of mission leader Alan Stern ended up in TIME magazine, when Stern was listed as one of the 2007 TIME 100. "And then Alan and I had dinner one night, and he asked if I would be willing to continue doing this all the way through. So the journey has been this weave—every couple of years I would come in and visually sample the mission."


Infinite Worlds: The People and Places of Space Exploration

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One of his signatures involves asking mission members to write something on a slate that captures how they are feeling at that moment. Like a comic book thought bubble, the technique gives viewers a peek inside the minds of his subjects, adding another layer of connectivity between the viewer and the scientists. One of these shots features mission operations manager Alice Bowman, taken at 1 a.m. the night last December when the spacecraft electronically woke up for the last time before its close approach.

"Everyone was feeling a little woozy. The media had just gone out, so it was me and Mike [Buckley] and Glen [Fountain] of the Applied Physics Lab, and Alice was pushing a coffee cart … so I asked her, tell me something about coffee and Pluto." Her response, seen in the image above, is immediately relatable.

Soluri will be following the New Horizons team for the foreseeable future, but he's also keen to gain the same kind of trust and access to document future space missions that he had for New Horizons and another project documenting the last servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope.

"I think James Webb is the next big one," he says, referring to the giant infrared telescope due to launch in 2018, which is billed as the successor to Hubble. "Some of the guys on the New Horizons team will be working on Solar Probe Plus—I'm interested in that." Solar Probe Plus, also slated for a 2018 launch, is designed to dip into the sun's blazing hot corona and solve mysteries about our nearest star. "Just the engineering in building this thing, the shielding … I would love to have the access to be able to do that. But they all present photographic opportunities in seeking and documenting the humanity of space exploration as art."

Note: The gallery above has been updated to include photos from the moment of the spacecraft's closest encounter with Pluto and the moment mission managers received the OK signal from the spacecraft.

How Fly Guts Are Helping Researchers Catalog the Rainforest

Smithsonian Magazine

Torrey Rodgers forges through the Panamanian rainforest, holding a bucket of rotting pork. The wildlife scientist is on a mission to collect flies—hundreds and hundreds of them, if he’s lucky. Far from jungle pests, he sees these buzzing, iridescent green insects as helpful lab assistants, ennabling him to take stock of the inhabitants of threatened rainforests around the globe. 

One way to measure the health of a forest is to tally up its biodiversity, or the richness of plants and animals that teem within. Scientists embark on this kind of forest census to monitor poaching or chart the progress of conservation efforts. But rainforests pose a particular challenge: You have to trek miles through dense greenery, searching for elusive animals that may only come out at night and, oh yeah, they're full of things that can kill you. 

That’s why it’s usually done by ecologists who are well versed in the jungle ecosystem and the fauna who live there. These zoologists know how to navigate the untamed land, accurately identify diurnal and nocturnal creatures and place covert camera traps to photograph the most elusive wildlife. The trouble is, these kinds of forest-trekking, fauna-knowing experts are as rare as the wildlife they track.

And without such a census, conservation efforts are futile. “Say you propose a nature reserve, and you put tons of resources into protecting this area...well did any of that actually work? Are we losing species or having a positive impact?” asks Rodgers, a research associate in Utah State University's Department of Wildland Resources.

That’s why Rodgers has enlisted some unlikely helpers to do his wildlife surveying for him: carrion flies. For these scavengers, the rainforest is a vast buffet, featuring dishes from carcasses to festering wounds on living animals to every imaginable type of poop. Every bite logs a distinct DNA sample of that meal in the flies’ guts, until it comes out the other end. Now, as Rodgers and his colleagues report in a recent study in the journal Molecular Ecology Resources, researchers can use that DNA to build a census of jungle’s most elusive mammals.   

Owen McMillan, an evolutionary biologist at the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama who was a co-author on the study, recognizes that Rodger’s scheme to capture the diversity of an entire rainforest using only fly guts is unorthodox. “It may sound harebrained,” he says, “but it’s not if you think about the way these flies make a living.”

As airborne foragers, this family of flies can sample virtually any type of rainforest animal. Every organism’s DNA is present in all of its biological matter, from blood to poop, and provides an identifiable genetic marker. If researchers could somehow sample all the DNA within a rainforest, they’d have a complete picture of everything living there. “That’s where the flies come in handy,” Rodgers says. “They go out and do the sampling for us.” 

In 2015, Rodgers journeyed down to Barro Colorado Island, a densely forested island in the middle of the Panama Canal, and put his fly survey idea to the test. He fashioned 16 simple fly traps out of two plastic water bottles, connected like an hourglass. Each one contained a morsel of pork as bait, which was kept mostly out of reach of the flies by a screen. 

After a few unsuccessful trials, Rodgers learned that the flies were picky eaters. They preferred meat that had been left in the sun until it reached that sweet spot of just-rancid funk. “They’ll come to rotting meat really quickly,” he says, “I had to pre-rot it which was pretty disgusting.”

Once he had figured out the flies’ dietary preferences, the traps began filling up with imprisoned flies so quickly he had to empy them twice a day. Unfortunately for them, attempting to feast on the rotting pork would prove to be a fatal mistake: Rodgers brought them back to the lab, flash froze them, snipped them into chunks and ground them into a paste to enable extracting the DNA from within their guts.

To detect even the rarest animals in the flies' guts, he would need to use a DNA amplification technique to multiply special regions from only the ingested mammal cells. The goal was to pick out certain molecular markers, which are regions in the genome that serve as barcodes. Those short fragments can be matched against a database of over 5,000 mammals, and a smaller database of species known to exist on the island. 

He collected more than 1,000 flies over the course of three months, amassing enough gut DNA data to compare against eight years of traditional surveys previously collected on the island. Just as Rodgers predicted, the flies got around; the researchers detected 20 mammal species, four birds species and one lizard species. “It was surprisingly accurate,” McMillan says. “At least as accurate as walking through the forest.” 

Not only that, but the data was far richer than the previous surveys because DNA sequencing generates millions of data points. “You still have to filter out things that are essentially noise ... like pork,” McMillan says. But once filtered, the mammal DNA fragments amplified from fly guts closely mirrored the species composition expected in the rainforest on Barro Colorado Island.

There were, however, a few notable exceptions. Curiously, they didn’t find barcodes that matched the three most abundant mammals: there was no trace of the rodentine agouti, the raccoon-like white-nosed coati, or the brocket, which looks like a squat relative of deer. Rodgers believes this has to do with his lab assistants’ inherent bias. The agouti’s scat, for instance, isn’t particularly appetizing to flies. “It’s really hard and maybe more difficult and less appealing,” he says.

Conrad Gillett, an entomologist at the University of Hawai’i who also uses molecular techniques to study insect guts, agreed that that fly dietary habits could be a considerable bias. Other studies have used bugs like mosquitoes and dung beetles, Gillett’s insect of choice, and could be added to rainforest surveys to increase the diversity mammals detected. 

Still, this is a quick and effective method for surveying diversity that could be employed in many environments, says Gillett. “It’s definitely something that’s worth investigating,” Gillett says. “Right now I’m not sure if [flies] can be relied upon exclusively for a survey, but as an adjunct, absolutely. It’s something that has to be considered.” The technique’s simplicity makes it even more appealing. “It’s just hanging pork in the forest,” McMillan says. 

After trying this survey method in a well-studied forest, McMillan hopes the approach could be used in other settings where the fauna are still a mystery. This will present another challenge: Unlike on Barro Colorado, many forests are filled with animals that have yet to be named, let alone assigned a DNA barcode. But as DNA barcoding becomes more common and databases grow, researchers believe they’ll be able to detect even the rare species that are hard to track from a conservation perspective. 

“Because Barro Colorado Island has been studied so well by so many scientists for so long, you can put it into the broader context,” McMillan says. 

Better yet, there isn’t a threatened forest on Earth that doesn’t have flies. “This group of flies is present worldwide. They’re common in every single habitat,” Rodgers says. Thanks to these creative scientists and their harebrained idea, we may need to consider these ubiquitous insects as not merely pesky nuisances, but as valuable conservationists in their own right.

Have Humans Really Created a New Geologic Age?

Smithsonian Magazine

If you know how to read it, the face of a cliff can be as compelling as the latest bestselling novel. Each layer of rock is a chapter in Earth’s history, telling stories of birth and death, winners and losers, that help scientists understand the evolution of the planet over the past 4.6 billion years.

While humans arrived only recently on geologic time scales, our species already seems to be driving some major plot developments. Agriculture occupies about one-third of Earth's land. The atmosphere and oceans are filling up with chemical signatures of our industrial activity. Whole ecosystems have been reshaped as species are domesticated, transplanted or wiped out.

These changes have become so noticeable on a global scale that many scientists believe we have started a new chapter in Earth’s story: the Anthropocene. Atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen popularized the term in the early 2000s, and it has become engrained in the scientific vernacular. But don’t ask what the Anthropocene technically means unless you’re in the mood for some drama.

“It’s not research, it is diplomacy. It’s not necessary for geologists,” says Lucy Edwards, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. Others think there is a case to be made for at least trying to codify the Anthropocene, because it is forcing the global community to think about the true extent of human influence. "It focuses us on trying to work out how we measure the relative control of humans as opposed to nature," says Tony Brown, a physical geographer at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

"For example, is human activity altering the rate of uplift of mountains? If you had asked that question 20 years ago, geologists would have looked at you as if you were mad," says Brown. "But we know some faults are lubricated by precipitation, so if we are altering global precipitation patterns, there is a slight chance of a link. If that is the case, that is quite a profound potential interaction between humans and their environment."

The International Commission on Stratigraphy—the ruling body that sets formal boundaries on geologic ages—has set up a working group to study the case for making the Anthropocene official. The crux of the debate is where to place the starting boundary line, or base. Geologists continue to tinker with the bases for well-established epochs, eras and ages, and there is usually a relatively wide margin of error. "Even the most precisely defined, the end of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago, is plus or minus 3,000 years. This is minute in geological terms but very big in humans terms," says Brown.

In the reference text "The Geologic Time Scale 2012", Crutzen and colleagues lay out three main options for the start of the Anthropocene. It's possible to set the boundary in the early part of the current epoch, called the Holocene, which began about 11,700 years ago. The idea is that the dawn of agriculture in the early Holocene kicked off a steady rise in carbon dioxide that has altered Earth's natural climate cycles. But that potential base is controversial, in part because agriculture spread to various locations at different times, and a formal interval of geologic time should be recognizable globally.

Nobel Prize laureate and Dutch meteorologist Paul Crutzen, who gave prominence to the term "Anthropocene". (GIL COHEN MAGEN/X01316/Reuters/Corbis)

The next option, and the one preferred by Crutzen, is to put the base near the Industrial Revolution, which the book authors argue became a global phenomenon in the early 19th century. "This is … where the combination of industrialization and the acceleration of population growth created a clear step change in the human signal," the scientists write. But like agriculture, industrial activity didn't start everywhere at once—China was smelting iron in the 11th century, for instance—so not everyone may be happy with the choice.

Still others have proposed linking the base to a global spike in a signal that is unquestionably caused by humans: radioactive isotopes from atomic bomb detonation in the 1950s. Distinctive levels of radioactive substances from bomb use and testing were distributed widely and will linger in the rock record for millennia. But they are not a perfect solution either, as radioactive decay means that the signal will eventually be lost.

Another way to approach the problem is to consider when human influence became the dominant force of change on a combination of Earth systems. Natural cycles and cataclysmic events have affected the environment over deep time, and some of those forces are still at work. But in addition to the signal from atomic bombs, the mid-20th century saw an acceleration in a variety of human impacts, with a doubling of population size, a massive increase in vehicle use and a rapid shift from mostly rural to urban living, which triggered an increase in construction and large infrastructure projects such as dams.

"Probably in the late part of the last century, humans became responsible for moving more soil or rock than natural agencies," says Brown. "We’ve increased erosion rates in most parts of the world, but we've also trapped a lot of sediments, because we've dammed most of world's really big rivers." 

“For geologists, there are lots of features on the present-day planet that are human-made or distorted,” says James Ogg, a stratigrapher with Purdue University and the China University of Geosciences. But he believes the best strategy may be to keep the term unofficial. "The Anthropocene is a very useful term, because it helps show the dramatic impacts we’ve had on all aspects of the planet," he says. "But on the geologic time scale, you need a place and time that can be correlated around the world, so that people are speaking the same language. For the Anthropocene, is there actually a time level that we can correlate?"

Brown agrees: "The majority of scientists who engage with the question will say, 'yes we are in Anthropocene'. And it's OK if you just say that. My view is, at moment, we're better off not formalizing it, partly because we will get into very long and not very productive argument about where the boundary should be."

Edwards adds that another problem with making the Anthropocene official is deciding when it might end, and thus how large of a time interval to assign it. The use of the "cene" suffix signals to geologists that it is an epoch (tens of millions of years). But it's also sometimes referred to as an age (millions of years) within the Holocene, and some people say it should be an even smaller unit, a stage.

Given the term’s complexity, if you really just have to have a formal definition, you better be prepared to wait, Edwards says. "Geologists have learned from the Pluto experience," she says, referring to the 2006 vote by the International Astronomical Union to take away Pluto's official status as a planet. "We're not just going to show up at a union meeting and have a decision with all these glaring errors that makes us a laughingstock. Unfortunately, the decision to take it slowly and work it out bothers some people. But to geologists, what's a million years?" 

Saving Peru's Endangered Languages

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
At El Hablador, Wachiperi scholar Nely Margot Ninantay Yonaje (second from left) shared her community's efforts to preserve their language with Danna Gaviota Tello Morey and María Nieves Nashnato Upari from Radio Ucamara. Photo by Brian Barger, Ralph Rinlzer Folklife Archives
At El Hablador, Wachiperi scholar Nely Margot Ninantay Yonaje (second from left) shared her community’s efforts to preserve their language with Danna Gaviota Tello Morey and María Nieves Nashnato Upari from Radio Ucamara. Photo by Brian Barger, Ralph Rinlzer Folklife Archives

As the Perú: Pachamama program opened on the National Mall, the Peruvian Ministry of Education announced a new policy officially recognizing the alphabets of twenty-four indigenous languages. “In this way,” the policy states, “the right of children to be educated in their own native language is respected.”

Some of the participants at the Folklife Festival—speakers of highly endangered languages Wachiperi and Kukama—have been fighting for that right for a long time. Both Kukama and Wachiperi belong to small indigenous communities with long pre-Hispanic histories. To preserve those histories, both communities are actively working to document and spread their languages.

The Wachiperi historically lived in the Madre de Dios River basin in Peru’s southern Amazonian region. Through the 1960s, decades of disease, enslavement, and displacement from their land dramatically decreased the Wachiperi population until only two communities remained: La Comunidad Nativa de Queros and Santa Rosa de Huacaria. Only about one hundred Wachiperi remain, and even fewer speak the language.

Today, many Wachiperi move to cities for work, where they meet and marry members of other ethnic groups. Unable to speak Wachiperi to their spouses, they choose instead to speak Spanish at home. As a result, there are very few children who learn Wachiperi as a first language, even though they may hear and understand it.

“There are fewer and fewer people who can speak Wachiperi fluently,” explains Odette Ramos Dumas, who, having spoken Wachiperi since her early childhood, is a rare exception.

Sofía Solisonquehua Untamay and Odette Marlid Ramos Dumas demonstrated Wachiperi basket weaving traditions at the Festival. Photo by J.B. Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Sofía Solisonquehua Untamay and Odette Marlid Ramos Dumas demonstrated Wachiperi basket weaving traditions at the Festival. Photo by J.B. Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

For the Kukama people living on the banks of the Marañon River in the Amazon, discrimination and industry infringing on their land played a part in endangering their language as well.

“When state public schools came to our area years ago, they prohibited us from speaking our mother language,” says María Nieves Nashnato Upari, a Kukama elder and teacher. “They wanted us to practice speaking only Spanish, and even discouraged us from speaking Kukama at home.”

As a member of the last generation to learn Kukama as a first language, Nashnato believes that teaching children to speak Kukama is the key to keeping the language alive. She helped open the Escuela Ikuari language school seven years ago—with help from indigenous media station Radio Ucamara—to teach Kukama to local children.

“We want the language to live on in our children,” she says. “Then, it is guaranteed to be spoken in the future.” She hopes children will eventually learn Kukama from their parents as a first language again.

Today, the Escuela Ikuari has close to 130 students, including fifteen-year-old Danna Gaviota Tello Morey, who began learning Kukama five years ago. She represented her fellow Ikuari students at the Festival.

“The young people are the future of the country,” Tello Morey said. “If all of the young people are involved in something, it will spread quickly and become well known. That is what I hope will happen with the Kukama language.

“Even though I am still learning, Kukama is part of my home and my identity. I was ridiculed at first for speaking and singing in Kukama, but the criticism only made me want to work harder. I wanted to be a part of a project that is bigger than myself and help save the language of my people.”

Radio Ucamara "broadcasting" in their booth on the National Mall. Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Radio Ucamara “broadcasting” in their booth on the National Mall. Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

The Wachiperi also focus on passing their language onto younger generations.

“Even though we are young, we realize how important it is to preserve the songs and stories of our people,” Ramos Dumas says.

Once a week, a local member of the Peruvian Ministry of Culture teaches Wachiperi language lessons. “We can’t just teach vocabulary,” Ramos Dumas insists. “We want to involve them in activities like drawing, painting, and games so that they learn to speak Wachiperi more naturally.”

With help from the Ministry of Culture, Wachiperi elders recently published the first dictionary and textbooks documenting their language. Along with recording Wachiperi words, the books also include standardized pronunciations to help keep the language consistent over time.

Despite the progress both communities have made in recent years, they are by no means finished with their work.

“There is still a lot to do, because the children do not yet speak Wachiperi fluently,” Ramos Dumas says. “We need to have more classes for the children.”

“We’ll need more support for the school so we can continue to educate our children,” Nashnato Upari confirms. To gather some of that support, the Escuela Ikuari created an Indiegogo campaign, Save the Kukama Language, where contributors from all over the world can help fund the school. Visit the page to donate and watch music videos by Tello Morey and other Ikuari students.

With continued dedication within both communities, as well as support from outside—like the Ministry of Education’s plan to include indigenous alphabets in future curricula—there is hope that Wachiperi and Kukama will survive for generations to come. As the Ministry’s announcement explains, “It’s been proven that this is the way [students] can learn better, as they feel more motivated, their cultural identity is respected, and their self-esteem becomes stronger.”

Georgia “Ellie” Dassler is a media intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at the College of William & Mary, where she studies anthropology and teaching English to speakers of other languages.

Blondie Guitarist Chris Stein Shares His Secret Photographs of the 1970s and 1980s

Smithsonian Magazine

Chris Stein was at the center of the burgeoning punk/new wave scene in 1970s New York City as the lead guitarist for Blondie. Cutting edge bands such as Talking Heads, the Ramones and Television were establishing their sound at clubs like the now-defunct CBGB. And as a member of one of the leading groups on the scene and a recent photography graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts, Stein was uniquely positioned to document the musical pioneers of that time and place. 

After attending art school in the late 1960s, Stein was drawn to a fertile downtown music scene of New York City. Sonically creative as well as visually, he met his musical soulmate Debbie Harry in the short-lived glam punk band The Stilettos. Following that group’s demise, Stein and Harry went on the form Blondie in 1974, with Debbie Harry serving as the group’s sultry frontwoman. They’d achieve their first commercial success by their third album, Parallel Lines, in 1978, thanks to their ethereal disco-tinged hit single, “Heart of Glass.”

Watch this video in the original article

The rising new wave/punk scene of that time provided ample subject matter for Stein’s lens. He had special access to his fellow musicians, shooting portraits of performers including Joey Ramone, Iggy Pop, Joan Jett and of course, Debbie Harry. And many weren’t just colleagues–they were his friends. “There was a glamour in the decay that we were all in…you look back at the rot and decay with a sort of envy,” Stein told the Los Angeles Times. He used a kitchen that he shared with Harry in New York as a makeshift dark room to develop these photos.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Blondie, Chris Stein is releasing his treasure trove of his photographs from the New York City music scene of the 1970s and early 1980s in his new book, Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk.


Chris Stein / Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk

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I caught up with Stein via email just before he left on Blondie’s European tour to support their new record, Ghosts of Download.

I’ve read that you were serious about visually recording what was going on during the early days of Blondie. Was that because you had a sense that something special was happening?

I don’t know how ‘serious’ I was, but there was an immediacy to everything with little view of the future. We are now frequently asked about any views we might have then had about still working many years in the future; I think everyone was very much ‘in the moment.’

How did you find time to shoot in between practice, songwriting and gig obligations?

Maybe a little selectivity. I often would choose between bringing a camera or just being involved with whatever I was doing. Unlike today’s climate of mass recording of everything I would usually choose to watch a concert rather than photograph at it.

You ended up having access to famous people before they became famous. Who did you enjoy photographing the most, and why?

I don’t know if I had any preferences. I of course always liked photographing Debbie. I wish I had a camera when we met Liz Taylor. In retrospect I’m glad I have images of Andy [Warhol], [William] Burroughs, the Ramones, etc.

How do you think your interest in photography influenced your songwriting style, and vice versa?

Maybe there is a similar relationship between the audience and the photographer/musician, though the effects probably react on different aspects of perception. I think visual and auditory stimuli are, as the hippies used to say, “the same but different.” Directly, being in the midst of the music scene, I just was excited to capture images from it. Early on, people did see images of Debbie before they heard the music.

Ever get any regrets that you became a rock star and didn’t become a professional photographer, in the traditional sense?

As Glenn O’Brien writes in my book, “Everyone was multitasking; had several ‘jobs.’”

Who are some of your visual influences?

As far as photographers go, I am enamored of [Diane] Arbus, Weegee, etc.­–the ones that were able to impose their personal psychology on the viewer and the subject of the picture.

You’re stranded on a desert island that happens to have a working record player. What are the three albums you bring with you?

Well this posits that I would be listening to the same hour and a half of audio for all eternity more or less so it’s a tough call. Maybe things that are less defined and song like and are layered and ambient like Moondog, Metal Machine Music and [Richard] Wagner’s greatest hits.

PHOTOS: Who Were the Six Indian Chiefs in Teddy Roosevelt’s Inaugural Parade?

Smithsonian Magazine

Marching in the parade. Courtesy of the National Museum of American Indian/LOC

Among the 35,000 people who participated in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade on March 4, 1905, were six men on horseback wearing elaborate headdresses. Each was an Indian chief and each had at one time or another been at odds with the American government. They were Quanah Parker of the Comanche, Buckskin Charlie from the Ute, Hollow Horn Bear and American Horse of the Sioux, Little Plume from the Blackfeet and the Apache warrior Geronimo. As they rode through the streets of Washington on horseback, despite criticism, Roosevelt applauded and waved his hat in appreciation. They are the subject of the American Indian Museum’s exhibit, “A Century Ago: They Came as Sovereign Leaders.”

The six chiefs who rode in Roosevelt’s inaugural parade each had their own objectives to accomplish. Courtesy of the American Indian Museum

“In the years before the 1905 procession, tensions grew between Native peoples and white settlers over rights to natural resources,” writes Jesse Rhodes, covering the exhibit when it was last on view in 2009. Each chief had accepted the invitation, hoping to make progress on crucial negotiations with the president and advocate for the welfare of their people.

The article explains, “‘The driving idea about Native Americans,’ says Jose Barreiro, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, ‘was represented by Colonel Pratt who was the head of the Carlisle Indian School and his famous phrase, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,’ meaning take the culture out of the Indian.’”

The presence of the six men prompted a member of the inaugural committee to ask Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history?” Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

Geronimo at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, which marked the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The eldest of the six men, Goyahkla, or Geronimo as he was nicknamed, was best known to the American public for his role in the Apache wars but he gained another sort of stardom after his eventual surrender in 1886. Exiled to Fort Sill, Oklahoma with his followers, Geronimo began making appearances at national events, including the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Often receiving payments for such appearances, he even sold signed pictures of himself, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

The six men line up before the parade begins. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Seen as an opportunity to raise the profile of Indians in American society and gain an audience with the leader of the country, the inaugural parade in 1905 also marked a low point for the chief. After receiving a roar of applause during the parade, Geronimo later visited with the president in his office and pleaded with Roosevelt to let his people go back to their home in Arizona, according to Robert Utley’s new biography Geronimo. “The ropes have been on my hands for many years and we want to go back to our home,” he told the president. But Roosevelt responded through an interpreter, “When you lived in Arizona, you had a bad heart and killed many of my people. . . We will have to wait and see how you act.”

In the Inaugural parade, Geronimo proudly wore a beaded headdress. Photo courtesy of the American Indian Museum

Geronimo began to object but he was silenced by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Francis Ellington Leupp, who led him out of the president’s office. “I did not finish what I wished to say,” he told Leupp, according to an article in the New York Tribune.

Leupp insisted that Geronimo was “better off” in Oklahoma. And though he patronizingly described the chief as an example of a “good Indian,” he remained unsympathetic to his requests.

When Geronimo died in 1909 he was still in Fort Sill. In his obituary, the New York Times wrote, “Geronimo gained a reputation for cruelty and cunning never surpassed by that of any other American Indian chief.”

There was no mention of his role in the recent inauguration or the dedication in his 1906 autobiography which read, “Because he has given me permission to tell my story; because he has read that story and knows I try to speak the truth; because I believe that he is fair-minded and will cause my people to receive justice in the future; and because he is chief of a great people, I dedicate this story of my life to Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States.”

A Century Ago: They Came As Sovereign Leaders” is at the American Indian Museum through February 25, 2013.

A World Of His Own: The Art of James Castle

Smithsonian Magazine

The world as seen through the eye of the self-taught artist James Castle, one that is drawn in black and white lines made from the simple mixing of soot and saliva, is a unique one. Not just for its place in time—in the waning years of the early 20th century when the Western frontier was being settled—but for the circumstances surrounding the artist's early life and his prodigious work output. "He stored his art in many locations around the family property—in barns, sheds, attics, walls," says curator Nicholas Bell, co-author of the show's catalog Untitled: The Art of James Castle. "But I wouldn't say he was trying to hide it from anyone, per se. Before he died he communicated through gestures to his family where all of his art was stored so they could take care of it."

Born profoundly deaf, Castle never learned to read, write or communicate in any traditional sense. Yet for nearly 70 years, Castle interacted with the world around him communicating through his art, creating drawings, books and constructions that reflected his individual reality. "James Castle is his own art history," explained John Ollman, owner of the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in the 2008 documentary James Castle: Portrait of an Artist. "He's using himself as his own reference material."

Through February 1, 2015, Castle's work will be on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in "Untitled: The Art of James Castle," an exhibition that celebrates a 2013 acquisition of 54 Castle pieces, making the museum home to one of the largest collections of the artist's works. "James Castle's drawings and paintings confirm that art offers a fundamental way to know ourselves," said the museum's director Betsy Broun in a statement. "He worked for decades in the rural west, surrounded by family but with little experience beyond his community and with no formal art training. But his discerning eye found subjects all around, creating an extended portrait of his world."

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Castle would often depict familiar landscapes—such as his boyhood farm home—with disruptions in the middle. Scholars have dubbed the monolithic forms in his work "totems," but aren't sure of their meaning. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Castle couldn't read or write, but his artwork shows a fascination with texts. The grouping of letters here seems to recall a method for teaching pronunciation that Castle might have been exposed to while at school. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Castle often played with kaleidoscopes, which influenced his use of shape. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, string, and wood. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Born two months premature on September 25, 1899, to rural postmasters who ran a general store out of the living room of their home in Garden Valley, Idaho, Castle grew up in the shrinking world of the pioneer frontier.  From the ages of 10 to 15, he attended the Gooding School for the Deaf and Blind, where he was taught an oral method of communication—not sign language. And with no formal art training he worked virtually unknown for the first 40 years of his life before the art world discovered him. But by 1964, Castle was being described as the "most important primitive since Grandma Moses," by the director of the Portland Art Museum, whose style "reminds us of Van Gogh."


Untitled: The Art of James Castle

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Castle created his work using found objects: paper from his parent's post office, cardboard from matchboxes, soot from the wood stove mixed with saliva to create a kind of charcoal ink. He was profoundly productive, crafting works at a near constant rate for almost his entire life. Many of his drawings are on the back of used envelopes, or used pieces of paper or even on the interior of an unfolded matchbox (in the slideshow above, the images with slots in the sides are done on such a medium). His works largely reflects the rural landscape that surrounded him for his entire life: after leaving Garden Valley as a young man in 1924 (and moving first to Star, Idaho and then to Boise), his illustrations often recalled the farmyard of his Garden Valley home. Castle's works are all undated, but any surviving artwork is thought to date from after 1931, when he moved to Boise, meaning that landscapes which recall his boyhood homes must have all been painted from memory. Many of Castle's works also explore the idea of text, which seemed to fascinate Castle in spite of his reputed illiteracy. 

"At once inviting and inscrutable, Castle's art gives us access to a world navigated without language, though not the key to unlock it," says Bell. "Ultimately, grappling with these drawings reveals the limits of our understanding as well as one artist's extraordinary vision of the ordinary."

Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble Celebrates Our Differences Through Song

Smithsonian Magazine

Sing Me Home, the latest album produced by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, is a veritable smorgasbord of sounds – a feast for the ears. The record, released in April, runs an unprecedented cultural gamut, drawing from a host of ethnic and regional traditions to create novel, multivalent melodies. On the album, reimagined American standards, including “St. James Infirmary Blues,” complement West African tribal music, and ethereal Chinese song is juxtaposed with frenetic Irish fiddling.

This profound diversity is characteristic not only of the album, but also of those responsible for its creation, artists who take great pride in their ability to find unity among their mutual differences, and to humbly open themselves up to cultures outside their own.

Indeed, despite the disparate composition of the Silk Road Ensemble, which Yo-Yo Ma founded in 1998 as a way to connect talented musicians from all walks of life, one finds in their work overwhelming kindred warmth, a sense of collaborative oneness.

As virtuoso violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who co-produced Sing Me Home, puts it, “We feel that we are a family, and when we get together, it’s like a great family reunion.”

Nowhere is this familial bond more evident than in this newest album; each member of the Ensemble shares aspects of their personal, ancestral histories, integrating these defining traits with those of their fellow musicians to create a vibrant and beautiful whole.

“There’s so much joy,” Gandelsman says. “And through joy, there’s a lot of respect for individual experience, individual stories.” He emphasizes the role of learning in the group’s creative process: “learning [what’s important] to individuals in the group… strengthens us as a collective.”

The best illustration of this jocund atmosphere is perhaps the Ensemble’s music video for “Heart and Soul,” premiering exclusively on, a classic American pop tune that the group reimagined for a 21st-century audience, and elected to use as the closing track on “Sing Me Home.”

Image by Todd Rosenberg Photography. Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), and Nicholas Cords (viola) performing with fellow Silk Road Ensemble musicians (original image)

Image by Photograph by Max Whittaker. The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performing at the Mondavi Center in California (original image)

Image by Photograph by Taeuck Kang. The Silk Road Ensemble With Yo-Yo Ma (original image)

Image by Photograph by Khalid Al Busaidi, Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman. The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performing in Oman in 2014 (original image)

Throughout the video, musicians and vocalists alike sport broad, sincere smiles, and sway breezily to the beat. As the two lead singers, guest performers Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter, deliver their dulcet, romantic harmonies, they peer deeply into each other’s eyes. Core members of the ensemble are encouraged to invite their colleagues in their respective genres.

As Yo-Yo Ma, the visionary cellist at the heart of the ensemble, says via e-mail, “Part of what I love about this album is the way that, in a number of cases, collaborations are extensions of existing relationships.” Witness Martin Hayes, an Irish musician recruited by Silk Road veterans of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider to play on “O’Neill’s Cavalry March.” “They brought their beloved friend into our family,” Ma says.

Given the album’s lengthy list of contributors, what is perhaps most impressive about its production is the fact that each individual involved was encouraged at all stages of the process to voice suggestions and concerns. “The ensemble operates basically on democratic principles,” Johnny Gandelsman says.  “We take every opinion as very valuable.”

This notion of inclusivity extends beyond the group’s internal structure; a key facet of the Silk Road Ensemble’s mission is national and global outreach. The group is currently gearing up for a transcontinental summer tour of the United States, and is looking into the possibility of a Middle East engagement in the coming year. “There’s so much fear out there in the world,” Gandelsman says, “and we can address that through music.”

Yo-Yo Ma’s deepest hope is that the Silk Road Ensemble will inspire the creation of other, similar groups, each wholeheartedly committed to the celebration of world music. Eventually, far down the road, Ma’s original collective might gracefully fade away, no longer needed. That day – the day of the Silk Road Ensemble’s dissolution – will be, for its members, one of triumph.

In the meantime, the ensemble will continue to produce vital, compelling music, and to remind listeners everywhere that the beauty of human experience is shared among all of us, and is contributed to, uniquely, by each of us.

In the words of Yo-Yo Ma, speaking on the ensemble’s latest record, “We always focus on what unites rather than what divides, and I think that’s a lot of what you hear.”


Sing Me Home

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How to Make Science Fiction Become Fact, in Three Steps

Smithsonian Magazine

While speakers at the first day of Smithsonian magazine’s fourth annual “Future is Here” festival shared their thoughts on subjects as diverse as computer programming, the Zika virus, human space exploration, the future of the internet and the state of global fisheries, they all shared a common thread: there’s hope. Never give up—even if you have to wait a long time.

“Who will be the next President of the United States?” Smithsonian’s editor-in-chief Michael Caruso asked a Magic 8 Ball as he opened the day of TED-style talks on Saturday. “The future is notoriously difficult to predict. But never before has the distance between imagination and reality been so close, and the predictions scientists are making aren’t wild fantasies.”

Smithsonian magazine's editor-in-chief Michael Caruso kicks off the day. (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

Caruso welcomed a roster of visionaries including Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the MIT Media Lab; Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius Radio and United Therapeutics; Vint Cerf, Google’s “chief internet evangelist” and co-developer of modern internet connection protocols; and former NASA astronaut Tony Antonelli, who helps Lockheed Martin shape its human spaceflight initiatives. Two of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s granddaughters, Céline and Alexandra Cousteau, also took the stage to talk about their respective work in the Amazon and with the world’s oceans.

Sisyphean perseverance emerged as the theme of the day, encouraging those despairing visionaries out there, eager for the day when technology (hopefully) makes their ideas possible.

Rothblatt, obsessed with all things space for most of her life, said her whole focus shifted after her daughter Jenesis was diagnosed in 1994 with life-threatening and incurable pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). She founded United Therapeutics in 1996 after doing a deep-dive into potential treatments and convincing Burroughs Wellcome (and later GlaxoSmithKline) to allow her to license a compound, treprostinil, they’d shelved in favor of an easier-to-manufacture drug. 

Rothblatt founded United Therapeutics in 1996 after her daughter Jenesis was diagnosed with life-threatening pulmonary arterial hypertension. (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

With no background in biotech, Rothblatt pursued a PhD in medical ethics even as she worked, at great personal cost and expense, with pharmaceutical scientists to develop treprostinil into a drug. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ultimately approved the drug, Remodulin, in 2002.

“I gave one doctor the money he said he needed to make it, and he finally produced half a gram,” Rothblatt told the audience. “But we needed dozens of grams for animal studies, hundreds of grams for animal studies, and, ultimately, hundreds of kilos to help people across the country. So we put the pedal to the metal.”

Today, Rothblatt’s company, United Therapeutics, annually produces enough drugs for tens of thousands of patients, including her daughter, who can now live out their lives beyond the three-year life expectancy once given at diagnosis.

“We’ve never turned away a patient who can’t pay,” she said. “We will give that medicine to them for free. It hasn’t stopped us from being a successful pharmaceutical company—we’ve found that doing the right thing helps you do the best thing.”

Actor William Shatner appeared as a surprise guest. (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

In a special appearance, actor William Shatner said that though science fiction can lay the groundwork for the future, progress is not always made with computer wizardry and bubbling test tubes. He spoke about recently witnessing an unusual and unexpected experiment in progress.

“We write and we think about all these highfalutin futuristic things that are going to take place, but buried in the basement of a small building in Philadelphia there are dogs sniffing for cancer in vials of blood,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the future as imagined by a show called 'Star Trek.'”

Vint Cerf, Google's "chief internet evangelist," made some predictions about the "internet of things." (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

Google’s Vint Cerf described how the genesis of the internet was, at heart, a bottom-up enterprise. Built to satisfy a military defense agency that needed a cost-effective communications network compatible with a range of computer brands, Cerf said that four decades of evolution shed some light on what is yet to come.

“The thing you carry in your pocket once took an entire van to do,” Cerf said, holding up a cell phone. “Now we’re faced with a new invasion, devices you wouldn’t expect to be part of the internet environment. I used to tell jokes that every lightbulb will have its own IP address. Well, now I can’t joke about that.”

In the current day, between 3 and 3.5 billion people use three to five devices every day, Cerf said, for a global total of 10 to 15 billion devices. Looking into a future where an “internet of things” connects humans and a host of objects, it’s completely reasonable, Cerf said, to predict that by 2036, the planet will have 8 to 10 billion users, and the average person will use or interact with around 100 devices per day, from phones to tablets to embedded sensors. That adds up to one trillion devices.

“We need to get smarter about how we use our resources,” Cerf said. “How we gather our data can really make a difference.”

To that end, he described Google’s ongoing projects using innovative sensing, from contact lenses that can measure a diabetic’s glucose level, to ingestible nanobots to diagnose disease from inside the body. Like the trucks used to test out network connectivity in the 1970s, Cerf suggested today’s cutting-edge technology only has room to shrink.

“3D printers today are large and clunky, but over time those printers could make smaller and smaller stuff,” Cerf said. “Maybe one day the 3D printers can print even smaller printers, eventually printing at the molecular level.”

And, of course, Google is working on making sure internet works in space, too.

Alexandra Cousteau, an environmental advocate and granddaughter of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, spoke about the world's oceans. (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

In the year of the 40th anniversary of the Viking mission to Mars, Lockheed Martin’s Antonelli said today’s space missions are paving the way for the next steps, including an asteroid retrieval program and the Orion spacecraft, which will eventually take humans to Mars. (People took selfies all day with a quarter-scale replica of the Orion at the festival.)

In addition to the current missions surveying Mars, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which takes its own surveys of the Martian surface as well as relays messages between Earth and the Martian rovers, there’s also Maven, a Martian atmospheric observatory, and Juno, which will arrive at Jupiter this summer to map the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic and gravitational fields.

Osiris-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) will launch this fall destined for the asteroid Bennu, Antonelli said. Close enough to reach, large enough to land upon, and old enough that it reflects the early composition of the solar system, Bennu is thought to hold the molecular ancestors of life on Earth, but also whizzes scarily close to our planet on a regular basis. The samples from the Osiris-Rex mission will help scientists plan for a possible impact intervention mission, and also help aspiring asteroid miners know what resources they might find.

Despite the fact that new space missions are popping up one after another, it’s today’s students who will one day be making the next big steps into space.

“Keep in mind, that the first person to go to Mars is in school today,” Antonelli said. “Well, maybe not today, since it’s a Saturday,” he added. 

Is America exceptional? A business history curator's perspective

National Museum of American History

How appropriate that the day after a story describing the work culture at Amazon made national news, the Wall Street Journal published Edward Rothstein's review of the Smithsonian's new business history exhibition–American EnterpriseThis coincidence of timing proves the Smithsonian's point that American capitalism is an important topic affecting all citizens of the United States.

Photograph of the exhibition's Merchant Era section with Red River Cart

As a curator of the National Museum of American History's exhibition, I believe that the print version of Rothstein's article, with its headline, "A People's History of American Business," rather than the online "A Skewed History of American Business," better reflects the point of the show. The exhibition is a new interpretation of business history that puts the average citizen (the consumer) squarely in the center of the picture. This is, after all, an exhibition for all Americans. American Enterprise succeeds in presenting a complicated story in a public museum. It chronicles the tumultuous interaction of capitalism and democracy that resulted in the continual remaking of American business and American life. The exhibition presents the benefits of American business, which have been extraordinary, along with its failures and unanticipated consequences. America is a great country because its economic system has benefited many, but it is far from perfect.

The exhibition is intended to be a thoughtful exploration. It presents provocative moments, respects the visitor's ability to make their own decisions, and argues that the United States is built on the dynamic tension between opportunity (capitalism) and common good (democracy.) In a recurring exhibition element called "Debating Enterprise," famous individuals duke it out over the role of business in America. Agriculturalist and states' rights advocate Thomas Jefferson argues with Alexander Hamilton, who pushes for a national industrial policy and a strong federal government (sound like a familiar debate?). Elsewhere the likes of Louis Brandeis, Ayn Rand, Robert Reich, and even Ivan Boesky get a seat at the table.

Photo of napkin with handwritten text on it

Spectacular objects from three centuries of American history give material substance to the story of American business—something only the Smithsonian can do. A rare Edison talking doll provides insight into how Americans' cultural willingness to forget failure and remember success allows icons like Thomas Edison to take risks and stoke innovation. The often talked about but almost never seen Laffer curve napkin was pulled from the safety deposit box of Wall Street Journal editor Jude Wanniski (1936-2005), gifted to the nation, and exhibited along with Milton Friedman's briefcase to illustrate how Reaganomics helped define the Global Era. The exhibition allows visitors to decide for themselves whether deregulation and supply-side economics are good or bad. A museum should be a safe place for debate and American Enterprise allows visitors to engage in important conversations.

Rothstein is uncomfortable with "history 'from below'." He appears to question the notion of diversity—not of color but of fame and class. In the 21st century, an exhibition should highlight both famous and lesser-known Americans, who all have compelling business stories to tell. Our museum surveys show conclusively that visitors come to see themselves and understand how they fit into history. The exhibition's biography wall, which includes more than 80 "capsule biographies," is designed as a catalyst for engaging visitors and not a pedantic history textbook. Yes, the text is short, but it is readable and engaging. Visitors who want more can pull out their smartphones and learn more while still in the museum. Among others on the biography wall are organic food entrepreneurs Myra and Drew Goodman (founders of Earthbound Farms)—just feet away from genetic engineering and sustainability advocate Robert Fraley (inventor of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans). Financial wizard Warren Buffett smiles at restauranteur Dora Escobar, who escaped a grim life in El Salvador and eventually built a number of small businesses in the U.S. These are all great stories of interesting people and the quest for the American dream, through our system of capitalism and democracy.

Photo of exhibit wall with portraits of people and text boxes with bios

Rothstein worries that the exhibition does not detail the exploits of businesses from around the world. The exhibition explicitly points out that American business was international from the colonial era onward. Importantly, we intentionally focused on what is distinctive about American business and why it is exceptional. For over 150 years, our nation has been a leading and vibrant economy. American Enterprise explores our unique mix of labor, wealth, power, success, and failure. 

Photograph of the exhibition's Global Era section

Our main point is that American capitalism is central to who we are as a nation, and as a people. We want visitors to decide for themselves the degree to which innovation and competition have provided opportunity and fueled the common good. The exhibition clearly caused Rothstein to do some deep thinking. Come visit American Enterprise and explore the history of American business along with us. If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C., you can see the exhibition online or read the companion book.

Peter Liebhold is a co-curator of the American Enterprise exhibition and chairs the Work and Industry Division at the National Museum of American History. 

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, August 18, 2015 - 06:45


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14 Fun Facts About Manatees

Smithsonian Magazine

Despite their size and stubbly snout, manatees seem cute and cuddly to many ocean visitors. These large, slow-moving marine mammals hang out in coastal areas and rivers where Florida spring-breakers can easily see them and think that it is a good idea to hop on for a ride. Not only is this and other forms of harassment such as hugging the sea creatures illegal (the West Indian manatee is listed as endangered in the United States), but it can also impact manatees’ natural behavior, changing the way they interact with humans.

All three species of manatee—the Amazonian manatee, West Indian manatee, and West African manatee—and the related dugong are considered vulnerable (defined as facing a high risk of extinction in the wild) by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is due to a variety of threats including boat collisions, hunting, habitat destruction, and toxic red tides.

It's unclear if the manatees’ sweet looks can save them. In their favor is the fact that we’re no longer deliberately chasing them down, unlike how humans hunted to extinction their long-lost relative, the Steller’s sea cow, in the 18th century. But even slight disturbances to their lifestyles can do irreparable harm.

If you see a manatee this spring break, look but don’t touch.

1. Manatees are typically found in shallow coastal areas and rivers where they feed on sea grass, mangrove leaves, and algae. These herbivores munch on food for almost half the day, eating ten percent of their body weight in plant mass every day. With weights of up to 1,200 pounds, that is a whole lot of greenery!

2. West Indian (Trichechus manatus) and West African (T. senegalensis) manatees spend their lives on the cusp between salty and fresh water. They are able to maintain the correct balance in their bodies through an internal regulation system that works with the kidney to make sure salt concentrations never get too high. It is believed that West Indian manatees require some access to freshwater (PDF) in order to stay hydrated, but they are able to easily move between the two ecosystems.

A West Indian manatee, always curious, investigates a kayak in Florida. (Mwanner via Wikimedia Commons)

3. Warm water is a must for the West Indian and West African manatee species. With low metabolic rates and minimal fat protection from cold water, they stick to water that is 60 degrees or warmer. They may look fat and insulated, but the large body of the manatee is mostly made up of their stomach and intestines! In colder months, they find their way to warm river tributaries or warm water outputs from power plants. In 2010 at least 246 manatees died in Florida due to cold stress from the colder-than-normal winter.

4. Manatees go to the surface of the water every three to five minutes to breathe although they can remain underwater longer, holding their breath for up to 20 minutes. When they do take a breath, 90 percent of the air in their lungs is replaced (whereas humans tend to replace about 10 percent).

5. The Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) lives entirely in freshwater rivers throughout South America in the Amazon Basin. It is hard to estimate their numbers due to their secretive nature and the murky water where they often live. A fourth dwarf manatee species was described in the mid-2000s, but this claim was called into question and it is believed to actually be a juvenile Amazonian manatee. The main threat to this species is illegal harpoon hunting for subsistence.

6. Dugongs (Dugong dugon), in the same order (Sirenia) as manatees, spend all of their time in coastal ocean waters of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific and they don’t ever venture into freshwater. Although they look similar to manatees, dugongs have a more whale-like fluke compared to the round, paddle-like tail that you see on manatees.

The dugong, in the same order as manatees, has a distinctive snout and a fluked tail. (Julien Willem via Wikimedia Commons)

7. The closest living relatives of sirenians are elephants. Manatees evolved from the same land animals as elephants over 50 million years ago and the fossil record shows a much more diverse group of sirenians than we have today, with dugongs and manatees living together throughout their range. 

8. Humans have one round of baby teeth and then if we lose or hurt an adult tooth, a trip to the dentist is in order. Manatees, like their elephant relatives, continuously replace their teeth throughout their lives with the older teeth at the front falling out and new teeth growing in at the back of their mouth.

9. Researchers believe that the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow (the largest member of the order Sirenia) was at one point found throughout the Pacific, in waters off Japan and the U.S. west coast. In 1741, Georg Wilhelm Steller first described the sea cow from islands off the coast of Russia (in what would later be called the Bering Sea) as subsisting off of kelp and not being able to submerge underwater. Within 27 years of first being described, the species was driven to extinction by hunting and competition for their kelp food source with an exploding urchin population. 

An 1846 illustration of the extinct Steller’s sea cow, which was much larger than manatees or dugongs. (J.F. Brandt via Wikimedia Commons)

10. Christopher Columbus and other early explorers claimed to have seen female figures swimming in the ocean—the mermaids in the writings and drawings of this era. Whether they had been at sea for too long or it was a trick of the light, we now know that many of these encounters were with manatees.

11. Manatee brains are smooth (compared to our own that have the familiar ins and outs of cortical folds) and the ratio of their brain to their body size is the lowest of any mammal. They may not be as clever as dolphins, but manatees can learn basic tasks, are extremely sensitive to touch and can differentiate colors.

12. Female manatees usually have one calf every two to five years and the calf then stays and nurses for two years. Calves nurse from their mother’s teats, which are found right where the forward limbs meet the body. The calves also can start nibbling on plants at only a few weeks old.

13. If you are a mammal—whether that’s a human, giraffe, whale or rat—then you typically have seven neck vertebrae. Only tree sloths and manatees have an irregular number of vertebrae—just six for the manatee. Scientists think this may have to do with their slow metabolism.

14. Manatees have no natural predators in the wild but humans have played a large part in making all three species at risk of extinction. About half of West Indian manatee deaths are caused by humans, and most are due to boat collisions. Manatees are quite buoyant and use their horizontally placed diaphragm and breathing to control their buoyancy. This and their average speed of 3 to 5 miles per hour means that manatees are way too slow to escape from the path of a speeding boat.

Learn more about the ocean from Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.

Get Lost in the Landscape that Inspired William Faulkner’s Greatest Novels

Smithsonian Magazine

When it comes to creating a sense of place through prose, William Faulkner has long been considered a master. Famous for penning such classics as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!and a bookshelf’s worth of other novels, the late author didn’t have to look far for inspiration, often turning to Rowan Oak, his estate in Oxford, Mississippi, as his muse.

Now, a new book illustrates the Nobel Prize winner’s marriage of prose and place, exploring his more than 30-acre sanctuary, canopied in ancient cedar trees, influenced his writing. Written by Oxford-based botanist and photographer, Ed Croom, and published by the University Press of Mississippi, The Land of Rowan Oak: An Exploration of Faulkner’s Natural World brings his words to life in a series of captioned color photographs that encapsulate what Faulkner once called his “little postage stamp of soil.”

With camera in hand, Croom has been photographing Rowan Oak for more than a decade, often visiting the property at the first signs of daylight, when the landscape is still shrouded in mist and before the crowds begin to trickle in for various tours of the property. He estimates that he’s easily taken more than 10,000 photos over the years (additional photos are on his website and Instagram pages)—though he admits that initially, he never intended to publish them in book form. Instead, he used those peaceful moments of solitude for personal meditation and to study the natural world.

“After ten years, I figured I had enough photos to show—from the heart—the beauty, mystery and sanctuary of this place,” Croom tells “As a botanist and someone who is interested in conserving nature, I thought the best way for me to do so would be to start taking pictures. Visitors to Rowan Oak often ignore the landscape and just want to see Faulkner’s typewriter; however, the historic landscape that nurtured Faulkner is the same today [as it was when he lived here].”

As an example, Croom points to the gravel driveway leading up to the more than 170-year-old clapboard home, which Faulkner purchased in 1930. The road is lined with the same Eastern Redcedar trees that had greeted Faulkner and his wife Estelle when they lived there. (Croom estimates that the trees were planted in the mid-1800s, long before Faulkner was even born.) It’s also eerily similar to a passage in Faulkner’s novel Sartoris, in which he wrote, “From the gate the cinder-packed drive rose in a grave curve between cedars.”

House and Cedar-Lined Walk in Mist, October 2003 (Ed Croom)

“[Faulkner] often wouldn’t tell you exactly where [the setting] was, or would say it’s in another part of [Lafayette County, where Oxford is located],” he says. “But [from my photos], you can see that the scenes and plants [he describes in his books are all right there]. I think Faulkner was writing about what he knew.”

Of course, Croom has done very much the same with the release of his own book, which started with his observations of the natural world on display at Rowan Oak. It was through his interest in botany that he would eventually become acquainted with the author.


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“I didn’t grow up reading Faulkner,” he says. “I learned about him through Rowan Oak. I started wondering what this place meant to him, so I began reading his short stories, then figuring out where these images and places he wrote about really were. I realized that they were all right here. So I came to him backwards.”

In addition to linking Faulkner’s words to place, Croom’s book describes in detail the various flora found on the property, and contains a map that pinpoints where each photo was taken.

“Every photo contains a caption with both the common and scientific name of each plant,” he says. “I used the same spelling as Faulkner used in his writing, so you can easily locate it [in his books]. During an interview held at the University of Virginia in 1958, he admitted that he didn’t do any research. Instead he was much like a folklorist, absorbing everything. He would come home and have this total sanctuary, and he wrote it all out to show you this world he had absorbed.”

Today, visitors to Rowan Oak can continue to walk in the fabled footsteps of this celebrated author, and experience firsthand the lush landscape that inspired him.

Infinity of Nations: Culture Quest

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Players earn virtual badges as they learn about Native cultures throughout the Americas, from Alaska to the tip of Argentina. Ten badges correspond to ten regions: Arctic, Northwest Coast, Woodlands, Plains, Southwest, California, Mesoamerica, Amazon, Andes, and Patagonia.

Stanford Researchers Map the Feelings Associated With Different Parts of London

Smithsonian Magazine

How do cities make us feel? Does the Champs-Élysées elicit happy emotions? Does the East River generate fear?  

A new project from Stanford’s Literary Lab attempts to show how British novels of the 18th and 19th century portrayed different parts of London, giving a peek into how readers might have viewed those parts of the city. The end product, a digital pamphlet full of maps, is called “The Emotions of London.”

“[W]e hoped to better understand aspects of the relationship between fiction and social change in the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Ryan Heuser, a doctoral candidate in English who co-authored the pamphlet. “How did novels represent the vast changes in London's social geography? And how did they help to shape this geography, especially through their ability to imbue locations within London with specific emotional valences?”

In other words, did novels accurately track the ways the city was changing? And if a novel portrayed a part of London as happy or scary, did that help make those places happier or scarier in reality?

To create the pamphlet, researchers used a computer program to search for place names mentioned in 18th and 19th century novels set in London, and plotted them on a map of the city. They then paid workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to read the passages surrounding the mentions—some 15,000 of them. The readers were asked to identify happiness or fear, and their responses were compared to readings by English graduate students, and to a computer program designed to identify feelings.

In general, the researchers found that London’s West End—a historically wealthy area—was associated with emotions of happiness, while the East End—a historically poor area—was associated with fear. Since most readers at the time were middle or upper class, this gives us a look into how they might have viewed the city, including the poorer areas they’d probably never visited.

It was surprising, Heuser says, how “the literary geography of London remained remarkably stable, even as the distribution of people across London radically transformed.” In other words, the way places were described in books stayed the same, even as those places changed. For example, the City of London, the ancient heart of the city, had a steady population decline throughout the 19th century as it became a commercial center (today it is home to London’s financial center; saying “the City” is roughly equivalent to saying “Wall Street”). Yet it was still mentioned in novels just as much as before. Though the rest of London was growing wildly, it was hardly ever mentioned, as novelists stuck to writing about the well-trodden territory of the West End and the City. In a sense, the London of the novel was “stuck” in time as the real London moved forward.

The pamphlet also looks at where specific authors tended to set their novels. Catherine Gore, one of the Victorian "silver fork" writers, so-called for their depictions of the upper classes, mentioned West End locations more frequently than any other writer. Walter Besant, whose novels sensitively depicted the poor, wrote about the East End more often than others. Charles Dickens, perhaps the most famous of all London novelists, set his works all over the city, a unique quality among his peers. 

The project was attempting to build on other works in the field known as literary geography, says Heuser. One of the major inspirations was Atlas of the European Novel, a 1998 work by the Stanford literary critic Franco Moretti, who co-authored the pamphlet. That book featured 100 handmade maps showing connections between literature and space—where in England various elements of Austen’s novels took place, or where the murders in Sherlock Holmes stories occurred.

London grew, but the action in novels stayed central. (Stanford Literary Lab)

The team decided to focus on London for two main reasons, Heuser says. First, London was the center for publication of English language novels. Second, a large proportion of the British population lived there; it was rapidly becoming the largest city in the world.

“Focusing on London, then, allowed us to ask how novels might have registered these profound social changes in their fictional representations of the city,” he says.

Stanford’s Literary Lab is a research collective that uses digital tools to study literature. One recent project analyzes how the language of World Bank reports became more abstract and removed from everyday speech over the decades. Another project created visualizations of which novels various groups (the Modern Library Board, Publishers Weekly and so on) considered “the best of the 20th century”—did they overlap? Was there any rhyme or reason to the lists?

The Emotions of London project was a collaboration between the Literary Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA). CESTA is about using digital tools for humanities research. Their projects are about visualizing information about history and culture in new, often interactive ways. One project, Kindred Britain, is a database of 30,000 famous Britons that can be searched to show connections between different people—how was Charles Darwin connected to Virginia Woolf? How many people does it take to get from Henry VIII to Winston Churchill? Another, The Grand Tour Project, is creating a dynamic, searchable database of images and media having to do with 18th century European tourism in Italy, giving viewers a look into what the so-called “Grand Tour” was like.

Heuser says he hopes that other people might be inspired by his team’s work to think about how novels help create our sense of the cities we live in.

“Does fiction help to maintain a version of a city's geography that is ‘stuck’ in the past?” he asks. “Or does it help to advance our understanding of evolving urban boundaries and geographies?” 

Can the Civil War Still Inspire Today's Poets?

Smithsonian Magazine

Very few contemporary American poets write history poems. Poetry that addresses the past by using the examples of specific people or events was a major part of American literature throughout the 19th century.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made a staple of subjects like “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Herman Melville, who wanted to be known as a poet and not as a novelist, wrote several very fine poems about the Civil War, including one on “weird” John Brown.

In the 20th century, full-fledged history poems seem to have ended with Robert Lowell, who engaged the past of his Puritan forbears in his verse and whose “For the Union Dead” is perhaps the finest poem written about the Civil War.

Southern poets have always used their region’s history as a subject, seeking to make sense of the legacy of defeat in the Civil War, as well as the legacy of race (and racism) and slavery. But even this vein seems to have died out.

History poems likely disappeared with modernism, and now post-modernism: both of which stress the interiority of the writer and avoid specific, historically situated subjects.

So poets write about cultural conditions, even the condition of American democracy and society, but do so obliquely, without trying to describe or inhabit the predicament of an historical figure, or place themselves in the midst of events in past-time.

When curator Frank Goodyear and I asked 12 contemporary poets to write about the Civil War for our 2013 book, Lines in Long Array, the majority of the poets initially hesitated, concerned about how to approach the subject. They all turned out to be pleased with the result although they may not have made a habit out of it.


To the Bramble and the Briar: Poems

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Steve Scafidi came recommended to us by poet Dave Smith for his poems on Lincoln, now collected in his 2014 To the Bramble and the Briar. His “Portrait of Abraham Lincoln with Clouds for a Ceiling” imagines the President just about to speak at Gettysburg: “He could feel his pinky toe/push through the hole in his sock, and a rash form/on his neck” and ends with “a testimony for this/new church//founded in Gettysburg, in hope. . .”

On January 31, Scafidi will join me at the National Portrait Gallery, where I serve as the senior historian, though I, too, am a poet. We will read our own work, and several from other poets, in the galleries of the exhibition, “Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs.”

Scafidi and I have both engaged themes that directly or indirectly bear on the subjects of Alexander Gardner’s photographs, including the portraits of Abraham Lincoln or the images of the dead at Antietam and Gettysburg.

I asked Scafidi how he came to write about Lincoln and his answer was surprising, referencing not the public career or the character of the man or any other externals, but something deeply personal: “As a young father I was frightened of my children suddenly dying. I was obsessed by this fear.”

Coincidentally reading about Lincoln, he found the 16th president’s ability to overcome grief following the death of two of his sons to be profoundly admirable. Steve offers an arresting image to depict Lincoln’s adroit skill at managing the two sides of his life, his public career and his private loss: “It was heroic to suffer his grief and also lead the country through the war. It was as if a man performed successful brain surgery while being attacked by a dog.”

Scafidi was raised and still lives near Harpers Ferry; he works as a woodworker since poetry itself can’t pay the bills (most poets teach). Of course, this is John Brown’s territory, as is the Bloody Kansas, where Brown got his start on what historian Sean Wilentz has called his career as an anti-slavery terrorist.

Abraham Lincoln, Cracked-Plate, 1865 (Alexander Gardner, National Portrait Gallery)

“Many people in Virginia and West Virginia still see him more as a terrorist than a freedom fighter,” says Scafidi. It was Brown’s assault on the armory at Harpers Ferry—an attempt to raise a slave rebellion—that lit the long fuse leading to war between the North and the South. John Brown, he says, “is still the wild ghost of that place.” Weird John Brown, as Melville called him, is surely close to being the most complicated and complex figure in American history.

Scafidi explores the violence of mind and body in Brown—the radiating power of that all-consuming will that lives on in Brown; from his poem “The Beams,” even dead, his eyes were still “hard and wild/to see—like two slender crimson laser beams.”

The duality of John Brown: can good come of violence? The duality of the poet: a woodworker (and farmer) who writes verse. Of his two professions, Scafidi writes:

The cabinet-work is physical and the writing is mostly invisible. The cabinet-work brings me money and the writing brings me peace. The only true intersection of these two vocations I find is the lathe. On the lathe a piece of wood spins so quickly it blurs and into this blur you set a chisel and carve shapes by hand. On the page words come furious and whir at me in rhythms I find and shape by ear. Poetry and the lathe both have a similar magic.

Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, July 1863 (Alexander Gardner, National Portrait Gallery)

A nice image—one thinks of Ezra Pound’s tribute to Walt Whitman as having broken the “new wood” of modern poetry, and that it was there for the carving.

My profession as an historian and my avocation as a poet are closer than the worlds of wood worker and poet. I work only in words, but there is a boundary line I have been reluctant to cross. I have consciously resisted writing “History” poems because they seemed too close to my “day” job: instead, I write poetry as a diversion.

But as I worked on the show “Dark Fields of the Republic,” Steve Scafidi’s poems helped me to see that my work could complement my poetry. There was no reason why I couldn’t address the past as a poet as well as a curator and historian. In the end, it all comes down to the whirling world of words—and making sense of ourselves by addressing the past.

Innovators May Be Non-Conformists, But They Are Not Risk-Takers

Smithsonian Magazine

Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, had a hit on his hands with his first book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, a look at how generosity can drive professional success. With his second book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, published earlier this month, he questions conventional wisdom about what makes a successful innovator. Over the course of his research, which involved studying and interviewing innovators in different fields, reading up on the history of creative thinkers and analyzing various social science studies, he reached a number of suprising findings. 

What drew you to the topic of non-conformism and innovation?

We’re all fascinated by original people in the world. We see this in every domain. The great inventors and creators, the Steve Jobs archetype, the change agents we’ve all looked up to, whether Civil Rights activists or suffrage activists. I guess I was really curious about what these people have in common.

What were some of the most surprising findings in your research?

One, I expected original people to be big risk-takers. They weren’t. They’re not the people who would leap before they look. I love the example of Sara Blakely [the founder of Spanx]. She has the idea for footless pantyhose, but she keeps her day job selling fax machines for two years. She ends up becoming America’s youngest self-made billionaire, but plays it safe by making sure she has some financial resources to make it work.

Two, they feel the same doubt and fear that the rest of us do. They’re not just filled with tremendous conviction from day one.

Three, they procrastinate a lot. They’re able to use procrastination to generate new ideas.

Four, they have tons of bad ideas. I always thought these original people I admire have a perfect batting average. But they actually have more bad ideas than their peers. They just generate more volume.

Adam Grant, author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (Twitter)

Why do you think we’re so attached to the idea of entrepreneurs and innovators being risk-takers?

I think the myth persists because it’s more fun to tell that story. I think we love to idolize the heroic entrepreneur who drops out of school to go for broke. It also gives us an excuse to not be that person. We can look at Bill Gates and say ‘he dropped out of Harvard, I would never do that,’ leaving out the part of the story where he doesn’t drop out, he takes a leave of absence and he’s bankrolled by his parents. [Jobs never did return to Harvard.]

In your book, you talk about the “exposure effect,” the idea that successful innovators need to repeat their idea over and over until it’s accepted. Can you tell us more about how that works in real life?

I just happen to love this Carmen Medina example. Carmen was at the CIA and it was the 1990s, and she was really worried that sharing information with a printed report once a day was not enough, that the fax machine and email would be a lot faster. She started talking about this, and people thought that she was insane—that’s dangerous! Email is not secure! Carmen took a look at that and said ‘I need to get people used to that idea.’ So she brought it up in a lot of different contexts with different people, and then started blogging herself. Eventually she ended up getting the green light for the first internal Wikipedia, which seems to have prevented a few terrorist attacks. It takes 10 to 20 exposures to a new idea before people really accept and appreciate it. If you get shot down on a Tuesday, come back on a Friday. It’s about mastering the art of repetition—communicating the message to different people at different times in different ways, and trying to make it familiar.

How do you define “non-conformist?"

To me, being a non-conformist is not about non-conformity for the sake of being different. The goal is to try to make things better. That means someone who thinks for themselves and who doesn’t follow the crowd just because it’s popular.

How can we all become more non-conformist?

I think my favorite strategy is ‘vuja de’ [a concept named for its opposite, déjà vu. It’s when you enter a familiar situation but feel like it’s all new]. You try to look at something familiar in a new way. You’re standing in line waiting for a taxi and you see these cars passing by, which all have empty seats in them. You’ve seen them a thousand times before you start to say ‘why can’t I have one of those seats?’ And Uber is created.


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What are some strategies for raising creative, non-conformist children who might grow up to be innovators?

Step one is to focus more on values than rules. One mistake a lot of parents make is they basically prevent their children from thinking for themselves by saying ‘these are the rules you have to follow.’ What parents of highly original children do differently is they focus on values and say ‘these are the guiding principles in our family, now let’s have a dialogue about what this means to you.’ You see kids get to take ownership over their own values and principles. Then when they grow up and confront other people, they’re comfortable standing their ground.

Also, give kids broad exposure to different ways of thinking. The greatest originals are not the ones with the greatest expertise. [They are the ones with the greatest breadth of experience.] Nobel Prize-winning scientists are dramatically more likely to dabble in the arts. Fashion designers who are highly innovative, one of the things that distinguishes them is having spent time not just living abroad but working abroad. 

You write that oldest children are less likely to be creative thinkers because they want to please their parents and therefore become rule-followers. I’m an oldest child. Are we doomed?

Absolutely not! 

Your Opinion of Sushi Is a Good Predictor of How Willing You Are to Eat Insects

Smithsonian Magazine

If the idea of feasting on wax worm tacos, roasted cicadas and grasshopper guacamole turns your stomach, you’re not alone. Despite the fact that insects are considered delicacies in many parts of the world, Europeans and North Americans remain notoriously adverse to bug-based cuisine.

Still, new research suggests some Americans are more likely to embrace entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, than others: As researchers Matthew Ruby of Australia’s La Trobe University and Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania report in the journal Food Quality and Preference, individuals who frequently dine on sushi are more willing to branch out and try insects than their raw fish-rejecting counterparts. Of the 82 percent of U.S.-based study participants who indicated they would be willing to eat insects, 43 percent said they ate sushi on a regular basis.

“Until relatively recently, the idea of trying sushi ... was often thought of with disgust in many societies,” Ruby says in a press release. “Just like eating sushi, eating insects will take some getting used to.”

According to Cosmos’ Andrew Masterson, Ruby and Rozin used Amazon’s crowdsourcing Mechanical Turk platform to recruit nearly 700 respondents residing in the United States and India. After winnowing this pool down to 476 participants, the researchers conducted surveys on topics ranging from general food preferences to history of insect consumption and religious beliefs.

Writing for Border Mail, Anthony Bunn notes that the scientists chose to focus on the U.S. and India because residents of the former enjoy a heavily meat-focused diet, while those living in the latter often prefer vegetables due to dietary restrictions associated with Hinduism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the team discovered that American respondents were more likely than Indians to view bugs as a viable food source. On average, men in both countries were more accepting of insect-eating than women.

As Ruby and Rozin write in the study, individuals’ attitude toward insect cuisine revolve around five main themes: benefits conferred by the practice (such as environmental sustainability or nutritional value), disgust, perceived risks, violations of religious principles and suffering endured by the critters in question. Amongst U.S. participants, disgust emerged as a driving factor, while frequency of sushi intake and benefits followed closely. In India, benefits outweighed disgust, although religion and sushi preferences also influenced respondents’ willingness to eat bugs.

Insects are a regular staple of some two billion people's diets (Takoradee via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Some two billion of Earth’s inhabitants—centered largely in Latin America, West Africa and Southeast Asia, according to ScienceLine’s Polina Porotsky—eat insects on a regular basis. In Japan, for example, smoky liquor seasoned with hornet’s venom is paired with hornet larvae simmered in ginger, soy sauce and mirin. Moving to sub-Saharan Africa, Charlotte Payne writes for BBC News, sauteed termites are top sellers at the region’s urban markets, while shea caterpillar stew and palm weevil larvae are considered local delicacies in Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo, respectively.

Despite insect cuisine’s prevalence across the globe, Westerners have been reluctant to embrace entomophagy. Much of this resistance stems from culturally-cultivated feelings of disgust, Ligaya Mishan explains for The New York Times Style Magazine. Most edible insects aren’t native to Europe, so locals and, by extension, European settlers arriving in North America, never incorporated bugs into their diet.

As Mishan observes, “[Instead] we largely consider insects dirty and drawn to decay, signifiers and carriers of disease; we call them pests, a word whose Latin root means plague.”

Unfortunately for bug-wary diners—but fortunately for the planet, which would benefit from a major reduction in the meat industry’s carbon footprint, edible insects appear to be gaining traction across the Western world. As the Harvard Political Review’s Kendrick Foster reports, insect cookbooks and more palatable dining options, including cricket flour that precludes the visceral reaction sparked by coming face-to-face with a beady-eyed bug, are helping entomophagy proponents normalize the practice.

“We’re trying to rebrand [the ick factor] to the wow factor, in a similar way to a roller coaster,” Aly Moore, founder of bug blog Bugible, tells Foster. “You’re terrified of it, and it’s scary, but after you do it, it’s super fun and really cool.”

Deep-fried tarantula, anyone?

Stunning Black-and-White Photos of the Nazca Lines

Smithsonian Magazine

The Nazca Lines have puzzled the world since Peruvian archeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe discovered them in the 1920s. Now they are back in the news after Greenpeace activists added a note to the famous geoglyphs during recent climate talks. Ignoring law that prohibits entrance to this delicate portion of the Peruvian desert, activists laid out cloth letters reading "Time for Change! The Future is Renewable. Greenpeace." Though the activists claim they were careful to not disturb anything, the area they entered is off-limits without a permit and special shoes: the ground around the lines is simply too dry and fragile to be trod upon without first taking painstaking precautions.

One man who knows a thing or two about the fragility of the lines—and the delicate act of both documenting and preserving them—is Edward Ranney, a photographer whose book The Lines, released last August, catalogs the mysterious geoglyphs of the Nazca culture in Peru, as well as cultures in Chile's Atacama Desert, in stunning black-and-white photographs. Ranney has been photographing archeological sites and ancient, pre-Columbian architecture in Peru and Mesoamerica since the 1960s. 

"A lot of people are really outraged, and rightly so," Ranney says of Greenpeace's actions. "Any time anyone walks on the pampa, those footprints don't go away—[the lines] are there because it never rains there. It brought a lot of attention suddenly to the lines, to the Nazca, but it did so in a very unfortunate way."

The Lines looks at the famous Nazca geoglyphs—scratched into the desert more than 1,000 years ago—from a unique perspective: ground-level. Most photographs show the geoglyphs from an aerial view, emphasizing their scale (some are as large as the Empire State Building). Ranney's photos instead show the lines as someone from the Nazca culture, using the lines for religious reasons, might have encountered them.

"Most of the pictures that we see of the lines are taken from airplanes, and it emphasizes the graphic nature and real mystery of how these things came into being," Ranney says. "My interest, because I couldn't get high enough to photograph from the air, was the foothills. I wanted to stick to working to the ground. And I found that the more I saw different patterns, the more intriguing it became, because these lines really change the landscape. For a landscape photographer, it's an exciting project to go into these areas and work in these spaces that is somewhat forbidding and most contemporary travelers don't even get near."


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Ranney began The Lines as part of a much broader survey of ancient architecture along the Peruvian coast in 1985. He quickly realized that these desert areas fit perfectly into the canon of work he had been producing since a 1964 Fulbright trip: recording ancient, previously unarchived architecture and sites.

"I realized that no one had looked at this [area] visually and tried to create a fairly comprehensive archive of sites in black-and-white photographs that could stand as references and also as their own artwork," Ranney explains.

The Nazca lines aren't the only ancient structures Ranney has photographed. A new exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art, North to South, celebrates Ranney's career of photographing Inca and Maya cultures. The show, on view until April 19, includes more than 40 images from his decades of travel and work—work that, to Ranney, is far from complete. 

"There's continual research in the Andean region, which is really exciting because there is more and more discovered every year," Ranney says. "That's why I continue to photograph, because my survey is not yet done."

What Are the 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die?

Smithsonian Magazine

When was the last time you sat down to a meal of hamam meshwi, a.k.a grilled pigeon, which is most likely found on a menu in Egypt? Or traveled to Oslo, Norway, for a breakfast of freshly caught shrimp? Chances are probably never. However, thanks to former New York Times restaurant critic, Smithsonian contributor, and author Mimi Sheraton's latest book, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, your foodie life list is about to get a whole lot longer.

Inspired by Patricia Schultz's best-selling title, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (which is also distributed by Workman Publishing), Sheraton has rounded up 1,000 must-try dishes, restaurants, markets, cultural feasts, and even some relatively universal foods (such as bananas, olive oil, and whipped cream) that transcend regional categorization. Curated from cuisines around the globe, Sheraton has put them together in one large volume, along with details on historic and cultural context, tips on how to prepare or where to try a particular dish, and even several dozen recipes. It's a project that's been 10 years in the making—one that's as much a wonderful display of Sheraton's vast food knowledge (she's been writing about food for 60 years) as it is an ode to the world's sheer culinary diversity.


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Fitting the world's incredible eats into a mere 1,000 entries, however, is no small task. "I actually started with about 1800 entries that I had to weed down," says Sheraton, "All the while, other foods and dishes continued presenting themselves." One of her main goals was showing an equal respect for the dishes of say, Australia, as she did for a culinary powerhouse like China. "Between the United States, France and Italy I could have easily filled the book," she says, "but I wanted to give an overall representation of what the world eats. There are interesting things to try before you die in all parts of the world, so chicken pot pie and strawberry shortcake fell by the wayside to make room for something like East Africa's Zanzibar duck," a braised, clove-scented duck seasoned with lemon.

Nearly the same number of pages as it has entries, 1,000 Foods highlights everything from Chinese hie xian jiang (known in the U.S. as hoisin sauce) to the oysters of Locmariaquer, France. Staples of the dinner table such as pasta run alongside more specific items like the "golden-edged" crepes at Manhattan patisserie Lady M, while other entries focus on iconic restaurants such as Nariobi, Kenya’s Carnivore, known for its unusual variety of meats (things like camel hump, ox heart, or ostrich meatballs) or on food-inspired cinema such as the 1989 dark comedy, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. There's no particular rhyme or reason as to why a food hall may be one entry and Belgium's Callebaut chocolate another, other than simply—it fits. "While there are exactly 1,000 entries, there are actually many more foods, because I found the only way to include something that didn't require a lot of text for itself, but was important in a larger context, was to group it," says Shearton. Some entries group foods together, such as Sheraton's write up on "Spanish Cheeses" and "Rijsttafel," an array of Indonesian rice table feasts that came about during the age of Dutch colonialism.

Sheraton organized 1,000 Foods according to the geography of flavor and culinary style rather than strict geographical borders, so candied apples is listed under the regional heading "American and Canadian" while leberwurst is found in the section titled "German, Austrian, and Swiss." For the most part, traditional dishes that may be popular internationally are still listed according to their region of origin. For example a food such as pizza, despite being an American staple, still falls under "Italy." Likewise, the American Chinese dish chow mein is found in the book's "Chinese" chapter, although it's much more popular in the States. This can be a bit confusing at first, but once you get the hang of becomes easy to navigate. Along with a general index, there's also a special index providing easy access to items such as holiday food, world-class markets, and recipes, the latter of which there are about 70 scattered throughout. But perhaps the book's most helpful perk is that each listing contains information highlighting ways you can actually experience the food, place, etc., yourself. "Everything in the book has to be available to readers some how," she says, "whether you go to a restaurant or buy it at a store or online or even make it yourself, everything there is triable."

Since the connection between food and travel is undeniable, 1,000 Foods is as much an exploration of the world and its people as it is a culinary journey. "For me, food helps define a place," says Sheraton. "Not only does it put me closer in touch with the people who are preparing the food but I also experience the way it is served, the different flavors, etc. I really think that in a world that's becoming more homogenous if you can find traditional foods in their country of origin—like Ukrainian borsht in Kiev, or hairy crab in Shanghai—it's as important as looking at a cathedral or some statue."

In truth, says Sheraton, there's a lot other than food you can find out about from food. Turns out 1,000 Foods is the perfect tool. Despite its tagline, Sheraton's book is much more than a food lover's life list. "There are so many ways to use 1,000 Foods," she says, "whether you're planning to visit a place and want to look up dishes to try while there, or if you're so dedicated you want to find a very unusual dish to try, so you start from the entry and then travel to the place it suggests. As a writer I hope that most people will simply find it to be a good read: dip in and out and maybe strike up an interest that will lead them even further into a certain cuisine or country or customs."

Sheraton herself learned new facts and discovered new foods while writing the book, which is what she says kept her going in a lot of ways. Based on her research she predicts that there are a few North African cuisines—namely Senegalese and Ethiopian—that will have much wider influence as Western palates expand. She also sees a trend toward more western Mediterranean cuisine, which simply put utilizes more spices, while its eastern counterpart focuses on herbs.

While Sheraton has tasted the overall majority of entries listed, there are still a few that for one reason or another have eluded her (but that according to her viable, trusted sources cannot be left out). "As I say in the book's intro, my reach has always exceeded my grasp. But that's okay," she says, "because it gives me something to look forward to."

Ointment, Tubes, First Aid Kit, Lockheed Sirius "Tingmissartoq", Lindbergh

National Air and Space Museum
Two Tubes of ointment, "Carofax" and "Borofax."

Charles A. Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, flew in their Lockheed Sirius aircraft on two significant missions, one in 1931 and the other in 1933. In 1931 the Lindberghs flew to the Orient, proving the viability of traveling from the West to the Far East via the great circle route to the North. In 1933 they flew survey flights across the North and South Atlantic to gather information for planning commercial air routes. During their trans-Atlantic trip a Greenland Eskimo boy gave their airplane its name, Tingmissartoq-"One who flies like a big bird."

The Lindberghs were meticulous in their preparations for the two trans-global flights. They utilized every possible space of the aircraft to carry supplies. The objects in this collection represent the mission support and personal items they carried, and illustrate the essential equipment that would have been taken on international exploratory flights during the 1920s and 1930s.

In December 1933, the Lindberghs made several unsuccessful takeoff attempts for their flight across the South Atlantic Ocean, from Africa to South America, as calm winds and seas would not allow the heavily loaded plane to rise. This first aid kit was among the supplies they shipped home from Bathurst, Gambia so they could lighten their load and continue.

Upon returning from their trans-Atlantic trip in late 1933, the Lindberghs donated the Tingmissartoq and the material support items to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The collection was displayed in the Hall of Ocean Life until 1955, when it was sent to the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. After deciding that Lindbergh artifacts did not really represent the Air Force, the Air Force Museum transferred the collection to the Smithsonian Institution's Air Museum in 1959.

A vacation flight with "no start or finish, no diplomatic or commercial significance, and no records to be sought." So Charles A. Lindbergh described the flight that he and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were planning to make to the Orient in 1931. Their choice of route, however, showed the feasibility of using the great circle to reach the Far East.

The Lindberghs flew in a Lockheed Sirius low-wing monoplane, powered by a 680-hp Wright Cyclone. The Sirius had been designed in 1929 by John K. Northrop and Gerard Vultee, and this model was specially fitted with Edo floats, since most of the Lindberghs flight was to be over water.

Their route took them from North Haven, Maine, to Ottawa, Moose Factory, Churchill, Baker Lake, and Aklavik, all in Canada; Point Barrow, Shismaref, and Nome, Alaska; Petropavlosk. Siberia; and on over the Kurile Islands to Japan. After receiving an enthusiastic welcome in Tokyo, they flew to China. They landed on Lotus Lake near Nanking on September 19, thus completing the first flight from the West to the East by way of the North.

At Hankow, the Sirius, with the Lindberghs aboard, was being lowered into the Yangtze River from the British aircraft carrier Hermes, when the aircraft accidentally capsized. One of the wings was damaged when it hit a ship's cable, and the aircraft had to be returned to the United States for repairs.

Their next venture in the Sirius came as a result of the five countries' interest in the development of commercial air transport. In 1933 Pan American Airways, Imperial Airways of Great Britain, Lufthansa of Germany, KLM of Holland, and Air France undertook a cooperative study of possible Atlantic routes. Each was assigned the responsibility for one of the following areas: New Newfoundland to Europe via Greenland; Newfoundland via the great circle route to Ireland; Newfoundland southeast to the Azores and Lisbon; Miami, Bermuda, the Azores, and Lisbon; and across the South Atlantic from Natal, Brazil, to Cape Verde, Africa.

Pan American was to survey the Newfoundland to Europe via Greenland route. Ground survey and weather crews in Greenland were already hard at work when Lindbergh, Pan Am's technical advisor, took off from New York on July 9 in the rebuilt Lockheed Sirius, again accompanied by his wife, who would serve as copilot and radio operator. A Sperry artificial horizon and a directional gyro had been added to the instrument panel since the previous flight, and a new Wright Cyclone SR1820-F2 engine of 710 horsepower was installed. Lindbergh's plan was not to set up a particular route but to gather as much information as possible on the area to be covered.

The Jellinge, a Danish ship, was chartered by Pan Am to maintain radio contact with the Lindberghs in the Labrador-Greenland-Iceland area. The ship also delivered advance supplies for them to Halifax, Saint John's, Cartwright, Greenland, and Iceland.

Every possible space in the aircraft was utilized, including the wings and floats, which contained the gasoline tanks. There was plenty of emergency equipment in case the Lindberghs had to make a forced landing in the frozen wilderness.

From New York, the Lindberghs flew up the eastern border of Canada to Hopedale, Labrador. From Hopedale they made the first major overwater hop, 650 miles to Godthaab, Greenland, where the Sirius acquired its name-Tingmissartoq, which in Eskimo means "one who flies like a big bird."

After crisscrossing Greenland to Baffin Island and back, and then on to Iceland, the Lindberghs proceeded to the major cities of Europe and as far east as Moscow, down the west coast of Africa, and across the South Atlantic to South America, where they flew down the Amazon, and then north through Trinidad and Barbados and back to the United States.

They returned to New York on December 19, having traveled 30,000 miles to four continents and twenty-one countries. The information gained from the trip proved invaluable in planning commercial air transport routes for the North and South Atlantic.

The aircraft was in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City until 1955. The Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, then acquired it and transferred it to the Smithsonian in 1959.

The Surprising Raucous Home Life of the Madisons

Smithsonian Magazine

She looked like royalty, or so thought many guests at the sight of Dolley Madison in her velvet inaugural gown and velvet and white satin turban with towering bird-of-paradise feathers. In full naval regalia, the head of the Navy Yard led her into the hall at Long’s Hotel, followed by her husband (the new president) and her sister Anna.

Taller, broader and far more conspicuous than her husband, Dolley set to her evening’s task of charming the assembled throng. Always ready with a smile and a warm greeting, Dolley steered conversations with a steady hand, taking special care to set at ease those who appeared most uncomfortable.

For husband James, the event was just one more social occasion on which his wife would shine while he stiffly observed the proprieties. Those who met him at such gatherings invariably thought him a cold fish. One congressional wife dismissed James as a “gloomy, stiff creature . . . who has nothing engaging or even bearable in his manners – the most unsociable creature in existence.” 


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Madison’s official portraits reinforce the sober image. In earlier paintings, Madison gazes levelly out of the canvas, virtually daring the viewer to try to make him crack a grin. As Madison aged, the years shaped his face into harsh crags and furrows, creating a visage that became forbidding.


Dolley’s portraits, in contrast, show a woman with merry eyes who is suppressing a laugh. That impish look shines through the only surviving photograph of her, a daguerreotype taken at age 80, in the last year of her life.

Yet when it comes to the Madisons’ temperament, history conceals far more than it reveals. With family and close friends, they were as fun-loving a couple – even rowdy – as ever occupied the White House.

Their life together began with a passionate courtship by a man who led the Republican members of Congress in 1794. Though he did not marry until past 40, James’ interest in the opposite sex was consistent. He pursued several women in his bachelor days, ranging from a teenager half his age (who jilted him) to a wealthy widow of a Tory merchant.

Then, on a street in Philadelphia, he saw Dolley Todd, a recent widow. He flashed into action, promptly determining who she was and that his college friend, Aaron Burr, rented a room from Dolley’s mother. Burr agreed to introduce Madison to the young widow.

After a few weeks of avid courting, James recruited Dolley’s cousin to write to Dolley on his behalf. In a note that he approved “with sparkling eyes,” the cousin wrote that James “thinks so much of you in the day that he has lost his tongue, at night he dreams of you and starts in his sleep calling on you to relieve his flame for he burns to such an excess that he will be shortly consumed.”

Marriage ended neither their romance nor James’ stylized coquetry. Nearly ten years later, he sent his love to Dolley in a letter, adding “a little smack” for one of their friends, “who has a sweet lip, though I fear a sour face for me.” A note from that friend, he wrote, “makes my mouth water.” Another time he sent a kiss to the same woman and told Dolley to “accept a thousand for yourself.” After Dolley’s sister Lucy moved out of the White House, she reminded Dolley how “when he kisses you—he was always so fearful of making my mouth water.

The future president was not only a romantic, but a high-spirited one.

Start with the wine, which James usually did. One dinner guest reported that James spent the hour after the meal passing around different vintages “of no mean quality.” Through most mealtimes, he maintained a steady stream of anecdotes and stories.

Friends relished his wicked sense of humor. His conversation, one niece recalled, moved “from brilliant mirth through to brilliant mirth.” A British diplomat found him a “jovial and good-humored companion.” Another source called James “an incessant humorist” who “set his table guests daily into roars of laughter over his stories and whimsical ways of telling them.”

Alas, the surviving samples of Madisonian humor incline more towards whimsy than hilarity. Dolley, however, was known more for warm cheer and high spirits than for incisive wit. She was, a niece recalled after her death, “a foe to dullness.”

Indeed, the Madison household rarely resembled the quiet, contemplative environment that a great thinker and leader might crave. At the White House and at Montpelier, James’ Virginia plantation, young relations and friends’ children usually overran the Madisons. The headcount at the dinner table often exceeded 20, including Dolley’s son from her first marriage, Payne Todd.

Two of Dolley’s sisters, Lucy and Anna lived with them for periods that stretched for years, along with their eight children. Dolley’s brother settled near Montpelier with his eight offspring, as did several of James’ siblings. The nieces, nephews and other kin (over 50 between James and Dolley) were legion. Then came James’ relations in central Virginia’s Orange County and Dolley’s ten cousins, two of whom served as James’ aides as president.

At Montpelier and the White House, the constant presence of younger generations meant that the patriarch and matriarch never took themselves too seriously. Upon receiving stockings too small for her generous proportions, she reported that “the hose will not fit even my darling little husband.” When Dolley challenged a young girl to a footrace, she assured her that “Madison and I often run races here.” A house guest reported that the former first couple, “sometimes romp and tease each other like two children.”

The guest added that Dolley, who was “stronger as well as larger than he,” sometimes “could – and did – seize his hands, draw him upon her back, and go round the room with him.” We are left to imagine the accompanying shrieks and laughter.

Take another look at those portraits of the Madisons. Behind the solemn expressions, perhaps you can make out the joking, passionate man and his fun-loving wife.

Meet the Diverse and Bizarre “Stars” of the Deep Sea

Smithsonian Magazine

Fragile and otherworldly, the brittle star is named for its delicate, spindly limbs. A member of a group called the Ophiuroids, this lesser-known cousin of the sea star lurks throughout the ocean bottoms, even thriving in the dark, cold and nutrient-poor reaches of the deep sea.

With upwards of 2,000 living species, brittle stars are providing scientists with a glimpse into the diversity of the oceans—particularly the motley crew of deep sea creatures found more than a mile beneath the water’s surface, a distance of 10 Washington Monuments stacked atop one another.

“The deep sea has been a bit of a mystery until now” says Timothy O’Hara, deputy head of marine sciences at Museum Victoria in Australia. Oceanic expeditions, costly and time intensive, have only sampled a fraction of the great blue seas.

So with the brittle stars as his muse, O’Hara is leading an effort to develop a database of marine biodiversity worldwide. His team’s global map of brittle stars, published today in Nature, could help lead future conservation efforts as changing climate and human development threaten deep habitats.

Since tackling every ocean species worldwide is a monumental task, O’Hara and his team focused on the humble brittle stars, collecting historical records from 1,614 oceanic expeditions spanning the last century.

Map of all where historical expeditions collected each of the 2,099 species used in this study. Yellow indicates samples taken at depths greater than 1.2 miles. (Tim O’Hara)

But these records were often riddled with inaccuracies, both because of changes in species names and misidentifications. So the scientists visited museums around the world—in Moscow, Tokyo, Berlin, Washington, D.C., and more—to examine first hand the species described in the records.

In the end, they compiled a global database detailing the distribution of almost a million brittle and basket stars—brittle star relatives with impressively branching limbs. But the data was still spotty.

You have these snapshots of what is down there on the deepest part of the ocean and somehow you have to extrapolate,” says biologist Camilo Mora who studies biogeography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

So the researchers turned to some “pretty fancy statistics” to overcome the patchiness, O’Hara explains. The image that emerged revealed that patterns of biodiversity unexpectedly differ at different water depths.

On land, the tropics burst with biodiversity. This is where you find the Amazon, for instance. But as you move to the poles, the variety of species declines. The same pattern was previously assumed to hold in the oceans.

Creatures that linger in waters up to a mile down follow this pattern, but the denizens of the deep don’t. In the ocean’s depths, biodiversity peaks in a band found between 30 and 50 degrees both north and south of the equator, O’Hara and his team found.

This nearly translucent brittle star, Macrophiothrix spongicola, was collected in southern Australia. (J. Finn)

Scientists have long linked biodiversity with the sun. Brilliant sunlight spurs plant growth, allowing energy to ripple up the food chain. And since the tropics get the most sunlight, that region gets the most energy deposited into its system, driving a diverse web of species.

But sunlight doesn’t penetrate much below a half mile deep in the ocean. Deep-dwelling creatures mainly feast on a steady rain of dead phytoplankton—microscopic algae that grow on the surface. Phytoplankton derive their energy from the sun, but sunlight is only one ingredient; these organisms also need nutrients. The region where the brittle star biodiversity peaks is an area rich in nutrients.

The study, of course, isn’t without caveats. The records spanned more than a century of exploration, and it’s possible that species diversity may have changed over that time. The need for statistical extrapolations also has its limitations.

“There are always going to be concerns...with this kind of analysis when you are dealing with data that are so disperse and limited,” says Mora, who was not involved in the study. “Of course it’s possible that [the patterns] could change as we add more data,” he notes.

But the need for the high powered statistical methods is a reality of the field. And the methods O’Hara and his team used are among the best that can be done with the available numbers, Mora adds.

These ghostly brittle stars, Ophiocamax hystrix, also inhabit Caribbean waters up to 1,000 meters deep. (Smithsonian Institution/Harbor Branch Oceanographic)

“It costs a fortune to go to sea,” says O’Hara. He ballparks that researchers would need $4 to $5 billion to resurvey the entire planet and collect the same number of samples collected in the past. His team’s study was possible only due to the carefully preserved specimens housed in museums around the world.

“Our collections are not simply a bunch of old things that are getting dusty,” says David Pawson, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. As this study shows, they are an often untapped wealth of information.

O’Hara has great ambitions for the future of this project. “This is just the first step,” he says. The team hopes to get a better handle on the boundaries for the ranges of specific species as well as trace their genetic ties.

This project is an important step in learning to care for the deep sea. “We’ve done essentially nothing for deep sea conservation,” says Pawson. But such efforts become increasingly vital as fishing and mining operations encroach on these relatively untouched habitats.

The rules for conserving life in the deep sea are different than the rules for conserving shallow life,” he says. Only with continued efforts will we ever hope to learn these laws of the deep.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Butterfly Drawings Take Flight in This New Book

Smithsonian Magazine

Vladimir Nabokov might be best known as a novelist, specifically as the author of Lolita, but what many might not know is that one of his deepest passions was studying butterflies. 

Now, a new book from Yale University Press honors his dedication to the delicate creatures. The book, Fine Lines, is a collection of more than 150 of his scientific illustrations of butterflies, rivaling John James Audubon in their detail.

Nabokov began collecting butterflies when he was seven years old and continued his study of the insects his entire life. He dreamed of naming a butterfly since he was a child, Elif Batumen writes for the New Yorker. Thanks to his diligence, he named several, most notably a species called the Karner blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis).


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Even so, Nabokov’s studies sometimes proved controversial. In Fine Lines, the editors Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson lament that Nabokov was never taken seriously by professional scientists and entomologists because of his literary career.

Take, for example, Nabokov’s hypothesis of the evolution of a group of butterflies called “Polyommatus blues.” After making many detailed observations of these North American butterflies, Nabokov proposed that the species had evolved from an Asian species over millions of years as they traveled to the Americas in waves.

For decades, scientists chided this idea, and few lepidopterists took him seriously, Carl Zimmer wrote for the New York Times. In 2011, however, a group of scientists decided to test his proposal with DNA analysis and discovered, to their astonishment, that Nabokov had been right all along.

“I couldn’t get over it—I was blown away,” Naomi Pierce, one of the study authors, told Zimmer at the time.

Nabokov once called literature and butterflies “the two sweetest passions known to man,” according to The Guardian, and in many ways his two loves informed each other. Over the course of years, Nabokov and his wife, Véra, racked up thousands of miles crisscrossing the U.S. in search of butterflies, during which time he began making notes that would later turn into Lolita, Landon Jones writes for the New York Times:

His travels over the years took him from the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon to Utah, Colorado and Oregon. But one of the best places to find many different species of butterflies congregating at one time was at nosebleed-high altitudes along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. Along the way the shape of the novel took root, and he started to take notes during his butterfly hunts and write them up back in his motel rooms.

Nabokov’s contributions to the study of butterflies may have been small compared to his literary accomplishments, but his appreciation for the delicate beauty of the creatures may have been the magic that gave many of his novels wings.

h/t The Guardian

Why Do We See More Species in Tropical Forests? The Mystery May Finally Be Solved

Smithsonian Magazine

When Charles Darwin first sailed into the tropics aboard the HMS Beagle in 1835, he was stunned. The 26-year-old naturalist had expected to find the same level of diversity of plants and animals as he had left behind in the higher latitudes of Plymouth, England. Instead, on the balmy Galapagos Islands, he found a multitude of strange and diverse creatures thriving together.

Rowing ashore to explore, Darwin jotted in his notes that the number of different “vegetable and animal” inhabitants on tiny tropical islands was strikingly higher than at other sites along his voyage. He wondered: How was it possible that the tropics seemed to hold so much more diversity than the more northerly forests of Europe? Shouldn't these tightly packed creatures have battled it out to extinction long ago?

Darwin never found out the answer to that particular mystery (after all, he had a lot on his mind), and so the question persisted for another century. Finally, in the early 1970s, two ecologists independently came up with the same hypothesis to explain the mysterious phenomenon—at least with trees. 

Daniel Janzen and Joseph Connell put forth a seemingly counterintuitive explanation. Perhaps, they posited, the astonishing plant diversity we find in tropical forests is enabled by two factors: the presence of “natural enemies” that target specific species and keep population size in check, and the tendency of youngsters of one species to settle far away from their parents, beyond those predators' reach.

Until recently, researchers have only been able to prove that the Janzen-Connell hypothesis holds true in localized studies. The problem was, they lacked access to the kind of global datasets necessary to explain the broader planetary pattern of decreasing diversity from equator to poles. Now, in a new study published last week in the journal Science, researchers show that this hypothesized mechanism is indeed responsible for global trends in forest biodiversity.

Myers holds a tropical tree seedling in the Amazon Rain Forest in Peru. (Jonathan Myers)

Last year, forest ecologists Jonathan Myers and Joe LaManna traveled to a workshop in Hainan, China focused on analysis of data generated by the Smithsonian’s Forest Global Earth Observatory (ForestGEO), a network of 60 forests across the planet that are exhaustively monitored. Myers and LaManna, both of Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, knew that ForestGEO could provide the global dataset they needed to answer the question that has been vexing them and other ecologists since Darwin’s voyage.

“One of the striking differences between temperate and tropics is that all of those 'extra' species are very rare,” says LaManna, a post-doctoral researcher and first author of the new study. Consider that temperate forests can be packed wall to wall with redwood trees, whereas the tropics are dotted with a bevy of unique trees that often exist in isolation from others in their species. “How can those rare species persist in the face of extinction?” asks Myers, a professor of biology and co-author on the study. 

Answering that question required a massive undertaking. The dataset tallied 2.4 million trees from 3,000 species in an exacting fashion to ensure comparability across each forest. More than 50 co-authors from 41 institutions including the Smithsonian then analyzed the data, which spanned 24 ForestGEO plots around the planet. “It was a lot,” says LaManna. “Every stem down to one centimeter in diameter is mapped, measured, tagged and identified.” 

The herculean effort paid off. After analyzing the data, they found a surprising trend: In areas with higher numbers of adult trees, there were fewer young saplings of the same species. This pattern was strikingly more pronounced in the tropics than in the temperate regions they sampled. 

This means that, unlike in higher latitude ecosystems, near the equator trees are less likely to coexist around neighbors in the same family. It’s as if, at some point, the tree parents and their sapling kids unanimously agreed that was time to move out of the basement. Except in a forest, living farther apart doesn't just allow the parent trees to luxuriate in their empty nest. It’s a matter life and death for the species. 
“With trees it’s less a direct effect of the parent tree on the offspring,” Myers says. “It’s an indirect effect where the natural enemies that attack the adults also attack the offspring.” These enemies could be pathogens, seed predators or herbivores that target one species. Just as dense human populations in cities enable the rapid spread of communicable diseases, these enemies can rapidly devastate a dense forest of the same species. 

If your saplings settle down farther away, however, it’s less likely that any one enemy will wipe them all out. “You think of enemies as being bad influences on trees, especially ones of low abundance,” LaManna says. “But they can be a strong stabilizing force—[enemies] can actually buffer them and keep them from going extinct.” You might say: With enemies like this, who needs friends?

“It’s changed the way I think about ecology,” Myers says. “The enemy can actually have a beneficial effect in maintaining the rare species in these communities, especially in the tropics.” 

Herbiverous predators leave behind holey leaves in Madidi, Bolivia. (Jonathan Myers)

The data provides compelling explanation for why we see the global biodiversity patterns we do, says Gary Mittelbach, a forest ecologist and professor of integrative biology at Michigan State University who was not involved in the study. “The fact that they were able to show it on a worldwide basis with standardized methods helps solidify the idea,” says Mittelbach. 

One weakness of the study is that, while it implies a global trend, there are no samples from north of Central Europe or south of Papua New Guinea. “I kind of wish they had more [forests] in Asia and Europe so not all the high latitude ones are in North America,” says Mittelbach. Even with the dearth of samples from high latitudes, however, “I’m still pretty convinced of the pattern,” he says. 

Though the researchers succesfully showed that the trend put forth by Janzen and Connell holds true, the question of what exactly is causing the tropics to be so diverse still remains. 

Myers speculates that the stability of the tropical climate may contribute to its rich biodiversity, compared to the drastic changes that have taken place over geologic time in the higher latitudes. “There’s been a lot more disturbance in the temperate zone” over the past thousands of years, he says. By “disturbance,” Myers means ice sheets that repeatedly bulldozed across North America in Earth’s past. 

The tropics have not endured such disturbances. Researchers attribute the high reproduction and low extinction rates in tropical species of plants and animals to the relatively comfy climate. That’s worked out well for them until now, but forests around the world are changing as a result of more volatile climate patterns. For instance, as higher latitudes become warmer, temperate trees are migrating slowly north.

“There might be a direct or indirect influence of climate in mediating the strength of the biotic interactions between enemies and trees,” Myers says. “Where it’s warmer or wetter you might expect pathogens to have a stronger influence.” 

The global trend these researchers have uncovered illustrates just how much the diversity of biological life on Earth can hinge on small-scale interactions. “This mechanism is a global scale process, and we’re talking about interactions between adults, young and their specialized enemies at the scale of 10 meters,” LaManna says. “That very local-scale interaction is contributing to a pattern of biodiversity across the entire globe.”

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