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Study reveals hazards of the high-wire life for bromeliads

Smithsonian Insider

Botanists Gerhard Zotz of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Stefan Wester of the University of Oldenburg in Germany decided to take a closer look at these high-wire bromeliads. They were interested to find out how the growth and survival rates of these plants on electrical cables compared to the growth and survival of plants of the same species growing in trees--their natural environment.

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Study reveals more Pygmy Sloths, But There Still Aren’t Many

Smithsonian Insider

Size isn’t the only thing that’s small about the pygmy sloth―its population is too. But scientists at the Smithsonian say things may be looking up […]

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Study reveals road salt may promote health and well-being of roadside ant colonies

Smithsonian Insider

To understand the effects of road salting on ants, Michael Kaspari of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Oklahoma led a team that looked at how ant colonies are affected by these conditions; their research is published in a recent issue of the journal Ecological Entomology.

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Study reveals soil fungi has final say in survival of seeds from tropical trees

Smithsonian Insider

How specific fungi interact with seeds in tropical forest soils may be the ultimate arbiter in the struggle for survival among tropical trees. “Depending on […]

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Study shows ancient California Indians risked toxins from bitumen-coated bottles

Smithsonian Insider

Finding clean ways to store water is a challenge that humans have faced for millennia. In a new paper in Environmental Health, anthropologist Sabrina Sholts […]

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Study shows how birds dive safely at high speeds

Smithsonian Insider

To surprise their prey, some species of seabirds dive into the water at speeds greater than 50 miles per hour. A human diver entering the […]

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Study shows parasites may be among earliest victims of climate change

Smithsonian Insider

The Earth’s changing climate could cause the extinction of up to a third of its parasite species by 2070, according to a global analysis reported […]

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Study shows turkey vulture is doubly blessed with acute vision and sense of smell

Smithsonian Insider

It is one of the most sensitive noses in the animal kingdom but what its owner seeks is no pungent bed of roses, in fact […]

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Study: Bleaching events impair long-term coral reproduction

Smithsonian Insider

A new study by Florida State University and Smithsonian Institution biologists shows that bleaching events brought on by rising sea temperatures are having a detrimental […]

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Study: Large shady forest plots essential to survival of post-fledgling songbirds during drought

Smithsonian Insider

According to a new study by biologists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Virginia Tech the offspring of a certain songbird, the wood thrush, […]

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Study: Male bonding brings peace, lets primates live in big groups

Smithsonian Insider

While studying the social dynamics of the bearded saki, a primate living in the rainforests of Suriname, primatologist Tremaine Gregory of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology […]

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Study: Managed beehives can discourage crop-raiding elephants

Smithsonian Insider

Strategically placed honeybee hives can deter African elephants from raiding crops, but the hives must be actively managed by beekeepers to work, according to a […]

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Studying Ant "Noses" Could Lead to Better Bug Repellents

Smithsonian Magazine

Ants are known for being able to heft up to 50 times their own body weight, but new research shows their sense of smell might be even more formidable than their strength. Like most insects, “ants see the world through their noses,” says Laurence Zwiebel, a professor of biological sciences and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University. Unlike other insects that only have 70 or so odor receptors, ants use over 400 to navigate and interact with one another. Now, Zwiebel and his colleagues are creating a Rosetta stone of insect language they hope to co-opt to refine new, highly effective insect repellents.

In a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zwiebel and his team describe how ants use scent to organize their complex social behavior. In another study in press at Cell, they show just how critical ant olfaction is by taking away their sense of smell and watching mayhem ensue. When an ant finds a good food source, they mark the trail with pheromones so other ants in their colony can tag along and forage more effectively. They also coat themselves in smelly chemicals that differentiate workers from nurses and allow ants to recognize rival colonies. Take away their ability to sense those chemical smells and things fall apart. “They lose their ability to interact with each other, they wander off and they start behaving badly,” he says.

By teasing apart which chemicals interact with specific odor receptors and how they make ants behave, Zwiebel has refined new insect repellents that scream “Stay away!” far louder than any bug sprays currently on the market. Because they’re effective against a suite of pests, these repellents have the potential to save more then just picnics: They could also protect people across the world from malaria and other insect-borne diseases.

Popular repellents like DEET confuse bugs by blocking receptors and making it harder to find humans. These sprays aren’t foolproof because ants have a suite of sensory systems that bug spray can’t jam. “Ants have a plan A, plan B and plan C,” Zwiebel says. “They may not be as efficient with DEET, but they’ll still be able to get to you.”

Not only are products containing DEET not completely effective, they can also induce a slew of side effects in humans from rashes, dizziness and headaches, and there’s even evidence of more pronounced neurological damage in studies using rats. Despite the side effects, DEET is still one of the best lines of defense against not just ants but mosquitoes, which transmit deadly diseases like dengue fever, malaria, and sleeping sickness.   

Zwiebel and his team are working on a class of compounds they’ve discovered called excito-repellents that work by pushing the insect olfactory system into overdrive. He says that the excito-repellents he’s helped develop—many of which his team has applied to patent—work against all common pest insects, from moths to mosquitoes, and of course ants. “It’s like getting on an elevator with someone who’s put on way too much perfume,” he says. “You’d want to get away.” 

They’re in the process of scaling up this powerful repellent to develop a product that’s safe, economically feasible, and works as well against mosquitoes that carry malaria in Africa or Zika virus in South America as it does agricultural pests, as well as the nuisance insects that disrupt our picnics. The hope is that these excito-repellents can substitute for DEET and be used to create no-fly zones that would keep mosquitoes at bay. The repellents could also be incorporated into sheets and bedding that would repel bedbugs in hotels, into paint to deter yellow jackets from nesting, or beetles from infiltrating grain silos.

Their recent research indicates how and why the repellents are highly effective against bugs, but now they have to prove that there are no detrimental side effects for humans. “We believe we’re at that last hurdle now,” he says. No matter how good an insect repellent they’ve created, if it potentially harms humans then it’ll be off the table. The problem is raising the millions of dollars necessary to push it through toxicity testing.

“It’s exactly like a drug trial,” Zwiebel says, although at $150 million, the cost is substantially cheaper than testing a new pharmaceutical.

Zwiebel and his team are already funded under the Grand Challenges in Global Health Program, and they’ve applied for money from the Gates Foundation to pay for the toxicity trials to determine if they’re safe for human use. “We’re still not quite at the beginning of the end,” he says. “We’re at the end of the a critical moment where the [funders] are deciding whether or not to give us another dollop of money to go forward.”

These novel repellents have the potential to save lives across the world, but does he believe that the repellent will pass toxicity trials? “I would like to believe it’s non-toxic, but as a scientist I believe that the best way to answer those questions is to do the experiment. We’re ready to go to send it to product safety labs,” he says, “but we have to get someone to pay to get it done.”

“If we can bring these things forward and get them into the pipeline,” Zwiebel says. “Then we can improve the human condition.”

Studying Bacon Has Led One Smithsonian Scholar to New Insights on the Daily Life of Enslaved African-Americans

Smithsonian Magazine

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, during the first week of June, an annual event unfolds  that honors the culinary delights and history of perhaps the nation’s most beloved food—bacon. 

Bacon has long been an American staple of nutrition and sustenance that dates to the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors with the introduction of pigs to the hemisphere, but it has never created more excitement than it does today. 

At Zingerman’s Cornman Farms and other locations around Ann Arbor, the company’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig hosts a week of festivities for a five-day celebration dubbed Camp Bacon that attracts some of the most ardent pork aficionados and supporters along with a host of filmmakers, chefs and culinary historians. 

Weinzweig created Camp Bacon as a thinking person’s antidote to the bacon excess seen at events like Baconfest that arose in his native Chicago, where ironically he grew up in a kosher household. Springing from Weinzweig’s argument, detailed in his book Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon, that bacon is to America what olive oil is to the Mediterranean, this eponymous happening is now the Ted Talks of yes, bacon. 

And this year, I am proud to be one of the speakers. I will arrive hungering for the smokey, savory and sensual ambiance. But besides my fork, I come armed with the footnotes of history to tell a story of the culinary myths and practices of enslaved African-Americans, like Cordelia Thomas, Shadrock Richards and Robert Shepherd, held in bondage on the plantations of the South Carolina Lowcountry and the Georgia coast. 

At Zingerman’s Cornman Farms and other locations around Ann Arbor, the company’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig hosts a week of festivities for a five-day celebration dubbed Camp Bacon. (Camp Bacon)

Sadly in our nation’s history—erected on a foundation that included slavery—even bacon can be tied to bondage, but we will celebrate still the achievements of the bondsmen and women as culinary creators.

For Cordelia Thomas, excitement was in the air as the Georgia weather began to turn crisp and cool one December just before the Civil War. On cool evenings as she lay awake on the cramped cabin floor, sounds echoing out of the piney woods and across the rice bogs foretold what was to come. Dogs barked and bayed, men shouted and whooped, pots and bells clanged, and hogs squealed. 

Killing time was approaching and the men and boys from the plantation where she and her family were held in bondage went out to round up the hogs that had been foraging unfettered through the upland woods and down into the swamps. They were last rounded up in early summer so the shoats could be marked the plantation’s distinctive earmarks. Now dogs and men corner the hogs, and those with the right cut marks on their ears were brought back to pens on the farm. 

Laundry was boiled in huge pots at Thornhill plantation, Greene County, Alabama (GWU)

On big plantations in the Lowcountry, killing time was serious work, just like everything else in these forced labor camps. Hundreds of hogs had to be slaughtered and butchered to provide the 20,000 or 30,000 pounds of pork it might take to sustain the enslaved workers toiling all year to produce rice and wealth for the few, incredibly rich white families of the region. 

Mostly hogs were used as a way to extract resources from the surrounding wilderness without a great deal of management. The “piney woods” hogs of the region, which most closely resembled the rare Ossabaw Island breed, were left to fend for themselves and then, as depicted in the film Old Yeller, with the help of good dogs hunted down and subdued either for marking or slaughter. 

In public history on the subject of slavery, there is always a conflict in how the story is presented—we often choose between presenting the story as one of oppression vs. resistance, subjugation vs. survival, property vs. humanity. 

Because the legacy of slavery is still so contested, audiences are sharply critical of presentation. If one shows a story of survival, does it follow then that oppression is given short shrift? If, on the other hand, we focus on brutalization, we run the risk of suggesting our enslaved ancestors were defeated by the experience of slavery.

Slave houses on "Hermitage" plantation, Savannah, Georgia (Library of Congress, Walker Evans)

This conflict is certainly at work in how we remember food on plantations. Missing from the common understanding of pork on the plantation though, is the skill of the enslaved butchers, cooks and charcutiers. 

The work involved young men like Shadrack Richards, born into slavery in 1846 in Pike County, Georgia, who remembered more than 150 people working for over a week on butchering and curing, preserving the sides of bacon and shoulders and other cuts to keep on the plantation and taking time to create great hams for sale in Savannah. Another survivor of slavery Robert Shepherd remembered with pride just how good the hams and bacon were that his fellow butchers created despite the cruelty of slavery. “Nobody never had no better hams and other meat” than they cured, he recalled.

Cordelia Thomas looked forward to killing time all year. Living in Athens, Georgia, when she was interviewed by the 1935 Works Progress Administration endeavor known as the Federal Writers Project, at age 80, she recalled: “Children was happy when hog killing time come. Us wasn’t allowed to help none, except to fetch in the wood to keep the pot boiling where the lard was cooking.”

She remembered rendering the lard in big washpots set on rocks over a fire, and she didn’t mind at all being tasked with gathering the wood for that fire “because when them cracklings got done they let us have all us could eat.” 

“Just let me tell you, missy,” she said to her New Deal interviewer, “you ain’t never had nothing good less you have ate a warm skin crackling with a little salt.”

Thomas also relates that the rare treat of cracklings was so enticing that all the children crowded around the rendering pot. Despite warnings from the planters and elders in the slave community, she fell into the fire after she was pushed by another child. Thomas, who said she had to keep her burnt arm and hand in a sling for a long time after that, remembered the planter “laying down the law” after that as he threatened what he would do if the slave children, his valuable property, crowded around the lard pot again. 

Cabins where slaves were raised for market, Hermitage, Savannah, Ga. (Archives Center, NMAH)

From this oral history, we learn that enslaved African Americans found some joy in small things—we can relate to the flavor of cracklings at butchering time and the opportunity to eat your fill. And farm life in the 19th-century was hazardous—accidents with fires were only slightly less deadly than childbirth and disease, but those dangers were elevated by the cruel nature of plantations as crowded work camps. And, in the end, human concerns for health, happiness and safety were absent, as profit and labor reigned supreme.

One of the things we consider and study in the museum field is the relationship between history and memory. 

“History is what trained historians do,” wrote the renowned Yale University scholar David Blight, “a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; it tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive and action, and therefore more secular than what people commonly call memory. History can be read by or belong to everyone; it is more relative, contingent on place, chronology, and scale. If history is shared and secular, memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage of identity of a community. Memory is often owned; history is interpreted.  Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity. History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience.” 

All this to say that memory, even public, collective memory, is faulty, that we chose what we wish to remember and that we construct the narratives that we want to share of our lives. My colleague at the Smithsonian, Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Cuture, set to open on September 24, often says the new museum is about helping people remember what they want to remember, but making people remember what they need to remember. 

Interior of the kitchen at Refuge plantation, Camden County, Georgia, ca. 1880 (GWU)

As historians, we study and research the past and we write the complex narratives of the American story, but in the public sphere, whether at a museum or in a film, TV show or popular magazine article, there is an expectation of answers that reflect some of the textbook myths that we’ve come to use to understand and interpret the past. These “myths” are not entirely untrue either—they are the long-held historical truths that we hold in common as part of our understanding of our shared past. 

There are, of course, history myths like George Washington and the cherry tree or the story we all know of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, which are either partially or totally untrue. But there are history myths that everyone knows and our understanding of that story is largely historically accurate. I worked at the Henry Ford Museum when it acquired the very bus that is the singular element of the Rosa Parks story. We all know that story well and with relative accuracy. 

Over the 30 years I have been involved in public history, one subject that has acutely demonstrated how history and memory can be at odds, and even conflict, is slavery. 

This is true for many reasons. First, the evidence is problematic—most written records are from the point of view of the slaveholder and the oral histories of people who experienced slavery like Cordelia Thomas can be difficult to interpret. 

Interpretation of slavery’s history has always been associated with power. In the same way that the institution of slavery was imbued with issues of power, our memory of it is as well. 

I came head to head with these issues when we began to explore the history of slavery in Lowcountry Georgia at the Henry Ford Museum in the early 1990s. We restored and reinterpreted two brick buildings that housed enslaved families on the Hermitage Plantation from Chatham County, Georgia, just outside Savannah and in the “kingdom of rice.” 

Two women hulling rice, Sapelo Island, Georgia (GWU)

As we began to outline how we would present one story of slavery, we ran squarely into what Blight called “sacred sets of absolute meanings.” The decisions we faced of what to call the buildings—“houses,” rather than “quarters” or “cabins,” or to concentrate on family life and culture rather than work and oppression, these very decisions were laced with power and authority; and sometimes ran contrary to what the public wanted from an exhibit. 

This became clear when I trained the first group of staff to work in the slave houses to present and discuss this traumatic history to visitors. Many visitors came with expectations. They wanted simple answers to complex questions, and in many cases they wanted confirmation of memories that they had of their grade school history lessons. “Slaves weren’t allowed to read and write, right?” “Slavery was only in the South, wasn’t it?” Or, sadly, quite often they would make the observation: “These buildings are pretty nice. I’d like to have a cabin like this. It couldn’t have been that bad, could it?”

This was certainly the case when we discussed food. It didn’t take long in discussing food on a Lowcountry rice plantation for me to encounter the public’s mythic misunderstanding of the origins of “soul food.” The master took the best parts of the pig, and the slaves were left with pig’s feet and chitlins, we commonly believe.

In some ways this story meshed perfectly with some of the themes we wanted to present—enslaved African Americans were oppressed, but undefeated. They took what they had and made due, creating a culture and keeping their families together against great odds. 

But as with so much of the story of life on a rice plantation, the particular details of this unique region were not commonly known and did not wholly conform with our shared understanding.

Carrying bundles of rice on a South Carolina plantation (GWU)

Rice plantations were distinctive in a number of ways. First off, they were rare. The famous Carolina Gold rice—which has been brought back to life and dinner tables by artisan entrepreneur Glenn Roberts and his company Anson Mills—grown in the 19th century required tidal action to move massive amounts of water in and out of rice fields. Rice, however, can only take so much salt, so the fields can’t be too close to the ocean or the salinity will be too high. They can’t be too far away either because tidal waters must sluice through the fields several times each growing season. 

Under those conditions, rice could only be grown in a narrow strip of land along southern North Carolina, coastal South Carolina, coastal Georgia, and a bit of northern Florida. 

Historian William Dusinberre estimates that in the late 1850s, “virtually the whole low-country rice crop was produced on about 320 plantations, owned by 250 families.” 

And rice plantations were big. Despite what we see in popular interpretations of slavery from Gone with the Wind to this summer’s remake of "Roots," the typical portrayal was one of small farm living with a few enslaved workers. About one percent of slaveholders in the South owned more than 50 slaves, but it was typical of rice planters to hold between 100 and 200 people in bondage, sometimes more. At the start of the Civil War in South Carolina, 35 families owned more than 500 enslaved African Americans and 21 of those were rice planters. 

As I began to contemplate peculiarities of rice plantations like these and to cross-reference that with our commonly held myths of slavery, I began to see conflicts in that story. This was especially so with the “the master took the hams and chops and the slaves ate the chitlins” story. 

Across the rice-growing region, the ration of pork for enslaved people was three pounds a week per person. On plantations like the Hermitage, where more than 200 people were enslaved, that would require slaughtering more than 200 hogs to produce some 30,000 pounds of pork. 

It doesn’t stand to reason that the white planter family would eat all the “high on the hog” parts, because there would just be too much (although some plantations did send hams and bacon to cities like Savannah or Charleston for sale). Furthermore, due to the malaria and general pestilence and the oppressive heat of the lowcountry in the 19th century, white families generally left the plantation for the half of the year they called “the sickly season,” leaving only the enslaved and a few overseers there to work the rice.

At least in the Lowcountry rice plantations, the conventional view of what slaves ate doesn’t stand up to evidence. It also doesn’t stand up to the science and traditional methods of food preservation. Offal like chitlins and the cracklings Cordelia Thomas loved were only available right at killing time and couldn’t be preserved throughout the year. 

What does ring true about the mythic interpretation of soul food is that it was one of the only times of the year when enslaved people could experience the joy of excess. In the reminiscences of the men and women collected by the WPA slave narrative project, hog killing time arises over and over as a joyous memory. 

It’s likely no coincidence that butchering is also remembered so fondly given it took place near Christmas, when the enslaved were given time off from work in the rice fields. But it’s probably more due to the feast that occurred. Certainly killing, butchering and curing scores of hogs was a great deal of work for the whole slave community, but it also created a festive atmosphere where men, women and children normally driven hard to produce wealth for the rice planters could eat to their heart’s content. 

Where the conventional “soul food” myth does ring true on Lowcountry plantations is that enslaved people were generally allowed to prepare for themselves all the excess pork that couldn’t be preserved. In other words, the enslaved community was “given” all the pork parts that the “master didn’t want,” but that wasn’t necessarily all they were allowed to eat. 

Despite the fact that in the Lowcountry enslaved African-Americans were not solely eating the leftover, unwanted parts of the pig, that doesn’t mean they were living “high on the hog.” There is disagreement among scholars on the level of nutrition for bondsmen and women throughout the south, as well as in the rice growing region. Even the testimony of former slaves varies, with some saying they always had plenty to eat and others recounting malnourishment and want. 

At a conference at the Smithsonian in May 2016, Harvard historian Walter Johnson said, “It is a commonplace in the historical literature that slavery “dehumanized” enslaved people.” Johnson went on to admit there are “plenty of right-minded reasons for saying so. It is hard to square the idea of millions of people being bought and sold, of sexual violation and natal alienation, of forced labor and starvation with any sort of ”humane” behavior: these are the sorts of things that should never be done to human beings.”  By suggesting that slavery, Johnson continued, “either relied upon or accomplished the “dehumanization” of enslaved people, however, we are participating in a sort of ideological exchange that is no less baleful for being so familiar.”

Slaves and slaveowners were human. Slavery depended on human greed, lust, fear, hope, cruelty and callousness. To remember it as an inhuman time positions us incorrectly in a purer, more moral moment. “These are the things that human beings do to one another,” Johnson argued.

When I think of killing time on a plantation like the one on which Cordelia Thomas lived 150 years ago, I think of people reveling in the taste of expertly prepared food they put their heart, soul and artistry into. The taste of the cracklings around the rendering pot, or the anticipation of cowpea gravy with fat bacon during the steaming Georgia summer, was one way black families in the Lowcountry exercised control over their lives in the midst of the ruthlessness of the central moral event of our nation.  

On the isolated coastal Carolina and Georgia plantations, enslaved women, men and children more than persevered, subsisting on scraps. They survived. In the same way that they demonstrated great skill and effort preserving every part of the pig except the squeal, they created their own language, music, art and culture, all the while sustaining families and community as best they could under the worst of conditions.

As we feast at Camp Bacon on some of the recipes that would have been familiar to people like Thomas, Richard, and Shepherd, I will reflect on the pleasure of great food tinged with the bitter taste that must have lingered for those in servitude.

Studying host and microhabitat use by arthropods in tropical rain forest canopies: issues & perspectives [abstract]

Smithsonian Libraries
Interest for canopy arthropods in tropical rain forests is a lively component of a wider scientific agenda intended to explore and understand one of the most significant, exciting and endangered habitats on Earth. In less than 20 years, this topic has emerged as a vigorous field of entomological investigations, as the ever-increasing number of publications focusing on this habitat attests. Tropical forest canopies represent fascinating environments for entomologists because (1) the species-richness of their arthropod communities is exceptional and, arguably, tropical rain forest canopies may support much of the Earth's biodiversity; (2) their entomological faunas are still largely unknown and have been the subject of much controversy among entomologists and ecologists; (3) they represent a suitable arena where biologists can study multiple species interactions within communities and test the latest hypotheses in evolution and co-evolution; and (4) rapid logging of tropical forests makes their canopy inhabitants particularly vulnerable to extinction; therefore, dissemination of scientific information to foster scientific interest on those arthropod communities is crucial before they vanish. Many of the earlier studies of canopy arthropods focused on the taxonomic distribution and species diversity of the material collected, and have relied upon indirect sampling methods, such as light trapping or canopy fogging. Often, observers were limited to ground level, with few opportunities to study canopy organisms directly. Recent methodological developments (such as construction cranes, canopy towers, canopy rafts, aerial sledges, aerial walkways or single rope techniques ) have broadened our ability to access the canopy and allow the observation and collection of canopy arthropods in situ. Collecting methods are accordingly much more diverse and reflect the increasing complexity of the questions that are pursued by canopy entomologists. The study of canopy arthropods has matured considerably in recent years and investigations now target specific questions, instead of comprising rather descriptive accounts. Many of the research groups are now in a position to explain how arthropods are distributed within and among tree-crowns, and how they use their food resources. A better understanding of how arthropods are distributed and use their resource in tropical canopies is crucial to refine global estimates of species richness and to facilitate management and conservation of these species-rich communities.

Studying migratory connectivity of shorebirds on the Texas coast

Smithsonian Insider

Scientists from the Migratory Bird Center of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute are using transmitters to track the movements of shorebirds–the long-billed curlew, red knot, […]

The post Studying migratory connectivity of shorebirds on the Texas coast appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

Studying the Climate of the Past Is Essential for Preparing for Today's Rapidly Changing Climate

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1942 Winston Churchill said: “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” And indeed, many cultures study history for political and military insight. I study fossils that are millions of years old because I am concerned about the future. As a paleontologist, I think it is time to establish a tradition that uses geological history to anticipate—and thus plan for—the future.

I didn’t always think this way. I became addicted to finding fossils because it was a kind of exploration, and because I loved the feeling of being transported through time simply by walking up and down the layered hillsides of Wyoming and Montana.

I continued in this happy phase of exploration through the first decade of my career. But things changed in 1990, when two climate scientists published a map—a computer simulation of global climate 50 million years ago. It showed a relatively cold world—winters that fell below freezing across northern Asia, Europe and North America.

I knew this map had to be wrong. For 100 years we paleontologists had been finding fossils that demonstrated winters were very mild in this time period, even in the Polar Regions and in the middles of continents at high latitudes.

Wing (front row, third from right) became addicted to finding fossils as a 17-year-old. Back then, he hadn’t yet understood how critical fossils were to understanding the potential effects of climate change (Tom Bown)

We had found dawn redwood forests on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

We had discovered fossil palm remains along the coast of Alaska.

In the middle of North America, where winters are bitter cold today, we had found fossils of alligators.

This is when it dawned on me that studying fossils was far more relevant than I had realized. Fossils test our understanding of how the planet works—they contain clues that improve our ability to predict climate, in both the past and in the future. I still loved finding fossils, but unlocking these clues became my new obsession.

For the last 25 years climate modelers and geologists have been working back and forth on this problem of how to explain the warm climates of the past. Today’s computer simulations agree better, though still not completely, with climate reconstructions from fossils and other evidence. 

The result of this fertile argument between climate modelers and paleontologists is that the past has become a proving ground for hypotheses about how climate and other earth systems work. And the beauty of testing our understanding against what has already happened—the fossil record—is that we can find out if the models work, without waiting for decades or even centuries to pass. This is particularly important because the problems we face are urgent.

Wing has spent much of his career studying fossil leaves. He’s trying to understand how a global warming event, that happened some 56 million years ago, altered terrestrial ecosystems in what is now Wyoming. (Amy Morey)

The geological record has proved to be a great place to test our ideas about Earth processes, but it also has produced surprises. Over the last few decades scientists have discovered a new kind of event in Earth’s climate history—planetary heat waves that lasted for thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. 

The biggest of these occurred 56 million years ago, and it’s called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM.

The PETM was kicked off by a release—likely from methane stored in sea floor sediments—of 5,000 billion tons of carbon into the ocean and atmosphere—the amount we would generate if we were to burn the entire known modern-day fossil fuel reservoir. The release about doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

This triggered a host of events: global temperature rose by 5 to 8 degrees C; the ocean became more acidic; warmer climate led to warmer soils, and warmer soils to faster decay of plant matter, which released even more CO2 to the atmosphere. With the slow rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by weathering and other processes, the PETM lasted 150,000 years.

Many of Scott Wing’s explorations of climates past have unfolded here, in Wyoming. (Tom Nash)

During that time, many small deep-ocean species went extinct. The Arctic warmed so much that plants and animals moved across high-latitude land bridges between the northern continents. And there were massive die-offs of local populations of plants in mid-latitudes.

The parallels between the PETM and the present are strong. Though today’s world, with its vulnerable ice caps, is probably more sensitive to a carbon release than the world of 56 million years ago. But the biggest difference between the PETM and today is that we are adding CO2 in the atmosphere. We can change it.

CO2 levels are now 40 percent higher than they were before the industrial revolution. If we go for business as usual, the rest of this century will be like the start of the PETM on steroids—a similar or larger CO2 increase happening 10 times faster. What few realize is that this rise in CO2, and the heat wave it will cause, will persist for thousands or tens of thousands of years. As we have seen, that’s the way the planet works.

The long history of our planet makes you realize that change is inevitable, but it also shows you that the changes we are causing now are very large, exceptionally fast, and mind-bogglingly persistent. The consequences of what we do in the next decades will be felt for tens of thousands of years to come. That’s the most awesome responsibility imaginable, but it comes with our power to change the global environment.

The warming period Wing studies, the PETM, is recognized by scientists as the best geological analogue for the human-induced global warming that is happening now. Wing’s plant fossils show that as the climate in Wyoming warmed 56 million years ago, it also became seasonally quite dry, resulting in extinction of some species, local extirpation of most, and the spread of dry-tolerant plants into this region (Scott Wing)

In one sense, I’m an optimist. We aren’t going to destroy the planet or drive ourselves extinct. With more than 7 billion people and 75 million more every year, human extinction is hardly our problem.

But examples of extreme environmental change from the past suggest that there is likely to be hardship and misery coming for billions of people. And we are already diminishing the diversity of life and compromising the ability of ecosystems to produce the resources we depend upon.

We are now as powerful as geological forces were in the past. So we have to learn to think on the planet’s timescale, not our own. We must turn from crisis management to planet management, but we will only do that when we realize our actions are not just for today, but for the ages. I hope people of the future will look back on us and see that we learned the lessons of deep time.

Editor’s Note: Adapted from a talk Scott Wing gave at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2016, the World Economic Forum’s Global Summit on Innovation, Science and Technology. The Smithsonian Institution partners with the World Economic Forum to broaden awareness of cultural heritage protection and preservation, science, health, technology, and other critical global issues.  The World Economic Forum, committed to improving the state of the world, is the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation. The Forum engages the foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas. The Forum is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

Stuff the Safe Way

Smithsonian Magazine

Stumbled Upon Treasures

Smithsonian American Art Museum
ThumbnailWhile walking around Toledo, Spain last summer I came upon the Santa Cruz Museum. Much like our museum's nineteenth-century building, which originally housed government offices and was used as a hospital during the Civil War, the Santa Cruz Museum also is housed in a historic building that was once a hospital (their building dates to the sixteenth century).

Stumbled Upon: Alma Thomas

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