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Madagascar's Mangroves: The Ultimate Giving Trees

Smithsonian Magazine

Beyond Antananarivo—Madagascar’s capital city—signs of urbanization give way to sprawling farms and sweeping grasslands. At the coastal city of Toliara to the south, after a full day’s journey, the road turns into tire-sucking sandy track that mainly serves cattle-drawn wooden carts. For seven more hours, travelers cross a desert marked with spiny trees, where the sun bakes everything to a dusty crisp. Finally, the Bay of Assassins appears, an oasis thrumming with life, fringed with lush evergreen mangroves.

A mangrove forest is unlike any other. At low tide, the trees loom from exposed mud, balancing on woody, tangled roots like ballerinas en pointe; at high tide, cool seawater erases the dry world, transforming the scene into an underwater spectacle. Glassy shrimp hover, their legs flickering with movement. Tiny metallic fry shimmer past, while adults lurk in the shadows. Slim tree roots stick up like pencils poked into the forest floor. Hermit crabs shuffle along thicker, oyster-encrusted roots that loop down through the water.

Scattered around the bay’s 40-kilometer shoreline, 10 subsistence communities also rely on the mangroves’ offerings: from food, fuel, and building materials to erosion control and shelter for the young fish that will grow up to stock fisheries.

“People go into the mangroves every day,” says Viviany, a young woman wearing a T-shirt, sarong, and golden hoop earrings, her face smeared in a crumbling clay paste to block the sun. She sits on a wooden bench in her family’s home in Vatoavo village, on the shore of the bay. People bustle around her, many of them using the mangroves.

Women crouch next to crackling fires made with mangrove wood. People use nets to sift for shrimp in the saltwater creeks that trickle through the forest, and then pile their catch in the sun to dry. Young men stand up to their waists in deeper channels, angling with simple lines. Older women gather hermit crabs at low tide from the sand farther into the mangroves, methodically smashing the shells against a stone anvil, pinching off the head and claws. Some villagers have built their huts right on the shore, others farther back in the dense mangroves, but all are built with mangrove timber and fenced off with rows of mangrove saplings. Like the rest of the bay’s 3,000-odd residents, Vatoavo’s villagers are poor and very isolated. Their needs are modest. When they take mangrove trees, they usually take small and medium ones, leaving the largest. They log selectively, so the forest appears largely intact.

These mangroves have so far avoided the fate of other, more accessible, mangroves in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Africa, where development of valuable coastal real estate—from aquaculture to big hotel developments to palm oil plantations—has destroyed the trees. But now pressure is rising even here.

Despite the bay’s minimal infrastructure—electricity, healthcare, and education are scarce—villagers are looking to improve their lives, through projects such as carefully managed octopus fisheries, and seaweed and sea cucumber farms. Already the villagers are earning more money and enjoying a higher standard of living. However, as in so many coastal communities, this increasing prosperity is changing the delicate relationship between people and mangroves. Here in the bay, this change has resulted in a rather unusual new industry. People are using more of the biggest, oldest mangrove trees to turn seashells into house-reinforcing—and increasingly affordable—lime clay.


A mangrove-wood kiln holds seashells that will be baked into valuable lime. (Photo by Helen Scales)

In Lamboara village, on the northern shore of the Bay of Assassins, a man stands next to the kiln he’s building. He looks about 60 and wears a felt fedora with a ribbon band, ripped shorts, and a sweatshirt. The stout waist-high kiln is a rectangle bigger than a queen-sized bed, walled with a ring of mangrove trunks as thick as an elephant’s leg. They are cut from the larger, older trees in the surrounding forest. Hundreds of empty seashells are collected from the villagers’ catches or from the bay—cone shells, spiny murex, and other mollusks—and piled in the center. When the single-use kiln is ready, the whole lot is set alight—wood and shells together—and left to burn until all that’s left is a pile of ashes and the coveted white lime.

Villagers like mangrove wood for limekilns because it’s dense and burns hot enough to fully cook the shells into lime. They use the oldest trees because large logs keep the fire going without refueling. The only alternative for kiln wood is harvesting terrestrial trees from the forests that lie beyond the fringes of the bay, a long journey by cattle-drawn cart.

“One kiln will make 35 or 40 sacks of lime,” the man says. “When the wind is blowing away from the village, I will light it and it will burn for two days.” When this batch is done, he’ll scoop the lime into old rice sacks the size of large garbage bags. The exact amount of lime he’ll get depends on how well the kiln burns.

Mixed with water and smeared on houses, the lime powder hardens like cement and strengthens dwellings against the frequent cyclones that blow through the bay. Rendering a whole house takes at least 70 sacks. The only comparable reinforcement is costly cement that must be bought and carried in from Toliara.

The man plans to use this batch to repair his house, which he says he built when his eldest son was knee-high; now his son has children of his own. He says his house was probably one of the first in Lamboara to be built using lime, suggesting the practice is about a generation old.

This house in southern Madagascar is covered in lime that was made in a mangrove-wood kiln. (Photo by Helen Scales)

“Lime production is not traditional at all,” says Lalao Aigrette, who works with an NGO called Blue Ventures. Aigrette lives in Toliara, working full-time on marine conservation projects in the bay that focus on protecting and preserving the mangroves. Aigrette says villagers have been cooking lime for fewer than 20 years, and its popularity has waxed and waned. Now she thinks that as incomes increase, boosted by other fishing and farming activities in the bay, people will want lime-strengthened houses, creating a market for local lime. Exactly how much demand has gone up remains unclear, but Aigrette sees reason enough to be worried.

Back near Vatoavo village, a few minutes’ walk into the mangroves ends in a dramatic illustration of the impact villagers’ desire for lime is starting to have on the forests. A clear-cut area several hundred meters wide, the size of an average city block, has no living mangrove trees, no green canopy, and no seedlings; just sun-drenched mud dotted with silvery stumps. The ground here has slumped by at least 60 centimeters—an arm’s length—without mangrove roots to bind and hold the soil. These physical changes could stop seedlings from taking hold and prevent the forest from regenerating.

“This is all for lime,” Aigrette says, surveying the cleared area. She recalls that this swath was cut two years ago to supply a big local lime order.

When mangroves are clear-cut, the ecosystem can be devastated. (Photo by Helen Scales)

Demand for lime is extending beyond homes in the bay. Aigrette recalls a priest from Andalambezo, a village about three kilometers south of the bay, who ordered tonnes of lime to build a school. Her colleagues went to talk with him. “He said, ‘This is for your children,’” Aigrette says. The priest reasoned that without a good education, children would likely become the mangrove cutters of the future, perhaps because they would have fewer options for making a living and may be less informed about the importance of intact mangroves. Sacrificing trees now for education that may help secure the forests’ future may seem like a contradiction. The answer, Aigrette believes, is balancing mangrove use and sustainable management.


Around the city of Ambanja, 1,000 kilometers north of the bay, the practice of charcoal making offers a cautionary tale for the bay’s villagers. To make charcoal, wood is slowly baked in kilns; in Madagascar, these look similar to limekilns, except with wood instead of shells in their bellies. People prefer mangrove charcoal for their cook fires, partly because it burns hotter and produces less smoke—the same reasons it makes a great limekiln. Aigrette has seen whole areas cleared of mangroves around Ambanja because of demand for charcoal from urban populations.

It’s part of a larger pattern; people have destroyed at least a quarter of mangrove forests around the world in the past 35 years, a rate of loss three to five times higher than deforestation on land. How this will end in the Bay of Assassins remains to be seen. The loss of mangroves around the world, has, paradoxically, given the villagers several advantages: foresight and growing scientific knowledge of mangroves’ value. In addition to vital resources and striking biodiversity, mangroves provide valuable ecosystem services, such as sequestering carbon. Aigrette and Blue Ventures are working with some of the bay’s residents on a so-called “blue carbon” initiative, whereby villagers would receive payments from the international carbon market in return for protecting and replanting mangroves in the bay. But the project is still in the assessment stage.

For now, mangroves continue to provide for the inhabitants of the Bay of Assassins and life goes on. Back in Lamboara, the sound of chopping comes from the low canopy of a mangrove tree not far from the limekiln. A few moments later, a boy jumps down into the shallow water below, gathers an armful of branches, and begins the short walk back home to light a fire and feed his family.

Read more coastal science stories at, including:

Ten Restaurants the Best Chefs Say Are Worth Traveling For

Smithsonian Magazine

Sometimes, the destination is worth the journey—at least when the journey is to one of the best restaurants in the world. In the brand new book Where Chefs Eat, released this week, hundreds of chefs from around the world weigh in on their favorite places to dine in every corner of the globe. Nestled among the local favorites and bargain bites are some restaurants the chefs say are always worth traveling for, no matter the distance.

Featuring more than 600 of the world's best chefs, Where Chefs Eat is a reference guide for the traveler who plans trips around eating. Below, we've selected ten chefs—from established heavyweights such as Ferran Adrià to iconoclastic upstarts such as David Chang—and looked at the restaurants they say would make them pack their bags, buy a ticket and head out on a culinary adventure.


Where Chefs Eat: A Guide to Chefs' Favorite Restaurants (2015)

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Le Suquet (Laguiole, France)

A dish is prepared at Le Suquet using flowers and vegetables native to the region around the restaurant. (BOUSQUET)

Michel Bras might be one of France's most venerated chefs, according to Food & Wine, but he keeps the country that loves him at arm's length: His restaurant, Le Suquet (also known as Maison Bras), isn't in the capital of Paris, but perched on a hill overlooking the small village of Laguiole, nearly hidden away in the mountains of south-central France. Getting to Bras requires a ten-hour train ride from Paris, followed by another hour in a car weaving through the Aubrac Mountains, and reservations are filled months in advance. 

Bras opened Le Suquet in 1992; by 1999, it had three Michelin stars. Since 2009, Le Suquet has been run by Bras' son Sébastien, who has continued in the style of his father by crafting meals deeply inspired by the surrounding land. Le Suquet's menu draws from the traditions around the Aubrac Mountains, and is rooted in the region's local plants and vegetables—expect meat to play only a supporting role on the menu.

The restaurant is closed during the winter, and opens April through October (it is also closed on Mondays).

+33 565511820 /

Recommended by Ferran Adrià, long considered one of the world's best chefs, who founded the now-closed El Bulli, a restaurant in Spain's Catalonia that was once considered the most influential restaurant in the world. He now runs the El Bulli foundation.

La Grenouillère (La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil, France)

A plate at La Grenouillère. (Flickr user Michael Jones)

First opened as a restaurant and inn in 1920, La Grenouillère specialized in frog-related food items for the better part of a century before chef Alexandre Gauthier took the reins from his father in 2003. At just 23, Gauthier decided to look beyond frogs in the hopes of regaining the Michelin star the restaurant had lost in 2001. Today, his kitchen turns out "radical cuisine," such as a beautiful lobster from Norway presented on a bed of still-smoldering juniper twigs, or morel mushrooms stuffed with sweetbreads and topped with a cone of raw turnip. (Gauthier succeeded in winning back the Michelin star in 2008.)

"Alexandra Gauthier has created a world of his own," explains chef Yves Camdeborde in Where Chefs Eat, "a place totally unique to him. When you go there, you get sucked into his universe. The table setting, the decor in the bedrooms, the crockery, the general attitude ... If you spend two days there it infuses your whole being. He creates a convincingly authentic atmosphere devoid of commercialism. He achieves this because he loves it and you really sense that."

+33 321060722 /

Recommended by Yves Camdeborde, chef at Paris dining hotspot Le Comptoir, which offers a shockingly inexpensive take on the traditional French bistro (the prix-fixe menu costs about $57). The 20-seat restaurant has been one of the city's most difficult reservations to snag since it opened in 2005. 

Noma (Copenhagen, Denmark)

Fried Finnish reindeer moss with pulverized cep mushrooms, at Noma. (Mikkel Heriba)

Some locations are obvious restaurant destinations: Paris, New York, and Tokyo come to mind. Today, Copenhagen has been added to the list of must-visit culinary locales, largely thanks to the enormous influence of Noma and René Redzepi. Redzepi was only 25 when he opened Noma in 2003; seven years later, the restaurant was crowned best in the world by British magazine Restaurant, snatching the title from El Bulli. 

The attitude at Noma is one of cultural pride—Redzepi believes that Nordic cuisine, prepared with the right blend of innovation and local tradition, can compete with any cuisine worldwide. The menu is dictated by what can be found or foraged locally and seasonally: fried reindeer moss with mushroom powder, for example, or radishes served in "soil" made from malted flour. Since its opening in 2003, the restaurant has been housed in a harbor-side warehouse that was once used to store goods shipped into Copenhagen from Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Today, the warehouse attracts thousands of diners, who clamor to snag one of the world's most coveted reservations (they're made available on the 6th of every month, and an entire month can book up in a matter of hours). In early 2015, Noma will move—temporarily—to Japan, where it will run for two months.

+ 45 32963297 /

Recommended by Meyjitte Boughenout, chef and owner at Absynthe, a French-inspired restaurant located in Surfers Paradise​, Australia. Boughenout earned two Michelin stars while working as the executive chef at Restaurant Scholteshos in Belgium.

Benu (San Francisco)

Eggs being cured in fermented pepper paste at Benu. (Eric Wolfinger)

"Cory Lee's team of chefs, pastry chefs and butchers are unmatched," says David Chang in Where Chefs Eat. "Each time I visit Benu, I come away in awe of the food they're making. It's the best restaurant in the United States."

Chang is not alone in his high opinion of Benu, chef Cory Lee's San Francisco restaurant, which calls itself "New American" but finds influence in the flavors of the East. After Benu opened in August 2010, The San Francisco Chronicle's food critic Michael Bauer awarded the restaurant three and a half stars; a year later, it was awarded the full four. In January 2011, The New York Times placed the newborn restaurant on a list of ten places worth a plane ride (its peers included places such as Tickets, Ferran Adrià's post-El Bulli tapas spot). 

Lee studied under culinary powerhouse Thomas Keller, serving as Keller's chef de cuisine at French Laundry before branching out to Benu. With Benu, Lee sought to break new ground, infusing New American cuisine with Asian influences—a soup of dumplings stuffed with foie gras, for instance, or rice cakes meant to evoke the delicate appearance of Italian gnocchi. 

Benu offers a $228 dinner menu Tuesday through Saturday.

+1 4156854860 /

Recommended by David Chang, executive chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, whose outposts include New York's Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Momofuku Ko.

Mugaritz (Errenteria, Spain)

Basque chef Andoni Aduriz prepares a dish in the kitchen at his restaurant Mugaritz. (© VINCENT WEST/Reuters/Corbis)

Spain doesn't want for influential restaurants, but even among giants like El Bulli and Arzak, Mugaritz commands a unique respect. Long considered one of Spain's most important restaurants, Mugaritz opened in 1998, tucked away in the hills of the Spanish countryside in an old farmhouse. Its chef, Andoni Luis Aduriz, wanted to create a restaurant based around the concept of surprise, and Mugaritz lives up to that initial desire, offering visitors playful takes on texture, taste and aroma with each meticulously crafted bite (perhaps its most famous culinary trompe l'oeil is the amuse bouche of tiny gray stones that are, in actuality, painted potatoes).

Attention to detail rules Mugaritz even before food hits tastebud, from the initial smell of barbecue (specially crafted for the restaurant and meant to remind patrons of their childhood) to a stark white table set around the centerpiece of a broken plate. The broken plate seems to say that expectations are meant to be broken here, whether by a smoked piece of lamb served next to "cultivated fur" (actually a crisp biscuit meant to look like fur) or a mille-feuille made not of sweet, delicate pastry but layers of thin chicken. There is no menu, no set order of plates—instead, the eater is given a personalized meal of some 20 dishes. It's this freedom from constraints, both literal and metaphorical, that have helped Mugaritz earn the moniker of the "most adventurous restaurant in the world."

+34 943522455 /

Recommended by Anatoly Komm, one of Russia's most celebrated chefs, who trained as a geophysicist before turning to cooking in 2000. Today, he is the chef and owner of Varvary, Moscow's premiere destination for molecular gastronomy.

Karavalli (Bangalore, India)

Karavalli, in Bangalore's Gateway Hotel, prides itself on its authenticity; its menu draws inspiration from the coastal flavors of southwest India and leans heavily on seafood. The restaurant even features a fresh grill counter, where the day's best seafood can be grilled to order in front of you.

Executive chef Naren Thimmaiah has spent decades researching the area's culinary history, and the restaurant's menu pays homage to the many cultures (from Portuguese to Syrian Christian) that have influenced the region's food. Thimmaiah is "a true spice master, skillfully balancing subtle fragrances and fiery heat with tropical fruits and ultra-fresh seafood," according to the 2015 San Pellegrino list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants. Manoj Goel, of Varq, says that Karavalli is a "beautifully designed restaurant with a great variety of seafood," and worth the trip no matter how far.

+91 8066604545 /

Recommended by Manoj Goel, who heads up the kitchen at one of India's most famous restaurants, Varq, in New Delhi.

Iggy's (Singapore)

Hotaru ika (firefly squid), burrata, tomato and caviar at Iggy's. (John Heng for Iggy’s)

Opened in 2004 by restaurateur and sommelier Ignatius Chan, Iggy's has long been named one of the best restaurants not only in Asia, but the world. The restaurant is small—only ten tables, with an additional eight seats at the bar—but the kitchen employs 16 chefs, creating a diner-to-chef ratio that is solidly in the diner's favor. The menu takes inspiration from its owner and namesake's travels around the world, blending tastes and techniques from Asia, Europe and Australia. 

Dinner is served Monday through Saturday, with lunch offered Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is closed on Sundays.

+65 67322234 /

Recommended by Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, the father-daughter duo behind the triple-Michelin-starred restaurant Arzak, located in San Sebastián, Spain. 

Caffè al Bicerin (Turin, Italy)

The exterior of Caffè al Bicerin in Turin, Italy. (Flickr user Angel TO)

When Caffè al Bicerin opened its doors in 1763, Italy as a country didn't even exist—it would be almost 100 years before Piedmont, in whose capital the restaurant was located, combined with other states to form a unified Italy. Even as a country formed around it, little about Caffè al Bicerin has changed—a tiny neighborhood spot, it still serves perhaps the most famous version of Piedmont's regional drink, the bicerin, made of coffee, chocolate and whipped cream.

"My favorite café in the world," says chef Kamal Mouzawak in Where Chefs Eat. "It's a tiny place with two red velvet benches and white marble tables. Unchanged for the last 250 years."

Over the years, the café has hosted a number of famous patrons, from Puccini to Nietzsche. Beyond the bicerin, it offers a full range of homemade cakes and pastries.

+39 0114369325 /

Recommended by Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Beirut's first farmer's market.

Overture (Stellenbosch, South Africa)

A lunch at Overture. (Overture)

Peter Tempelhoff oversees six restaurants in Cape Town, so he knows a thing or two about dining in South Africa. When he says that he would travel any distance to eat at Overture, it's a serious compliment. "A well-run establishment," Tempelhoff says of Overture in Where Chefs Eat, "which serves perfectly prepared plates and has great service." 

Overture opened in 2007, with chef Bertus Basson and business partner Craig Cormack at the helm. Located in one of South Africa's most famous wine-producing regions, the restaurant's expansive deck offers patrons a sweeping view of the Hidden Valley Estate's vineyards below. The menu is seasonal and influenced by the ingredients of the region, from a steak tartare with slaphakskeentjies (a traditional South African salad) to local fish with sweet corn. The kitchen's blend of culinary finesse with homey flavors seems to be paying off: for six years, Overture has consistently been named one of South Africa's top ten restaurants.

+27 0218802721 /

Recommended by Peter Tempelhoff, a Cape Town native who oversees six restaurants within the Relais & Chateaux hotel group.

Attica (Melbourne, Australia)

Ben Shewry at Attica Restaurant. (Craig Sillitoe Photography /

Attica, at least by some estimations, is the best restaurant in Australia: In their review, the San Pellegrino "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list calls the experience "simultaneously sophisticated and deeply grounded." New Zealand native Ben Shewry, who took over the restaurant in 2005, runs the kitchen, which turns out plates that blend Asian influence with regional ingredients. The dishes are both traditional and innovative—potatoes are served cooked in the soil from which they were pulled; fish is cooked in smoking paper bark and topped with meat-infused butter. Shewry's dishes have won the respect of chefs such as David Chang (who praised the Melbourne restaurant in the glossy pages of Bon Apetit) and René Redzepi in Where Chefs Eat—where he says Attica is one of the restaurants he would travel any distance to visit.

Attica's popularity, combined with its size (only 60 seats) can make it a difficult reservation to snag: bookings are available three months in advance, and they fill quickly. If you're looking to get a table, consider trying for a Tuesday evening, when the kitchen offers a test menu for a fraction of the price of a normal dinner service.

+61 395300111 /

Recommended by René Redzepi, of Noma in Copenhagen. 

Scientists Track, For the First Time, One of the Rarest Songbirds on Its Yearlong Migration

Smithsonian Magazine

At .48 ounces, your average Kirtland’s warbler weighs about as much as a handful of tortilla chips (seven, stacked), or about the same as one baby carrot. And every year, this rare North American songbird travels nearly 4,000 miles round trip, across mountain ranges, the body of a continent, the Gulf Stream and open ocean. Most of this journey has been a mystery, until now.

Using light-level geolocators, Smithsonian scientists have for the first time tracked and mapped the migratory paths of Kirtland’s warblers for an entire year, following them from their breeding grounds in Michigan to their winter homes in the central Bahamas and back. The scientists hope the data will enable conservation managers to better understand how to manage habitat for the warblers, which were close to extinction in the 1970s and have made a significant comeback as an endangered species.

The research, published in the Journal of Avian Biology, also represents a breakthrough for studying other small species’ migrations, which are an elusive but pivotal element of their lives.

“However difficult it may be, it is critical that we understand the full annual cycle of birds, not just what is happening during breeding,” says Nathan Cooper, lead author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “There is a significant amount of mortality for songbirds that happens during migration, indicating that the conditions birds encounter while migrating might be major factors in a species’ overall success or failure.”

“We know so little about migration for so many species,” says Pete Marra, head of the Migratory Bird Center and co-author on the paper. “This is the rarest songbird in North America, one of the most endangered. The goal is to move toward tracking the same individuals throughout the year to understand where and why birds are dying, and we’re getting closer with this species.”

Kirtland’s warblers are easy to study in one respect; they only nest in dense, young jack pine forests predominately in specific regions in Michigan. But those forests depend upon frequent fires to propagate the jack pines’ seeds, and fire suppression in the mid-century, coupled with nest predation by the brown-headed cowbird, devastated the species. In 1966 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the birds endangered; in 1974, researchers identified only 167 singing males.

By planting new young jack pine forest and implementing a cowbird removal program, conservation managers helped the warblers begin to recover their numbers. Today, their population is estimated at about 2,300 males. It’s a success story, but continued management is crucial.

“As the songbirds migrate, they pass through a gate of automated telemetry towers already up in Florida,” says Pete Marra. “They will be auto-detected and the data saved and downloaded.” More towers are already up along the north shore of Lake Erie in Ontario and will be going up as well in the Michigan breeding grounds. (Nathan Cooper)

Although scientists know a great deal about the birds on their breeding grounds in Michigan, they know less about their distribution in the Bahamas during the winter, and migration—which kills an estimated 44 percent of Kirtland’s populations—has remained an unknown.

“Given that they’re flying 2,000 miles in two weeks, it makes a lot of sense that there could be a lot of mortality during that period,” Cooper says. “But we don’t know if it’s driven by things that happen during migration, or if it is set up by events that happen during the wintering period.” For instance, a drought in the Bahamas can mean less food, so the birds might be malnourished before they even begin the strenuous, stressful flight of migration. “That’s why things like climate change [contributing to drought in the Bahamas] can affect migration and, in turn, the breeding period.”

The more widely used satellite and GPS tracking devices that work well on larger animals are too bulky and heavy for most birds, but in the 1990s, British researchers developed light-level indicating devices that were small enough to attach to wandering albatrosses. The concept of using light levels to determine location has been used by mariners for centuries. By determining precise sunrise, midday and sunset times, one can calculate a rough position, because the length of a day varies predictably depending upon one’s latitude and longitude.

New light-level geolocators are finally small enough for even diminutive songbirds to carry them, Cooper says.

“They measure the intensity of sunlight every two minutes and save it to the device. It gathers that data over the whole year. We can estimate sunrise and sunset time every day of the year, and from that you can get day length and solar noon,” Cooper says. That data enables researchers to roughly estimate and map the birds’ location.

The silver antenna of a miniature archival geolocator peeks out from between the bird’s wings. These .5 gram tracking devices record several types of data, including the duration of each migration―on average, the birds travelled 1,700 miles in only 16 days. (Nathan Cooper)

In 2014, Cooper and his team attached 60 geolocators, each weighing .5 grams, to male warblers at least two years old that they captured at breeding sites throughout Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. A year later, they returned to the same sites and recaptured nearly half of the same birds, retrieving 27 of the geolocators, now loaded with data.

“We were very happy with that,” Cooper says. “That’s a high rate for a geolocator study. It’s not uncommon to only get a third back, or less. But Kirtlands’ breeding range is limited, and we can look for them effectively. They’re site faithful, and they’re really easy to catch.” Scientists will set up a mist net near a known nesting site, then play the song of a male warbler. “Birds are in the net often before the first song is over. These guys are really aggressive.”

The data confirmed some of what researchers already believed, particularly that the vast majority of the birds winter in the central Bahamas. The biggest surprise, Cooper says, is that one bird spent the whole winter in Cuba.

“That finding is important because it gives us some hope for the future in terms of wintering grounds” if the Bahamas become untenable due to sea level rise or drought conditions killing off the birds’ winter food supply, he says. “This species could possibly evolve a new wintering location relatively rapidly as long as that baseline variation is there in the first place, and now we have evidence that it is.”

Watch this video in the original article

Using prevailing winds and weather patterns in spring and fall to follow what’s called a “loop route,” the birds averaged 1,700 miles in just 16 days. Another critical new piece of information was locating the stopover areas where they rested and refueled during migration. On the southbound flight, most birds stopped in southern Ontario or the upper mid-Atlantic states for their first rest.

They also stopped along the coastline in North or South Carolina to fuel up before making the jump across the open ocean to the Bahamas. For the return trip on a more westerly route, the birds crossed the Gulf Stream from the Bahamas and stopped along the Florida coast to recuperate. Further along, they stopped in southeastern Georgia, northern Florida, or southwestern South Carolina before making the jump over the Appalachians.

“Stopover has been a pretty big unknown for this species, but it’s potentially very important,” Cooper says. Conservation managers will have a better sense now of where the birds need habitat with sufficient shelter and food to rest and recover. Citizen scientists and birders can target these areas to help identify and monitor the birds as they travel. In April, Cooper and Marra will team up with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to organize a “Kirtland’s Warbler Migration Blitz” specific to the Kirtland’s warbler as they return from their winter sojourn, and birders can focus on these stopover areas to try to identify the birds as they pass through.

Knowing stopover locations and travel routes will help Cooper and other scientists with the next innovative step in better understanding these birds, using a collaborative tracking system called Motus (Latin for movement) operated by Bird Studies Canada. On Cat Island in the Bahamas, Cooper and his team in March will be fitting 100 Kirtland’s with digitally encoded radio transmitters, a.k.a., nano-tags, enabling scientists to track the birds as they move past strategically located receivers.

“As the songbirds migrate, they pass through a gate of automated telemetry towers already up in Florida,” he says. “They will be auto-detected and the data saved and downloaded.” More towers are already up along the north shore of Lake Erie in Ontario and will be going up as well in the Michigan breeding grounds.

Marra says the integration of smaller technologies with citizen science programs applied to study these birds helps researchers get ever closer to the goal of understanding how they survive over the course of a full year.

“If we can track them throughout the year, we can ask much more sophisticated questions about their fundamental biology. Things that happen to individuals throughout the year drive their biology,” he says. “For example, climate change studies have been geared mostly toward the breeding period, but that’s only three months of the year. These birds are exposed to sea-level rise, changing weather patterns, the entire year, and we have to protect these populations throughout the year.” 

Lake Baikal and More of the Weirdest Lakes of the World

Smithsonian Magazine

Desolate wilderness surrounds the giant Lake Baikal, the deepest, oldest and most voluminous lake on earth. Photo courtesy of Flickr user mrullmi.

No lake is more lake than Lake Baikal. Set deep within the Russian subcontinent, Baikal is the deepest, oldest and most voluminous of all lakes, a superstar of superlatives in hydrology, geology, ecology and history. The lake is more than 5,300 feet deep (exact figures vary) at its most profound point, which lies about 4,000 feet below sea level. With 12,248 square miles of surface area, Baikal averages 2,442 feet deep—its crescent moon-shaped figure a vast rift valley that first appeared about 25 million years ago through the divergence of the planet’s crust. Today, Lake Baikal contains some 20 percent of the earth’s lake and river water, making this Russian giant comparable in volume to the entire Amazon basin. So huge is Baikal that it reportedly takes an average of 330 years for a single water molecule to flow through it, from inlet to outlet. Lake Baikal features 27 islands, including one 45 miles in length called Olkhon, while in and around Baikal live more than 1,500 animal species, about 80 percent of which live nowhere else on the planet.

The most famous of these animals may be the nerpa, the only exclusively freshwater seal on the planet. The nerpa numbers an estimated 100,000—a comfortable and well-adapted population of animals whose presence in interior Russia has stumped evolutionary biologists, who aren’t certain when or just how the animals came to be so far from the open ocean. Guided tourist outfits can provide visitors with views of the animals, though the seals are generally skittish around people, who have long hunted them for pelts, fat and flesh. Brown bears and wolves dwell near the lake, too, occupying the top tiers of the Siberian food chain, as do a variety of deer, birds, rodents and smaller predators.

Of low sun and deep waters, Lake Baikal freezes in the winter with a layer of ice as thick as two meters. Here, a fisherman dangles a line through a hole in the ice. Below him plummets a vertical mile of water column. Photo courtesy of Flickr user stroganov.

The first European to visit Lake Baikal may have been Russian Kurbat Ivanov, in 1643, though local lore claims that Jesus took a short walk to Lake Baikal and back during his days of desert wandering. Today, a wilderness of forest, plains and semidesert surrounds Baikal in the grand landscape of Siberia, though development along the shores of the lake occurred last century with the building of several urban and resort communities. Ugliest, perhaps, among the defilements of Baikal’s coastline is a paper mill that discharged pollutants into Baikal for years before being closed in 2008 on grounds of ecological protection. But the mill reopened in 2010, supposedly using cleaner and safer practices than previously. Meanwhile, local conservationists have other causes of concern. They have, for example, resisted plans to build a uranium plant in the nearby city of Angarsk. And they raised a stink when a petroleum development company called Transneft nearly built an oil pipeline that would have passed within 3,000 feet of Lake Baikal, threatening its waters with leaks and spills. The planned pipeline route was eventually changed. Tourism development is a minor itch in comparison, though it may produce eyesores like the hotels and vacation communities of Listvyanka, a popular winter and summer tourist town.

If you visit Lake Baikal, remember that winters here are frigid and icebound, with continental cold snaps bringing temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and producing a layer of surface ice as thick as two meters. Summertime is friendlier, offering long, long days and superb opportunities for hiking, biking, camping and fishing. Along the lake’s northern shore, the Frolikha Adventure Coastline Track leads 65 miles through the wilderness. How to reach Lake Baikal? Try the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway.

Other Weird Waters

Dead Sea. Almost nine times as salty as the ocean, with a salinity level of about 30 parts per hundred, the Dead Sea—the lowest point on earth—is inhospitable to nearly all living things, but it’s a blast to bathe in. The water’s salt-boosted density is so great that people endowed with a generous layer of body fat can hardly swim and may merely flail over the surface as if they were crawling across a sandy dune. Better not to try and, instead, just turn over on your back and enjoy the bizarre wonder of a lake in which it may be almost impossible to drown. The Dead Sea’s surface lies 1,378 feet below sea level, and it is 1,083 feet deep. This just in: Life-forms have been found associated with freshwater springs at the bottom of the Dead Sea. Time for a name change?

A man floats in the Dead Sea, where salinity levels almost nine times that of the open ocean make the water of this huge lake among the densest on earth. Photo courtesy of Flickr user azwegers.

Lake Titicaca. At 12,500 feet above sea level in a high valley in the Andes Mountains, the giant Lake Titicaca is the loftiest lake commercially navigable by large boats and contains more water than any other lake in South America. Its two main ports are Puno, Peru—a beautiful old town steeped in Incan history—and Challapampa, Bolivia. Isla del Sol is an island on Titicaca’s Bolivian side. Strewn with ruins but without a single paved road, this large island is an adventurer’s playground. Get yourself a fishing rod and a canoe, and go.

Melissani Cave Lake. Locals allegedly knew about the Melissani Cave Lake in Greece all along, but if they did, the world never heard about it until 1953, when an earthquake caused a collapse of rock, exposed the crystal-clear lake and brought sunlight and color to its waters for the first time. The lake has since gained fame—and it happens to be located on the island that Homer named as the home country of Odysseus.

Wuhua Hai Lake. Widely lauded as one of the most beautiful lakes on earth, Wuhua Hai is located in Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, in the high mountains of Sichuan, China. The waters are emerald blue and clear as air, and over the shallow lake bed lie scores of sunken logs visible from above the surface. Forested mountain slopes rise from the lake’s shore, and wild pandas dwell in the woods.

Among the more photogenic of the Plitvice Lakes, in Croatia. Photo courtesy of Flickr user qmitchell.

Plitvice Lakes. A chain of 16 lakes connected by streams, caves and waterfalls, the Plitvice Lakes of Croatia gleam in a spectrum of blue to azure colors and demonstrate beautifully what water, nature’s finest sculptor, may make of a soft basin of limestone. The dense green woods surrounding the lakes are home to bears, wolves, eagles and numerous other creatures protected in this national park and Unesco World Heritage site.

Aral Sea. A reminder of the devastating effects of agriculture gone haywire, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has just about dried up since 1960. The two rivers that fed this once-giant inland sea (330 rivers feed Baikal, for comparison) no longer get there, diverted to fields instead. And while the Aral’s blue ovoid shape still appears on most world maps, cartographers must surely soon realize that the sea, once one of the largest and most productive inland waterways and fisheries, has all but dried up, sacrificed over a mere 50 years for the sake of local cotton and rice.

A line of abandoned fishing boats marks the Aral Sea’s waterline of decades ago. Today, many onetime fishing villages lie in the middle of the desert, many miles from the shrinking lake. Photo courtesy of Flickr user neilbanas.

Salton Sea. This lake in southern California’s Imperial Valley is another testament to sloppily conducted water projects—but unlike the diminishing Aral, the Salton Sea was born in the wake of a breach in a diversion canal in 1905. For years the Salton Sea was a productive fishery, but today its increasingly saline waters are so polluted that huge fish die-offs keep the shores littered with decay and rot, and fishermen are advised not to eat the corvina and tilapia they catch.

Lake Karachay. Don’t visit this lake—ever. Just read: Set in the Ural Mountains of western Russia, Karachay has been called the most polluted place on the planet, teeming with radioactive waste and particulates that you want nothing to do with. What a wonder that before the age of modern progress, one could drink from this poisonous cesspool.

So, which ones did we miss? Tell us about more watery wonders in the comment box below.

The Best and Worst Places to Build More Roads

Smithsonian Magazine

Roads are taking over the planet. By the middle of this century, so many new roadways are expected to appear that their combined length would circle Earth more than 600 times. To build critical connections while preserving biodiversity, we need a global road map, scientists argue today in the journal Nature. And as a first step, the international team has identified areas where new roads would be most useful and those where such development would likely be in conflict with nature.

A road can be a vital link for people in faraway places, giving farmers, for instance, access to markets for their crops and letting them obtain fertilizers and other technology that makes growing more efficient. A cleverly placed road can even direct traffic away from environmentally vulnerable regions. But a poorly planned road can be devastating. Roads cutting through delicate ecosystems have been linked to deforestation, pollution, invasions of exotic species and wildfires. For wildlife, a road can create a barrier that may be deadly to cross, keeping animals away from food and potential mates, Or it can provide poachers with easy access to rare species.

Some 15.5 million miles of roads will be added to the planet’s surface by the year 2050, a 60 percent increase over what existed in 2010. And nine out of ten of those miles will be constructed in a developing country. In places like the United States, building a new thoroughfare requires planning and environmental evaluation, but many other regions have no such rules.

“The current situation is basically chaos, especially in many developing nations, which is where most new road building is occurring,” says study lead author William Laurance, a conservation biologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, and a senior research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “We desperately need a new approach—one that looks at roads in the larger global context and tries to make proactive decisions about where roads should and should not go.”

An animation of satellite images shows roads and croplands encroaching on the Amazon rainforest in Brazil between 2000 and 2012. (NASA Earth Observatory)

Laurance and his colleagues argue that roads could have the most benefit when they link agricultural areas to the rest of society, since global food demand is expected to double by the middle of this century. With that in mind, the researchers identified the regions of the world that are most suitable for intensifying agricultural production. These are largely areas that are warm for at least part of the year and have enough rainfall to grow crops. Then the team created a map of regions that would be best to preserve, such as those with high biodiversity, those important for carbon storage and protected areas like national parks.

By combining the two layers of data, the researchers created a “Global Road Map” that shows regions that should stay road-free, those where roads would be most useful and those where there is likely to be conflict between the competing interests of human development and protecting nature.

The Amazon, Siberia and southwest Africa were among the regions where further road building would be unwise, according to the maps. India, Africa just south of the Sahara, large swaths of land stretching from Eastern Europe west into Russia, and the central United States would be home to prime spots for new roads that would assist agriculture. Central America, Southeast Asia, Madagascar, Turkey and Spain, though, have a lot of area where the nations would have to weigh the needs of their populations with the desire to protect the land.

Many of the conflict areas are in poor countries, “and telling those countries not to build roads is hardly going to be popular,” Stephen Perz of the University of Florida, Gainesville, writes in an accompanying commentary. However, “a global road plan is not intended to ‘keep developing countries poor’, but rather to highlight the costs as well as the benefits of building roads,” he argues.

Laurance hopes his group can develop cooperative projects with development banks, international lenders and governments so that the new maps can help guide future road development. But roads are not just a planning issue, he notes. Even in regions where there are rules about road building, thoroughfares are often constructed illegally. Despite Brazil’s progress in combating deforestation and fires in the Amazon, “there’s still quite a lot of illegal road-building happening there,” Laurance says. Today, illegal roads outnumber legal ones by three to one.

“Nations have a strong vested interest in improving their frontier governance, because a lot of what's happening is illegal—essentially the theft of timber and other valuable resources, illegal mining, the illegal wildlife trade and the illicit trade and production of drugs,” he notes. Developing nations lose some $30 billion a year just from timber theft. “The loss of tax revenues and royalties is a huge hit on developing nations. …We need better road zoning and better enforcement of existing environmental laws.”

A Peep Experiment

Smithsonian Magazine

This year, several of us at the magazine (including my colleague Amanda from Food and Think) got together to create an entry for this year’s Peeps Diorama contest from the Washington Post. Our entry, “Ye Olde Peep Joust,” was inspired by a more modern form of Peep jousting that involves two Peeps, armed with toothpicks, battling it out in a microwave. 

When we finished our diorama and I looked at our leftover supplies, which included several open and unopened boxes of Peeps, I realized that I had the makings of a perfect Peep jousting experiment, one that would answer the question: Are fresh or stale Peeps better jousters? 

Peeps diorama by Sarah Zielinski, Amanda Bensen and Jamie Simon (Photo: Molly Roberts)

Peep jousting rules, according to the Urban Dictionary, are as follows:

Each Peep has a toothpick sticking out of the front of it, like a lance. Two Peeps, so armed, are placed in a microwave facing each other. As they are heated, they expand, until one Peep's toothpick makes contact with the other.

Under these rules, the first Peep to pop is the loser. I hypothesized that given a joust between a fresh and a stale Peep, the stale Peep would not expand, or at least not expand as fast as the fresh Peep, and the fresh Peep would be the winner.


Two packages of Peeps brand marshmallow chicks were obtained from local vendors. The green Peeps were left exposed to the air and stored in the same drawer as the yellow unopened Peeps for approximately two weeks.

Peeps were separated using a standard razor blade. Each Peep was armed with a plain wooden toothpick, which was inserted at an approximately 45 to 50 degree angle in the belly of the Peep with 47 mm of toothpick exposed. The Peeps were then placed on paper plates, available in the Smithsonian Enterprises kitchen, facing each other and about 35 mm apart. The plate was placed in the middle of a GE Spacemaker II Sensor microwave in the SE kitchen. The microwave was set to run at full power for two minutes and was shut off when one Peep’s toothpick touched the losing Peep. If it appeared there would be no winner to a joust, the experiment was terminated when the scent of burning Peep was detected.

The experiment was run five times, and the results were recorded and tabulated.


Round 1 was terminated after 24 seconds. The fresh Peep quickly expanded and knocked the jousting lance into a position where it was unlikely to hit the stale Peep. The stale Peep did not change in size or appearance. There was no declared winner.

Round 2 was terminated after 33 seconds when the fresh Peep's toothpick touched the stale Peep.

Round 3 was terminated after 24 seconds when the fresh Peep "self destructed" as an onlooker termed its explosion. There was no change to the stale Peep.

Round 4 was terminated after 35 seconds. The fresh Peep became huge in size but its toothpick did not touch the stale Peep. The stale Peep underwent a small amount of puffage.

Round 5 was terminated after 26 seconds when the fresh Peep's toothpick touched the stale Peep.


Only two of the five runs had a winner as determined by the Urban Dictionary definition. However, it was clear that fresh Peeps more quickly puffed in the microwave tests and made better jousters than stale Peeps.

Three of the five runs did not have any winner because the toothpick of the fresh Peep was knocked well out of jousting position when the Peep began to puff. It is uncertain whether this was a result of faulty placement of the jousting lance; this is an area for additional study.

A secondary experiment (data not included here) in which the five stale  Peeps were all run in the microwave together showed that they will puff,  and thus can joust, but the time required is upwards of twice the  length of jousting with fresh Peeps.

In conclusion, it is possible to joust with both fresh and stale Peeps. However, when jousting stale Peeps against fresh, the fresh Peeps make for better jousters.

Burn Calories Just By Wearing This New Sports Gear

Smithsonian Magazine

The time is coming when even your gym clothes will help you get a better burn.

That’s the idea, at least, behind a new type of exercise clothing by New York City-based startup Physiclo. Resistance bands and mesh panels in the company’s pants and shorts work against the wearer during a workout, increasing heart rate and calorie loss.

Frank Yao, a New York University medical student, dreamed up the sportswear in 2013, first as a potential rehabilitation tool.

“The purpose was to combine resistance into clothing to help people with sedentary lifestyles achieve a minimum baseline of exercise in a way that didn't require a large behavioral change,” Yao says. “The idea of using resistance bands stems from the same principles used in physical therapy, except in a more convenient, ergonomic form.”

Using medical knowledge of human musculature and computer modeling, Yao designed the pants with strategically placed stretchy bands to create resistance for certain muscle groups. Some bands and panels overlap to enable stretch and resistance in multiple directions, so that as a person flexes or extends a particular muscle, the bands and panels push back, requiring more work to complete the movement.

And the clothes are low impact on the joints: resistance bands are used so often in physical therapy because they’re gentle, yet effective in building strength.

Yao and several classmates tested a prototype at NYU Medical School. With control groups wearing tight-fitting athletic clothing and test groups wearing Physiclo pants, eight male subjects were measured for heart rate and nine men for muscle activation. Subjects mainly walked or ran on treadmills, and they were hooked up to pulse oximeters or electrodes. They also did various body-weight exercises, including lunges and squats.

Yao found that the subjects wearing Physiclo, on average, had a 20 to 23 percent increase in muscle activation and a 14 percent increase in calorie burn. Basically, a person wearing a pair of the pants or shorts can get the equivalent of an hour-long workout in 45 to 50 minutes.

They also tested out the prototypes at the Fencer’s Club in New York, where the United States Olympic fencers train. There, Yao linked up with Keeth Smart, a Columbia University business school graduate and Olympic fencer who’d brought home silver from Beijing in 2008. With Smart’s help, Yao ran the project through NYU’s Summer Launchpad, an incubator program that helps students learn how to communicate with customers and create business models. 

The first generation of the workout shorts and pants will be available in one resistance level. (Physiclo)

After some initial market research, Yao and Smart thought they’d target college and professional athletes, but got a redirect from an unlikely source: David Stern, the former commissioner of the National Basketball Association, who now serves on the company’s advisory board. He pointed out that higher-level athletes already have access to excellent training tools and proposed they focus instead on getting the clothes into the hands of everyday people—the millions of runners, cyclists and yogis who collectively spent $1.93 billion on performance and fitness apparel in 2014, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Stern’s advice seems to have been prescient, at least for now: when the pair put up their funding proposal on Indiegogo in August, their initial $30,000 campaign was fully funded in the first 24 hours and over 450 percent funded when it ended. The initial production run will ship out 1,500 pairs of shorts, pants and full-length leggings in late November or early December.

Lorenzo Gonzalez, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, has been training athletes since 1989. He tried out a pair of the shorts and says that by incorporating the bands into clothing, Physiclo has bypassed a conventional limitation of resistance band training.

“With resistance bands, when you’re doing something with hip extension or flexion, whatever movements you’re working on are limited,” Gonzalez says. “But when you’re wearing the shorts, you can actually have all those muscles firing throughout an entire session.”

Gonzalez adds that because the pants work complementary groups of muscles, they can help people who tend to focus on only one or two sports get a more balanced workout.

“Many weekend enthusiasts usually engage in one activity, so there’s a tendency for asymmetries or imbalances,” Gonzalez says. “The shorts provide a way of activating the antagonist of a muscle group, so you’re getting more of a balanced workout by using it.”

Though the first generation of the workout shorts and pants will be available in only one resistance level, Smart and Yao say they hope to eventually expand into different levels of resistance for additional difficulty.

Gonzalez notes, however, that users could stay with the same level of resistance but increase a workout’s difficulty just by altering the kinds of exercises, such as going from a two-leg squat to a single-leg squat.

So next time you’re feeling guilty about wearing yoga pants to the grocery store just because they’re comfortable, don’t: you could be burning calories just by bending down to grab that last box of granola bars from the very back of the bottom shelf. 

Iris Scott, the World's First Professional Finger-Painter, Launches NYC Show

Smithsonian Magazine

Iris Scott’s works are known for incorporating as many as 100 pigments in their exploration of both the natural and the fantastical. But the artist's lush, large-scale paintings, assemblage sculptures, and wearable art are equally impressive for their maker's singular creative process: Rather than relying on paintbrushes and palette knives, Scott takes a tactile approach, using paint-covered latex gloves to spread gobs of pigment across the canvas. In other words, the effect she achieves is thanks to finger painting. Scott is the world’s first full-time professional finger-painter, and now she’s spearheading a show at New York City’s Filo Sofi Arts gallery.

Titled Ritual in Painting, the exhibition centers on “nature’s unequivocal beauty,” particularly in relation to human identity, relationships and the laws of attraction. Speaking with My Modern Met’s Sara Barnes, Scott notes that both humans and animals “peacock,” or show off, for attention, flaunting “[their] beauty in displays that overflow with exuberant, jaw-dropping spectacle.”

Scott tells Artnet News’ Sarah Cascone that she first realized how versatile finger painting was while living in Taiwan in 2010. Too tired to clean her brushes, the artist, who was born in Maple Valley, Washington, used her fingertips to add finishing touches to a nearly complete oil painting.

“I remember thinking, ‘Woah, that’s very juicy. I can really kind of sculpt this like clay,'” Scott says. “... I was like, ‘I’m going to dedicate myself to finger painting,’ [and] now it’s ten years later.”

As Scott notes in an FAQ posted on her website, she is not the first professional artist to employ finger painting. She does, however, claim to be the first artist to “exclusively dedicate her career to finger painting.”

To date, Scott has made nearly 500 finger paintings. In general, it takes her several days to plan out her creations and another few weeks to transform them into reality. Cascone notes the layers of paint the artist applies to a single canvas are often so thick they take five weeks to dry.

Iris Scott's latest portraits feature limited brushwork on the subjects' faces and arms (Photo courtesy of Filo Sofi Arts)

Ritual in Painting comments on how the art world tends to devalue notions of surface beauty in favor of high-brow conceptualism. Scott, leader of the so-called Instinctualist movement, encourages viewers to experience art through its beauty and color. “We instinctualists have no concepts. The work of art is to be experienced. The only concept is the gasp,” she explains in the text for the Filo Sofi Arts exhibition, which features works like “Tiger Fire,” an enormous painting that depicts the animal prowling through blue-hued trees and serpentine tall grasses. Overwhelming in scale, color and sheer vibrancy, the work reflects Scott’s preoccupation with nature’s beauty.

Another show highlight, “I of the Needle,” is also designed to dazzle the senses, focusing on a woman donning a floor-length gown of kaleidoscopic rainbow colors. The effect is similar to that of a gilded peacock plume and is complemented by the artist’s first use of brushwork in nearly a decade. (As Scott writes on her website, seven-inch faces like the one seen in the painting are “impossible to execute realistically without the use of brushes.”)

The NYC show, on view through May 30, is set to culminate in an interactive piece staged next week. According to Filo Sofi Arts’ website, the performance, scheduled for May 17, will find Scott—balancing on stilts while dressed in a nine-foot, finger-painted gown based on the one seen in “I of the Needle”—“peacocking” for visitors. A post on the artist’s Facebook page calls the act a “metaphoric rebirth,” fusing together her use of different mediums and the “powerful connections between human rituals and the animal world.”

Ritual in Painting is on view at New York’s Filo Sofi Arts through May 30. A special performance by the artist will take place on Friday, May 17 at 6 p.m.

Cowboy Boots Purchased in the U.S. Played Part in Pangolins’ Decline

Smithsonian Magazine

Pangolins, coveted for their scales and meat, are the world’s most trafficked mammal. Today, much of this illegal trade is centered in Asia and Africa, but as a new study published in Conservation Science and Practice reports, the United States played an oft-overlooked role in the scaly anteaters’ decline, importing a high volume of pangolin skins for use in exotic leather accessories including cowboy boots, belts and wallets.

Although the country’s pangolin market has taken a sharp downturn since 2000, when the international community enacted a zero-export quota on Asian pangolins, illegal leather trade still occurs on a smaller scale. Per the study, co-authored by Sarah Heinrich, Joshua V. Ross and Phill Cassey of Australia’s University of Adelaide, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records dating to between 1999 and 2015 reveal a total of 163 trade incidents—most taking place before 2000—involving an estimated 21,411 pangolins.

According to Rachel Nuwer of National Geographic, limitations on pangolin trade have increasingly led U.S. manufacturers to seek out a new leather source: the arapaima, an Amazonian freshwater fish capable of growing up to 10 feet in length and weighing more than 440 pounds. Both animals’ skin yields a diamond pattern when tanned.

“While the US trade in pangolin products has declined since 2000, arapaima leather trade has increased significantly since 2011,” Heinrich explains in a press release. “We suspect that pangolin leather may now be substituted by arapaima products.”

In total, Heinrich and her colleagues found a total of 130 records involving 5,524 arapaimas. Almost all of these incidents dated to after 2011.

Speaking with National Geographic, Heinrich says the researchers are concerned that arapaimas, overexploited much like their predecessors in the exotic leather market, could become endangered in the near future.

Pangolins are the world's most trafficked mammal (Adam Tusk via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Considering the huge historic popularity of pangolin in the U.S., there is likely a big market there for arapaima,” the conservation scientist notes. “The trade may quickly get out of hand.”

As the team writes in the study, arapaimas faced threats even before this uptick in trade. Local fishermen harvest the animals for commercial purposes and development places their habitats at risk. Leandro Castello, a fisheries ecologist at Virginia Tech who was not involved in the new research, further tells Nuwer that it remains unclear how much of the arapaima leather legally imported into the U.S. is actually obtained sustainably.

To better gauge how widespread pangolin and arapaima leather products are within the U.S., Heinrich and her fellow researchers analyzed 478 eBay listings posted by domestic sellers. Per Nuwer, more than 65 percent of these listings—including 168 involving an estimated 476 pangolins and 154 involving an estimated 2,873 arapaimas—appeared to be genuine.

The average starting price for pangolin items, most of which were listed as used, was $544. The average starting price for arapaima products, meanwhile, was $390, and most of these leather accessories were marketed as new. In some cases, pangolin was mislabeled as arapaima or print leather, while in others, print leather was falsely advertised as genuine pangolin or arapaima. Even if the pangolin objects listed on eBay were acquired legally at the time of purchase, the scientists note that reselling them now would require permits or provenance paperwork—none of which were referenced on the sellers portals.

Although many conservationists view the leather trade as an insignificant factor in pangolins’ decline, Dan Challender, a zoologist at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the study, tells Nuwer that the phenomenon was “a threat to the species, for sure.”

The arapaima’s current status is nowhere near as dire as the pangolin’s, but this fact will not save the fish from facing heightened threats, perhaps as a result of thriving exotic leather trade, moving forward.

“The worst-case scenario is that arapaima suffer in the wild as a consequence of actions taken to protect pangolins,” Challender conclude. “This case study demonstrates the complexity of controlling trade in wildlife, especially when it takes [place] over different continents, wide geographies, and on a long-term basis.”

Why Cockroaches Meticulously Groom Their Antennae

Smithsonian Magazine

A cockroach diligently cleans his antenna. Photo by Ayako Wada-Katsumata

When encountering a two-inch American cockroach, most people quickly skedaddle the other way or raise a foot to stomp the little creeper out of existence. For those curious few who stick around to quietly observe the roach, however, the insect will inevitably fall into a certain diligent, repetitive motion. First, it reaches its spiny little roach feet up towards its head, then grips the base of one of its antennae and finally, as if it were spinning yarn at triple speed, threads the length of its antennae through its furiously working mouthparts.

Insects such as cockroaches, house flies and carpenter ants often engage in such antennae-grooming behavior. Like many animals, scientists know that insects frequently clean themselves, but few researchers have investigated just why bugs bother. Antennae serve not only to feel out the environment but also to sense odors, so researchers have long suspected that grooming keeps the antennae in top shape. But what, specifically, are they scrubbing from their bodies? Do roaches self-clean to remove bacteria or bits of gunk from their last meal?

To figure out just why roaches groom, lead author Katalin Böröczky and colleagues from North Carolina State University along with researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences observed antennae-cleaning behaviors in a couple dozen adult male American cockroaches, describing their experiment today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers used an array of methods to restrain the roaches from self-grooming so that they could compare groomed and ungroomed antennae. In some cases, the scientists used a small plastic clip to tether one antenna at the base of the roaches’ heads. The frustrated insects repeatedly attempted to grab hold of their lassoed antenna but could not get a grip on it in order to clean it. Some roaches also had their mouthparts glued together while others were kept in a box too small to allow for self-grooming.

Here, you can see one of the roaches stymied by the plastic antennae blockers:

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Over a period of 24 hours, the tethered antenna began to appear shinier than the other non-tethered one. Examining the shiny antenna with a scanning electron microscope revealed an unidentified substance blocking the roaches’ sensory pores and coating their antennae. The unclean antennae built up three to four times more of the stuff than the clean ones over the day.

To figure out what the unknown build-up was, the researchers took samples of it and analyzed it with gas chromatography, a technique that separates different components of a chemical compound. They found that the natural secretions that the cockroach gives off accounted for most of the substance–mostly fatty molecules that help regulate water loss in insects. Despite the seemingly sterile environment, other external contaminants were stuck on the antennae as well, including stearic acid from surfaces in the roaches’ container and geranyl acetate from the air.

The researchers guessed that this build up might impair the roaches’ ability to sniff out olfactory signals with their antennae. To test this hypothesis, they exposed roaches with groomed and ungroomed antennae to sex pheromones and other odors. Just as they suspected, roaches with clean antennae were more receptive to the odors around them than those with unclean ones. “We conclude that the disruption of grooming interferes with general olfaction,” the authors write in their paper.

Finally, to see if these findings extended to other insects, the researchers repeated their experiment in flies, ants and German cockroaches, all of which exhibited the same build up and loss of antennae function when prevented from self-grooming. They conclude that “our observations with four phylogenetically diverse species indicate that this hitherto unknown role for grooming is common to a wide diversity of insects.”

Just as humans scrub off to remove dead skin cells, sweat and dirt from the day, insects busy themselves to keep clean. While we may share this commonality with earth’s most abundant group of species, however, it may not be quite enough to inspire empathy for the next cockroach that finds its way into a closet or kitchen drawer.

Largest-Known Dinosaur Footprint Discovered in Western Australia

Smithsonian Magazine

A group of scientists say they have discovered “Australia’s Jurassic Park” along the rocky shores of Kimberly, a remote region in Western Australia. As Jonathan Amos reports for the BBC, palaeontologists found a diverse collection of dinosaur footprints in the area—among them the largest dinosaur footprint known to science.

The research team, which was comprised of palaeontologists from the University of Queensland and James Cook University, recorded twenty-one types of fossil footprints stamped into the sandstones of the Dampier Peninsula. They recently published their findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“There were five different types of predatory dinosaur tracks, at least six types of tracks from long-necked herbivorous sauropods, four types of tracks from two-legged herbivorous ornithopods, and six types of tracks from armoured dinosaurs,” lead researcher Steven Salisbury says in a statement. The tracks also provide the only known evidence of stegosaurs in Australia, Salisbury notes.

One footprint spanned five feet and nine inches in length, making it the largest dinosaur track ever discovered, according to CNN’s Joshua Berlinger. The print was left by a sauropod, a long-necked, four-legged herbivore.

Believed to be the largest dinosaur footprint yet found, this sauropod print is over 5 feet long. (Steve Salisbury/Queensland University/James Cook University)

Dinosaurs plodded through the region some 130 million years ago, leaving their heavy tracks in the wet sands of a river delta. Speaking to Amos at the BBC, Salisbury said that the fossilized prints provide the “only window” into the presence of dinosaurs in Western Australia. Relatively few traces of the prehistoric creatures have been found on the continent as a whole, since Australia’s low-lying plains leave fossils susceptible to erosion by the elements. 

Between 2011 and 2016, Salisbury and his team spent 400 hours examining and measuring the prints. They used photogrammetry to create models of the fossils, and took silicone casts of many of the prints, so they could be displayed in museums. The tracks were usually only visible at low tide, and researchers “braved sharks, crocodiles, massive tides and the threat of development” as they worked in the area, according to the University of Queensland statement. 

The prints had long gone unnoticed to palaeontologists, but indigenous lore has long attested to their existence. As Amos writes, the oral history of Australia’s indigenous people tells of a creator named Marala, or the Emu man, who left large, three-toed tracks as he walked across the land.

The Goolarabooloo people, a community of Aboriginal Australians, first alerted Salisbury to the presence of the footprints. The Goolarabooloo are the “Traditional Custodians” of Walmadany, an area of the Dampier Peninsula where most of the prints are concentrated. In 2008, the Australian government announced that it intended to build a gas processing plant in Walmadany. Goolarabooloo leaders hoped their land would be preserved if Salisbury could confirm that dinosaur fossils existed in the region.

“We needed the world to see what was at stake,” Goolarabooloo “Law Boss” Phillip Roe said, according to the University of Queensland Statement. 

Plans for the Walmadany gas plant were halted when a gas company decided that it would not be economically feasible to proceed with the project. The area has also been granted National Heritage status, according Ben Collins of ABC Australia.

Curious spectators will be able to explore the remarkable collection of footprints. Salisbury told Collins that one of the best ways to view the tracks is by walking the Lurujarri Heritage Trail—a nine-day hike that follows paths laid out in indigenous oral history. 

Scientists Prove Leonardo da Vinci’s 500-Year-Old Bridge Design Actually Works

Smithsonian Magazine

Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t known for getting things done. He was often years or even decades late when delivering paintings, and many of the fantastical schemes he concocted (think giant horse statues and flying machines) barely progressed beyond the page.

Still, new research conducted by engineers at MIT suggests one of the Renaissance giant’s unbuilt designs—a bridge poised to be the world’s longest—would have worked if the artist had actually followed through on his plans.

Leonardo drafted his proposal in response to Sultan Bayezid II’s 1502 appeal for bridge designs. Bayezid, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, wanted to connect the cities of Constantinople and Galata, which were separated by a river estuary called the Golden Horn.

As Jennifer Ouellette reports for Ars Technica, the main obstacle raised by Leonardo’s design was the bridge’s proposed length: At 919 feet, it would have been around 10 times longer than most contemporary bridges. If workers tasked with bringing the artist’s vision to life used conventional building techniques, they would have needed at least ten piers to bolster the structure’s weight. These piers, in turn, would have prevented ships from passing underneath the bridge.

Leonardo’s pitch was radically different than any presented previously. According to a press release, he proposed building a single flattened arch tall enough to allow sailboats to pass below and stabilizing against lateral motion—an issue linked with the region’s many earthquakes—by adding splayed abutments, or load-carrying supports, to either side of the bridge.

Bayezid was unimpressed by Leonardo’s complicated blueprints, and the bridge the artist envisioned was never built—at least until MIT engineer John Ochsendorf stepped in to test the 500-year-old design’s feasibility.

Leonardo's design, seen at top left, versus the researchers' prototype (Karly Bast and Michelle Xie)

Although Leonardo failed to specify the materials he intended to use for the bridge in either his sketches or correspondence, Ochsendorf and his colleagues analyzed materials available in 1502 and determined the Old Master would probably have used stone rather than wood or brick, neither of which could fully support such a heavy structure.

First, the team built a 1/500th model of the artist’s design. Measuring around 32 inches long, the prototype consisted of 126 3-D printed parts. Each piece took some six hours to print.

The researchers then put the blocks together, using scaffolding to support the bridge until the final keystone was inserted. This wedge-shaped stone locked the rest of the pieces in place through sheer force of compression.

“When we put [the keystone] in, we had to squeeze it,” engineering student Karly Bast, who worked on the project alongside undergraduate Michelle Xie, says. “That was the critical moment when we first put the bridge together. I had a lot of doubts.”

Bast adds, “When I put the keystone in, I thought, ‘This is going to work.’ And after that, we took the scaffolding out, and it stood up.”

To further test the model, the researchers placed the bridge on two movable platforms, creating horizontal motion representative of loose soil or an earthquake. The bridge managed stress relatively well, only deforming slightly before reaching the point of collapse.

Bast, Xie and Ochsendorf presented their project at the conference of the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures earlier this month.

It’s unlikely anyone will ever create a full-scale masonry version of da Vinci’s design, as the introduction of stronger, lighter materials has made such a project impractical. Interestingly, Norway’s da Vinci Bridge—a pedestrian overpass opened in 2001—is loosely based on the 1502 sketch but uses steel and wood instead of masonry blocks.

Bast says Leonardo’s design offers insights despite the fact that it is ill-suited for the modern world. “What we can learn from Leonardo da Vinci’s design is that the form of a structure is very important for its stability,” she tells CNN’s Ashley Strickland. “Not only is Leonardo’s design structurally stable, but the structure is the architecture. It is important to understand this design because it is an example of how engineering and art are not independent from each other.”

Some questions regarding the design remain unanswered. According to Ouellette, Leonardo’s original sketch was lost for several centuries and only rediscovered in 1952. Researchers also don’t know how much time the artist dedicated to his proposal. He may have doodled it in just a few minutes or, alternatively, dedicated ample time to the project. Whatever the case, the design shows that the artist had a deep understanding of geometry and forces such as compression.

The first bridge to stretch across the Golden Horn wasn’t built until 1845. It lasted about 18 years and has since been replaced by newer iterations. Today, the Galata Bridge serves as a bustling vehicle and pedestrian thoroughfare; the bridge even boasts a drawbridge for passing ships.

Please Touch the Art: This Artist Creates Tactile Portraits for the Blind

Smithsonian Magazine

While many artists consider pencils and paper to be their essential tools, Andrew Myers prefers his electric screwdriver. For the past several years, the California-based artist has been drilling thousands of screws into pieces of plywood and painting them to make 3-D masterpieces that can be appreciated by both blind and sighted people.

Myers began making what he calls “screw paintings” a few years after graduating from the Laguna College of Art and Design. Up until then he had been making bronze sculptors, but he knew he hit the proverbial nail on the head after witnessing a blind man being led around by a friend who was describing one of his creations at an art show. Arms outstretched, the man ran his fingertips across the piece. In a short documentary film produced by his art dealer, Cantor Fine Art, an art gallery in West Hollywood, California, Myers describes the incredible moment when he witnessed “a blind man who could almost see for a second.”

“Seeing the man smile, it was one of those visceral smiles that comes straight from your stomach,” Myers tells “As an artist, it’s my goal to make people feel something, and the emotional aspect [of this experience] stuck with me.”

Image by Courtesy AMA. "Fading Thoughts" by Andrew Myers (original image)

Image by Courtesy AMA. "It's Been a Long Day" by Andrew Myers (original image)

Image by Courtesy AMA. "Things Are Not Always What They Seem" by Andrew Myers (original image)

Image by Courtesy AMA. Still of George Wurtzel from a documentary about Myers' work. (original image)

Image by Courtesy AMA. "I'm Letting Go" by Andrew Myers (original image)

Inspired, Myers switched his focus to screw paintings full time, and with the help of his dealer, Larry Cantor, and his son, Sam Cantor, Myers connected with George Wurtzel, a woodworker and craftsman who happens to be blind. Working from a photo, Myers created a portrait of Wurtzel, which he later presented to him at Enchanted Hills Camp, a retreat for the blind in Napa Valley where Wurtzel is the construction manager. Wurtzel’s experience is captured as part of the documentary. In one clip, Wurtzel’s growing excitement becomes apparent as he traces his fingers across the custom portrait. The poignant moment takes a humorous turn when he jokes, “My nose is not that big!”

Since the film’s release, custom orders for Myers’ work have been coming in from as far as Turkey. At any given time, Myers can be working on a half-dozen paintings, and it typically takes him two to three months to complete each one. The lengthy process begins with sketching out each portrait onto plywood and then drilling pilot holes in a grid pattern to serve as a roadmap. Eventually he inserts thousands of screws into the wood at various lengths to give the finished piece the natural contours of the human face.

“I always start out at the highest point, which is typically the nose,” Myers says. “Those screws stick out the farthest. Then I figure out where the brow, cheekbones, chin, and corners of the mouth should be and use those as points of reference. From there I just connect the dots.”

He finishes each piece by swiping different colors of oil paint on the head of each screw.

“When I first started making these, I wasn’t painting them, and I knew something was missing,” he says. “It looked like one of those pin toys [where you press your hand and it leaves an impression] that we played with as kids. The finished pieces looked unfinished; it was disappointing.”

Today Myers sells his work on his website and also through Cantor Fine Art, which is currently hosting a show called Please Touch the Art, which features some of his pieces and will be on display now through August 31.

“When people first see one of my screw paintings from a distance, they don’t know what to make of it,” he says. “They can’t figure out what it’s made of, so it draws them in. I think just about everyone has put in a screw at some point in their lives, which helps them relate to my artwork.” 


NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
Mannequin or "male figure of the noble class" made by Kisaburo Matsumoto in 1878 in Japan. During the NMNH 1979 inventory, this mannequin was found unnumbered and was assigned T-7804. According to Chang-Su Houchins, Museum Specialist, Asian Cultural History Program, Dept. of Anthropology, this mannequin "is signed (on the bottom right foot): Matsumoto Kisaburo (or Yoshisaburo) w/kao (signature): and this is probably the maker's name". According to Ms. Houchins, T-7804 "may belong to the Capron collection (Acc. No. 7352), possibly catalog number 92427." (Feb. 1998). Note: Exhibit mounts (from loan to Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto) stored with object.

Detailed information on color digital photos of mannequin: Neg. # 2004-21229 - view of back of mannequin; 2004-21230 - eyes; 2004-21231 - face; 2004-21232 - feet; 2004-21233 - full overall view of front of mannequin (note that head is turned toward the right); 2004-21234 - legs; 2004-21235 - left hand; 2004-21236 - left profile of head; 2004-21237 - right hand; 2004-21238 - face. A new black and white negative has been made of an old black and white Smithsonian exhibit photo on file in the Smithsonian Institution Archives (RU 95, Box 44, 26507) showing mannequin 92427 in an exhibit case with a mannequin of a Japanese noblewoman (was # 92426, not located in the collections), both dressed in their typical clothing - Neg. #2002-10660. Per Barbara Watanabe, representations appear to be Heian period style (see female mannequin hairstyle, etc..) See p. 75 - 76 in Rhees, William Jones. 1880. Visitor's guide to the Smithsonian Institution and National Museum, Washington, D.C., Part 3 [Washington]: Judd & Detweiler, Printers and Publishers. E92427 and E92426 are described as on display in Case 2 and it is noted about them: "These figures are perfect in every detail; notice the finger nails, the blackened teeth of the lady, etc." Mannequin was apparently exhibited in NMNH Japanese Samurai Temporary Exhibit, April - July 1971. See black and white photos of the exhibit negative #s MNH2518A, MNH2518B, MNH2518H, MNH2518I, MNH2518J.

From Anthropology Conservation Lab Condition Report, 2004, see ACL files for additional information: Materials: Wood, human hair, paint, gesso, glass, copper alloy, lacquer. The life size male mannequin is anatomically correct and realistically modeled. It is carved from wood and made to be assembled and disassembled with the legs, arms and head all secured to the torso with notched mortise and tenon joints. The mannequin is free standing though there are two rectangular holes in the bottom of the heels that would have been used as an original support. Both the rectangular holes in the feet and the mortise and tenons are lined with a copper alloy sheet coated with presumably a lacquer. The body of the mannequin has a very particular hunched posture, slightly convex belly and well muscled legs and arms with slightly protruding veins in the arms and legs. The torso and head are hollow with wooden plugs fit into the base of the neck, arms and thighs. A thin gesso layer (calcium carbonate) was applied over the surface overall and painted. The hair and underarm hair appears to be placed individually as the placement is random and adhered and painted to match the skin tone. The eye lashes are made by attaching individual mouse hairs to a thin strip, most likely paper, which is then attached to the interior of the eyelid. On the bottom of the proper right foot the manufacturers signature is carved in Japanese characters. From examining x-rays and the mannequin itself, the mannequin has been carved in wood (possibly paulownia from written document) and painted with a gesso, called "gofun" (a pigment made out of crushed oyster shell) mixed with "nikawa" (an animal hide glue binder). However, in an area of loss in the proper left foot a plain woven fabric was seen between the gesso layer and wood, and it is unclear if this fabric was used over the entire mannequin to approve adhesion of the gesso layer or used only around joints to improve strength. In 2004, a sample of wood was removed from the proper right arm socket for analysis by Harry Alden of the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. The wood was identified as Japanese Arborvitae (Thuja standishii).

No catalog card found in card file.

Illus. Fig. 5 and Fig. 6 in Robert Pontsioen, "The Alexander Graham Bell Collection of Japanese Masks at the Smithsonian," Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 17, no. 2 (Autumn 2018), (accessed ‎November‎ ‎6‎, ‎2018).

Americans May Be Ingesting Thousands of Microplastics Every Year

Smithsonian Magazine

Microplastics are everywhere in our environment: oceans, soils, the air, the bodies of animals. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the tiny fragments have also been found in humans. But a new study is shining troubling light on the quantity of microplastics Americans are consuming each year—as many as 121,000 particles, per a conservative estimate.

Measuring less than five millimeters in length, microplastics derive from a variety of sources, including large plastics that break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Many studies have looked at microplastics in the marine environment, but much remains unknown about the prevalence of these materials within the human body, as well as their impact on human health.

Hoping to fill in some of these gaps, a research team led by Kieran Cox, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria and a former Link Fellow at the Smithsonian Institute, looked at 26 papers assessing the amount of microplastics in commonly consumed food items, among them seafood, sugars, salts, honey, alcohol and water. The team also evaluated the potential consumption of microplastics through inhalation using previously reported data on microplastic concentrations in the air and the Environmental Protection Agency’s reported respiration rates. To account for factors like age and sex, the researchers consulted dietary intakes recommended by the U.S. Health Department.

Based on this data, the researchers calculated that our annual consumption of microplastics via food and drink ranges between 39,000 and 52,000 particles, depending on age and sex. Female children consume the least and male adults consume the most, the team reveals in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. When microplastics ingested through inhalation are taken into account, the range jumps from 74,000 to 121,000 particles per year.

Speaking to Anne Gaviola of Vice, Cox said he was surprised to discover the extent to which drinking water from plastic bottles impacted total microplastic consumption. The study authors found that people who drink exclusively from plastic water bottles ingest an additional 90,000 microplastics each year, compared to 4,000 among those who only consume tap water. “This shows that small decisions, over the course of a year, really matter and have an impact,” Cox tells Gaviola.

Polyester fibers from polar fleece fabrics can wind up in your stomach. (Courtesy of Monique Raap/University of Victoria)

The new study, according to its authors, was the first to investigate “the cumulative human exposure” to microplastics. But in all likelihood, the research tells only a fraction of the entire story. Collectively, the food and drink that the researchers analyzed represent 15 percent of Americans’ caloric intake. The team could not account for food groups like fruits, vegetables, meat and grains because there simply is not enough data on their microplastic content.

“Our estimates of American consumption of microplastics are likely drastic underestimates overall,” the study authors write.

Just what this means for human health is not clear. According to the study authors, there is evidence to suggest that microplastics can penetrate the human body through “cellular uptake in the lungs or gut.” Once in the gut, microplastic particles may release harmful toxins. They can also enter tissue and the bloodstream.

“We’re at the point where we know microplastics at some dose could be harmful,” study co-author Garth Covernton of the University of Victoria tells Michelle Ghoussoub of CBC News, “but we’re not at the point where we can say whether what the average person is encountering is the equivalent of one cigarette in a lifetime, or [through] chronic exposure, like a pack a day.”

For those worried about microplastic consumption, cutting out bottled water is a good place to start, the study authors say. But to really get to the heart of the problem, we have to stop producing and using so much plastic.

“We need to reassess our reliance on synthetic materials,” Cox says, “and alter how we manage them to change our relationship with plastics.”

Can a Camera, a QR Code and Some Bubbles Test For E. Coli In Our Food?

Smithsonian Magazine

Here’s how it works: Mix some tiny, special-made bubbles in with liquid you think might contain E. coli bacteria. Place a QR code beneath the petri dish, and turn on your phone’s camera. If the phone can read the code, it’s safe. If not, there’s E. coli.

This is the finding of research published in the American Chemical Society’s new journal, Central Science. The technique hinges on the design of the microscopic droplets, and its authors say it has the potential to vastly reduce the amount of time required to test food.

Food poisoning is a big problem, even in the U.S., with E. coli causing 73,000 illnesses and 60 deaths per year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 1999. It’s basic, but speeding up testing should mean more testing gets done.

“The big problem is, when you’re manufacturing food, if you don’t have something that is basically at the time scale of your manufacturing process, you’re having to hold product up in a storage facility [for testing],” says Tim Swager, a chemistry professor at MIT and author of the study. “You need something that’s virtually minutes, or maybe a couple hours, not a day, or tens of hours. And that’s where the current state of the technology is right now. This is too slow, and very costly.”

Swager’s team blends two types of material into micron-scale droplets called Janus emulsions. They begin with two materials, hydrocarbon (H2O bonded with carbon, like you get in fuel gases) and fluorocarbon (fluorine bonded with carbon, a material used in fishing line). They heat the two fluids up, and force them together through tiny channels, injecting them into flowing water sort of like a pipe dumping in a river. As the particles cool, they form spheres that are half hydrocarbon, half fluorocarbon.

To these droplets, the scientists attach a plant protein called lectin, which binds to E. coli. Normally, the heavier fluorocarbon side of the droplets keeps them level, all with their hydrocarbon hemispheres facing upward. In that state, they act like a lens with an infinite focal length; light travels through in a straight line. But when the lectin binds, the bacteria that attaches changes the balance of the droplets, causing them to tip on their side. When that happens, the refraction scatters light, blocking out whatever’s underneath.

At left, Janus droplets viewed from above. After the droplets encounter their target, a bacterial protein, they clump together (right). (Qifan Zhang)

The researchers have tested this technique on several types of benign E. coli, and plan to expand the technique to other bacteria, or even other types of pathogens.

“The fact they can respond so well, they can tilt, and we can reorient them and they behave like lenses, and that we’re using gravity to align them, these are a lot of really unusual ingredients, but it makes for a really powerful platform,” says Swager.

Applying the technology to pathogenic strains is feasible, but you’d need a different binding structure for each one, says John Mark Carter, a former food borne contaminants researcher at the USDA who now consults in the same industry.

“It’s really not as easy as it sounds,” Carter says. “Food contains a lot of things that bind a variety of surfaces nonspecifically.”

He adds that the droplets must be balanced precisely, which the researchers were able to do, but it becomes much more problematic in real-life food-safety testing. Carter is surprised that the researchers are proposing a food test at this point. “You really shouldn’t talk about food until you do experiments with food,” he says.

Additionally, sensitivity limits for E. coli in food are much lower than this technique can yet offer. Swager was able to detect the presence of E. coli when there are around 10,000 cells per mL of solution. In 2010, the FDA reduced the amount of non-toxic E. coli it allowed in cheese (a sort of general sanitation limit) from 100 MPN (most probable number) per gram to 10 MPN. Last year, the agency backed off on that, saying it hadn’t had an impact on public health, but for food safety and toxic E. coli, tolerance is zero. There’s no tech that can detect a single E. coli cell, which is why the present standards rely on growing colonies in a dish.

“One bacteria is enough to kill you,” says Carter. “If it’s a very high concentration of bacteria you can detect it without amplification. But almost everybody grows it…you have to grow it, because you can’t detect one bacteria.”

If Swager’s tech is to become widespread in the industry, these issues must be addressed, and then side-by-side studies run to compare it with the current standards. Absent that, there could be applications for internal quality control among the food industry (though detection sensitivity would still be an issue).

“Eggo waffles had a recall [in 2016]. It wasn’t a huge recall, but it was listeria,” says Swager. “When my kids were little, I used to give them Eggo waffles, and they’d go out the door on their way to school. But you know, you have a product recall like that, how long is it going to be before parents are going to feed their kids Eggo waffles? So the implications to the brands are also really high.”

5 fascinating examples of George Pal's stop-action puppetry

National Museum of American History

The National Museum of American History has a number of artifacts donated in 1983 by Elisabeth Pal, the widow of brilliant animation pioneer George Pal (born Julius Gyorgy Marczincsak). Pal is universally renowned for introducing the art of stop-action puppetry, an innovative method of film animation that creates the illusion of movement in inanimate objects (i.e. puppets with interchangeable limbs) by posing and reposing them in incremental amounts between individually photographed frames of film and then playing the film at normal speed. The technique grew out of his desire to find a three-dimensional alternative to the flatness of traditional cartoon animation.

Tubby the Tuba puppet and frog with violins

Born in 1908 in Cegléd, Austria-Hungary, Pal began his experiments with creating small wooden figures and filming them in the early 1930s, while he was a young man in his twenties working in Berlin with the famed UFA Studios. It was in this period that he obtained a patent for his technique, trying his ideas in a series of short advertisement films for Philips, a Dutch electronics and lighting company.

In 1939, Pal fled from the Nazism that was strangling Germany and immigrated to America. He settled in Hollywood, where he worked at Paramount Film Studios. He obtained his U.S. citizenship with the help of his friend Walter Lantz, the cartoonist famous for creating Woody Woodpecker.

Let's look at some of Pal's most interesting creations, all in the collection of the National Museum of American History.

Photo of man with small, wooden puppet

While at Paramount, Pal made a series of stop-action films called Puppetoons. These films were shown in movie theaters beside full-length features. Tulips Shall Grow, a 1942 Puppetoon release, is a wartime fable about the terrors of totalitarian aggression, much as Europe was then being besieged by the threat of Nazism. It focuses on a boy and girl in a picturesque Dutch setting being menaced by the Screwball Army, an obvious stand-in for Hitler's brigade. A member of the Screwball Army consisted of a headless figure made of oversized dark gray and silver-colored metal nuts and bolts. That it is faceless makes the puppet seem all the more ominous.

Small puppet with round body and metal nut for head

Perhaps the most remembered of the Puppetoon series are Pal's puppets created for 1947's Tubby the Tuba. Based on an idea by songwriters Paul Tripp and George Kleinsinger, the short film tells the story of an anthropomorphic symphony orchestra and one of its members, a cherubic, apple-cheeked young tuba named Tubby. Tubby is dismayed at always being given the accompanying role of supplying the bass line to the orchestra's melody. A kindly and wise frog teaches him a new tune and the following day, Tubby gets his solo at last by playing it with the orchestra.

The Tubby puppet is made of gold-painted plaster with bright moveable plastic eyes. Tubby is mounted on a wooden platform with the character of the frog, made of lime-green plastic. The collection also has several other of the orchestra's instruments, including a miniature violin, a cello, a double bass, and a set of kettle drums with cymbals and cow bells.

Group of puppets

Also from 1947 is Date with Duke, a Technicolor film short that was a collaboration with composer extraordinaire Duke Ellington. Ellington at the piano performs his "Perfume Suite" with a quartet of animated perfume bottles accompanied by an unseen orchestra. The clear fluted glass perfume bottles are elaborately decorated with sequins and faux jewels. Atop each bottle is a round wooden head with felt "hair" wearing a bejeweled headpiece or golden crown resembling a bottle stopper. Each bottle has a flower-shaped glass "trumpet."

Two puppets with elaborate clowns and wide eyes, their bodies made of perfume bottles

In the 1950s, Pal produced a commercial for Peter Paul Candy called "Sweet Pacific." Using a tropical setting and evoking an exotic island setting and title reminiscent of Rodgers and Hammerstein's colossally successful 1949 stage musical South Pacific, Pal designed it as a product advertisement in largely the same manner as he had done in the 1930s for Phillips. This time, the puppets were singing and dancing Mounds candy bars made of sepia-colored rubber, proclaiming that they represented "the finest candy bar of all." Each of the bars is equipped with a progression of cherry-shaped heads, each with a different expression. The rubber candy bars are mounted in a wooden shadow box, with a cardboard pink façade resembling a curtain valance. The interchangeable heads are arranged like footlights in front of the candy bars.

Three puppets made of chocolate bars standing on a stage with pink curtains

The film shorts and commercials were soon joined by feature-length films, like the MGM musical fantasies Tom Thumb (1958) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962). Both films, which combined live-action with stop-action puppet sequences, featured a character called the Yawning Man. The puppet has a body and limbs made of latex with a wire core for pliability. The figure has 27 faces, carved of pink wax, each of which reproduces one gesture of a yawn. It is dressed in an elfin orange and brown suit and cap.

Puppet with interchangeable faces yawning in orange outfit and sleep cap

George Pal received many honors for his pioneering work in films. He won ten Academy Award nominations and five Oscars, including a 1944 honorary award for "the development of novel methods and techniques in the production of short subjects known as Puppetoons." In 1980 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences founded the "George Pal Lecture on Fantasy in Film" series in his memory.

Dwight Blocker Bowers is a curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts. He has also blogged about Davy Crockett's coonskin cap.

Posted Date: 
Monday, November 2, 2015 - 08:00
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A Holocaust Survival Tale of Sex and Deceit

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1942, Marie Jalowicz, a Jewish girl hiding in Berlin, watched as a barkeep sold her for 15 marks to a man mysteriously nicknamed "the rubber director." As Marie recounts in the recently published Underground in Berlin, a riveting chronicle of her story told in her words, she was desperate for a place to sleep. The barkeep pulled Marie aside before she left with the man. Her fabricated backstory was simple; she just couldn't bear to live with her in-laws anymore. But, the barkeep added, her new patron was also "a Nazi whose fanaticism bordered on derangement."

Marie had reasons to be alarmed beyond the man’s avowed Nazism. The "rubber director" earned his nickname from his wobbly gait, and Marie once heard that people in the late stages of syphilis "walked as if their legs were made of rubber, and they could no longer articulate properly." The man walking her to his house was stumbling over his words. And she was to sleep with this man, just to have a place to hide.

They arrived at his apartment, and the man showed off his wall-to-wall collection of aquarium tanks. He recalled the time when he was in a sanatorium and made a matchstick model of Marienburg, dedicating it to the Führer. He showed her an empty picture frame. Marie recalls:

"Any idea what that is?" he asked me, pointing at it.

"No idea at all."

Even if I'd guessed, I would never have said so. Finally, he revealed the secret: he had acquired this item by complicated means and at some expense, as he told me, closing his eyes. It was a hair from the Führer's German shepherd.

They sat together and Marie listened to his Nazi rants, growing increasingly uncomfortable until she changed the subject back to the fish. And then she got extraordinarily lucky: "With bowed head and tears in his eyes, he said he was afraid he must disappoint me: he was no longer capable of any kind of sexual relationship. I tried to react in a neutral, friendly manner, but I was overcome by such relief and jubilation that I couldn't sit still, and fled to the toilet."


Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman's Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany

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Underground in Berlin is filled with similar stories that illustrate the sexual politics of being a young Jewish girl in need of protection during World War II. For 50 years, Marie kept quiet about her experience, but just before her death in 1998, she recorded her memories on 77 cassette tapes. In the 15 years since her death, Marie's son, Hermann, has been transcribing and fact-checking the tapes, and found that his mother remembered with near-perfect clarity the wealth of names and details of her life in Berlin.

For eight years Marie and her family had witnessed Hitler's rise to power: Jews, wearing the legally mandated yellow stars on their coats, were first excluded from many professions and public places, and then many were sent to do forced labor. Marie’s mother, who had been sick with cancer for a long time, died in 1938; her weary, lonely father in early 1941. Before her father’s death, Marie worked with 200 other Jewish women at Siemens, bent over lathes, making tools and weapon parts for the German army. She befriended some of the girls, and they rebelled when they could: singing and dancing in the restroom, sabotaging screw and nut manufacturing. When her father died, she convinced her supervisor to fire her, since Jews weren’t allowed to quit. She lived off the small sum she received from her father’s pension.

The temporary passport Marie used to reenter Germany from Bulgaria, in Johanna Koch's name. The German embassy in Sofia made this passport, and added a comment on another page: "The holder of this passport has not proved her citizenship of the Reich. It is valid only for her return to Germany by the Danube route." (Courtesy of Hermann Simon)

In the fall of 1941, about a year before her incident with the “rubber director,” Marie watched her remaining family and friends receive deportation orders to concentration camps for certain death. Her Aunt Grete, one of the first to be sent, begged Marie to come with her. "Sooner or later everyone will have to go," Grete reasoned. With much difficulty, Marie said no. "You can't save yourself. But I am going to do everything imaginable to survive," she told her aunt.

And so she went to great lengths to protect herself. Marie removed her yellow star and assumed the identity of a close friend, Johanna Koch, 17 years older than Marie. Marie doctored Koch’s papers with ink-erasing fluid and forged an approval stamp by hand, exchanged the photo on the ID card, and called herself Aryan. Sometimes, her deception also led her to take lovers and boyfriends as a means of survival.

On the eve of World War II in 1938, Marie and her father were living with friends, the Waldmanns. Marie's father and Frau Waldmann had a fling, and 16-year-old Marie took it upon herself to sleep with Herr Waldmann, to lessen the chance that he would turn Marie and her father out on the street in anger.

Later, hoping to emigrate to Shanghai, she found a Chinese man living in Berlin who agreed to marry her: "Privately I thought: if I can get a Chinese passport through him, that would be excellent, but this isn't a relationship that will come to anything." But even after applying for marriage, and making up a story about being pregnant, she couldn’t get permission from the mayor’s office to marry him.

While hiding in the apartment of a friend's cleaning lady, Marie met a Bulgarian named Mitko, a neighbor who came by to paint the place. The two instantly became fond of each other and planned to marry. Marie makes it to Bulgaria with Mitko, and he finds a corrupt lawyer who might be able to make her stay in the country legal.

"You are here with this enchanting lady from Germany?" [the lawyer] asked my lover.

"I could use her as a governess for my little boy! The papers wouldn't cost anything, if you take my meaning?," he winked in a vulgar manner.

Mitko, a naive but decent character, was indignant at this improper suggestion. "We can do without your services," he said brusquely, and he stood up and left.

"As you like," the lawyer called after him. "We'll see what comes of this."

The lawyer turned them in to the Bulgarian police, and Marie was sent back to Berlin alone. Mitko stayed behind with family, weary from weeks of going to great lengths to protect Marie and himself. Upon her return, she was asked to wait for the Gestapo to approve her “unusual passport.” She narrowly escaped the Gestapo by pretending to run after a thief. That night, with nowhere to stay and in need of a bathroom "for the full works," she relieves herself on the doormat of a family with a "Nazi ring" to its name.

Marie and her husband Heinrich Simon in 1948, soon after their wedding (Courtesy of Hermann Simon)

Marie's gripping, suspenseful story captures the gloom and anxiety of being alone in wartime Berlin and the struggle to survive on her own. Her will and wit echo the determination and optimism of other accounts of the Holocaust, like those of diarists Viktor Frankl and Anne Frank. But the scenes of sexual commerce and gender politics illuminate an untold reality of surviving as a Jewish woman in the Berlin underground. Marie relays these stories, in which sex is a means of staying alive, a transaction, with evenhandedness, with a sense that it was all worth it.

It's not just bedfellows who help her. Marie finds refuge with non-Jewish friends committed to protecting her, with people her father knew, and with other Jews struggling to live in Berlin. One friend introduces her to Gerritt Burgers, a "crazy Dutchman" who brought Marie to his apartment and tells his landlady, a Nazi supporter named Frau Blase, that

"he had found a woman who was coming to live with him at once. I would keep house for him, and he said I was also ready to lend Frau Blase a hand at any time. Since I was not racially impeccable, it would be better not to register me with the police, he added casually. That didn't seem to both the old woman, but she immediately began haggling over the rent with Burgers."

So begins another situation in which Marie is treated as a good to barter. When the landlord gets mad at Burgers for making a mess, she threatens to call the Gestapo on Marie. When Burgers sees Marie reading, he hits her with his shoe, and tells her, "You're not to read when I'm at home. You're supposed to be here just for me." She's angry, but she sticks it out; she must. They get used to each other.

For as long as Marie lived in the apartment, the supposed wife of a near-stranger, her life is semi-normal, and she benefits from the exchange of her work and pretend love for the company and safety. Frau Blase and Marie share food, and Marie runs errands. Blase shares her life story, talks about her difficult marriage, the death of her son. Marie develops an ambivalent attachment: "I hated Frau Blase as a repellent, criminal blackmailer with Nazi opinions, yet I loved her as a mother figure. Life is complicated."

Hermann, Marie’s son, shares his mother’s post-war story in an afterword. After a long journey of extreme luck, happening upon sympathetic, generous strangers, including a Communist gynecologist and a circus performer, Marie survives the war, poor and with nowhere to go. She went on to teach at the Humboldt University of Berlin and raise a family. She made good on her promise to her aunt Grete, to survive. She knew all along that "other days would come" and she "ought to tell posterity what was happening."

Abrams Explorer

National Air and Space Museum
Twin boom 2-seat aerial photography plane with 280 hp Wright Whirlwind R-975 E-3 engine

The Abrams Explorer, built in 1938, was the only one ever created and was uniquely designed for aerial survey and mapping functions. By featuring obstruction-free camera platforms, Abrams Air Craft CEO Dr. Talbert Abrams planned to market the plane to the United States armed forces for surveys, mapmaking, and aerial photography. However, on the brink of World War II, the military opted for the more survivable, converted high-speed fighter aircraft for photo reconnaissance.

The aircraft was successfully tested and used for government contract survey work until the beginning of the war. For unobstructed photography the Explorer featured a forward glass crew nacelle and camera ports while the usual struts, wing panels, engine cowls, and propeller were placed aft of the cameraman's normal line of sight. Hermetically sealed camera ports maintained cabin pressure up to 20,000 feet. Dr. Abrams lent the Explorer to the National Air Museum in 1948, and it was officially donated in 1973.

The Abrams Explorer is a unique aircraft specifically designed for aerial survey and mapping functions. Built in 1937, the aircraft was designed by Kenneth Ronan, former chief designer for Stinson, and Edward Kunzl, also of Stinson. Dr. Talbert Abrams, founder and CEO of the then newly-formed Abrams Air Craft Corporation and the established Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation of Lansing, Michigan, envisioned the aircraft as an obstruction-free camera platform for survey and mapping businesses, a design in which the U.S. Army showed interest. The initial requirement was to provide the capability for aerial photography, aerial survey, and mapping from near sea level up to an operating altitude of 20,000 feet. It was to provide an unobstructed field of view for the several cameras which meant displacing the usual struts, wing panels, engine cowls, and propeller arc away from the cameraman's normal line of sight. The aircraft was to have an endurance of at least eight hours, climb quickly to altitude, and cruise at a speed of 180 to 200 knots.

The resulting configuration was a specially designed two-place non-conventional mid-wing pusher monoplane which had twin booms extending back from the wing trailing edge to support the tail assembly. The-two place crew nacelle was located entirely forward of the wing leading edge and included clear safety glass windows over most of area above the cockpit floor. This is similar to the bombardier's nose section of a World War II medium bomber. The placement of the crew nacelle permitted an almost unobstructed view for photography except for a direct rear view past the engine, propeller and tail structure. The nacelle was pressurized and carried oxygen for crew comfort and operating efficiency at the 20,000 foot operating altitude. The nacelle was faired back over the wing center section to the engine compartment where the Wright R975-E.1 330 hp radial engine, equipped with a NACA cowl and Hamilton Standard controllable pitch propeller, were mounted just aft of the wing's trailing edge. The engine assembly was located between the two fuselage booms that extended back to support the horizontal tail with two vertical tail assemblies.

Hermetically-sealed camera ports were provided to permit unobstructed camera operation at those higher operating altitudes while still maintaining proper cabin pressure. The airplane has a fixed tricycle landing gear with low drag streamlined wheel fairings. The structure is of welded steel tubing and the combined crew nacelle and wing center section are covered with sheet aluminum panels. The twin tail booms are of semi-monocoque sheet aluminum construction and the tail assembly and outer wing panels are covered with fabric. The structure is stressed to handle engines of up to 1,000 hp for possible future production models.

The first flight was made in November 1937 and the Abrams Company flew the airplane, with a full array of cameras, for government contract survey work until the beginning of World War II. The first Wright engine was replaced by a Wright Whirlwind 450 hp engine that raised the maximum speed to more than 200 mph and the performance ceiling to 25,000 feet. It had a rate of climb of 1,500 feet per minute. Unfortunately, Dr. Abrams' plans to produce and sell the airplane to the armed forces and to civilian aerial mapping companies were not successful. His timing was bad for the civilian applications because of the war and the military opted for the more survivable, converted high-speed fighter aircraft for photo reconnaissance. The good performance figures of 1938 were not enough for wartime reconnaissance and a single-purpose aircraft was no longer desirable. As a result, the airplane currently in the possession of the Smithsonian was the only example built.

Dr. Abrams lent the Explorer to the National Air Museum in 1948 and, although it was accessioned at that time, the "official" donation was not until 1973. It was acquired as one of the few aircraft designed and used specifically for aerial photography, and it was one of the first U.S. aircraft to employ a tricycle landing gear and the twin boom pusher concept. The aircraft was received with the Wright R-975-E3 450 hp engine and a plastic-covered cabin nacelle. It was transported by military air to Washington and was stored for several years at the Paul E. Garber Restoration and Preservation Facility in Suitland, Maryland. In 1975, the Museum lent the Explorer to the Michigan Aerospace Education Association in Lansing, Michigan, for restoration by students at the Lansing Community College, but, unfortunately, the restoration was not fully completed. In 1981, the airplane was returned to the Garber Facility.

Hunting Visor, Part Of Kayak Equipment

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "Wooden visor surmounted by ivory carvings of walrus heads and tusks. On the back is mounted a fiber ring into which is inserted a half-circle of feathers. It is likely that this went on a figure that was once in this boat, so the same number. Illus. BAE 18th AR Pl. 64, fig. 18, p. 166. "... wing-like piece on each side and the head of a gull in front; the median ridge is ornamented with the ivory images of two walrus heads. The back of the visor has an oval ring of shavings projecting upward and stuck full of feathers from the tails of cormorants and old wife ducks". Trans. [from] Div. of Engineering June 12, 1947. This ... card made Sept. 9, 1947; The catalog number is also assigned to a kayak. Loaned to the Art Institute of Chicago 6/22/77. Returned 12/1/77." Kayak E160337 was sent as a gift to Peabody Museum, Yale Univ. New Haven, Conn., Nov. 6, 1947, but some kayak equipment remains in the collections, recorded as #s E160337-0 and E160337A-0.

Collins Ms. p. 737 describes the kayak 160337 and has a copy of information from accession papers relating to this kayak set. This document lists several native-language terms for the items included in the set. In 2008, Steven Jacobson, an expert in Alaskan Yup'ik language, identified the language as Central Yup'ik: "The first word is elqiaq, 'visor'; the second word is acaluq, 'kayak tray'; the third word is nuqaq, 'atlatl'; the fourth word is nanerpak, 'seal spear'; the fifth word is nuusaarpak, 'large three-pointed spear'; the sixth word might be narulkaq, 'spear'; the seventh word is tegun, 'seal recovery hook'; the eighth word is anguarun, 'paddle'; the ninth word is probably caqun, 'sealskin poke'." Many of these pieces are no longer in the collection. Kayak and equipment are also described in U.S. National Museum Bulletin 127, p. 208. Kayak is visible in photo negative # 31357 - the single hole kayak hanging on wall in right in photo.

Source of the information below: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge website, by Aron Crowell, entry on this artifact , retrieved 4-9-2013: Hunting visor Inupiaq and Yup'ik men around Norton Sound wore wooden hunting visors to shade their eyes in bright sun. The ivory carvings of walrus heads and bird beaks were charms to attract sea mammals. The ivory sidepieces on this hat are marked with concentric circles, a symbol of the cosmos where human beings, animals, and spirits all dwell. On the back of the hat is a fiber ring that holds a spray of feathers from fast-flying oldsquaw ducks.

This object is on loan to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, from 2010 through 2022.

Melting Glaciers Are Wreaking Havoc on Earth's Crust

Smithsonian Magazine

You've no doubt by now been inundated with the threat of global sea level rise. At the current estimated rate of one-tenth of an inch each year, sea level rise could cause large swaths of cities like New York, Galveston and Norfolk to disappear underwater in the next 20 years. But a new study out in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that in places like Juneau, Alaska, the opposite is happening: sea levels are dropping about half an inch every year.

How could this be? The answer lies in a phenomenon of melting glaciers and seesawing weight across the earth called “glacial isostatic adjustment.” You may not know it, but the Last Ice Age is still quietly transforming the Earth’s surface and affecting everything from the length of our days to the topography of our countries.

During the glacier heyday 19,000 years ago, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, the Earth groaned under the weight of heavy ice sheets thousands of feet thick, with names that defy pronunciation: the Laurentide Ice Sheet, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet, and many more. These enormous hunks of frozen water pressed down on the Earth’s surface, displacing crustal rock and causing malleable mantle substance underneath to deform and flow out, changing the Earth’s shape—the same way your bottom makes a depression on a couch if you sit on it long enough. Some estimates suggest that an ice sheet about half a mile thick could cause a depression 900 feet deep—about the  of an 83-story building.

The displaced mantle flows into areas surrounding the ice sheet, causing that land to rise up, the way stuffing inside a couch will bunch up around your weight. These areas, called “forebulges,” can be quite small, but can also reach more than 300 feet high. The Laurentide Ice Sheet, which weighed down most of Canada and the northern United States, for example, caused an uplift in the central to southern parts of the U.S. Elsewhere, ancient glaciers created forebulges around the Amazon delta area that are still visible today even though the ice melted long ago.

As prehistoric ice sheets began to melt around 11,700 years ago, however, all this changed. The surface began to spring back, allowing more space for the mantle to flow back in. That caused land that had previously been weighed down, like Glacier Bay Park in Alaska and the Hudson Bay in Canada, to rise up. The most dramatic examples of uplift are found in places like Russia, Iceland and Scandinavia, where the largest ice sheets existed. In Sweden, for example, scientists have found that the rising land severed an ancient lake called Malaren from the sea, turning it into a freshwater lake.

At the same time, places that were once forebulges are now sinking, since they are no longer being pushed up by nearby ice sheets. For example, as Scotland rebounds, England sinks approximately seven-tenths of an inch into the North Sea each year. Similarly, as Canada rebounds about four inches each decade, the eastern coast of the U.S. sinks at a rate of approximately three-tenths of an inch each year—more than half the rate of current global sea level rise. A study published in 2015 predicted that Washington, D.C. would drop by six or more inches in the next century due to forebulge collapse, which might put the nation’s monuments and military installations at risk.

Some of the most dramatic uplift is found in Iceland. (Martin De Lusenet, Flickr CC BY)

Recent estimates suggest that land in southeast Alaska is rising at a rate of 1.18 inches per year, a rate much faster than previously suspected. Residents already feel the dramatic impacts of this change. On the positive side, some families living on the coast have doubled or tripled their real estate: As coastal glaciers retreat and land once covered by ice undergoes isostatic rebound, lowland areas rise and create "new" land, which can be an unexpected boon for families living along the coast. One family was able to build a nine-hole golf course on land that has only recently popped out of the sea, a New York Times article reported in 2009. Scientists have also tracked the gravitational pull on Russell Island, Alaska, and discovered that it’s been weakening every year as the land moves farther from the Earth’s center.

Uplift will increase the amount of rocky sediment in areas previously covered in water. For example, researchers predict that uplift will cause estuaries in the Alaskan town of Hoonah to dry up, which will increase the amount of red algae in the area, which in turn, could damage the fragile ecosystems there. In addition, some researchers worry that the rapid uplift in Alaska will also change the food ecosystem and livelihood for salmon fishers.

At the same time, there are a lot of new salmon streams opening up in Glacier Bay, says Eran Hood, professor of environmental science at the University of Alaska. “As glaciers are melting and receding, the land cover is changing rapidly,” he says. “A lot of new areas becoming forested. As the ice recedes, salmon is recolonizing. It’s not good or bad, just different.” 

The rate of uplift due to glacial isostatic adjustment around the world; Antarctica and Canada are expected to rise the most. (By Erik Ivins, JPL. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Although not as visible, all the changes caused by glacier melt and shifting mantle is also causing dramatic changes to the Earth’s rotation and substances below the earth’s surface.

As our gargantuan glaciers melted, the continents up north lost weight quickly, causing a rapid redistribution of weight. Recent research from NASA scientists show that this causes a phenomenon called “true polar wander” where the lopsided distribution of weight on the Earth causes the planet to tilt on its axis until it finds its balance. Our north and south poles are moving towards the landmasses that are shrinking the fastest as the Earth’s center of rotation shifts. Previously, the North Pole was drifting towards Canada; but since 2000, it’s been drifting towards the U.K. and Europe at about four inches per year. Scientists haven’t had to change the actual geographic location of the North Pole yet, but that could change in a few decades.

Redistribution of mass is also slowing down the Earth’s rotation. In 2015, Harvard geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica published a study in Science Advances showing that glacial melt was causing ocean mass to pool around the Earth’s center, slowing down the Earth’s rotation. He likened the phenomenon to a spinning figure skater extending their arms to slow themselves down.

Glacial melt may also be re-awakening dormant earthquakes and volcanoes. Large glaciers suppressed earthquakes, but according to a study published in 2008 in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, as the Earth rebounds, the downward pressure on the plates is released and shaky pre-existing faults could reactivate. In Southeast Alaska, where uplift is most prevalent, the Pacific plate slides under the North American plate, causing a lot of strain. Researchers say that glaciers had previously quelled that strain, but the rebound is allowing those plates to grind up against each other again. “The burden of the glaciers was keeping smaller earthquakes from releasing tectonic stress,” says Erik Ivins, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Melting glaciers may also make way for earthquakes in the middle of plates. One example of that phenomenon is the series of New Madrid earthquakes that rocked the Midwestern United States in the 1800s. While many earthquakes occur on fault lines where two separate plates slide on top of each other, scientists speculate that the earthquakes in the New Madrid area occurred at a place where hot, molten rock underneath the Earth’s crust once wanted to burst through, but was quelled by the weight of massive ice sheets. Now that the ice sheets have melted, however, the mantle is free to bubble up once again.

Scientists have also found a link between deglaciation and outflows of magma from the Earth, although they’re not sure why one causes the other. In the past five years, Iceland has suffered three major volcanic eruptions, which is unusual for the area. Some studies suggest that the weight of the glaciers suppressed volcanic activity and the recent melting is 20-30 times more likely to trigger volcanic eruptions in places like Iceland and Greenland.

The wandering poles: Until recently earth's axis had been slowly moving toward Canada, as shown in this graphic; now, melting ice and other factors are shifting Earth's axis toward Europe. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Much of the mystery pertaining to ancient glaciers is still unsolved. Scientists are still trying to create an accurate model of glacial isostatic adjustment, says Richard Snay, the lead author of the most recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research. “There’s been such software since the early '90s for longitude and latitude measurements but vertical measurements have always been difficult,” says Snay. He and colleagues have developed new equations for measuring isostatic adjustment based off of a complex set of models first published by Dick Peltier, a professor at the University of Toronto. Peltier’s models don’t only take into account mantle viscosity, but also past sea level histories, data from satellites currently orbiting the Earth and even ancient records translated from Babylonian and Chinese texts. “We’re trying to look at glaciation history as a function of time and elasticity of the deep earth,” says Peltier. “The theory continues to be refined. One of the main challenges of this work is describing the effects that are occurring in the earth’s system today, that are occurring as a result of the last Ice Age thousands of years ago.”

Added on to all the unknowns, researchers also don’t know exactly how this prehistoric process will be affected by current patterns of global warming, which is accelerating glacial melt at an unprecedented rate. In Alaska, global warming means less snow in the wintertime, says Hood.

“There is a much more rapid rate of ice loss here compared to many regions of the world,” he says. “The human fingerprint of global warming is just exacerbating issues and increasing the rate of glacial isostatic adjustment.”

And while the effects may vary from city to city—local sea levels may be rising or dropping—it’s clear that the effects are dramatic, wherever they may be. Although many of glaciers have long gone, it’s clear that the weight of their presence still lingers on the Earth, and on our lives.

These Ridiculously Long-Lived Sharks Are Older Than the United States, and Still Living It Up

Smithsonian Magazine

In an evolutionary sense, sharks are among Earth’s oldest survivors; they’ve been roaming the oceans for more than 400 million years. But some individual sharks boast lifespans that are equally jaw-dropping. Incredibly, deepwater sharks off the coast of Greenland appear to have been alive and swimming back in Shakespeare's day 400-plus years ago—making them the longest-lived of all known vertebrates.

Bristlecone pines can live to be 5,000 years old. Sea sponges can live for thousands of years. One quahog, a hard-shelled ocean clam, died in 2006 at the age of 507. But among vertebrates, the long-lived skew much younger. Bowhead whales and rougheye rockfish can live for up to 200 years, and a few giant tortoises may also approach the two century mark. Now it seems that Greenland sharks more than double even these remarkable lifespans, scientists report today in Science.

The reason for the sharks’ unfathomably long lives has to do with their lifestyles. Cold-blooded animals that live in cold environments often have slow metabolic rates, which are correlated with longevity. “The general rule is that deep and cold equals old, so I think a lot of people expected species like Greenland sharks to be long-lived,” says Chris Lowe, a shark biologist at the California State University at Long Beach. “But holy cow, this takes it to an entirely different level.”

Lowe, who wasn’t involved in the research, adds that Greenland sharks must have a metabolic rate “just above a rock.”

Greenland sharks spend their time in the remote, freezing depths of the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans, making it difficult for researchers to parse the details of their lifestyle and reproduction. Determining their birthdates is even harder. Until now, scientists have been thwarted in their efforts to date this elasmobranch species—a group which include sharks, skates, and rays—by the fact that the animals lack calcium-rich bones, which can be radiocarbon dated.

Faced with a dearth of calcium-rich material to date, the authors of the new study employed a creative solution: They searched the sharks’ eyes. The nucleus of the shark’s eye lens, it turns out, is made up of inert crystalline proteins that are formed when the shark is an embryo and contain some of the same isotopes used to date bones and teeth. Measuring the relative ratios of these isotopes enabled scientists to determine the year when each shark was aged zero.

Scientists examined 28 female sharks—all acquired as bycatch from commercial fisheries—to find that many seemed to have lived longer than two centuries. (Scientists discarded the youngest animals, because they showed signs of radiocarbon released by Cold War-era nuclear bomb testing.) The biggest shark of this group, which measured about 16.5 feet, was believed to be 392 years old—placing her in the era of astronomer Galileo Galilei. Yet Greenland sharks are known to grow well over 20 feet, meaning many are likely even older.

Hákarl, an Icelandic dish of fermented shark meat. (Moohaha / Flickr)

Given that the study produced such striking conclusions and relied on unorthodox methods, scientists will likely question its findings. But Lowe said the idea to use radiocarbon in the eye lens is “creative and bold, but I think a safe approach to take,” adding that the results are “mind-boggling.” “If this dating is accurate there are Greenland sharks swimming around now that were swimming around long, long before the U.S. was even founded,” he says. “I have a hard time getting my head around that.”

The key to sticking around longer may have to do with growing slowly. Thanks to several tagging studies dating as far back as the 1950s, we knew that Greenland sharks grow at a snail’s pace, expanding by 1 centimeter a year. Yet they live so long that they still reach typical lengths of 400 to 500 centimeters, or 13 to 16 feet, by the time they attain full size. By contrast, great white sharks—a reasonable comparison in terms of size, says Lowe—can grow a foot a year during the first few years of their lives.

Matching the sharks' ages to their sizes produced another insight. Because previous studies have revealed that females become sexually mature only when they exceed lengths of 400 centimeters, it now appears the sharks don’t reach reproductive maturity until they are 156 years old. From a conservation standpoint, that’s concerning: Such a slow rate of reproduction means that each individual shark may be far more important to the species as a whole than scientists previously realized.

Fishermen once hunted Greenland sharks for their valuable liver oil, which could be used in lamps. A century ago, Greenland alone landed 32,000 sharks a year according to studies compiled at the time. Iceland and Norway also fished the sharks for their oil, which was also used in industrial lubricant and cosmetics. Although the oil lamp industry—and thus most of the Greenland shark trade—is now a relic, that violent history could still have ramifications today.

“One of the possible reasons for large Greenland sharks being rare could be because of [that] targeted fishery for them,” says Richard Brill, a fishery biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and a co-author on the study. “It's possible that the original age structure of the population has not had time to recover in the intervening years ,as the sharks are so slow growing.”

Lamp oil isn’t the only use humans have found for this marine methuselah. While its flesh is toxic, laced with an unpalatable natural antifreeze of urea and trimethylamine oxide, that hasn’t stopped us from eating it. In Iceland, shark meat is drained of fluids, dried outside for months, and served in small pieces as a traditional and notoriously pungent hors d'oeuvre called hákarl or, by some, “rotting shark.” Fortunately, this delicacy creates only a small demand for shark meat according to the BBC, but again, every shark counts.

In fact, the biggest human threat to sharks is unintentional. Many Greenland sharks, including the ones dated in the study, meet their deaths on boat decks when they are picked up as bycatch by coldwater fisheries that catch creatures like shrimp, halibut and other fish with trawling nets and longlines. Preventing that bycatch will have a major bearing on the future outlook of the Greenland shark.

That these fish have survived under pressure for so many years is a testament to their resilience—but not something to be taken for granted. Lowe raises an interesting possibility for how these sharks have managed to survive despite centuries of fishing: “They may have natural refuges where people haven't been able to access them historically,” he says. But as Arctic ice recedes and the seas and fisheries at the top of the world shift, many areas where these ancient animals might have once been safe could open up to new fishing pressures.

Researchers are now planning a shark-catching expedition for next spring, says Brill, “with the hope of getting some eye lens samples from some exceptionally large animals so we can confirm their ages.” But as those exceptionally large sharks aren't often captured, the expedition may rely on something that's even harder to pin down than an exact age: good fortune. “This will take some considerable luck,” Brill says.

One Scientist May Have Finally Figured Out the Mystery of Why a Civil War Submarine Sank

Smithsonian Magazine

Around 6:30 p.m. on February 17, 1864, eight men crammed into the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley, a self-propelled metal tube attached to a bomb, and slipped quietly into the freezing black water off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. The crew hand-cranked the sub more than six kilometers toward its target—the Union blockader USS Housatonic—and surfaced like a leviathan for the charge. By 9:00 p.m., it was over: The Hunley had thrust its spar-mounted torpedo into the Housatonic’s hull and within seconds, 60 kilograms of black powder had caved in the ship.

Just after the brief moment of glory, the Hunley, which had just become the world’s first successful combat submarine, mysteriously sank.

Its demise has baffled scores of researchers and Civil War buffs for more than a century. Now, one maverick scientist is making the bold claim that she has cracked the case. After three years of sleuthing, Rachel Lance, a U.S. Navy biomedical engineer who holds a PhD from Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering in North Carolina, concludes that the blast from the sub’s own torpedo sent blast waves through its iron hull and caused instant death for the eight men inside.

If she’s right, the mystery of the Hunley may finally be put to rest. But how she made the discovery is almost as surprising as the discovery itself: She did it without access to the physical sub, which was excavated in 2000; without prior experience in archaeology or forensics; and without help from the Hunley Project, a team of researchers and scientists at Clemson University in South Carolina that has been on the case full time for the past 17 years.

Without collaboration or key pieces of data, could Lance’s account of the final moments of the Hunley and its crew be right?


On a warm September Saturday, I’m standing outside the student center at Duke, a low-rise contemporary building accented with the university’s signature neo-Gothic stone, when Lance swings around the bend in a blue Pontiac Grand Prix straight out of Motor City where she grew up. As I open the passenger door to introduce myself, I’m hit by a wall of thumping workout music. Lance just came from the gym, and her brown, shoulder-length hair is thrown up in an elastic. A blue, stonewashed T-shirt that reads Detroit rides up her pale, lanky arms.

As we make our way off campus, the music keeps pumping.

“Where are we headed?” I yell.

“I’m taking you to the campus pond to see where we ran some of our experiments,” she thunders back. “It’s quiet there so we can talk.”

An oil painting by Conrad Wise Chapman, circa 1898, depicts the inventor of the ill-fated H. L. Hunley, along with a sentinel. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lance was modeling an underwater explosion at a computer in Duke’s Injury Biomechanics Lab, where she studied blast injuries, when her adviser had the epiphany that set her Hunley obsession in motion. What if, biomechanical engineer Dale Bass suggested, the modeling software could virtually reconstruct the attack on the Housatonic and reveal insights into the fate of the Hunley? Lance, a history buff, was hooked: a historical mystery with a tantalizing lead to follow. Eventually she’d abandon the software for a more hands-on experimental approach, but Bass’s idea was the catalyst she needed.

She began reading theories about why the Hunley went down. One prevailing idea was that the crew ran out of oxygen and suffocated. It was exactly the type of theory she was poised to tackle: she’s been a civil service engineer with the U.S. Navy since 2009 and has expertise in breathing system dynamics and, more specifically, rebreathers—the closed-circuit breathing systems divers use to recycle breathing gas underwater.

As her investigation got underway, Lance noticed there was very little, if any, published research on the crew’s oxygen consumption during the mission. With the navy, she had researched the phenomenon of how much oxygen people used while operating hand-pedal ergometers requiring the same type of motion as the Hunley’s hand-cranked propulsion system. So, she dug up the data and used it to calculate how much oxygen the crew would have used while cranking their way toward the Housatonic.

It wasn’t clear how much oxygen there was to begin with, though. After hauling up the sub, the Hunley Project conservators calculated how much air was likely available. Their data suggests the crew had enough air for little more than two hours. Lance, however, didn’t have access to the actual data. She had met with project members to discuss collaboration, but they wouldn’t share their calculations with her (and, later on, would ask Lance to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which she’d decline). She’d have to go her own way.


She mulled over the problem for days. Then, she remembered thumbing through a newsletter published by Friends of the Hunley, a nonprofit in Charleston that handles outreach, fundraising, and development for the Hunley Project and runs tours at Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center where the Hunley is being restored. It was filled with interior and exterior photos of the sub, most of which had measurement notations below them. That gave her an idea.

Rachel Lance and her assistants test the CSS Tiny’s gauges with shock tubes at the Duke University reclamation pond in North Carolina. (Courtesy of Rachel Lance/Duke University)

For the next month, Lance sat hunched over her desk printing out photos of the sub, measuring each demarcated point with a ruler. After weeks of painstaking work, she finally had all the measurements necessary to calculate oxygen consumption versus supply. The results leapt off the page. Suffocation was not a plausible explanation for why the Hunley sank.

“Even with conservative calculations, the crew would have been experiencing noticeable hyperventilation, gasping for breath, choking, symptoms of panic, and likely physical pain from high levels of CO2 in the blood,” she says. “But we also know from records that they were seated peacefully at their stations without any signs of struggle. So, from my perspective, this tossed the suffocation theory out the window.” The findings were published in the March 2016 issue of the journal Forensic Science International.

Richard Moon, the medical director of the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, agrees. He helped Lance run the calculations and says, “You have a bunch of submariners who were working moderately hard in an enclosed space. There’s no way they would be working away at the crank in a 10 percent oxygen environment with high levels of CO2 and say, ‘Oh well, things are fine; we’ll just keep on going.’”

The folks at Clemson weren’t convinced. Kellen Correia, president and executive director of the Friends of the Hunley, stated in an email that, “It’s premature to draw any final conclusions about the causes of the loss of the submarine or death of the crew, especially when looking at only one aspect of the situation.” She didn’t, however, reference any specific issues with Lance’s findings.


Debunking the suffocation theory offered Lance some short-term satisfaction, but by this point, she was in deep. She began thinking about the Hunley around the clock, obsessing over it to the point where she’d zone out and stare into her plate of food during dinner with her fiancé. “There was something viscerally terrifying about the fact that eight people died that night, and we had no idea how or why,” she says.

In the meantime, Hunley Project conservators at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center were chiseling—and continue to chisel—their way through the stubborn, concrete-like layer of sand and silt that formed around the Hunley as it sat on the seafloor for more than 100 years.

“The de-concretion has the opportunity to give us more information,” says Clemson archeologist Michael Scafuri, “but we haven’t uncovered any definitive evidence to completely explain the loss of the Hunley. Nothing in and of itself explains what happened.”

There hasn’t been any case-cracking evidence on the human remains side, either. Linda Abrams, a forensic genealogist who has been working on and off with the Hunley Project since 2006, says all of the crew member skeletons were in good shape when they were excavated from the Hunley’s interior. The sub was completely filled with sediment when it was salvaged, so layer upon layer of muck had to be carefully removed before the bones were exposed. “There were no bullet wounds in any of these guys,” she says. And no signs of desperation.

While the scientists haven’t come up with a smoking gun, there is a small area of damage to the sub’s exterior that has stumped them. The forward conning tower has a softball-sized chunk of iron missing where a viewport had been.

A 1900 edition of Popular Science Monthly included this depiction of the cramped quarters within the H. L. Hunley, which we have animated. While nine men are shown here, the Hunley is believed to have had an eight-man crew the night it sank in 1864. (Popular Science Monthly)

Through her research, Lance learned of the damage to the conning tower and the so-called lucky shot theory: a stray bullet fired by Housatonic sailors during the attack punctured the tower, causing the sub to fill with water and sink.

From Scafuri’s perspective, it is a possibility. “The gunfire from the Housatonic may have played a role in this,” he says, “but we cannot confirm that at this point.”

Lance tested the theory by shooting Civil War-era firearms at cast iron samples—the damage to the sub was inconsistent with damage from her rifle fire. Plus, she says, a bullet hole would have allowed water to rush into the sub quickly and caused it to sink much closer to the attack site than where it was found.

Based on her results, Lance crossed the lucky shot theory off her list and documented the findings in a second paper in Forensic Science International.

The Friends of the Hunley declined to comment on the specific findings, but Correia wrote, “Again, Ms. Lance doesn’t have any primary knowledge or data of the Hunley Project.”

Lance pressed on. If the crew hadn’t suffocated, and a bullet hole didn’t sink the sub, what did happen?


When the Hunley took down the towering Housatonic, it was less than five meters away from the blast. And, it was still attached to the torpedo; inspired by Confederate steam-powered torpedo boats known as Davids during the Civil War, the Hunley’s crew had bolted the sub’s torpedo onto the end of its spar. This meant the same explosion that rocked the Housatonic could just as well have meant lights out for the Hunley crew.

Lance had spent the better part of two years investigating the suffocation and lucky shot theories, published twice, and still hadn’t solved the mystery. For her, this explosion theory was the next obvious avenue to explore, and one that meshed well with her injury biomechanics focus at Duke. If a blast wave from the explosion propagated into the interior of the sub, she reasoned, it could have immediately killed the crew or at least injured them sufficiently that they would have been unable to pilot the boat to safety. “When blast waves hit an air space, they slow down like a car hitting a wall,” she explains. “Except in this case, the wall is the surface of the lungs.” The sailors’ lungs could have ruptured and filled with blood.

To test the theory, Lance needed a physical model of the sub. Enter the CSS Tiny, a scale model a sixth the size of the tour bus-length Hunley. Made out of sheet metal, it was a Hunley mini-me right down to ballast tanks filled with water and a steel spar mounted to the bow.

Engineering a miniature submarine wasn’t a stretch for Lance, who grew up working on old cars with her father, a now-retired GM autoworker. As a kid, she was small enough to slide under their 1966 Mustang to change the oil without jacking up the car. “Growing up around car culture makes it easy to fall in love with machinery and engineering,” she says.

At a farm in rural North Carolina, Rachel Lance and one of her assistants, Luke Stalcup, prepare the CSS Tiny to receive explosions to test her blast wave theory. (Photo by Denise Lance)

A few minutes after peeling away from campus in Lance’s Pontiac, we pull into a dusty lot at the Duke University reclamation pond. The thumping bass line cuts out abruptly and the soundtrack is replaced with the ratchet-like chorus of crickets. At the pond’s edge, she gestures to the water, thick with algae: this is where the Tiny took a test run. Lance and a few members from her lab used blast simulation devices known as shock tubes to test the Tiny’s pressure gauges and other equipment in advance of the live explosives phase of the experiment. As she stood in the water, raising and lowering the shock tubes, fish chomped at her legs. It was as if she was being repeatedly stabbed with tiny knives—but by the end of it, Lance and the Tiny were ready for the big event.


The campus pond was off limits to real explosives, so, two weeks later, Lance and her research team trekked out to a three-hectare pond on a rural North Carolina farm for the live ammo tests. They parked the Tiny in the middle of the pond, and with an explosives agent standing guard, the stage was set. Lance began the countdown: “Five! Four! Three! …” The culmination of months of hard work all came down to the next few seconds, and her nerves were frayed as she frantically clicked between sensor readout screens on her laptop.

From a safe distance, farmer Bert Pitt and his grandchildren were ready for the show. Lance had sweet-talked him into volunteering his pond for the project. “When Rachel came out to the farm,” says Pitt in a thick southern drawl, “she tried to butter me up with red velvet cake and explained that it would only be a one-sixth-scale explosion.”

“Two! One!” Pfffsssssttt! The black powder charge exploded on the Tiny’s spar, and a small geyser of pond water erupted. Pressure gauges hung inside and outside the vessel to measure the underwater blast waves. Below the surface, the explosion jetted a blast wave into the Tiny’s hull with so much force that it caused the metal to flex. That motion, in turn, generated a second blast wave that transmitted straight through the hull into the cabin.

“The secondary blast wave from this would have easily caused pulmonary blast trauma that killed the whole crew instantly,” Lance says. “This is what sank the Hunley.”

Moon supports the conclusion. He says most people would assume that the cabin walls would have protected the crew from the blast waves—but few people know much about underwater explosions. “Speculation up to this point has been fine,” he says, “but when you hold it up to hard science, I think the blast wave theory is the most plausible explanation.”

Rachel Lance stands with her model of the H. L. Hunley—the CSS Tiny—at the Duke University reclamation pond. (Photo by Eric Wei)

While Lance believes the mystery of the Hunley can finally be put to rest, the Hunley Project scientists aren’t ready to jump to conclusions. They’ve acknowledged the explosion theory as a possibility in the past, but began to doubt it prior to Lance’s experiment based on results from a computer modeling study conducted by the US Navy in 2013. The study suggests the blast wave would not have harmed the crew, yet further studies continue to second-guess any previous study conclusions.

“The problem is, it’s a complicated scenario,” says Scafuri. “It’s sort of like trying to reconstruct the causes of a car accident with limited information. Would you be able to find evidence of an accident that happened because a bee flew in through the window and distracted the driver, who happened to be texting, on a stretch of road that was slick?”


“Oh, I have something for you,” says Lance at Duke’s reclamation pond. She reaches into her backpack and hands me a cigar-sized, 3D-printed replica of the Hunley—a souvenir of sorts. It offers a micro, yet detailed, view of the sub’s interior that makes me realize how confining the crew compartment—which at full-scale was only one meter wide and 1.2 meters high—must have been for eight grown men. It was a death trap. The fact they crammed themselves into the tube anyway was a sacrifice Lance seems to have unwavering respect for. It’s part of what drove her to press on to the finish line, despite the odds being stacked against her.


But how could it be that Lance was able to unravel a century-old mystery in such a relatively short period of time, particularly given the Hunley Project’s 14-year head start? Was it beginner’s luck, or her ability to approach the problem from a different scientific vantage? Maybe it simply came down to old-fashioned determination. “You have to deal with a lot when doing this kind of research, especially when you’re doing things on your own, which can be difficult and lonely,” she says. “You need to have a lot of perseverance, because that’s where the good stuff is—past that limit where nobody’s been able to push through the problem before.”

In the end, maybe it had more to do with the fact that the Hunley Project is intent on both carrying out the painstakingly slow process of conserving the sub and explaining its disappearance. Although, from a revenue perspective, the mystery in and of itself may be a real positive for the Hunley Project and Friends of the Hunley, considering the sales of T-shirts, shot glasses, and lab tours it helps generate.

Regardless, when Lance’s findings from her blast wave experiment are published (a research paper will be released imminently), the Hunley Project team will be watching.

This time, it will be their theory to disprove.

Related Stories from Hakai Magazine:

Slugs Inspire Super-Strong Glue to Seal Wounds

Smithsonian Magazine

Even with modern medicine’s advances, doctors still seal wounds with techniques seemingly more appropriate for craft circles than the operating room: staples, sewing kits and glue. Thanks to a new invention, the science of medical adhesives may get a modern revamp. Researchers literally turned over stones to devise a new super-strong glue from an unlikely source—slugs. 

The current gold standard in medical adhesives is none other than superglue. The active compound in superglue, cyanoacrylate, is the toughest substance out there, but being strong is about all it has going for it. Superglue won’t stick to wet surfaces, which tends to be a problem with bleeding wounds. Once applied to a dry surface, it solidifies immediately into a stiff and unyielding plastic that breaks instead of moving with the body during healing. To top things off, it can be toxic to living cells.

“Sometimes it’s surprising, isn’t it?” says David Mooney of the rustic suturing methods available to doctors. Mooney is a professor of bioengineering at Harvard University whose research looks to the natural world to design new materials for medical applications. “Over the evolutionary process organisms have to face a number of different situations,” he says. It might take a million years, but in that time an organism can find the most elegant and effective way to rebuild a shell or patch a wound. Humans reach for a staple gun.

Mooney and his team try and bring a little bit of the animal kingdom’s finesse into man-made solutions to problems. They call it “bioinspiration.” Jianyu Li, a postdoctoral fellow in Mooney’s lab, started the search for an exemplary candidate that was a bastion of the strength and flexibility needed to seal wounds and save lives in a surgical setting. After poring over the literature, “[we] found this very fantastic creature,” Li says. “The slug.”

Arion subfuscus is a common orange slug that lives in northern temperate regions around the world. Its protective mucus has inspired a new medical glue. (Wikimedia Commons)

Arion subfuscus, the slug in question, might seem like an unlikely candidate. These unassuming, rusty orange molluscs lead a simple life in gardens and underneath logs in northern temperate regions around the world, minding their own business. That is, until something messes with them. If a hungry predator tries to take a nibble, the slug detonates a cache of defensive mucus. 

“When I discovered these slugs and picked one of them up, I knew this material was really amazing,” says Andrew Smith, a professor of biology at Ithaca College and an expert in the biochemical properties of mollusc mucus who was not involved in the study. “It literally oozes off the back of the slug and sets in seconds into a really tough, elastic gel,” he says.

“The thing that makes it exciting is that the material is very tough,” Smith says. It can be stretched more than 10 times its own length, like a rubber band that won’t snap. It can harden, but remains flexible. Unlike superglue, it’ll work on wet surfaces. And it’s super, super sticky. In fact, Smith is still struggling to de-gunk his lab equipment.

Transfixed by the power of the mucus, he set out to figure out how it worked.

“A typical gel like Jell-o is stiff, but it’s brittle—if you press a spoon on it it splits,” Smith says. The slugs have figured out a way to be strong where gelatinous desserts are weak. He discovered that the mucus is 97 percent water, but woven through with two different polymers. The first is organized like a mesh net; it provides the strong backbone. Tangled through the mesh are extensive polymer chains that keep the mesh knitted together when stretched long distances. This so-called double matrix is the key to the strength and flexibility of the slug’s mucus.

Then the slugs make the whole thing sticky by lining it with positively charged proteins that act like atomic velcro, binding it to the negative charges on tissue surfaces. The net result? A mouth full of impermeable glue when a predator goes in for a slug snack. Or, the perfect inspiration for a novel, ultra-strong medical adhesive.   

Watch this video in the original article

Based on Smith’s work characterizing the slug mucus, Li set out to replicate its properties in a synthetic adhesive. Mooney and Li point out that no garden critters will ever be harmed to make their invention. “We don’t have any element of slug mucus in our material,” Mooney says. “We used it as inspiration.”

After a few years of trial and error, Li produced a prototype that perfectly mimicked the slug’s durable double matrix properties, which they describe in a study out today in the journal Science. The top layer is a hydrogel that can be cut to the size needed. The second layer is applied as liquid to the hydrogel and activates the chemical bonding. “It’s Scotch tape that’s attached to something very elastic and can move readily with tissues,” Mooney says.

The new adhesive hits the sweet spot when it comes to timing in a surgical setting as well. “It’s not like if you accidentally touch it to your skin it’s stuck and you can’t get it off,” Mooney says. Surgeons would have about 10 seconds to get the adhesive into place. Once set, the adhesive “can accommodate the stress and strain experienced by the tissues,” says Li—strains like a beating heart, breathing, and movement.

With a prototype, the team put its adhesive to the test. They performed mechanical stretching experiments, used the adhesive to patch up injured rat livers, and even demonstrated its strength in sealing a large defect in a beating pig heart. In every trial their slug-inspired adhesive outperformed all the commercially available products, moving flexibly with healing livers and pumping hearts, all with no toxicity evident.  

The team’s strategy of looking to nature to solve problems is a value shared by Phillip Messersmith, a professor of bioengineering and materials science at the University of California Berkeley whose research uses mussels as bioinspiration for adhesives. “It’s really a very important study,” he says. “Very well executed, and with important implications for medical applications.” Though Messersmith had no technical reservations, he notes that any future surgical applications will require the material to be biodegradable.

Luckily, a biodegradable version of these adhesives is next on the docket. With a patent pending, Li and Mooney also plan to assess whether their invention could be used safely in people. “In human patients, safety is paramount so there will be long term studies to have a high level of confidence in safety,” Mooney says. They’re also developing a version of the adhesive that can be injected into hard to reach places that need patching up. Inspired by an unassuming slug under the rocks in your garden, it seems the sky’s the limit for this invention.

“We’ve been working on the slugs for a while, and I’ve been really confident that this was going to lead to something good,” Smith says. “I’ve always felt that this slug was remarkable and had potential to lead to really useful glues, and wow—they really showed.”

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