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10 blog posts from 2016 that history buffs can't miss

National Museum of American History

2016 was a stupendous year for the museum's blog! Many thanks to the staff, volunteers, interns, and guest writers who shared their research and expertise with us on topics ranging from an epic 1888 blizzard to a British-American television series about historical time travel. But we want to offer a special thanks to YOU, reader, for making our blog part of your week and sharing these stories with your friends and colleagues.

One of your favorite topics this year was food history so I've made a separate list of the top food history posts of 2016 for you to nibble upon. (I'll publish that one soon!) Read on for some can't-miss history posts from our blog.

A handwritten note hastily scrawled on a large rectangular yellow Post-it

1. Why did the Smithsonian collect a handwritten note from September 11, 2001?
We recently collected a handwritten note from a wife to her husband on September 11, 2001. Both were Pentagon employees who survived the terrorist attack, and in an era in which cell phones were yet to be essential possessions, a system of putting a note on their car in an emergency reunited them on a tragic day. The story of this unassuming scrap of paper received over 64,480 pageviews in just a few months.

young man wearing a jacket and a kilt seated upon a desk or similar furniture

2. Finding Outlander in the Photographic History Collections
Fans of the world of Outlander, with strapping Jamie and sharp-witted sassenach Claire, loved our post of photos which included views of Scotland and fashions that traveled from the Highlands to America. We definitely "ken" why this one was such a favorite.

Tinted black and white photo featuring a bride with veil, three or four groomsmen, and three bridesmaids. They are outdoors with leafy green trees and green grass. Behind them, a woman stands with arms crossed and cars are parked.

3. Pick which photos of celebrations in African American life should go on our walls
Celebrations of all kinds are on display in this touching post, featuring special moments and traditions in American culture. Inviting the public to decide the winners, we presented a number of colorful, thoughtful, and vibrant photos from African American life for consideration. Who won? We revealed the winners here.

Color photo of a woman carefully handling a Ruby Slipper and placing it into a brace or mount for display.

4. The conservator who is saving the Ruby Slippers' sparkle

Our supremely successful Kickstarter campaign raised the necessary funds to study and conserve the famed Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz so they can stay on display for generations to come. In this post, we sit down with Dawn Wallace, a member of the conservation team that will painstakingly research and work on one of the most popular objects at the museum. Want more details about why the slippers need conservation or our Kickstarter campaign? Find your answers here.

Color photo of lots of red poppies growing in front of the Washington Memorial. Blue skies and green trees surround.

5. Before Memorial Day, brush up on your language of flowers

Flowers and the military might seem like an odd pairing, but symbolism behind certain blooms has historical significance. "Floriography" (the language of flowers) was prevalent in the Victorian Era, but wearing red poppies is a tradition that has endured to contemporary times.

Black and white photo of man wearing a hat leaning against a giant bank of snow. To the right, snow-covered gate or fence and three story building.

6. The blizzard of 1888

Snowmaggedon of 2016 bogged down the mid-Atlantic states with foot after foot of snow, but imagine a storm in a time without snow plows when people had no choice but to cope. Wowed by several feet of snow? Try New York in 1888, which suffered under STORIES. History shows that nature can be a powerful and fearsome thing.

Photo two nuns walk with a line of students. The girls, at the front of the line, wear white dresses and have headbands on. The boys, in the back of the line, wear blue suits. They're on a sidewalk outside a building.

7. A uniform approach to documenting Catholic school education

Did you go to Catholic school? Did you wear a uniform? The uniforms of the early days of parochial school were not the crisp khakis, navy skirts, and white blouses we see today. While school attire may chafe at the sensibilities of individualistic youth, the history of parochial school uniforms is not at all bland.

Postcard with photo of two young children wearing ballet shoes. Little boy holds top hat in his raised hand and an over-sized coat. The little girl strikes a pose with a fancy fan and wears a full-skirted tea length dress and a hat with many bows.

8. Who takes the cake? The history of the cakewalk

A distinctly African American product, the circular group "cake walk" dance originated with enslaved people, who sometimes used the activity to mock the culture of their masters. Who got the joke and who didn't? This blog post reveals the cake walk was way more than a simple promenade dance with a pastry for a prize.

A caricature of Jefferson Davis stands bawling with text, "Jeff, on Harper's Ferry. I should think I might be let alone. Boo-oo-oh"

9. 4 fascinating examples of Civil War humor

Americans have always been able to find humor in situations that seem devoid of hope. The Civil War, one of the darkest periods in national history, still had humorous propaganda, cartoons, and art skewering Confederate leaders and military men.

A full-length photo of the sewing machine. It looks like a box with painted doors featuring images of a man and woman. The top is open to show the sewing needle.

10. Yes, Mrs. Tom Thumb had a sewing machine

Fascination with celebrities is a cornerstone of American popular culture and public life, with individuals and families becoming wealthy and famous through voracious self-promotion, scandal, and entrepreneurship. A celebrity of yesteryear called Tom Thumb had a celebrity wedding that rivaled the glitzy movie star extravaganzas we see in tabloids today. Mr. and Mrs. Thumb captured national attention because of their size as well as the Thumbs' work with P.T. Barnum.

Rebecca Seel works with the Office of Communication and Marketing as well as the New Media Department. She would love to be in a wedding where she wears "a bright pink bridesmaids dress" like the one in this blog post.

Posted Date: 
Monday, December 19, 2016 - 11:00
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=xhfKpPFXbcY:TeoiU_gbZsA:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=xhfKpPFXbcY:TeoiU_gbZsA:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

10 blog posts from 2016 that history buffs can't miss

National Museum of American History

2016 was a stupendous year for the museum's blog! Many thanks to the staff, volunteers, interns, and guest writers who shared their research and expertise with us on topics ranging from an epic 1888 blizzard to a British-American television series about historical time travel. But we want to offer a special thanks to YOU, reader, for making our blog part of your week and sharing these stories with your friends and colleagues.

One of your favorite topics this year was food history so I've made a separate list of the top food history posts of 2016 for you to nibble upon. (I'll publish that one soon!) Read on for some can't-miss history posts from our blog.

A handwritten note hastily scrawled on a large rectangular yellow Post-it

1. Why did the Smithsonian collect a handwritten note from September 11, 2001?
We recently collected a handwritten note from a wife to her husband on September 11, 2001. Both were Pentagon employees who survived the terrorist attack, and in an era in which cell phones were yet to be essential possessions, a system of putting a note on their car in an emergency reunited them on a tragic day. The story of this unassuming scrap of paper received over 64,480 pageviews in just a few months.

young man wearing a jacket and a kilt seated upon a desk or similar furniture

2. Finding Outlander in the Photographic History Collections
Fans of the world of Outlander, with strapping Jamie and sharp-witted sassenach Claire, loved our post of photos which included views of Scotland and fashions that traveled from the Highlands to America. We definitely "ken" why this one was such a favorite.

Tinted black and white photo featuring a bride with veil, three or four groomsmen, and three bridesmaids. They are outdoors with leafy green trees and green grass. Behind them, a woman stands with arms crossed and cars are parked.

3. Pick which photos of celebrations in African American life should go on our walls
Celebrations of all kinds are on display in this touching post, featuring special moments and traditions in American culture. Inviting the public to decide the winners, we presented a number of colorful, thoughtful, and vibrant photos from African American life for consideration. Who won? We revealed the winners here.

Color photo of a woman carefully handling a Ruby Slipper and placing it into a brace or mount for display.

4. The conservator who is saving the Ruby Slippers' sparkle

Our supremely successful Kickstarter campaign raised the necessary funds to study and conserve the famed Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz so they can stay on display for generations to come. In this post, we sit down with Dawn Wallace, a member of the conservation team that will painstakingly research and work on one of the most popular objects at the museum. Want more details about why the slippers need conservation or our Kickstarter campaign? Find your answers here.

Color photo of lots of red poppies growing in front of the Washington Memorial. Blue skies and green trees surround.

5. Before Memorial Day, brush up on your language of flowers

Flowers and the military might seem like an odd pairing, but symbolism behind certain blooms has historical significance. "Floriography" (the language of flowers) was prevalent in the Victorian Era, but wearing red poppies is a tradition that has endured to contemporary times.

Black and white photo of man wearing a hat leaning against a giant bank of snow. To the right, snow-covered gate or fence and three story building.

6. The blizzard of 1888

Snowmaggedon of 2016 bogged down the mid-Atlantic states with foot after foot of snow, but imagine a storm in a time without snow plows when people had no choice but to cope. Wowed by several feet of snow? Try New York in 1888, which suffered under STORIES. History shows that nature can be a powerful and fearsome thing.

Photo two nuns walk with a line of students. The girls, at the front of the line, wear white dresses and have headbands on. The boys, in the back of the line, wear blue suits. They're on a sidewalk outside a building.

7. A uniform approach to documenting Catholic school education

Did you go to Catholic school? Did you wear a uniform? The uniforms of the early days of parochial school were not the crisp khakis, navy skirts, and white blouses we see today. While school attire may chafe at the sensibilities of individualistic youth, the history of parochial school uniforms is not at all bland.

Postcard with photo of two young children wearing ballet shoes. Little boy holds top hat in his raised hand and an over-sized coat. The little girl strikes a pose with a fancy fan and wears a full-skirted tea length dress and a hat with many bows.

8. Who takes the cake? The history of the cakewalk

A distinctly African American product, the circular group "cake walk" dance originated with enslaved people, who sometimes used the activity to mock the culture of their masters. Who got the joke and who didn't? This blog post reveals the cake walk was way more than a simple promenade dance with a pastry for a prize.

A caricature of Jefferson Davis stands bawling with text, "Jeff, on Harper's Ferry. I should think I might be let alone. Boo-oo-oh"

9. 4 fascinating examples of Civil War humor

Americans have always been able to find humor in situations that seem devoid of hope. The Civil War, one of the darkest periods in national history, still had humorous propaganda, cartoons, and art skewering Confederate leaders and military men.

A full-length photo of the sewing machine. It looks like a box with painted doors featuring images of a man and woman. The top is open to show the sewing needle.

10. Yes, Mrs. Tom Thumb had a sewing machine

Fascination with celebrities is a cornerstone of American popular culture and public life, with individuals and families becoming wealthy and famous through voracious self-promotion, scandal, and entrepreneurship. A celebrity of yesteryear called Tom Thumb had a celebrity wedding that rivaled the glitzy movie star extravaganzas we see in tabloids today. Mr. and Mrs. Thumb captured national attention because of their size as well as the Thumbs' work with P.T. Barnum.

Rebecca Seel works with the Office of Communication and Marketing as well as the New Media Department. She would love to be in a wedding where she wears "a bright pink bridesmaids dress" like the one in this blog post.

Posted Date: 
Monday, December 19, 2016 - 11:00
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=xhfKpPFXbcY:TeoiU_gbZsA:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=xhfKpPFXbcY:TeoiU_gbZsA:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

100 Years Later, the First International Treaty to Protect Birds Has Grown Wings

Smithsonian Magazine

Nature's most flamboyant feathers were intended to attract other birds. But showy feathers also have the unfortunate tendency to attract humans. In the late 1800's, American and European women were loving birds to death through fashion. Feathers became so desirable on women's hats that entire populations of birds were being driven towards extinction.

An ostrich feather hat in Smithsonian's collection is a typical example of the fashion that demanded mass harvest of birds. This year, the U.S. and Canada are both celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Migratory Bird Treaty, which demanded that those hats go out of style. America and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) signed the historic international treaty on August 16th, 1916. 

Birds are important not only for the ecosystem services they provide, but for their function as environmental indicators. If we want to understand the complex challenges facing us today—zoonotic diseases, climate change—“we need to look to our feathered colleagues in the sky,” says David Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who addressed the sixth annual North American Ornithology Conference taking place in Washington, D.C. this week. 

At the turn of the century, birds like the snowy egret and the great blue heron were being gunned down by the thousands for their plumes. Ostriches were comparatively lucky—entrepreneurs soon learned that those could be ranched for greater profit than hunting them.

Some birds came under attack for their meat as well. Any respectable restaurant in the Eastern U.S. offered wild canvasback duck on the menu. Other waterfowl fetched lower prices at markets and restaurants. Ordinary shotguns were not sufficient for the slaughter of ducks and geese, which took place on a scale similar to modern commercial fishing. Many market hunters used punt guns, which were essentially small cannons mounted on boats that were capable of taking out entire flocks at once.

Two groups of people were particularly horrified at what was taking place: bird lovers and traditional hunters.

In 1887, Teddy Roosevelt organized The Boone and Crockett Club, which was (and remains) an organization of sport hunters who sought to protect wildlife and wild places. It was the first organization created for citizen action towards conservation policy. Early successes included lobbying for the creation of national forests and the passage of The Yellowstone Protection Act.

Boone and Crockett's model helped to inspire the creation of other environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

In 1896, two ladies from the cream of Boston society decided to do something about the feathers in hats being marketed to them. Harriet Hemenway and Mina Hall organized a series of afternoon teas in which they implored other affluent women to stop wearing feathered hats. Their tea parties grew into the formation of the Audubon Society.

The fledgling Audubon Society and Boone and Crockett found themselves cooperating in 1900 as they both lobbied for the passage of The Lacey Act, which established federal penalties for transporting live or dead animals across state lines if they had been killed or taken in violation of state or federal laws. The Lacey Act was one of a series of federal laws that helped to protect birds from being exterminated, but it still wasn't enough.

Any birdwatcher understands that birds know no borders. They migrate across state and national lines every year, and so protecting threatened birds on one side of their migration wasn't enough. An international treaty was needed to ensure cooperation between nations for the protection of wildlife. The result was the Migratory Bird Treaty, which remains a cornerstone of North American conservation and a template for future cooperation around the globe.

Under the accompanying Migratory Bird Treaty Act, all birds in the United States that migrate across state or international borders are regulated by the federal government. Non-migratory birds, such as wild turkeys, are not covered by the Act.

In today’s era of interconnectedness, the treaty remains as relevant as ever, says Pete Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. “It’s almost more important today than it was then,” Marra said at the conference, which, with more than 2,000 participants representing 42 countries in attendance, is perhaps the world’s largest meeting of its kind. “Back then, with declines in over 40 species, we knew the causes: overhunting of ducks, culling of egrets and herons for fashion and food. Now, we don’t know what the cause is.”

Marra, who is chairing the conference, added: “As we look to the next 100 years … we’re really going to have to expand that legislation. We’re going to have to expand the number of countries.” 

When legal protections were first given to birds, the tools for studying and preserving them were limited. Back in 1916, visual population counts were made by biologists and amateurs and a small number of over-stretched game wardens tried to police breeding grounds. With the advent of new technologies, more tools are now available. The threats have also changed during the past century. Rather than overhunting, it is loss of habitat, poor water quality, invasive species and environmental toxins that comprise the primary threats to American birds.

Lane Nothman, managing director of the nonprofit Boreal Songbird Initiative, says the way forward lies in using the information we've gleaned from new technology including geolocators, radioisotopes, and citizen science. "Technology is revealing new and different things about bird migration," she says. "It's directing us toward the need to protect larger swaths of habitat for breeding, wintering, and migratory routes." Here's hoping we can continue to muster the international cooperation to expand that protection.
 

10:00 Closed circuit TV - during info film technicians waiting for question period

National Air and Space Museum
10:00 Closed circuit TV - during info film technicians waiting for question period. Red and Gray felt-tip pen drawing on white paper depicting three men and camera equipment. Text at lower right.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

11 Photographs of Mysterious Megaliths

Smithsonian Magazine

Stonehenge, naturally, raises some questions. Who put those giant sandstones on Salisbury Plain in southern England? And, how and why were they erected? But, what few people realize is that prehistoric, standing megaliths can be found throughout the world.

Photographer Barbara Yoshida has ventured across the globe, stopping in Morocco, Gambia, Israel, Russia and other places, to photograph these mysterious stones at night. She has compiled her images in a new book, Moon Viewing: Megaliths by Moonlight. “There is a timeless quality about these megalithic sites,” says Yoshida over the phone. “It gives them enormous power. They were here before us. They will be here long after we’re gone.”

Growing up 100 miles south of the Canadian border amidst Idaho's lakes and mountains, Yoshida often went camping with her family. It is these trips, she says, that incited her love for travel and the outdoors. After studying art, Yoshida did six residencies with the National Parks Service, living in the parks and photographing nature. She saw her first megalith, Scotland's Ring of Brodgar, in 2003. “It was a circle of huge stones up in the Orkney Islands, and I was just astounded,” she says. “They were so beautiful.” The sky was clear and the moon was nearly full when she visited, so Yoshida stayed through the night to photograph the stone circle. As the temperature dropped, moisture in the air condensed on her lens; the photographer believes this lengthened the star trails in her shots.

More well known are the megaliths in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and England, but Yoshida gradually discovered, mostly through Internet searches, that there are stone monuments all over the world. She found examples in Russia, the Middle East, and Africa, and tracked them down, sometimes only with tourist photographs to guide her. “You just never know whether you’re going to find them at all. But that’s part of the adventure," she says.

In her quest to photograph the stone arrangements by moonlight, Yoshida lived out of a backpack, carrying a tent, clothes, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, as well as her large format camera and other equipment: a heavy tripod, a light meter, 4- by 5-inch film, a tiny darkroom to load the film and film holders. With her manual camera, she is able to focus on selective parts of her images to invoke a sense of mystery. She also leaves the lens open for minutes at a time, giving her images the star trails.

Of the 27 sites included in Moon Viewing, Yoshida says Calanais on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland was a favorite. From the air, the stones form a Celtic cross. Another fascinating location featured in the book is Zoraz Kar in Armenia. While researching the prehistoric monument, Yoshida came across the work of Elma Parsamian, an Armenian astrophysicist who discovered that the holes in the stones point directly at the horizon and would have allowed people to watch lunar phases and the sunrise on the solstice. 

“The mystery surrounding these stones is what draws me to them,” Yoshida writes in her book.

These images are excerpted from Moon Viewing: Megaliths by Moonlight by Barbara Yoshida with a foreword by Linda Connor, an introduction by Barbara Yoshida and an essay by Lucy Lippard. The book will be published by Marquand Books in August 2014. All images are copyright Barbara Yoshida.

11 Strange Science Lessons We Learned This Summer

Smithsonian Magazine

test tube burger

Are test-tube burgers transformative science? Photo courtesy of the Cultured Beef Project

A few days ago, scientists in London unveiled the first lab-grown burger created from stem cells taken from the muscle tissue of cow. The small strips of synthetic meat were collected into pellets and ultimately shaped into the hamburger patty rolled out before the cameras.

Although food critics on hand agreed that the burger felt like real meat in their mouths and tasted okay, most of the coverage of the event came with a heavy dose of snark, usually accompanied with shots of people chomping on big, thick, juicy burgers straight from the cow.

But there was science behind it all–with the research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was motivated to help find more imaginative and planet-friendly ways to produce food. As he put it, “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”

This summer has been full of stories like that, where on the surface the science may seem strange, but it’s spurred by innovative thinking that finds out something new about the world or may make a difference in the way we live some day. Here are 10 more of them:

1) So much for minty breath: Last week, Chinese scientists shared the latest example of why science often isn’t pretty. They reported that they’ve been able to grow rudimentary teeth from human urine. Technically, they transplanted stem cells from urine into mice and those cells were able to grow into knobby things resembling teeth–they had pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. While they were only about a third as hard as the real thing, one day, as the researchers wrote in the journal Cell Regeneration, dentists may be able to plant little buds in your jaw that started out in urine.

2) I love the sound of slot machines in the morning. It sounds like…winning: And scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada say that based on their analysis, the cacophony emanating from slot machines not only makes gambling more exciting, but it also can cause gamblers to think they’ve won more times than they actually have. All that noise, the scientists suggested, can make losses feel like wins.

3) How else would we show how big was the one that got away?: One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Spain last month was the presentation of Cornell University Andrew Bass, who contends that talking with our hands may have its roots in fish. That’s right, fish. Bass, aptly named, said his research indicates that the evolutionary origins of the link between speech and gesturing can be traced to a compartment in a fish’s brain. And that part of its brain, notes Bass, allows a fish to vocalize and gesture with its pectoral fins simultaneously.

4) When rocks scream: Who knew that volcanoes “scream” before they erupt? Okay, it’s not a blood-curdling wail–more like a harmonic vibration–but in some cases, such as Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano, the mountain makes a sound so loud it can actually be heard by humans. A study published in July says that in Redoubt’s case, the sound–high-pitched and increasing in volume–is produced by a succession of small earthquakes caused by quick movements of magma pushed by building pressure before an eruption.

5) I’m too sexy for this cave: While we’re on the subject of nature noise, give props to the male bat. It apparently is quite the romantic singer, according to research by Texas A&M biology professor Mike Smotherman, at least when it comes to enticing a mate. In short, a male bat needs to cut to the chase–he has less than a second to grab a female’s attention as she flies by at 30 feet per second. If he gets her to stop by, he then mixes up his songs to keep her entertained long enough to get to the matter at hand.

6) They need to listen to some slot machines: A Duke University study of chimps and bonobos not only found that apes are quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go as expected, but that they can become particularly agitated when they gamble and lose. In one part of the research, the apes could choose to accept a very small portion of food or wait longer for a larger serving of a meal they weren’t able to see. If the gamble paid off, the apes were able to chow down on a large helping of their favorite fruit. But if it didn’t work and they ended with a big heaping of something like cucumbers, they flipped out, or tried to switch their choice at the last minute. The researchers also found that chimps were both more willing to wait for food and much bigger gamblers than the bonobos.

7) But wait until they get a load of their first kangaroo: Okay, go with me on this: If Martians did exist and if they wanted to take a getaway vacation, but to a place that still felt a little like home, they would head to the Australian outback. So says University of Sydney geologist Patrice Rey, who believes that the red dirt in the central part of the continent might be very much like what’s found on Mars. He has researched why precious opal can be found all over the place there, but hardly anywhere else on Earth, and believes that it started forming when a giant sea that covered much of Australia began drying out about 100 million years ago–conditions similar to those seen on the surface of Mars.

8) The first nano smile: Scientists at Georgia Tech have recreated the world’s most famous painting–the Mona Lisa–on the world’s smallest canvas–a surface about one-third the width of a human hair. The nano-art, titled “Mini Lisa,” is meant to demonstrate a technique in which an atomic force microscope is used to vary the surface concentration of molecules. Da Vinci the scientist would be thrilled, da Vinci the artist, not so much.

9) Show me you care: Humans have much more positive feelings about a robot that cares for them than one they have to take care of. According to a study by an international team of scientists, people think a robot that seems to look out for them is smarter and more human than one that appears to need help. The researchers say this helps them better understand how to get humans to trust robots.

10) When there aren’t enough brains to go around: And finally, researchers using a zombie-themed game found that people under pressure tend to make dumb decisions when evacuating a building. In fact, the more pressure players were under, the more likely they were stick to evacuation routes they knew, even if they meant it took longer for them to escape. The study, reported last month, was part of real science incorporated into a ZombieLab event held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year.

Video bonus: Here’s a clip of the taste test of the first in vitro burger. And an animation that explains how a cow’s muscle tissue grows into a burger, although it sure doesn’t make it very appetizing.

Video bonus bonus: And here’s a look at how science and zombies mix.

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111th Material Culture Forum: CDR Chad W. Graham

National Museum of the American Indian
The 111th Material Culture Forum's topic is "The Art and Science of Celestial Navigation Across the Smithsonian Universe." In this segment, CDR Chad W. Graham, Chairman, Seamanship and Navigation, United States Naval Academy, speaks on "Celestial Navigation at the United States Naval Academy." Chad has an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Naval Academy and a master’s in Systems Engineering and Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School. He was Executive Officer and Commanding Officer of the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) forward deployed to Yokosuka, Japan for three years. Since 1988, the Smithsonian Institution Material Culture Forum has been organizing quarterly meetings that offer staff with opportunities to interact with their colleagues in other disciplines, to share information about their fields, to think about different directions in their research, to develop new collaborative projects, or, to just learn. The Forum considers topics from the vast world of objects that the Smithsonian collects, preserves, studies, and presents. The Forum is welcome to all, including members of the outside academic community. This meeting was recorded in the Rasmuson Theater of the National Museum of the American Indian on February 27, 2019.

111th Material Culture Forum: Fath Davis Ruffins

National Museum of the American Indian
The 111th Material Culture Forum's topic is "The Art and Science of Celestial Navigation Across the Smithsonian Universe." In this segment, Fath Davis Ruffins, Curator of African American History and Culture, National Museum of American History, speaks on "Symbol and Reality: The North Star in American Culture (Follow the Drinking Gourd)." Fath has degrees from Radcliffe College and Harvard University. She is a specialist in African American cultural history, ethnic imagery, and the history of advertising. The many exhibitions she has been involved with include From Slavery to Freedom at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Fath’s forthcoming book is on how the Smithsonian became a more diverse institution in terms of staff, objects, and exhibitions. Since 1988, the Smithsonian Institution Material Culture Forum has been organizing quarterly meetings that offer staff with opportunities to interact with their colleagues in other disciplines, to share information about their fields, to think about different directions in their research, to develop new collaborative projects, or, to just learn. The Forum considers topics from the vast world of objects that the Smithsonian collects, preserves, studies, and presents. The Forum is welcome to all, including members of the outside academic community. This meeting was recorded in the Rasmuson Theater of the National Museum of the American Indian on February 27, 2019.

111th Material Culture Forum: Introductions

National Museum of the American Indian
The 111th Material Culture Forum's topic is "The Art and Science of Celestial Navigation Across the Smithsonian Universe." In this segment, Michelle Delaney, Senior Program Officer for History and Culture, Office of the Provost and David Penney, Associate Director, National Museum of the American Indian, provide introductions to the Forum topic and presenters. Since 1988, the Smithsonian Institution Material Culture Forum has been organizing quarterly meetings that offer staff with opportunities to interact with their colleagues in other disciplines, to share information about their fields, to think about different directions in their research, to develop new collaborative projects, or, to just learn. The Forum considers topics from the vast world of objects that the Smithsonian collects, preserves, studies, and presents. The Forum is welcome to all, including members of the outside academic community. This meeting was recorded in the Rasmuson Theater of the National Museum of the American Indian on February 27, 2019.

111th Material Culture Forum: Karen Lemmey

National Museum of the American Indian
The 111th Material Culture Forum's topic is "The Art and Science of Celestial Navigation Across the Smithsonian Universe." In this segment, Karen Lemmey, Curator of Sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum, speaks on "Joseph Cornell, Containing the Universe in a Box." Karen’s research interests include public art and monuments, the history of materials and methods, American artist colonies in 19th-century Italy, and the depiction of race in American sculpture. She has an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and PhD in art history and certificate in American studies from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Since 1988, the Smithsonian Institution Material Culture Forum has been organizing quarterly meetings that offer staff with opportunities to interact with their colleagues in other disciplines, to share information about their fields, to think about different directions in their research, to develop new collaborative projects, or, to just learn. The Forum considers topics from the vast world of objects that the Smithsonian collects, preserves, studies, and presents. The Forum is welcome to all, including members of the outside academic community. This meeting was recorded in the Rasmuson Theater of the National Museum of the American Indian on February 27, 2019.

111th Material Culture Forum: Paul Ceruzzi

National Museum of the American Indian
The 111th Material Culture Forum's topic is "The Art and Science of Celestial Navigation Across the Smithsonian Universe." In this segment, Paul Ceruzzi, Curator Emeritus of Aerospace Electronics and Computing, National Air & Space Museum, speaks on "GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo: New Celestial Bodies." Paul attended Yale University and the University of Kansas, from which received a PhD in American studies. Among the many works he has authored are Computing, a Concise History (2012) and A Concise History of GPS, from its Military Origins to its Commercial Applications and Ubiquity in Everyday Life (2018). Paul was co-curator for the ongoing exhibition, Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There. Since 1988, the Smithsonian Institution Material Culture Forum has been organizing quarterly meetings that offer staff with opportunities to interact with their colleagues in other disciplines, to share information about their fields, to think about different directions in their research, to develop new collaborative projects, or, to just learn. The Forum considers topics from the vast world of objects that the Smithsonian collects, preserves, studies, and presents. The Forum is welcome to all, including members of the outside academic community. This meeting was recorded in the Rasmuson Theater of the National Museum of the American Indian on February 27, 2019.

111th Material Culture Forum: Questions and Answers

National Museum of the American Indian
The 111th Material Culture Forum's topic is "The Art and Science of Celestial Navigation Across the Smithsonian Universe." In this segment, David DeVorkin, Senior Curator of History of Astronomy and the Space Sciences, National Air & Space Museum, moderates a Question and Answer session with the audience and program presenters. Since 1988, the Smithsonian Institution Material Culture Forum has been organizing quarterly meetings that offer staff with opportunities to interact with their colleagues in other disciplines, to share information about their fields, to think about different directions in their research, to develop new collaborative projects, or, to just learn. The Forum considers topics from the vast world of objects that the Smithsonian collects, preserves, studies, and presents. The Forum is welcome to all, including members of the outside academic community. This meeting was recorded in the Rasmuson Theater of the National Museum of the American Indian on February 27, 2019.

111th Material Culture Forum: William Fitzhugh

National Museum of the American Indian
The 111th Material Culture Forum's topic is "The Art and Science of Celestial Navigation Across the Smithsonian Universe." In this segment, William Fitzhugh, Senior Scientist, Curator of North American Archaeology and Director, Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, speaks on "Navigating the Arctic: Vikings, Inuit, and Narwhals." In the Department of Anthropology, Bill specializes in archeology and ethnology, Arctic material culture, and ethnographic and prehistoric maritime adaptations. He first became interested in these area through canoeing in Ontario and studies at Dartmouth College. Following two years in the U.S. Navy he attended Harvard University where he received his PhD. Bill is curator of the exhibition and author of Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend (2017). Since 1988, the Smithsonian Institution Material Culture Forum has been organizing quarterly meetings that offer staff with opportunities to interact with their colleagues in other disciplines, to share information about their fields, to think about different directions in their research, to develop new collaborative projects, or, to just learn. The Forum considers topics from the vast world of objects that the Smithsonian collects, preserves, studies, and presents. The Forum is welcome to all, including members of the outside academic community. This meeting was recorded in the Rasmuson Theater of the National Museum of the American Indian on February 27, 2019.

12 Secrets of the New York Subway

Smithsonian Magazine

The heart of New York City may be Times Square, but its lifeblood is its subways. Comprised of more than 600 miles worth of mainline track, New York's intricate transportation system whisks an estimated 5.6 million commuters across the five boroughs every weekday.

The iconic subway wasn’t always the mammoth operation it is now. Opened in 1904, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) was one of several privately owned subway companies, including the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) and the Independent Subway System (IND). The systems eventually merged to form today's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).

These days, the subway system’s legacy runs as deep as the subterranean tracks themselves—and plenty of pieces of little-known history date back to before today's subway even existed. Here are 12 subway secrets you should know:

You can tour an abandoned subway station.

City Hall is one of the many abandoned stations within the system. (Flickr <ahref="flickr url"="">Joe Wolf - Flickr/Creative Commons)

Several times each year, the New York Transit Museum takes a lucky group of people on a tour of a shuttered subway station in Lower Manhattan. Opened in 1904, the City Hall stop on the 6 train has been closed since 1945, but its immaculate arches, electric chandeliers, and detailed tile work remain intact. “It’s a very small station [compared to the more modern ones],” Polly Desjarlais, an education assistant at the museum, tells Smithsonian.com. “Over time, the curved platform became too short to accommodate newer trains.”

If you want to take a tour of the station, there’s a catch: You must become a member of the museum, pass a background check and patiently wait for a slot to open. Alternatively, you can ride the 6 train downtown (southbound). Stay onboard as it loops through the City Hall station and makes its way north—you may glimpse the station through the window. Untapped Cities also offers tours of the subway system's abandoned remnants.

When subway cars retire, they become underwater habitats for sea life.

Old subway cars have been used as habitats in the Atlantic Ocean. (Noah Addis/Star Ledger/Corbis )

Rather than send decommissioned subway cars to their rusty grave in a landfill, the MTA sank 2,500 of them into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean between 2001 and 2010 as part of a program to build artificial reefs. In the time since, these underwater habitats off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, and other states along the eastern seaboard have become home to numerous sea creatures. A program official tells CNN that the subway reefs now contain 400 more fish food per square foot than the ocean floor.

There’s a subway station filled with more than 130 bronze sculptures.

Artist Tom Otterness created more than 130 bronze sculptures for a single station. (Flickr <ahref="flickr url"="">dancingdentist - Flickr/Creative Commons)

For years, the MTA has commissioned local artists to create artwork for its more than 450 subway stations as part of its Arts for Transit program. But by far one of the quirkiest commissions is by artist Tom Otterness, who, beginning in the 1990s, created more than 130 bronze sculptures for the 14th Street/Eighth Avenue station. Called “Life Underground,” the collection touches on class and money, and includes an alligator popping out of a manhole cover, an elephant and characters clutching bags of money and subway tokens. Otterness continued adding pieces until 2004, making about five times more sculptures than the original commission requested. “I just got so excited I donated more and more work to the system, and in my view nothing didn’t fit, everything seemed to have a place,” he said in an interview with The New York Daily News.

The city’s first subway ran on pneumatic power.

The Beach Pneumatic Transit system ran on compressed air and water pressure. (Wikimedia Commons/ Scan by Joseph Brennan from an original copy of Scientific American for March 5, 1870)

In 1870, inventor Alfred Ely Beach debuted what he called the Beach Pneumatic Transit, the city’s first underground mode of transportation. Stretching 300 feet (about one city block) from Warren Street to Broadway in Lower Manhattan, the single-track line ran on pneumatic power. The system worked by using compressed air and water pressure to propel a single train car forward. Beach built the track in secret as a sneaky way to demonstrate the power of pneumatic tubes. Although it was only operational until 1873 (and was merely a demonstration), the technology he championed is still used today as a delivery system that pushes mail from one part of a building to another.   

If laid end to end, the subway system’s tracks would stretch from NYC to Chicago.

The NYC subway is one of the largest underground rail systems in the world. (Flickr <ahref="flickr url"="">Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures - Flickr/Creative Commons)

In total, the subway system is comprised of 660.75 miles worth of mainline track. But when you include track used for non-revenue purposes, such as the subway yards where the trains are stored, the total swells to more than 840 miles. That’s about the distance from NYC to just outside of Milwaukee—one long subway ride.

A 16-year-old hijacked a train in 1993 and took it for a joyride.

In 1993, a teenager hijacked a train and drove it for three hours before being arrested. (Hiroyuki Matsumoto/amanaimages/Corbis )

A 16-year-old named Keron Thomas made motorman history in 1993 when he took an A train on a forbidden ride throughout the city for more than three hours. Thomas planned the stunt for months, and the teenager studied MTA manuals on subway train operations before his urban expedition. Fortunately, no one was hurt during Thomas’ illegal stunt. He was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment, criminal impersonation and forgery and walked away with a nickname: “A Train.”    

The MTA ran a “Miss Subways” beauty pageant for more than 30 years.

Marie Crittenden won the "Miss Subways" competition and was also an aspiring singer. (Flickr <ahref="flickr url"="">Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York - Flickr/Creative Commons)

The subway is one of the last places you would expect to find a beauty pageant, but from 1941 through 1976, the MTA hosted just that, advertising its “Miss Subways” in subway cars and stations. “The idea began [with] an advertising company to draw people’s attention to ads,” Desjarlais says. The idea worked and the pageant became a popular competition for women living in the five boroughs. In 2014, to coincide with the NYC subway’s centennial, the MTA resurrected the pageant. The winner: 30-year-old dancer Megan Fairchild who, upon winning, mingled with Ruth Lippman, the title holder for 1945.

Commuters once found creative ways to steal subway rides.

At one time, sucking subway tokens out of turnstiles was a common trick for snagging a free ride. (Alan Schein/Corbis)

Before there were MetroCards, travelers paid for rides using subway tokens. But some scofflaws found ways to ride for free. One popular method was sucking tokens out of turnstiles. Here’s how it worked: The thief would lodge a gum wrapper or piece of paper into the slot and wait for an unknowing passenger to plunk down a token. When it didn’t take, the thief would return to the turnstile and suck the jammed token out with her mouth, often swallowing or choking on it in the process.  

Cheapskates also snagged rides with tokens from the Connecticut Turnpike, which were the same shape and size as the ones used by the MTA but cost 57 cents less than the MTA’s 75-cent tokens in the 1980s. After years of stalemate with Connecticut in what was dubbed “The Great Token War,” both transit authorities worked out a deal: The MTA would collect the tokens, which often totaled in the millions, and return them to Connecticut for a reimbursement of 17.5 cents each.

During the holidays, riders can travel on vintage Nostalgia Trains.

The Nostalgia Train operates during the holidays and features retired trains. (Flickr <ahref="flickr url"="">Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York - Flickr/Creative Commons)

Every weekend from Thanksgiving to Christmas, the MTA dusts off a fleet of vintage subway cars and sends them down the track as part of the Nostalgia Train program. Equipped with ceiling fans, rattan seats and vintage advertisements, the subway cars date back to the 1930s and offer a whimsical ride on the N line for anyone who wants to go back in time. “Sometimes the MTA will run the vintage trains in the summer to Coney Island, or to Yankee Stadium [in the Bronx] for the season opener,” Desjarlais says. “You just have to be lucky enough to be there when it arrives in a station; all it costs is a [$2.75] MetroCard swipe.”

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist used a subway station as his lab.

Scientist Victor Franz Hess often relied on a subway station as his laboratory. (Corbis )

In 1936, Austrian scientist Victor Hess received a Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of cosmic radiation. After immigrating to the United States during World War II, the Fordham University professor continued conducting radioactive experiments while living in New York. His lab of choice: the subway. Using the 191st Street station in Washington Heights, the deepest station in the system, he measured the radioactivity of the granite that sat between Fort Tyron Park and the station 180 feet below.

Subway tiles were color-coded to help commuters determine their location.

Green tile details for the IND Fulton Street and Crosstown Lines. (New York Transit Museum)

As a way to help riders navigate, the IND subway company adopted a color-coded system. The idea was that the subway tiles could tell riders whether they had reached a local or express stop. The system never caught on, but riders can still see remnants of it in certain stations like the Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street stops, which are marked with light green tiles. “It was supposed to be informational and useful for passengers, but I don’t think it was well advertised by the company,” Desjarlais says. “I often conduct subway tours, and I’ll meet people who were alive back then and they didn’t even know about it.”

The owner of the IRT company had his own private subway car.

An exterior shot of Belmont's private subway car, the "Mineola." (New York Transit Museum)

Rather than travel with other mere mortals, August Belmont, Jr., the owner of the IRT company, rode in style in his own private subway car. Decked out with a bathroom, kitchen, a wooden desk and other opulent touches, the car was called the “Mineola” and used to entertain Belmont's out-of-town guests. Today it’s on display at The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven, Connecticut.

12 Unique Ways to Experience Armenia Off the Beaten Path

Smithsonian Magazine

If you are like most first time visitors to Armenia, you are sure to tour the ancient monasteries, explore the national museums and visit the historic brandy factories. But there are many amazing things to do in Armenia beyond the usual guidebook highlights. This past summer, I had a chance to visit Hayastan​, the Armenian name for the country of Armenia, and step off the beaten path. I found myself soaring above alpine lakes, forming ceramics with local artisans and wandering through dusty shafts of light in an abandoned Soviet textile factory. Here are a dozen extraordinary ways to experience Armenia to the fullest.

1 | Paraglide Over Lake Sevan

(V. Grigoryan)

Soar through the skies paragliding above the mountains by Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus. Gardman Tour arranges expert guides, many of whom have competed internationally, to provide equipment and tandem instruction for novices. It’s a thrilling and unique way to get to know the Armenian landscape. 

Float through the comfortable sunshine (the region averages 256 days of sun per year) and over rocky hills dotted with patches of wildflowers. In the distance, you can see the town of Sevan and the village of Lchashen. Farther off, high above the lake, spot Sevanavank Monastery, founded in the 9th century by Princess Mariam, and beyond that the mountain peaks of the Lesser Caucasus. 

2 | Discover Prehistoric Petroglyphs

(C. Rapkievian)

Surrounding a small sparkling glacial lake at about 10,500 feet above sea level near the top of Mount Ughtasar, prehistoric petroglyphs, dated 2,000 BCE to - 12,000 BCE, are carved onto the flat surfaces of manganese boulders left behind by an extinct volcano.

The petroglyphs were initially studied in the 1960’s, and archaeological research is still ongoing. Due to the site’s high elevation, the remarkable carvings are covered with snow nearly nine months of the year making them accessible only in summer months. Off-road vehicles take visitors through rocky fields full of flowers and butterflies that flit through the crisp mountain air. Celestial symbols, animals, hunters and even these dragons (pictured above) are evidence of the lives and imaginations of ancient ancestors.

3 | Create Porcelain Ornaments with Ceramics Masters

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Visit the ceramics factory of Antonio Montalto. Master artists may even teach you the extraordinary technique of making a decorative egg. The clay is attracted to the porcelain mold creating the hollow form. After the first firing, the egg is decorated with glaze and then fired a second time to create a beautiful ornament.

4 | Explore a Mysterious Monolith

(C. Rapkievian)

Explore the mystery of Karahunj, an ancient site with a circle of placed stones. Astronomers theorize that this 7,500-year-old archeological site is a celestial observatory pre-dating England’s Stonehenge by more than 4,500 years. Two hundred lichen-covered basalt stones stand tall and approximately 80 of them have small holes that align with bright stars in the night sky.  A desolate, windswept site off the main road near the village a Sissian, visit Karahunge (literally translated as “speaking stones”) at dawn or dusk to experience its powerful beauty.

5 | Forge Iron in a Historic City

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

In the artistic city of Gyumri, visit the Irankyuni Forge to learn to create a wrought-iron souvenir with the expert guidance of a master blacksmith. Heat the iron in the hot fire and then hammer, with sparks flying, to gradually bend the metal. Historic blacksmithing tools can be seen in the Dzitoghtsyan Mansion Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life, and ironwork can still be found with the black and red tuff stone architecture around this centuries-old “city of arts and crafts.” Top off your visit to the forge with a delicious dinner next door at the blacksmith’s family-owned restaurant.

6 | Explore Spectacular Geological Formations in Mozrov Cave

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Discover flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, pristine rock “popcorn,” “soda straws,” “bacon-rind” and “draperies” while exploring Mozrov Cave, one of Armenia’s most decorated. The karst cave was discovered in 1965 during road construction. The entrance partially collapsed due to heavy snowfall in 2012, but the 300 meter cave is still accessible.

The cave is ideal for intermediate-level recreational cavers on their own and novice cavers with a guide. Discover Armenia Tours organizes excursions and provides hard-hats, head-lamps, flashlights and transportation to explore this wild and well-preserved cave located in Vayots Dzor province.

7 | Step Back in Time in an Abandoned Soviet Textile Factory

(C. Rapkievian)

Explore an abandoned Soviet textile factory in the Vayots Dzor Province deserted in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. The site sits frozen in time with yarn still threaded in machines, lockers filled with photos and tools and folktale murals on the wall of the factory-workers’ children’s day-care. The now-silent rooms can be toured with the local owner in arrangement with Discover Armenia Tours.

8 | Join a Public Sing-a-long

(C. Rapkievian)

Sing along at a public song workshop at the new Komitas Museum-Institute in Yerevan. The “Lullabies” workshops (held every-other month on selected Saturdays) recently won the “Best Practice Award in Museum Education” from the International Council of Museums.  On other Saturdays, the workshops feature seasonal songs that Komitas, a celebrated ethnomusicologist who is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music, collected and arranged.  Knowledgeable staff teach each line of the song and visitors of all ages are encouraged to lift up their voices in Komitas’s sometimes spiritual, sometimes playful folk songs.

9 | Cook Up Traditional Recipes

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Cook delicious gata and other Armenian treats with TV-cooking-show star Zara Karapetyan, director of Tasty Tour.  Under the trees, next to her herb garden and orchard, stir-up the ingredients, roll out the dough and cook the sweet bread in a tonier, a traditional oven usually buried in the ground.  Then dig in to a delicious lunch of local Ushi village favorites!

10 | Spot Rare Birds in Lake Arpi National Park

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

An extraordinary number of species of birds - over 350 - can be found in Armenia because even though the country is small, there is a great range in elevation and diversity of landscape. Luba Balyan, a noted ornithologist, forest ecologist and founder of a bird conservation organization in Armenia, is one of several field researchers who lead exciting bird-watching tours aimed at both devoted birders and the casual tourist. 

One particularly rich site to visit is Lake Arpi National Park in the northwestern corner of Armenia. Over 190 species of birds have been recorded in the park, including the globally threatened Dalmatian pelican, Egyptian vulture and European roller. Other birds include greater spotted and imperial eagles, red-footed and saker falcons, great snipes and semi-collared flycatchers. Plus, the park hosts one of the world’s largest colonies of Armenian gulls.

11 | Hear Ancient Chants in Geghard Monastery

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Listen to sacred chants in the ancient monastery of Geghard, located in the Upper Azat Valley. The Unesco-recognized site is partially carved out of the colorful rock cliffs and hosts a healing spring in the oldest chamber.  The Garni Ensemble is one of the incredible a capella groups that performs by special request. In the near-darkness inside the tomb of Prince Papak, the acoustics are extraordinary – nearly a 90-second reverberation. The haunting harmonies of the 5-member ensemble sound as if you are hearing a 100-member choir.

12 | Sip Modern Wine Made With Ancient Techniques

(C. Rapkievian)

Celebrate with a visit to Trinity Canyon Vineyards in the Vayots Dzor highlands. The region's high altitude, sunny skies and volcanic soils create a unique terroir that the vineyard founders say allows for the cultivation of several wine styles. 

“Trinity’s main focus,” the founders say, “is to reveal the potential of Armenian indigenous grape varieties by drawing on the best organic viticulture practices.”  Using the Areni grape, the winery produces a wine that has been described as “silky, powerful, with refreshing acidity.”  

The Voskehat, another prominent grape endemic to Armenia, is used for their ancestral line of wines made in karases (ancient Armenian terracotta vessels). The resulting varieties range in style – from light and crisp to “bold, skin-macerated orange wines.” 

Their tasting area is a pleasant patio of rustic picnic tables near a garden set up for music and other special events with a demonstration vineyard on the hillside.  Raise a glass to toast executive director-poet-musician, Hovakim Saghatelyan, enthusiastic winemaker Artem Parseghyan and the rest of the staff as you reflect on the winery’s deep connection to the land and its gifts. 

With such marvelous and unique opportunities in Armenia, you will hope to return as soon as possible!

12. W. John Kress - Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Closing remarks

Smithsonian Institution
W. John Kress is the Director of the Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet at the Smithsonian as well as curator and research scientist with the Department of Botany at the National Museum of Natural History. He was born in Illinois and received his education at Harvard University (B. A. 1975) and Duke University (Ph. D. 1981) where he studied tropical biology, ethnobotany, evolution, and plant systematics. Among his many scientific and popular papers on tropical biology are his books entitled Heliconia: An Identification Guide, Heliconias -- Las Lamaradas de la Selva Colombiana, A New Century of Biology (with Gary Barrett), A Checklist of the Trees, Shrubs, Herbs, and Climbers of Myanmar, and Plant Conservation -- A Natural History Approach (with Gary Krupnick). His book The Weeping Goldsmith (Abbeville Press) describes his experiences exploring for plants in the isolated country of Myanmar. Dr. Kress is also interested in the intersection of science and art. To this end he has published two original art projects: one called Botanica Magnifica (Abbeville Press) with photographer Jonathan Singer, and the second a book on plant evolution, entitled The Art of Plant Evolution (Kew Publications), with Dr. Shirley Sherwood using contemporary botanical art to illustrate the diversity of the plant world. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and currently Executive Director of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. Dr. Kress is an Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan. The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution's Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet hosted a symposium on March 1, 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report to the Club of Rome published in 1972. This book was one of the earliest scholarly works to recognize that the world was fast approaching its sustainable limits. Forty years later, the planet continues to face many of the same economic, social, and environmental challenges as when the book was first published. The morning session focused on the lessons of Limits to Growth. The afternoon session addressed the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet. The symposium ended with a thought-provoking panel discussion among the speakers on future steps for building a sustainable planet.

127-Million-Year-Old Baby Bird Fossil Offers Peek Into Ancient Avian Development

Smithsonian Magazine

Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, a sub-class of birds known as enantiornithes soared through the skies. These ancient avians differed from living birds in several key ways; they had teeth, for one, and clawed fingers protruding from each wing. Now, as Helen Briggs reports for the BBC, new analysis of an exceptionally rare baby enantiornithe fossil is revealing new details about how the prehistoric birds developed.

The fossil was discovered “many years ago” at Las Hoyas, a paleontological site in Spain, Briggs writes. But the 127-million-year-old fossil was largely unstudied until recently, when an international team of researchers decided to re-examine the relic using a synchotron, or particle accelerator that can shine very bright light on a fossil, allowing scientists to study it in minute detail.

Researchers are particularly interested in the Las Hoyas fossil because it preserves a baby bird that appears to have died not long after its birth. Describing their analysis in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers note that by studying the bird’s ossification, or bone development, they can gain important insights into its evolution.

 “The evolutionary diversification of birds has resulted in a wide range of hatchling developmental strategies and important differences in their growth rates,” Fabien Knoll, a senior research fellow at the University of Manchester and lead author of the new study, explains in a statement. “By analyzing bone development we can look at a whole host of evolutionary traits.”

At the time of its death, the little enantiornithe was less than two inches long—smaller than the average human’s little finger, the statement notes. The bird weighed just 0.3 ounces when it was alive. Researchers were also able to see that the chick’s sternum, or breastbone, was largely made of cartilage and had not hardened into solid bone. This, the team writes in the study, hints that the little critter likely couldn't fly.

(Dr Fabien Knoll)

Because of its limited flying abilities, the baby bird was probably highly reliant on its parents for care and feeding, but this is not a foregone conclusion. Modern bird species exist on a spectrum that ranges from “altricial,” which describes birds that are unable to move after birth and are completely reliant on their parents, to “precocial,” which refers to critters that hatch with feathers and are able to leave the nest after two days. As the study authors note, “semi-precocial and many precocial species are able to walk at an early age, but are unable to fly until almost fully grown.” The baby enantiornithe, in other words, may have been able to get around even though it couldn’t fly.

Intriguingly, as Laura Geggel of Live Science notes, the patterns of ossification observed in the Las Hoyas fossil are different from those seen in among other baby enantiornithines. This in turn suggests that the birds “may have been more diverse than previously thought,” the study authors write.

Enantiornithes do not have any living descendants; the birds we know today evolved from a group of small, carnivorous dinosaurs known as maniraptoran theropods. But parallels exist between modern birds and ancient enantiornithes. In 2016, an analysis of wings preserved in amber, which most likely belonged to a juvenile enantiornithe, revealed that the bird’s feathers were similar in arrangement and microstructure to the feathers of living avians. And the new study suggests that baby enantiornithes may have developed in a similar way to their modern cousins.

“This new discovery, together with others from around the world, allows us to peek into the world of ancient birds that lived during the age of dinosaurs,” Luis Chiappe, directors of the Dinosaur Institute at the LA Museum of Natural History and the study’s co-author, said in the University of Manchester statement. “It is amazing to realize how many of the features we see among living birds had already been developed more than 100 million years ago.”

13 April 72

National Air and Space Museum
Ink and Colored Pencil on Paper. 13 April 72. A page from a spiral-bound sketchbook. Apollo 16 and a bright red gantry are dotted by red and yellow lights and illuminated by broad bluish-white floodlight beams. The majority of the space is a dark blue sky with pencil scratch marks for depth. The text in the top left corner reads: "13 April 72 / 21:00 Hours." Text in the upper margin reads: "Apollo 16 - Pad 39 A under spotlights as seen from the beach side…one is overwhelmed by the lights." Text in the bottom left corner reads: "One on [sic] those mosquitoes is trapped in the ink in the sky."

In March 1962, James Webb, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, suggested that artists be enlisted to document the historic effort to send the first human beings to the moon. John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, was among those who applauded the idea, urging that artists be encouraged "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race."

Working together, James Dean, a young artist employed by the NASA Public Affairs office, and Dr. H. Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, created a program that dispatched artists to NASA facilities with an invitation to paint whatever interested them. The result was an extraordinary collection of works of art proving, as one observer noted, "that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company." Transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1975, the NASA art collection remains one of the most important elements of what has become perhaps the world's finest collection of aerospace themed art.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

14 Fun Facts About Broncos

Smithsonian Magazine

Movies and novels might lend the impression that horses have a docile and friendly nature, but in the animal world, a bronco is a formidable opponent. Weighing in at 900 pounds, the Denver Broncos mascot, Thunder, is an Arabian gelding—a breed with a lot of history and a reputation for high endurance. (Sort of like Peyton Manning, you might say.)

Whether you're a rabid football fan or you just watch for the commercials, we're here to help you drop some knowledge on your friends over the queso dip between plays. Here's 14 facts about broncos, and be sure to check out our 14 facts about sea hawks too.

1. Broncos don't exist, at least in scientific terms. 

No, it's not because the bronco went extinct in 1996. (That's the car; we're talking about the animal here.) A bronco is a type of horse, not a species or a breed. It comes from the Spanish broncos, which means rough. American cowboys borrowed the lingo from their Mexican counterparts to describe untrained or partially trained horses. Originally, cowboys probably used the term to refer to breaking wild horses, but today's broncos are not feral. 

2. Broncos were featured in the first rodeos.

Riding broncs was listed as an event in the program of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show's first rodeo in North Platte, Nebraska, in 1882. Though the rodeo gained huge popularity, bronc riding is one event that has frequently garnered controversy, due to animal treatment and training methods. Cowboys ride broncs in two ways, with a saddle and without, and riding bareback is considered the more difficult of the two.

3. Bucking is natural.

Horses buck for a variety of reasons—fright, surprise, or provocation. It's a natural behavior, and some believed it developed in response to attacks from feline predators. Particularly spirited horses prone to bucking are sold and trained for the rodeo (though not nearly for the wages that football players are paid these days).

4. Broncos may be rough, but they're not wild. 

Genetically speaking, there’s only one truly wild horse. That’s Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii). Until a few years ago, this species was extinct in its native Mongolia, but thanks to breeding programs in captivity, it's been revived. So-called wild horse communities in the U.S. are actually descended from domesticated horses that went feral.

Przewalski’s horse, the only truly wild horse. (Photo by Flickr user Daniella Hartmann)

5. Modern horses are four million years old. 

Humans didn't domesticate the horse until about 4000 years ago, but the species has been around for a very long time. Though hundreds of breeds exist, all domesticated horses come from the same species: Equus ferus. Based on evidence from a 700,000-year-old horse fossil and other specimens, scientists believe that horses split off from donkeys and zebras around four million years ago, and the oldest known ancestor in this lineage lived about 55 milions years ago

6. Horses once had three toes.

Hyrathocotherium, an ancient horse relative that lived about 50 million years ago, had three padded toes, perhaps more similar to the paws of a dog than the hooves of modern horses. Scientists hypothesize that as horses gained speed, they lost toes, producing the single hardened hoof we see today.

7. Global warming once shrank the horse.

During a 5 to 10°C bump in global temperatures around 130,000 years ago, ancient horses' body mass shrunk by about 30 percent—perhaps because under warmer conditions, less energy is needed to keep a smaller body cool, or maybe due to an impact of carbon dioxide on food availability. Then, when the climate cooled back down, they grew by about 76 percent, eventually reaching their current size.

(Photo by Flickr user Wavy1)

8. Arabian horses are hot bloods.

The Denver Broncos' mascot, Thunder, is an Arabian gelding. One of three breed classifications, hot bloods are known for their speed and endurance. (For comparison, cold bloods are slow and calm, and warm bloods were bred to be sort of a mix of the two.) Arabian horses have given rise to more breeds than any other group, and they have an illustrious pedigree of riders, from Alexander the Great to George Washington.

9. Horses are social butterflies. 

As herd animals, horses rely on relationships with other animals. They can even tell other horses apart based on their whinnies. Friendships with other horses are beneficial to their health: Female horses with friends are more likely to give birth to more offspring and those offspring are more likely to survive. There's also anecdotal evidence to suggest that horses retain memories of bad experiences with humans, and a March 2010 study suggested that horses can form positive memories of humans as well.

10. Horses don’t get stage fright.

While many things might spook a horse, stage fright doesn’t. In a study published in The Veterinary Journal, scientists measured stress hormones and heart rates in horses compared to their professional riders. Horses’ stress levels didn’t change whether they were in front of a crowd or just practicing.  

11. Horses sleep both sitting down and standing up. 

Horses have a stay mechanism in their legs that allows them to snooze standing up, an adaptation that allows them to more quickly react and run away from a potential predator. To reach REM sleep, they need to lie down, though, and they usually do that for about three hours throughout the day. In herds, horses often sleep according to the buddy system: some lie down while others stand up to keep watch. 

12. Horses can get a sugar high.

Eating sweet snacks, such as sugar cubes, molasses, barley and corn can make a horse's coat shinier and gives them a burst of energy. But in young horses, too much sugar can also cause them to act out and misbehave. Sound familiar?

13. Some horses can walk, trot, gallop, and pace thanks to a single mutation in their genome.

Horses traditionally have three gaits: walking, trotting, and galloping. But select breeds can do what are called "unusual gaits." The American Standardbred and some Icelandic breeds can pace, moving the legs on each side of their body in unison. Those breeds have a mutation in a gene called DMRT3 that gives them this ability. 

14. To figure out whether a horse is right or left hooved, just look at its hair. 

If you look at a horse's head, you'll notice that the hair on their forehead grows in a circular curl. Scientists have found that out of 108 horses that favor their left hoof, 75 percent had hair growing counter clockwise. They see the opposite trend in right hooved horses: Their hair tends to grow clockwise. For racehorses, the tendency to favor right or left hooves is of strategic importance.

14 Fun Facts About Marine Bristle Worms

Smithsonian Magazine

Unbeknownst to most landlubbers, polychaetes rule the seas. There are at least 10,000 species of these swimming bristly worms, some of which pop with brilliant colors or light up with a bioluminescent glow. They’ve adapted to every imaginable marine habitat, from deep hydrothermal vents to crowded coral reefs to the open ocean—and many have found ways to survive that are definitely bizarre.

It takes a unique mind to appreciate the diversity and strangeness of polychaete lifestyles, and one of the greatest belonged to Kristian Fauchald. He studied polychaetes at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History from 1979 until he passed away this past April. In his career, Fauchald named three families, 34 genera and nearly 300 species of polychaetes, and he mentored and befriended far more human students and colleagues. He was so esteemed that at least 36 species have been named after him, according to the World Register of Marine Species.

In Fauchald's memory, July 1, which would have been his 80th birthday, has been declared the first International Polychaete Day. Get to know the fascinating world of his beloved organisms with these bristle worm facts:

1. Polychaetes are diversity champions

The known species of polychaetes share only a few characteristics. Each has a head, a tail and a segmented body, and typically each body segment has a pair of leg-like parapodia with spiny bristles sticking out. It's these bristles that give the worms their name: "polychaete" is Greek for "with much hair."

This simple body plan is the basis for tremendous diversity. Parapodia can be paddle-like for swimming, leg-like for walking across the seafloor or scoop-like for burrowing in the mud. The hard bristles make the worms difficult to swallow, and in some species the bristles contain venom. Polychaetes that live in tubes use their parapodia to circulate oxygenated water into tight spaces, and some have feathery external gills. Since there is an exception to every rule, some polychaetes have no parapodia at all.

2. Polychaetes have survived five mass extinctions

Polychaetes and their relatives have been around for a very long time. Paleontologists discovered the fossil species Canadia and Burgessochaeta in the Burgess Shale, a famous fossil formation that preserved many soft-bodied organisms dating back some 505 million years ago, during the Cambrian period. Like today’s polychaetes, both fossil creatures had many parapodia with feather-like bristles and sensory tentacles extending from their heads. These are among the earliest known polychaete ancestors. In the years to come, Earth witnessed five mass extinction events, one of which killed some 96 percent of all marine species. Enough polychaetes made it through all these die-offs to give rise to the abundance of species we see today.

The dazzling diversity on a polychaete family tree. (2011 K.J. Osborn. Compilation of images from Karen Osborn, Greg Rouse, Fredrik Pleijel, MBARI and Michael Aw)

3. The Polychaete family tree is full of mystery

The earliest polychaetes evolved into the 10,000 species we know over 500 million years. That gave them a lot of time to develop differences and quirks that confound scientists’ attempts to neatly organize them and describe how the species are related.

Fauchauld dedicated his life to this problem. In 1974, he published a paper laying out the challenges in organizing polychaetes into a family tree, and he published many more in the following years. He critiqued the standard taxonomy that split the polychaetes into two groups: Errantia polychaetes (those that swim or crawl freely) and Sedentaria polychaetes (those that stay put). Too many free-swimmers evolved from stay-still polychaetes, and vice versa, for those groupings to be useful, he argued. Additionally, he noted that each taxonomist used a different trait to organize the polychaetes—comparing their mouthparts, for example. In doing so, each one created a different family tree and naming system. Collaborating with Greg Rouse, one of his many protégés, Fauchauld completed a new analysis of polychaete relationships in 1997. In the paper, they point out that their grouping is a step forward even if it is still likely incorrect, writing that "the current situation is untenable, so what is presented must be considered an improvement." That’s taxonomic progress.

University of Delaware research helped show that the Pompeii worm can survive at scalding temperatures around hydrothermal vents. (University of Delaware College of Marine Studies)

4. One of the world's most heat-resistant animals is a deep-sea polychaete

Imagine living out your days with half your body in a pot of boiling water. That’s essentially the lifestyle of the Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana). These tubeworms live at hydrothermal vents deep on the ocean floor, where their tails rest in hot water at temperatures of over 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Their heads, where the animals’ gills reside, stick out of their tubes, where the temperature is a much cooler 70 degrees. A 2013 study brought the worms to the surface to find out how much heat they could handle. After a challenging trip to the lab (the worms need to travel under pressure to match their deep-sea environment), researchers found that they can survive at temperatures above 107, but not for long periods of time.

Pompeii worms may have a partner in their heat resistance: Scientists believe that they have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria on their backs, which grow so densely that they form a layer one centimeter thick. The worms produce mucus that feeds the bacteria and, in exchange, the bacteria are believed to insulate the worms from the hot vent water.

5. Some polychaetes have sex lives out of a science fiction movie

Most polychaetes reproduce in a traditional marine fashion, by releasing eggs and sperm into the surrounding water. But then there's Syllis ramosa, a polychaete that lives embedded in a deep-sea sponge. This species is well adapted to a life of leisure, moving little and waiting for food to come nearby. But to mate, it has to get up, put some pants on and mingle with others of its kind at the ocean's surface. That's a long and perilous journey for a creature that doesn't swim much. Lucky for Syllis ramosa (and some other polychaete species), evolution found a way: send sexier versions to the surface to do the dangerous work of mating.

The worm's tail-end, or stolon, develops a head with no mouth and large eyes, its gut deteriorates to make room for eggs or sperm and its muscle system reorganizes to prepare for the long swim. When it's time to mate, the stolon separates from its "parent" and swims to the surface, where it releases its gamete burden before its inevitable death. Meanwhile, its counterpart soldiers on safe on the seafloor, where it can produce more stolons for the next spawning event. Stolonization only happens in a few polychaete groups, including the Syllinae and Autolytinae. In other related groups, the entire individual can transform into a swimming egg or sperm sac, called an epitoke, with its waste system modified to hold and release gametes and its eyes enlarged to sense light at the surface. If an epitoke survives its journey, its body reverts to its original state and resumes its former sedentary life until it mates again.

6. One polychaete species can survive without oxygen for 96 hours

Methane hydrates may be fairly new to our vocabulary, but they have been forming under the seafloor for millions of years. They are crystalline ice-like structures predominantly made of energy-rich methane and ice. These deposits are found around the world, yet no non-microbial life had ever been seen living on them—until the methane ice polychaete was discovered.

In 1997, a research team came across an enormous methane hydrate deposit extruding from the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. Exposed to the water, the scientists saw that the hydrate was crawling with tiny worms—a new species (Hesiocaeca methanicola) of polychaete. The team transported live worms from the site back to the lab and found that mature worms could survive without oxygen for 96 hours. The researchers suspect that these polychaetes survive by feeding on free-living bacteria on the gas hydrate's surface. They may also encourage the growth of their own bacterial food; their waving parapodia create water currents along the surface of the hydrate, delivering fresh oxygen for themselves and the bacteria. 

Christmas tree worms sprout from coral in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. (G. P. Schmahl, NOAA FGBNMS Manager)

7. Emulating a Christmas tree comes easy to polychaetes

Tiny, colorful and tree-like—Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus) dot tropical coral reefs around the world. They can be so abundant that it seems like a small forest has popped up on the stony backs of a coral reef. Most of their bodies are hidden from view, however, as they build tube homes in holes burrowed into live coral. From these tubes, they extend feathery structures called radioles, which they use to both breathe and grab phytoplankton or other small particles for dinner. When in danger, they retract their feathery headgear and hunker down in their tubes until the threat passes.

8. Polychaetes are into zombies, too

The five species of zombie worms (Osedax sp.) are named for their proclivity for eating the bones of decomposing animals on the seafloor. They've mostly been observed eating whale bones, but they don’t discriminate if other remains are available. The skin of zombie worms produces an acid that dissolves bone so that they can reach the fats and protein buried within. With no mouth or stomach, the worms rely on a root system of sorts. They drill their roots into the bone, and symbiotic bacteria living on the roots help them digest their food. Exactly how the nutrients make their way to the zombie worm still isn't clear to scientists.

Female zombie worms are the only ones that we see decorating the surface of the bone; male zombie worms are microscopic and live inside the female. Hundreds of tiny male specimens have been found in one female worm, which removes the stress of attempting to find a mate on scattered bones in the deep ocean.

9. The biggest polychaete is ten feet long  

Most polychaetes are small animals, but not the bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois). Reaching lengths of ten feet, this polychaete worm is taller than your average human by a long shot. If that isn’t terrifying enough, the bobbit worm is a stealth predator. Almost all of its lengthy body lies hidden beneath the seafloor. Five antennae on its head sense fish or other worms swimming by—and when they do, the bobbit worm bursts from its burrow with great speed to grab the prey and slice it in half with its spring-loaded jaw. It also doesn’t look down on scavenging for plants or other detritus if live prey is hard to come by. In case you're wondering, Terry Gosliner, a curator at the California Academy of Sciences, named this worm after the actions of the infamous Lorena Bobbit, but while Fauchald helped out by placing it in the Eunice genus, its species name remains a bit of a mystery.  

10. There is an exception to the “many bristles” rule

Most polychaetes are well described by their Latin name, bearing many (poly) bristles (chaetae). But Tomopterid polychaetes have only two bristles, which are nearly as long as the worm's body and covered by a thin gelatinous tissue. The bristles look like horns projecting from either side of the head and are likely used to sense the worm's surroundings as it moves through the water column.

Tomopterids are agile swimmers, with sides lined with muscular parapodia. Likely this speed and agility is used to avoid their predators, but they have another defense when needed: These worms are among the few species on the planet known to produce yellow bioluminescent light. When threatened, they shoot glowing sparks from their parapodia to distract predators as they make a getaway. 

An Alciopid bristle worm. (2012 K.J. Osborn/ Smithsonian)

11. Some polychaete species have complex wide eyes

Alciopid polychaetes have large complex eyes that rival the camera-like eyes of cephalopods and vertebrates. They have corneas, irises, lenses and other structures necessary for high-resolution vision like ours. Furthermore, their retinas are directed toward the light, like those of cephalopods, instead of away, like ours, which means the worms lack the blind spot typical of vertebrates.

Most Alciopid species live in the top 650 feet of the ocean, where they can see by the light of the sun. They are relatively long worms with thin bodies—so thin that their eyes can be twice the width of their body. Their length makes it difficult to move swiftly or gracefully, but their keen vision stops them from becoming easy prey, because they can see a predator coming with enough time to get away.

12. Polychaetes often get up-close and personal with other invertebrates

Polychaetes aren’t always found in tubes or on the seafloor. Nearly 400 bristle worm species have been documented in relationships with other invertebrates. Some practice commensalism, where the bristle worms benefit from a relationship but don’t harm their host. Others practice parasitism, where the polychaete gains something at the expense of their host. One species—Arctonoe vittata—has been found living with more than 30 different invertebrate species, including alongside sea stars, crawling among the many moving tube feet. The tiny polychaete has a safe home, and the sea star can happily do its sea star thing. Finding a host is likely a challenge, but studies show that this bristle worm follows chemical signals from the host. 

The Lepidonotus squamatus bristle worm emits a soft bioluminescent glow. (Alexander Semenov)

13. Scale worms are the pill bugs of the sea

Flat and covered with scales called elytra, scale worms look something like ocean-dwelling roly-polys. Their scales slough off and regenerate as a defensive mechanism. In some species, the scales produce bioluminescent light, which can leave a predator with a mouthful of glowing parts. That in turn advertises the unwitting animal's whereabouts to its own predators. Scale worms are carnivorous, feeding on other small invertebrates like crabs, sea stars, snails and even other polychaetes. Once you see their jaws, you can understand how these tiny worms can have their pick of the invertebrate buffet. Many are small, but there are some deep sea polynoids that can reach nearly a foot long, like the Eulagisca gigantea species found in Antarctica.

14. The "Squidworm" is really all worm

While exploring the deep water of the Celebes Sea in 2007, scientists working on the Census of Marine Life vacuumed up a strange chimeric animal. With the body of a polychaete and many long appendages on its head, they dubbed it "Squidworm," although in truth it is entirely worm. The squidworm (Teuthidodrilus samae) has ten tentacles on its head that are quite thick and nearly as long as its body. Eight are used for breathing and feeling, and the other two are for grabbing particulate food from the water. The worms also have six pairs of feathery sensory organs called nuchal organs that are essentially their version of a nose. The worms propel themselves with paddle-like parapodia and fans of golden bristles.

Its strange looks are compelling,but scientists find the squidworm fascinating because it seems to be a transitional species. It has features of both free-swimming and bottom-dwelling polychaetes, giving insight into bristle worm evolution. "It has done all sorts of peculiar things to its body," Fauchald told National Geographic after its discovery. "I'm delighted by it."

14 Fun Facts About Parrots

Smithsonian Magazine

After dogs, cats and fish, birds are America’s fourth favorite pet. An estimated 14 million birds live in captivity across the United States, a great many of them parrots. And no wonder: With their captivating colors, acrobatic antics and often silly personalities, these avian characters are hard to resist.

Pet parrots can be incredible if demanding friends, but for people more accustomed to fluffy mammalian companions, they can present some unexpected challenges. The long-lived, intelligent and highly social birds need especially high amounts of attention and enrichment, or else they can pick up bad habits and find themselves bored and stressed to the point where they pluck out their own feathers.

While some pet parrots come from breeders, trade in exotic parrots is big business around the globe, and it contributes significantly to their decline in the wild. Thankfully trafficking in wild birds has been less of a problem in the U.S. since the passage of the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act and CITES restrictions on importing exotic species.

Now, in honor of the 14th annual National Bird Day, get a little bird-brained with these 14 facts about parrots:

1. Some Parrots Grind Their Own Calcium Supplements

As a famous research subject, the African grey parrot Alex was said to have the intelligence of a human 5-year-old. Now the psittacine tribe can claim another brainy feat: tool use. Researchers at the University of York and the University of St. Andrews observed captive greater vasa parrots (Coracopsis vasa) using date pits and pebbles to pulverize cockle shells. Male vasas ate the powder and then offered a regurgitated calcium-rich snack to females before mating. Be thankful you get chocolates.

2. Parrot Toes Are Zygodactyl

Like most other birds, parrots have four toes per foot. But instead of the usual three-in-front-one-behind arrangement, parrot toes are configured for maximum grip: two in front and two behind, like two pairs of opposable thumbs. Combined with beaks that can crack even the world’s toughest nuts, their unique feet make them formidable eaters, not to mention dexterous climbers.

3. Polly Wants Mutton, Too

Many parrots are omnivores and will eat pretty much anything—fruit, seeds, nuts, insects and even meat. Some species, like the rainbow-colored lories and lorikeets of the South Pacific, feed almost exclusively on nectar with brush-tipped tongues, though recently even these birds were seen eating meat at feeding stations in Australia. In New Zealand, native kea (Nestor species) were first observed attacking and killing sheep in 1868 and were persecuted as sheep-killers until 1986, when they were granted protected status.

4. Not All Parrots Are Tropical

Of the roughly 350 known species of parrots, most live in the tropical and subtropical regions of Australia, Asia, Central and South America and Africa. But some parrots break that geographic mold. Keas live in alpine regions of New Zealand and nest in ground burrows, while the endangered maroon-fronted parrot (Rhynchopsitta terrisi) dwells at 6,000 feet in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains of Mexico. 

A popular pet, the African grey parrot is at risk in the wild. (Dodge65/iStock)

5. A Third of the World's Parrots Face Extinction

Due to a combination of habitat destruction and persistent poaching for the pet trade, more species regularly land on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A November study, for instance, found that logging has decimated 99 percent of the African grey (Psittacus erithacus) population in Ghana, threatening wild numbers of one of the most iconic parrot species.

6. Parrots Usually Match Their Mates

With a couple of notable exceptions, males and females of most parrot species look virtually identical. It takes a keen eye—and usually a lab test—to tell a boy bird from a girl bird. But some species, like the Solomon Island eclectus (Eclectus roratus), are so different that for many years people thought they were distinct species of birds. Males are bright emerald green with flame-colored beaks, while females top off their crimson and royal blue ensembles with black beaks and a bright scarlet head.

7. Parrots Taste With the Tops of Their Beaks

Though parrots do have some taste glands at the backs of their throats, most of their 300 or so taste buds are located on the roofs of their mouths. Compared with the 10,000 taste buds in a human mouth, the birds' palate may not seem like much, but parrots do show definite preferences for certain foods.

8. The Heftiest Parrot Weighs as Much as a Cat

Parrots cover an incredible range of shapes and sizes. The tiny buff-faced pygmy (Micropsitta pusio) weighs a mere ounce and is about the size of an adult human’s finger. The world’s longest parrot is the brilliant hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), checking in at nearly 3.5 feet from tip to tail. But New Zealand’s flightless, nocturnal kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) wins for weight: A fully grown male can register as much as nine pounds—the average weight of an adult housecat.

9. Your Pet Parrot May Outlive You

Many parrots have near-human lifespans, a consideration many people don’t truly grasp when seeking a parrot as a companion. Larger species like macaws and cockatoos are known to live for between 35 and 50 years. Tarbu, an African grey in England, lived to the ripe old age of 55. The current oldest parrot is 82-year-old Cookie, a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri) that resides at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. 

Feathers from the scarlet macaw must be full of psittacofulvins. (Roberto A Sanchez/iStock)

10. Parrot Feathers Contain Antibacterial Pigments

A parrot’s brilliant plumage has a special defense against damage: Psittacofulvins, a bacteria-resistant pigment that only parrots are known to produce, give the birds' feathers their red, yellow and green coloration. In a 2011 study in Biology Letters, researchers exposed different colors of feathers to a feather-damaging bacteria strain and found that the pigments helped protect the glorious plumage from degradation.

11. Some Parrots Migrate

Though most species occupy a home range throughout the year, the swift parrot (Lathamus discolor) and the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) are known to migrate each year across the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania. Both species are critically endangered.

12. The World Record Holder Knew More Than 1,700 Words

Though parrots are generally famous for being chatty, Puck, a cheery blue parakeet, landed in the 1995 Guinness Book of World Records for his vocabulary skills, with a recognized set of 1,728 words. In addition to speaking, Amazon parrots are renowned singers, including Groucho, who entertained TV audiences with a rendition of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” in 2010.

13. The Black Palm Is the Panda of Parrots

Native to rainforests in the South Pacific, the black palm cockatoo is one of the most difficult birds to breed and raise in captivity. Chicks often die around one year of age—even wild pairs have difficulty successfully rearing chicks. The causes for their reproductive troubles are still unknown but may be related to their photosensitive skin, which reacts to natural sunlight.

14. A Parrot-Proof Tracker Is on the Horizon

Little is known about wild parrot behavior, in part because the canopy-dwelling birds are hard to see and follow. Also, GPS-tracking studies of parrots are extremely uncommon, since the birds are adept at removing foreign objects from their bodies. But a 2015 study published in The Auk might help scientists better track these elusive animals. By encasing GPS trackers in bite-proof plastic, the researchers were able to track a group of keas in New Zealand without any obvious ill effects on the birds.

14 Fun Facts About Piranhas

Smithsonian Magazine

Biting has played an unusually dominant role in this year’s World Cup conversations. But Luis Suarez is hardly the most feared biter in South America. The continent is home to the ultimate biters: piranhas.

Piranhas have never had the most darling of reputations. Just look at the 1978 cult film Piranha, in which a pack of piranhas escape a military experiment gone wrong and feast on unsuspecting lake-swimmers. Or the 2010 remake, where prehistoric piranhas devour humans in 3D detail.  

Then or now, Hollywood certainly hasn’t done the piranha any favors. But are these freshwater fish the vicious river monsters they’re made out to be? Not exactly.

Piranhas do indeed have sharp teeth, and many are carnivorous. But there’s a lot of diet variation among species—that’s one reason piranhas have proved hard to taxonomically classify. Piranhas are also hard to tell apart in terms of species, diet, coloration, teeth, and even geographic range. This lack of knowledge adds a bit of dark mystery to the creatures.

Sure, they're not cute and cuddly. But they may be misunderstood, and scientists are rewriting the piranha’s fearsome stereotype. Here are 14 fun facts about the freshwater fish:

1. Piranhas’ bad reputation is at least partially Teddy Roosevelt’s fault

When Theodore Roosevelt journeyed to South America in 1913, he encountered, among other exotic creatures, several different species of piranha. Here’s what he had to say about them in his bestseller, Through the Brazilian Wilderness:

“They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers—in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness. They will tear wounded wild fowl to pieces; and bite off the tails of big fish as they grow exhausted when fighting after being hooked.”

Roosevelt went on to recount a tale of a pack of piranhas devouring an entire cow. According to Mental Floss, locals put on a bit of a show for Roosevelt, extending a net across the river to catch piranhas before he arrived. After storing the fish in a tank without food, they tossed a dead cow into the river and released the fish, which naturally devoured the carcass.

A fish that can eat a cow makes for a great story. Given that Roosevelt was widely read, it’s easy to see how the piranha’s supervillain image spread. 

Scientists and explorers had knowledge of piranhas dating back to the 16th century, but Roosevelt’s tale is largely credited with dispersing the myth. Dated 1856, this sketch by French explorer Francis de Castelnau depicts a red-bellied piranha. (Wikimedia Commons/Francis de Castelnau)

2. Piranhas have lived in South America for millions of years

Today, piranhas inhabit the freshwaters of South America from the Orinoco River Basin in Venezuela up to the Paraná River in Argentina. Though estimates vary, around 30 species inhabit the lakes and rivers of South America today. Fossil evidence puts piranha ancestors in the continent’s rivers 25 million years ago, but modern piranha genera may have only been around for 1.8 million years.

A 2007 study suggests that modern species diverged from a common ancestor around 9 million years ago. Also, the Atlantic Ocean rose around 5 million years ago, expanding into the flood plains of the Amazon and other South American rivers. The high salt environment would have been inhospitable to freshwater fish, like piranhas, but some likely escaped upriver to higher altitudes. Genetic analysis suggests that piranhas living above 100 meters in the Amazon have only been around for 3 million years.

3. Piranhas found outside South America are usually pets on the lam

Piranhas attract a certain type of pet lover, and sometimes when the fish gets too large for its aquarium said pet lover decides its much better off in the local lake. In this manner, piranhas have shown up in waterways around the globe from Great Britain to China to Texas. It’s legal to own a piranha in some areas, but obviously never a good idea to release them into the wild, as the species could become invasive.

4. Piranha teeth are pretty intense but replaceable

Piranhas are known for their razor-sharp teeth and relentless bite. (The word piranha literally translates to “tooth fish” in the Brazilian language Tupí.) Adults have a single row of interlocking teeth lining the jaw. True piranhas have tricuspid teeth, with a more pronounced middle cuspid or crown, about 4 millimeters tall.

The shape of a piranha’s tooth is frequently compared to that of a blade and is clearly adapted to suit their meat-eating diet. The actual tooth enamel structure is similar to that of sharks.

It’s not uncommon for piranhas to lose teeth throughout their lifetime. But, while sharks replace their teeth individually, piranhas replace teeth in quarters multiple times throughout their lifespan, which reaches up to eight years in captivity. A piranha with half of its lower jaw chompers missing isn’t out of the ordinary.

The jaw bone of a red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri) specimen. (Wikimedia Commons/Sarefo)

5. A strong bite runs in the family

Though they are hardly as menacing as fiction suggests, piranhas do bite with quite a bit of force. In a 2012 study in Scientific Reports, researchers found that black (or redeye) piranhas (Serrasalmus rhombeus)—the largest of modern species—bite with a maximum force of 72 pounds (that’s three times their own body weight).

Using a tooth fossil model, they found that piranhas' 10-million-year-old extinct ancestor, Megapiranha paranensis, had a jaw-tip bite force—the force that jaw muscles can exert through the very tip of its jaw—of as high as 1,068 pounds. For reference, the M. paranensis when alive weighed only 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds), so that’s roughly 50 times the animal’s body weight.

Science notes that T. rex’s estimated bite force is three times higher than that of this ancient piranha—but the king of the reptiles also weight a lot more. M. paranensis also had two rows of teeth, while modern piranhas have just the one. It’s not clear exactly what this ancient fish ate, but whatever it was, it must have required some serious chomps.

6. Humans and capybaras are only part of the piranha diet if these prey already dead or dying

The idea that a piranha could rip a human to shreds is probably more legend than fact, too. For the curious, Popular Science spoke to some experts who estimate that stripping the flesh from a 180-pound human in 5 minutes would require approximately 300 to 500 piranhas. Cases of heart attack and epilepsy that ended with the afflicted drowning in a South American river do show evidence of piranha nibbles, but in those instances, the victim was already deceased when piranhas got involved.

While the myth of the man-eating piranha belongs to movie theaters, the Internet has a wealth of mysterious footage of piranha packs taking down capybaras. Some piranhas do occasionally eat small mammals, but as with humans, it’s usually when the unfortunate animal is already dead or gravely injured.

This would pretty much never happen in real live. (Video: Piranha 3D/Dimension Films)

7. Some piranhas are cannibals

A typical piranha diet consists of insects, fish, crustaceans, worms, carrion, seeds and other plant material. A red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri), for example, eats about 2.46 grams per day—about one-eighth of its average body mass. Crustaceans, bugs, and scavenged scraps make up the largest chunk of their meals, but the balance of this diet can shift depending on the fish’s age and the food sources available.

So occasionally when resources are low and competition for food is high, piranhas have been known to take a chunk out of a fellow piranha, living or dead. Even weirder, wimple piranhas (Catoprion mentofeed on fish scales, which contain a protein mucus layer that’s surprisingly nutritious.

8. And some are vegetarians

Despite their flesh-eating reputation, some piranhas are omnivorous, eating more seeds than meat, and some even subsist on plants alone. For example, in the Amazonian rapids of the Trombetas basin in Pará, Brazil, scientists discovered that Tometes camunani lives solely off of riverweeds.

A Tometes camunani specimen. (© WWF/Tommaso Giarrizzo)

Piranhas' closest relative, the pacu or tambaqui fish (Colossoma macropomum), also lives on a mostly meat-free diet. Pacus closely resemble some piranha species in size and coloration, and thus, are often sold at fish markets as, “vegetarian piranhas,” as well as other less flattering nicknames.

9. When hunting prey, piranhas go for the tail and eyes

A 1972 study in red-bellied piranhas found that the fish most frequently attacked goldfish in a lab setting beginning with their prey’s tail and/or eyes. The researchers concluded that such an attack strategy would effectively immobilize piranhas’ opponents and prove useful for survival.

10. Piranhas bark

From anecdotes and observational research, scientists have known for a while that red-bellied piranhas make bark-like noises when caught by fishermen. Upon further examination, a team of Belgian scientists found that they make three distinctive types of vocalization in different situations.

In a visual staring contest with another fish, they start making quick calls that sound similar to barks, meant as a warning along the lines of, “Don’t mess with me, buddy.” In the act of actually circling or fighting another fish, piranhas emit low grunts or thud sounds, which researchers believe communicates more of a direct threat to the other fish.

The fish makes these two sounds using its swimbladder, a gas-containing organ that keeps fish afloat. Piranhas contract and relax muscles around the swimbladder to make noises of different frequencies.

The third vocalization? Should the opposing fish not back down, the piranha will gnash its teeth together and chase its rival. 

Here are all three sounds back to back:

11. Piranhas run in packs for safety, not strength

Part of piranhas’ fierce reputation stems from the fact that they often swim in packs or shoals. Red-bellied piranhas are particularly known as pack hunters. Though it might seem an advantageous hunting technique—more fish could theoretically take down a larger foe—the behavior actually stems from fear.

A shoal of piranhas (Serrasalmus sp.). Scary, right? (© Science Photo Library/Corbis)

Piranhas aren’t apex predators—they’re prey to caimans, birds, river dolphins, and other large pescatarian fish. So traveling in shoals has the effect of protecting the inner fish from attack. Further, shoals tend to have a hierarchy of larger, older fish towards the center and younger fish on the outer edges, suggesting that safety might be the true motivation.

In 2005, researchers looked at shoal formation in captive red-bellied piranhas and found that the fish both breathed easier in larger shoals and responded more calmly to simulated predator attacks. The researchers also observed wild piranhas forming larger shoals in shallow waters where they might be more vulnerable.

A spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus eating fresh piranha in Venezuela. (© W. Perry Conway/CORBIS)

12. They’ll only attack you if you mess with them (or their eggs)

Though piranhas have a reputation for attacking, there’s not much evidence to support the legend. Like grizzly bears, wolves, sharks, and pretty much any large scary thing with teeth, piranhas will leave you alone if you leave them alone.

Black piranhas and red-bellied piranhas are considered the most dangerous and aggressive toward humans. Nonetheless, South American swimmers typically emerge from piranha-infested waters without loss of flesh. For swimmers, the danger comes when the water level is low, prey is scarce, or you disturb its spawn buried in the riverbed—basically situations where the fish either feel really threatened or really hungry, and thus become more aggressive.

For fishermen, untangling a piranha from a net or a hook is where things get dicey. In most cases, if they bite you, they only bite you once—and they usually go for the toes or feet.

13. Piranhas seem to be attracted to noise, splashing, and blood

 A 2007 study linked noise, splashing, and spilling food, fish, or blood into the river with three instances of piranha attacks on humans in Suriname. Piranhas might be naturally attuned to pick up on the sound of fruits and nuts falling from trees and hitting the water and, thus, mistake splashing children for the noise associated with food.

As for blood, it likely does not render a piranha senseless as the movies would suggest, but piranhas can smell a drop of blood in 200 liters of water. So, if you are a bleeding, rambunctious child, a dip in the Amazon might not be the best idea.

14. They’re great grilled or in soup

In some parts of the Amazon, eating piranha is considered taboo—a common cultural perception for predatory fish—while others are convinced it’s an aphrodisiacPiranha soup is popular in the Pantanal region of Brazil, but many choose to serve the fish grilled on a banana leaf with tomatoes and limes for garnish.

Perhaps it’s time to put the myth of evil piranhas to bed, and instead enjoy a nice bowl of piranha soup.

14-Year-Old Boy Discovers Remains of German Fighter Plane and Its Pilot

Smithsonian Magazine

Daniel Rom Kristiansen’s great-grandfather long maintained that a German warplane crashed onto the family’s farm in Birkelse, Denmark during WWII. Most members of the family dismissed this claim as little more than an elderly man’s tall tale. But when Daniel began studying WWII in school, he set out to find the plane. While poking around on the property, Rebecca Seales reports for the BBC, Daniel and his father recently uncovered the charred remains of a German Messerschmitt—and its pilot.

It was Daniel’s father, Klaus Kristiansen, who suggested that his son look for the fighter plane. For the most part, Klaus was kidding around; he didn’t expect to find anything.  "We went out to the field with a metal detector," Klaus told Judith Vonberg of CNN. "I hoped we might find some old plates or something for Daniel to show in school."

Instead of plates, Daniel and his father hit upon metal debris. So they borrowed an excavator from their neighbor and started digging. They turned up piles of dirt filled with metal fragments. When they got seven feet into the ground, they saw bones.

As Daniel and Klaus continued to dig, they uncovered a motor, clothes, a wallet, and money. 

Realizing that they had hit upon a significant historical find, Klaus called the authorities. Because ammunition was found in the plane, bomb experts are now working to remove the wreckage safely.

The aircraft is believed to be a Messerschmitt Bf 109, according to Nick Squires of The Independent, and the human remains believed to belong to its pilot. More than 30,000 of these planes were produced during WWII, and they were deployed throughout Europe and North Africa. 

The pilot’s remains have been passed on to the Historical Museum of Northern Jutland. Torben Sarauw, curator and head of archaeology at the museum, told CNN’s Vonberg that he uncovered additional items among the pilot’s possessions: two Danish coins, three unused condoms, and food stamps for a canteen at Aalborg, a Danish city that was home to a training base for German pilots. The dead man also had a book in his pocket, which Klaus theorized was “either a little Bible or … Mein Kampf,” according to Seales. 

Sarauw believes that the pilot departed from this training base before he crashed onto the Kristiansen family’s farm. Sarauw also told Vonberg that he has found the pilot’s papers, and may soon be able to confirm his identity. “Maybe he can have a proper funeral," he said.

As we wait to learn more about this unfortunate soldier, one thing remains clear: Klaus’ grandfather has been thoroughly vindicated. “He was telling a lot of stories, my grandfather,” Klaus said, according to Seales at the BBC. “Some of them were not true, and some of them were true—but this one was true. Maybe I should have listened to him a bit more when he was alive!"

As for Daniel, he handed in his history homework and plans to update it as more details become available. It’s probably safe to assume that he has an A+ on lock. 

16 Million Years Ago This Giant Bat Walked the Jungles of New Zealand

Smithsonian Magazine

New Zealand has always been home to exotic residents—kiwi birds, rare whales, hobbits and, many millions of years ago, giant walking bats. On the rolling plains of Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island, a team of paleontologists stumbled upon the remains an ancient bat (Mystacina miocenalis), and analysis of the bat fossil published June 17 in PLOS ONE suggests it roamed the area at least 16 million years ago.

Bats are the only terrestrial mammals native to New Zealand, but it’s unclear how and when they got there. (Possums, though extremely common, arrived by boat in 1837.) Two modern species come from the same genus as the giant fossil, and are likely contemporary relatives of the ancient species. Previously, the oldest bat specimen found in New Zealand was about 17,500 years old.

A few things set this particular bat apart, a Laura Geggel notes for Live Science. First, it’s size: The researchers estimate that M. miocenalis weighed in at 1.4 ounces or .08 pounds. That might seem extremely light, and it is compared to some animals, but by bat standards it's quite large. For context: that’s roughly three times the size of most modern bats. In fact, it's so large that the bat probably didn't fly all that much. Suzanne Hand, one of the co-authors on the study and a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, explained in a statement:

The size of bats is physically constrained by the demands of flight and echolocation, as you need to be small, quick and accurate to chase insects in the dark. The unusually large size of this bat suggests it was doing less in-flight hunting and was taking heavier prey from the ground, and larger fruit than even its living cousin.

Sure enough, based on the shape of its limb bones, this bat spent at least some of its time walking on the ground, rather than flying. The bat’s two modern relatives also spend part of their lives on the forest floor, burrowing for insects.

Mystacina tuberculata is a burrowing bat. It spends some of its time foraging for spiders and insects on the ground and the other part of its time drinking flower nectar and eating pollen, which covers its face in the picture above. (Nga Manu Images NZ/Flickr)

So what did this bat see when walking along the forest floor16 to 19 million years ago? At the time, a lake called Manuherikia spread across this part of Otago, surrounded by subtropical rainforest. Fossils near the bat provide a snapshot of what the rainforest might have looked like: lots of insects and diverse plants, as well as a few birds and crocodiles. M. miocenalis’s teeth suggest it took advantage of the food sources around it, eating nectar, pollen, fruit, insects and even a few spiders. Like one of its modern relatives, this bat probably played an important role in pollinating local plants.

The fossilized teeth of this 16 million year old bat suggest it ate a varied diet. (Rod Morris)

Some of the same tree species that Mystacina bats use to roost today were also around back then and are present in the fossil record. In fact, the rainforest these bats lived in probably didn’t look two different from New Zealand's temperate old growth forests of today.

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