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A Deadly Virus Is on the Rise for Australia's Cats

Smithsonian Magazine

A deadly disease is on the rise in Australian cat populations. Known as feline panleukopenia, or "cat plague," the sickness hasn't been an issue for cats down under for 40 years thanks to a vaccine developed during the 1970s. But in the last couple of years, cat plague has reemerged. And as veterinarian​s Mark Westman and Richard Malik write for The Conversation, it has the potential to spread quickly if something is not done.

Last weekend, Victoria's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) sent out a community alert urging owners to vaccinate their cats after the vets found the disease in several stray kittens brought to shelters around Melbourne. “Vaccination provides high immunity, which is why these recent confirmed cases of Panleukopenia are cause for concern—and action,” Australian Veterinary Association President Paula Parker says in the release. “It typically takes two days for an infected cat or kitten to become symptomatic, so the risk of transmission is extremely high."

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, feline panleukopenia (FP) is a highly contagious virus that attacks cells that rapidly divide like those found in bone marrow, intestines and developing unborn kittens. If the disease attacks and destroys bone marrow cells, the cats can no longer produce white blood cells, an important part of the immune system. Infected cats then often develop serious secondary infections.

The virus can be transmitted through urine, feces or even fleas from other cats. Kittens, sick cats and unvaccinated cats are most susceptible. Symptoms include diarrhea, lethargy, fever, vomiting and dehydration. And once a feline is infected, there's no medication that can kill the virus. The hope is to help keep the kitties healthy long enough so they can naturally fight it off. Such supportive care includes IV fluids, opioid meds for pain, nutrition supplements and blood transfusions. Without treatment, the AVMA reports that ​up to 90 percent of FP-infected cats may die.

So why has this cat scourge reared its head again after 40 years?

Westman and Malik write that it’s likely it never really went away. Australia has six times as many feral cats as they do pet cats, and the virus may also be able to infect dogs and foxes. “Perhaps with an increased effort to rehabilitate and re-home 'fringe-dwelling cats,' it was inevitable that the virus would spill back from these unvaccinated cats into the general pet cat population, given waning herd immunity,” they write. Once immunization rates drop below a certain level—in the case of cats, this is around 70 percent—they lose what is known as 'herd immunity' or 'community immunity,' which can potentially protect non-immunized animals from infection.

The first outbreak in pet cats occurred in Mildura. According to Westman and Malik, the region is rural with a fairly low average income for residents. "It is our suspicion that the cost of vaccinating the family cat (currently more than $200 for a kitten requiring a course of two to three vaccines) exceeds the budget for many pet owners," they write. 

From there, in early 2017, the disease found its way to the Sydney metropolitan area, where more than 50 cats in shelters died. “The current outbreak seems to be caused by a lack of mass vaccination, especially in shelter-housed cats,” Professor Vanessa Barrs of the Univeristy of Sydney said at the time. “The disease had previously re-emerged in Melbourne cat shelters a few years ago but despite warnings, cats have not been vaccinated in many shelters because their risk of disease was perceived to be lower than in dogs, when in reality the risk to cats is high.”

The disease used to be once widespread, but according to the AVMA, is now considered "uncommon." Occasional bouts have appeared outside of Australia in recent decades. Last year, shelters in North Carolina saw an increase in the virus. And in 2014, the disease struck the island of Maui, the first time FP was found in the state of Hawaii.

The effects of the virus may also be worsened by a spreading anti-vaccination movement in the pet community. But as Gavin Haynes at The Guardian reports, there is no strong evidence that points to the fact that vaccines cause the range of claimed negative side effects or diseases.

Overall, the key to stopping FP's spread is vaccination. As Liz Walker, CEO of the Victoria RSPCA says, "the importance of keeping your pet’s vaccinations up to date cannot be overstated."

A Fecal Pellet’s Worth A Thousand Words

Smithsonian Magazine

Scat, dung, guano, frass, manure, night soil. We have a lot of fancy words for feces, don’t we? Perhaps it’s because even uttering the word poop somehow feels unclean.

But for scientists, poop is not something to recoil from—it represents unexplored data. Each nugget, cow patty and meadow muffin is brimming with information that can be used to divine all sorts of interesting things about not only the animal that left it, but also the world in which that animal lives.

For instance, a fresh splat of bear scat full of berry seeds and fruit stones might be used to predict how cherry trees will adapt to climate change.

Researchers recently scoured the mountainsides of Japan for scat from Asiatic black bears, particularly deposits that were laden with cherry pits. By analyzing forms of oxygen atoms found within the pits, the scientists could determine at what elevation the seeds originated from and how far the bears carried them before excretion. The bears are carrying the seeds higher into the mountains as the seasons change, the team recently reported in Current Biology. This means that as climate change warms the world below, the cool-loving cherry trees may be able to escape by colonizing new territory on the mountain slopes.

But this is just the tip of the dung heap when it comes to poop science.

At the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, reproductive biologist Janine Brown uses plenty of poop in her studies of hormones and what they say about animals’ breeding cycles and stress levels.

“Hormones circulate in the blood and are secreted in urine, feces, saliva and hair,” says Brown. “But I will say, for better or worse, most of the work we do relies on fecal collections.”

In one study of captive clouded leopards, Brown’s lab determined from scat that the cats became stressed if they weren’t provided with hiding places to escape the peering eyes of zoogoers. What’s more, clouded leopards that are housed in tall enclosures—that is, habitats where the cats have somewhere to climb—have much lower levels of stress hormone than those without.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising for a species that spends most of its life in trees, said Brown. What is surprising is that you can learn all of that from a piece of poop.

Another fecal hormone study showed that female cheetahs can be housed together in the same enclosure without any fights breaking out, but something about the arrangement suppresses the cats’ reproductive cycles. Similarly, a closer look at the poop of Pallas’s cats—everybody’s favorite frumpy recluses—revealed that bright lights can discombobulate their reproductive cycles.  

Obviously, working with poop all day can have its drawbacks, and Brown says some samples are worse than others. Herbivore dung is mostly made up of undigested plant matter, so it has a mild smell. But carnivore crap can be quite “challenging,” she says.

“You’ve got people working on species like fishing cats, which of course eat fish, and their poop reeks to high heaven,” says Brown.

Odor doesn’t seem to bother Jesus Maldonado, a research geneticist with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. What gets him down are exoskeletons.

Maldonado’s studies rely on teasing genetic markers out of fecal samples to learn about the animals that left the material and what they ate. He’s found that something about chitin—the material insects and crustaceans use to make their shells—can interfere with the reactions required to perform his experiments. This makes doing genetic work particularly difficult on certain animals, such as river otters, which eat a lot of crayfish.

The feces from a river otter can be difficult to analyze because the animals eat a lot of crustaceans. (Jim Jenkins, Smithsonian's National Zoo via Flickr)

But Maldonado is not easily deterred. He has conducted fecal sample analyses on everything from kit foxes and coyotes to tigers and jungle cats. With enough samples, he can puzzle out estimates of population size, gender ratios and the interrelatedness of all the animals in a given area. He can peer into a turd and tell you not just what species that animal is eating, but what parasites and pathogens it might be carrying.

“You can get all that information from just a sliver of poop,” says Maldonado. “It’s an incredibly powerful thing.”

Best of all, unlike studies that rely on hair, teeth or blood, this information comes at no cost to the animal, Maldonado notes. For animals in captivity, that means less handling and probing. And for animals in the wild, there is no stressful trapping or darting. Scientists benefit, too, since they can conduct their work without wasting time and resources trying to find rare or elusive creatures.

“Noninvasive” sampling also comes in handy when trying to gather information about an animal that can weigh 14,000 pounds and has 10-foot spikes growing out of its face, as Brown and Maldonado recently learned while working on a study of African elephants.

There’s no way they would ever be able to collect urine, saliva or blood from a whole herd of elephants in the wild, says Brown.

DNA analysis is just one way to determine the owner of a fecal sample. And in more controlled circumstances, such as those found in a zoo, researchers may turn to a less technical approach. Like glitter.

If keepers know they want to test the fecal samples of an animal that’s being housed with other animals, they will sometimes lace its food with the same stuff your toddler uses to make Mother’s Day cards. Best of all, glitter comes in multiple colors, which means keepers can work with several animals at once. One study conducted at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., managed to keep track of 10 different lions using nothing more sophisticated than sparkly scat.  

In fact, the first “fecal marker” used by zoo personnel was even more commonplace. During the clouded leopard study, Brown says they were looking for a way to differentiate between the feces of male-female pairs.

“This was back when my kids were little,” says Brown, “and I noticed that when they were drinking grape Kool-Aid, it turned their poop green.”

You see, where most of us would see a soiled diaper, scientists like Brown see a potential wildlife management breakthrough. 

A Fox’s Joy in Finding Fresh Meat is Short-Lived

Smithsonian Channel
A red fox stumbles across a treasure trove of nutrition: the carcass of a freshly killed yak. But nearby tracks reveal that its killer isn’t far away – and wouldn’t take kindly to an intruder. From the Series: Into the Wild India: Wild Horses of the Himalayas

A History of Cribs and Other Brilliant and Bizarre Inventions for Getting Babies to Sleep

Smithsonian Magazine

Transferring my sleeping newborn from my arms to his crib required the gentleness and precision of an explosive ordnance disposal technician. If I failed, he would wake up, wouldn’t go right back to sleep, and often protested, loudly. Like many parents before me, I was eager for a place where he could nap and I could have my hands free. Throughout history parents have invented places for their babies to rest—rockers, hammocks, swings, carriers, cribs and more. While some of the contraptions are brilliant, others are completely bizarre.

Rocking Cradles and Swings

After nine months of floating inside mom, it makes sense that babies are soothed by gentle movement. The original baby rockers were likely hammocks. Wooden cradles came later, and in the nineteenth century, metal became popular for hygienic reasons. There are thousands of inventions in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s category for “Small beds for newborns or infants, e.g. bassinets or cradles with rocking mechanisms,” the earliest of which are from the mid-1800s. If you needed an all-in-one combination rocker, bassinet, couch and fold-out bed, this 1871 “sofa bed” had it all. But rocking a cradle by hand or foot can get tiring, so turn of the twentieth-century inventors added cogs, spring motors or hand-cranks to cradles so they could rock, at least for a while, on their own. Finally, an electric cradle came along in 1924, around the time when half of Americans had electricity. We’ve been plugging in baby rockers and swings ever since. Now we have the Bluetooth-enabled 4moms mamaRoo 4 swing that “moves like you do,” the Graco Sense2Soothe swing with “Cry Detection Technology,” the SNOO Smart Sleeper bassinet with “calming sensations of the womb,” and Ford’s Max Motor Dreams crib that was made to mimic a car ride (however, this one was never sold to the public).

William McArthur's "Sofa Bed," patented January 31, 1871 (U.S. Patent 111,365)


Though cradles existed for millennia to hold infants during the day, babies slept with their mothers at night for most of human history, and still do in many parts of the world. A half barrel with all but three slats removed, one on each side and one on top, was probably the world’s first device designed for nighttime sleep. Called an “arcuccio” or “arcutio,” Italian for “little arch,” this seventeenth-century creation was put on the mother’s bed with baby inside, allowing a mother to sleep and breastfeed throughout the night without the possibility of rolling onto her infant, or having her infant roll out of bed.

The arcutio didn’t catch on worldwide, but it was suggested as “an apparatus to prevent the overlaying of infants” in 1895, when British Parliament debated penalizing mothers whose infants died next to them in bed. Babies then usually slept with their mothers for a few months after birth, because homes weren’t well-heated. The inventions of that era were sleep surfaces that could be attached to the side of the bed, much like today’s co-sleepers and bedside baby cribs.

The 1600s arcuccio co-sleeper, complete with breast cutouts for nighttime feeding (The British Medical Journal, 1895)

Window Cribs

The most bizarre crib in the patent category with bedside co-sleepers (“Children's beds capable of being suspended from, or attached to, window frames or other articles”) is the window crib. The first, but certainly not only, patent for such a crib appeared in 1919, not too long after American pediatrician Luther Emmett Holt insisted in his book The Care and Feeding of Children that “fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood” and that “those who sleep out of doors are stronger children.” So what were city-dwelling parents to do? Why, put baby in a cage suspended out the window, much like an air conditioning unit, of course! Eleanor Roosevelt used one in their townhouse window for their daughter, Anna, until a neighbor threatened to report her for child cruelty. “This was a shock to me,” Roosevelt wrote in her autobiography, “for I thought I was being a most modern mother.” Though they may not have been common in New York, they were quite popular in London. Thankfully, we aren’t “airing” babies out of windows anymore, but you can buy infant tents for naptime at the beach.

A nanny supervises a baby suspended in a wire cage attached to the outside of a hight tenement block window on June 23, 1937. (Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Air Crib

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the window crib are those that totally regulate or monitor the baby’s environment. Psychologist B.F. Skinner invented the “air crib” in 1944—a completely enclosed crib with three solid walls and a ceiling, and a safety glass front, that allowed both temperature and humidity to be controlled for baby. Skinner invented the air crib due to his concern that being bundled up meant a child’s self-directed movement would be inhibited. Skinner’s air crib didn’t become trendy—perhaps because Skinner also invented a box for studying animal behavior, and the similarities were too uncomfortable for parents. But the desire for an acutely monitored baby environment is as contemporary as ever. In 2016, the smart thermostat company Nest (owned by Google’s parent company—Alphabet), filed a patent for a smart crib. The crib would report on the baby’s temperature, the temperature in the room, if the baby is awake or sleeping, and even proposes an algorithm that would learn why the baby is crying—whether hungry, tired or needing a diaper change. I think Skinner would have been eager to have one. Though the Nest smart crib is not yet available, a parent can buy an Owlet sock that measures baby’s heart rate and blood oxygen, along with a camera to watch baby from afar, as well as check room temperature.

In 1947, baby John Gray Jr. plays in his Skinner box, a crib with temperature controls and a glass barrier that psychologist B. F. Skinner developed to eliminate germs, drafts and the need for constricting clothing. (Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Baby Carriers

The first way humans transported babies, and let them sleep and eat, was by carrying them in a sling. Mom goes about her business, and baby happily comes along for the ride. Babywearing fell out of favor in the mid- to late-nineteenth century in European and U.S. cities when roads were paved and strollers became a status symbol. Inventor Charles Taylor nevertheless filed a patent for a garment “used to carry babies, parcels, and the like with little fatigue” in 1892 that didn’t seem to catch on. A 1943 attempt at a baby carrier that looked a bit like a shoulder bag for your baby was also a flop. But a variation of Ann Moore’s “Snugli” soft-structured carrier, patented in 1984, is still sold today. The “Snugli” took hold because it was comfortable and easier to use than some traditional baby wraps, but also because attachment theory shifted parenting attitudes in the 1970s and 80s. Warm, sensitive care and physical contact was no longer seen as a threat to a baby’s development of autonomy (like it was from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s)—you could hold your baby (again) without “spoiling” them. Now there are so many kinds of baby carriers it can make your head spin, especially if you’re wrapping 18 feet of fabric around yourself.

Image by U.S. Patent 484,065. C.C. Taylor's "Suspensory Garment," patented October 11, 1892 (original image)

Image by U.S. Patent 2,376,657. L. Chamberlain's "Infant Carrier," patented May 22, 1945 (original image)

Image by U.S. Patent 4,434,920. Ann Moore's "Soft Orthopedic Pouch-Type Infant Carrier," patented March 6, 1984 (original image)

Baby Boxes

Since the 1940s in Finland, every soon-to-be-mom who attends a prenatal clinic has been given a cardboard baby box, containing baby-must-haves like diapers, a thermometer, socks and a snowsuit. Then the box itself functions as a bassinet. The box is touted as reducing Finland’s infant mortality rate from 0.65 percent in 1935 to 0.025 percent today. However, since the box came along when Finland mandated that municipalities provide prenatal care and child health clinics, it isn’t the silver bullet. Now some states (Ohio, New Jersey and Alabama) and countries (England, Canada and India) are offering baby boxes, some in exchange for completing parent education workshops. The humble baby basket harkens back to Moses' basket, only mass produced, and certainly not buoyant. But as the cheapest item on this list, and perhaps the least likely to be recalled, it has its own brilliance.

In the western world, the past 200 years have brought a dramatic shift in child-rearing trends. For most of human history it was a biological imperative that mother and baby be in constant close proximity. Technology and innovation, especially heated homes and infant formula, changed that, and parenting experts embraced the trend. From the mid-1800s, with few exceptions, they’ve advised against rocking, or nursing, a baby to sleep. “[Rocking] is a habit easily acquired, but hard to break,” warned Emmett Holt. But as every exhausted new parent knows, sometimes babies don’t want to sleep in stationary boxes or cribs, and sometimes you do what works—it doesn’t last forever.

A Life Less Ordinary

Smithsonian Magazine

She photographed Gandhi minutes before his assassination, covered the war that followed the partition of India, was with U.S. troops when they liberated Germany's Buchenwald concentration camp, was torpedoed off the African Coast, had the first cover of Life magazine and was the first Western journalist allowed in the Soviet Union.

Margaret Bourke-White, the iconic photographer, didn't just raise the glass ceiling; she shattered it and threw away the pieces.

At a time when women were defined by their husbands and judged by the quality of their housework, she set the standard for photojournalism and expanded the possibilities of being female.

"She was a trailblazer," says Stephen Bennett Phillips, curator at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., who recently mounted a major touring exhibition of Bourke-White's photos. "She showed women that you didn't have to settle for the traditional role."

Bourke-White was fearless, doggedly determined, stylish and so flamboyantly unconventional that "her lifestyle has sometimes overshadowed her photography," Phillips laments.

She lived life her way, living openly with a married man, having affairs with others, putting career above husband and children. But 36 years after her death from Parkinson's, the titillation of her private life pales in comparison to her work.

"She was a photojournalist par excellence," says Phillips, "capturing the human drama, the human condition, in a way that few journalists had been able to capture."

Bourke-White was born in 1904 in New York City—16 years before the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote in national elections. Her mother, Minnie Bourke, was a homemaker who had trained as a stenographer; her father, Joseph White, an inventor-engineer-naturalist-amateur photographer who sometimes took his precocious daughter on visits to industrial sites. She would later write in her autobiography, Portrait of Myself: "To me at that age, the foundry represented the beginning and end of all beauty."

She started taking pictures in college (she attended several) using a second-hand camera with a broken lens that her mother bought for her for $20. "After I found a camera," she explained, "I never really felt a whole person again unless I was planning pictures or taking them."

In 1927, after shedding a short-lived marriage and graduating from Cornell University with a degree in biology, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, an emerging industrial powerhouse, to photograph the new gods of the machine age: factories, steel mills, dams, buildings. She signaled her uniqueness by adding her mother's maiden name to her own.

Soon, her perfectly composed, highly contrasted and dynamic photographs had giant corporate clients clamoring for her services.

"When she began courting corporations, she was one of the few women who were actively competing in a man's world and a lot of the men photographers were very jealous of her," says Phillips. "The rumor got around that it wasn't a woman who was taking the photographs—that it wasn't really her."

Image by Margaret Bourke-White. At a time when women were defined by their husbands and judged by the quality of their housework, Margaret Bourke-White set the standard for photojournalism and expanded the possibilities of being female. (Self-Portrait, 1943, Margaret Bourke-White, 19 1/8" x 15 1/4" Vintage gelatin silver print from the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Collection) (original image)

Image by Margaret Bourke-White. Margaret Bourke-White's image of Gandhi at the spinning wheel is one of the best-known photographs in the world. She was the last journalist to see him alive; he was assassinated in 1948, minutes after she had interviewed him. (Gandhi Spinning, India, 1946, Margaret Bourke-White, 19 1/4" x 14 1/2" Vintage gelatin silver print from the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Collection) (original image)

Image by Margaret Bourke-White. To the Life staff, Margaret Bourke-White was known as "Maggie the Indestructible." (Airship Akron, Winner Goodyear Zeppelin Race, 1931, Margaret Bourke- White, 17 1/2" x 23" Vintage gelatin silver print from the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Collection) (original image)

Image by Margaret Bourke-White. "Mine is a life into which marriage doesn't fit very well," Margaret Bourke-White once said. (Bar Scene, ca. 1936, Margaret Bourke-White, 9 5/8" x 13 5/8" Vintage gelatin silver print from the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Collection) (original image)

Image by Margaret Bourke-White. The advent of the Second World War gave Margaret Bourke-White a chance to show her bravery as well as her skill. (Italy-Detail Ponte Reale Bridge, 1943-1944, Margaret Bourke-White, 13 1/16" x 10 1/2" Vintage gelatin silver print from the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Collection) (original image)

Neither her gender nor her age posed a problem for Henry Luce, publisher of Time. In what became a lasting partnership, he hired the 25-year-old Bourke-White for his new magazine, Fortune and gave her almost a free hand. She went to Germany, made three trips to the Soviet Union—the first Western photojournalist to be given access—and traveled all around the United States, including the Midwest, which was experiencing the severest drought in the country's history.

When Luce decided to start a new magazine, he again turned to Bourke-White. One of Life's original four photographers, her picture of Fort Peck Dam in Montana made the first cover on November 23, 1936, when she was 32. Her accompanying cover story is regarded as the first photo essay—a genre, says Phillips, "that would become an integral part of the magazine for the next 20 years."

With the United States in the grips of the Great Depression, Bourke-White undertook a trip through the South with Erskine Caldwell, the famed author of Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre. Their collaboration resulted in a book on Southern poverty, You Have Seen Their Faces. The haggard images staring back at the camera confirmed her "increasing understanding of the human condition," says Phillips. "She became skilled at capturing the human experience."

She and Caldwell moved in together (even though he was married at the time), wed, collaborated on three more books and, although both were passionate advocates of social justice, divorced in 1942. "Mine is a life into which marriage doesn't fit very well," she said.

The advent of the Second World War gave her a chance to show her bravery as well as her skill. The first woman accredited as a war correspondent, she crossed into Germany with General Patton, was in Moscow when the Germans attacked, accompanied an Air Force crew on a bombing raid and traveled with the armed forces in North Africa and Italy. To the Life staff she became "Maggie the Indestructible."

But there was grumbling that she was "imperious, calculating and insensitive" and used her unquestionable charm to gain an advantage over her male competitors. Unlike other photographers who had converted to the much lighter 35mm, she lugged around large-format cameras, which, along with wooden tripods, lighting equipment and a developing tank, could weigh 600 pounds. "Generals rushed to carry her cameras and even Stalin insisted on carrying her bags," reported fellow photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt.

After the war ended, she continued to use her lenses as the eyes of the world, documenting Gandhi's non-violent campaign in India and apartheid in South Africa. Her image of Gandhi at the spinning wheel is one of the best-known photographs in the world. She was the last journalist to see him alive; he was assassinated in 1948, minutes after she had interviewed him.

In 1952, while covering the Korean conflict, she suffered a fall. While seeking a cause for the accident she was diagnosed with Parkinson's, which she fought with the courage she had shown all her life. But two brain surgeries made no difference to her deteriorating condition. With Parkinson's tightening its hold, she wrote Portrait of Myself, an instant bestseller, each word a struggle, according to her neighbors in Darien, Connecticut, who remembered her as a vital younger woman dressed in designer clothes, promenading with a walking stick in the company of her two Afghan dogs.

Life published her last story in 1957, but kept her on the masthead until 1969. A year later, the magazine sent Sean Callahan, then a junior editor, to Darien to help her go through her photos for a future book. She had more and more difficulty communicating, and the last time he saw her, in August 1972, two days before her death, all she could do was blink.

"Fittingly for the heroic, larger than life Margaret Bourke-White," Callahan later wrote, "the eyes were the last to go."

Dina Modianot-Fox, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. who has worked for NBC News and Greenwich magazine, is a frequent contributor

A Minimum of 320,000 Mammalian Viruses Await Discovery

Smithsonian Magazine

A colorized microscopic image of a viral particle of the Ebola virus. The virus, which scientists believe originates in non-human primates, causes Ebola hemorrhagic fever, a deadly disease in humans, monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees. Photo via CDC

It’s the stuff of The Hot Zone, Outbreak and Contagion: a deadly new virus has emerged from some dark corner of the jungle. While victims succumb to a horrendous death and drop like poisoned flies, virus hunters race to identify patient zero, who turns out to have recently spent time on a pig farm. Those pigs, they discover, are exposed to fruit bat droppings, which rain down from the trees above. Another animal virus made the jump to humans. And while you probably know that such jumps have happened before, brace yourself: Scientists estimate that at least 320,000 such viruses await discovery.

The media is currently abuzz with talk of the MERS coronavirus, which might have originated in bats and then used camels as an additional host. Before that, we had SARS (from small mammals); Nipah virus (fruit bats and pigs); and swine flu. Zoonoses–or illnesses that originate in animals and cross over into humans–account for around 70 percent of all emerging viral diseases, including HIV/AIDS, West Nile and Ebola. Zoonoses originating from mammals are especially problematic. They tend to prove the most readily transmittable to people because the viruses that evolved to exploit our closest furry relatives tend to be most adept at navigating our own warm-blooded bodies. As we encroach upon new tracts of forest where dangerous pathogens may lurk, and then jet-set around the world with the pathogens hitching a ride, the rate of such emerging infectious disease outbreaks is only increasing.

Yet we know very little about “virodiversity,” or the number, types and abundance of viruses in the world. We don’t even have a handle on how many viruses may exist in any given animal species, despite those viruses potentially posing the greatest threat to our lives and economies. 

In an ambitious new study from the American Society for Microbiology’s online journal mBio, more than 20 leading virus hunters got together to try and solve this mystery. Rather than just tackle a single species, they decided to take on an entire class of animals: mammals. Collecting samples from all 5,500 known mammals wasn’t an option, so they chose a representative species, the Indian flying fox–a type of bat that is the largest flying mammal in the world and is the carrier of the Nipah virus–to supply their viral data, from which they could then extrapolate to estimate broader diversity among all mammals.

Flying foxes–potential carriers of the deadly Nipah virus–hanging out. Photo by Ryan E. Poplin

They collected nearly 2,000 samples from flying foxes trapped in Bangladesh (they let the bats go afterwards, unharmed, and wore protective gear to make sure they themselves did not become infected with the next Nipah virus), then performed nearly 13,000 genetic analyses to test for viral traces in those samples. They discovered 55 viruses from nine different families, only five of which–two bocaviruses, an adenovirus, a betacoronavirus, and a gammacoronavirus–were already known to science. Ten of the newly discovered viruses were in the same family as the deadly Nipah virus.

Additionally, a commonly used statistical test allowed the researchers to estimate that their sampling most likely missed three other, more elusive viruses, bringing the flying foxes’ tally to an estimated 58 viruses. From there, they extrapolated this figure to all mammals, calculating that, at minimum, around 320,000 viruses await discovery in these animals.

While several hundred thousand may sound like a lot, that number is much more manageable than the millions of viruses that some researchers supposed might be out there. In fact,, a species richness estimation program they used, called the Chao 2, indicated that samples from just 500 more animals would be needed to discover 85 percent of those 320,000 viruses. On the other hand, discovering the remaining 15 percent, which accounts for only the rarest of the viral bunch, would require more than ten times as many samples. The team calculated that the 85 percent effort would require about $1.4 billion in funding, which sounds like a lot but is only a fraction of the $16 billion that a single disease pandemic, SARS, has cost over the last ten years in economic impacts. Divided over a 10 year period, we could put the mystery of mammalian viruses to rest for just $140 million per year, they write.

“For decades, we’ve faced the threat of future pandemics without knowing how many viruses are lurking in the environment, in wildlife, waiting to emerge,” Peter Daszak, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “Finally we have a breakthrough–there aren’t millions of unknown virus, just a few hundred thousand, and given the technology we have it’s possible that in my lifetime, we’ll know the identity of every unknown virus on the planet.”

The researchers did make several assumptions in their study. They assumed that 58 is a reasonable estimate for the number of viruses harbored by every mammal species. that viruses are not shared by different hosts. that mammalian viruses only belong within nine families. and that their tests for viral diversity were dependable. They acknowledge that their initial calculation is only a rough estimate, and they plan to repeat the experiment in primates in Bangladesh and bats in Mexico to add more robustness to their figure. Unfortunately, they predict that their estimate of total viral diversity will likely increase with more data.

Aside from elucidating the wondrous diversity of the natural world, discovering and classifying all of these viruses could significantly help humans. Rather than flounder for months trying to discover the origins of a virus–as scientists are still struggling to do with MERS–a central database based on extensive surveys of animals would expedite the process of identifying any new virus that emerges in humans. Knowing where a virus comes from is important for cutting off the source of infection, as demonstrated in the culling of hundreds of thousands of chickens, civets and pigs and other animals in recent viral outbreaks. But snagging the source quickly may allow animal handlers to better isolate tainted populations of animals, allowing the rest to be spared and keeping humans away from those tainted few.

Unfortunately, knowing what viruses are out there cannot prevent an emerging viral disease from striking a wide swath of people. But it can help lessen the blow, for example, by giving researchers more time to develop rapid diagnostic tests for disease intervention and control.

“To quote Benjamin Franklin, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the study’s senior author. “Our goal is to provide the viral intelligence needed for the global public health community to anticipate and respond to the continuous challenge of emerging infectious diseases.” 

A Mysterious 25,000-Year-Old Structure Built of the Bones of 60 Mammoths

Smithsonian Magazine

A jaw-dropping example of Ice Age architecture has been unearthed on Russia’s forest steppe: a huge, circular structure built with the bones of at least 60 woolly mammoths. But exactly why hunter-gatherers enduring the frigid realities of life 25,000 years ago would construct the 40-foot diameter building is a fascinating question.

“Clearly a lot of time and effort went into building this structure so it was obviously important to the people that made it for some reason,” says Alexander Pryor, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter (U.K.). He is the lead author of a new study published this week in the journal Antiquity describing the find at Kostenki, a place where many important Paleolithic sites lie clustered around the Don River.

The ancient builders did leave some clues. Fires once burned within the structure and food scraps, including vegetables, remain. Several pits containing mammoth bones lie just outside of the bone circle and may suggest food storage. “You obviously get a lot of meat from a mammoth,” Pryor said, “so the idea that there were food processing and food storage activities going on at the site is something that we want to investigate more.”

To some, though, the grandeur of the structure suggests more than practical significance. “People have also speculated a lot about a likely ritual element to this and it’s really hard to say what that might have been,” Pryor adds. “Ritual is embedded in human lives in all sorts of ways. The fact they might have designed a structure of this type as part of both their ritual and their sustenance activities is very reasonable.”

Location of the mammoth bone structure found in modern-day Russia (Courtesy of Pryor et. al.)

Mammoth-bone buildings are well-known to archaeologists. Similar structures have been found across Eastern Europe, albeit on a much smaller scale, a few meters in diameter. These sites, including others found at Kostenki during the 1950s and '60s, date back as far as 22,000 years. Researchers have generally considered them to be dwellings or “mammoth houses” that helped their builders cope with frigid temperatures near the nadir of the last Ice Age. The new structure (first discovered at Kostenki in 2014) is 3,000 years older.

"What a site!” says Penn State University anthropologist Pat Shipman, who wasn’t involved in the research. “I am completely intrigued as these remarkable finds differ meaningfully from previously discovered ones and can be more carefully and fully studied with modern techniques.”

The site stands out most obviously for its scale. “The size of the structure makes it exceptional among its kind, and building it would have been time-consuming,” says Marjolein Bosch, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Cambridge. “This implies that it was meant to last, perhaps as a landmark, a meeting place, a place of ceremonial importance, or a place to return to when the conditions grew so harsh that shelter was needed,” Bosch was not involved with the new research on this “ truly exceptional find” but has personally visited the site. Indeed, the structure’s sheer size makes it an unlikely everyday home. “I cannot possibly imagine how they would have roofed over this structure,” Pryor said.

The smaller mammoth houses feature more definite cooking hearths, and they contain the remains of reindeer, horse and fox, which suggests the people in them were living on whatever they could find in the area. The new mammoth bone structure lacks evidence of other animal remains. “It’s almost exclusively woolly mammoth remains and that is one of the interesting things about it,” Pryor said.

“With no other animal bones, this doesn’t look much like a dwelling where people lived for a while,” Shipman added.

Close up of the structure, featuring long bones, a lower jaw (top middle) and articulated vertebrae (pointed out by excavator) (AJE Pryor)

Intriguingly, the new structure is the first of its kind to yield evidence that its occupants burnt wood inside and not just bone. “It’s the first time anyone’s found large pieces of charcoal inside one of these structures. So it does show that trees were in the environment,” Pryor said.

Tree ring widths in the charcoal are narrow, suggesting the trees probably struggled to survive in that landscape. Previous studies suggested that even on the Ice Age’s arid steppes, coniferous trees would have endured in forests stretching along riversides like those close to Kostenki—a draw for people looking to survive.

Still, if people weren’t living in the structure, then why did they make fires?

“Fire in the past can be seen as a tool much the same as chipped stone implements and worked bones are,” Bosch says. Fires provided heat and light, barbecued and roasted food, dried meat for storage and processed glues for stone-tipped tools. “Here, the fires were lit inside a structure and its use as a light source seems intuitive,” she says. “If the authors are correct in their assumption of its use as a place for food storage, it may also have been used to dry meat.” There may be ways to test these ideas. Finding drops of fat on the floor, for example, could show that meat was dried over the flames.

The local diet also appears to have featured a smorgasbord of vegetables. By using water and sieve flotation techniques, the team discovered pieces of plant tissue among the charcoal. “This is the first time we have a plant food component discovered in any of these structures,” Pryor says. His team hasn’t identified specific species yet but notes that the tissues are like those found in modern roots and tubers such as carrots, potatoes or parsnips.

The new structure seen from above (A. E. Dudin)

The astounding assemblage of bones from more than 60 mammoths raises the question: Where did they all come from? Scientists aren’t sure if the animals were hunted, scavenged from sites of mass deaths or some combination of the two.

“There must be something about the topography of the site that makes it a place where, over and over, herds of mammoths are coming through and can be killed or will be killed naturally, like at a river crossing,” says Penn State’s Pat Shipman. “I can imagine no way [these] people could possibly kill 60 mammoths at a time, because proboscideans (the order of mammals to which both mammoths and living elephants belong) are smart and catch on if members of their herd are being killed, even with modern automatic weapons.”

Further studies of the mammoth bones will yield more clues about their source. Some were arranged in the same order and position as they were in the skeleton. “This means that the bones were brought to the site as body part which some soft tissue (skin, muscle, and tendons) still attached,” Bosch said. “Therefore, they must have been transported before carnivores had the chance to eat and clean the bones. This implies that the builders had early access to the mammoth remains.”

Shipman adds: “I want to know if the bones have been processed or transported or if we are looking at whole skeletons or carcasses piled up for future use. Moving a dead mammoth cannot have been easy even if it was largely de-fleshed.”

Researchers excavating the mammoth site. (A. E. Dudin)

However the mammoths got here, their presence was crucial to the humans living in the area. Lioudmila Lakovleva of the French National Centre for Scientific Research notes that “the complete settlement shows several mammoth bone dwellings, walls, enclosure, pits, working areas, hearths, dumping areas and butchering areas,” she says.

Kostenki was a focus for human settlement throughout the last ice age, Pryor said: “It’s a huge investment in this particular place in the landscape.” His team has some theories as to why. “There’s evidence that there were natural freshwater springs in the area which would have remained liquid throughout the year,” he says. “That warmed water would have drawn animals, including mammoth, and in turn attracted humans to the same spot.”

While the site raises many intriguing questions, Pryor said that it already tells us something certain about the people who built it.

“This project is giving us a real insight into how our human ancestors adapted to climate change, to the harshest parts of the last glacial cycle, and adapted to use the materials that they had around them,” he said. “It’s really a story of survival in the face of adversity.”

A Scholar Follows a Trail of Dead Mice and Discovers a Lesson in Why Museum Collections Matter

Smithsonian Magazine

The big jar of mice stopped me cold. John Whipple Potter Jenks had collected these mice 160 years ago. He had probably followed Spencer Baird's 1850 instructions: keep a small keg handy, partially filled with liquor, and throw the mice in alive; this would make for “a speedy and little painful death” and “the animal will be more apt to keep sound.”

The mice had been transferred to a new jar and they had been retagged. But here they were. I had been following Jenks’ trail for several years, and suddenly felt that I was, oddly, in his presence.

On September 26, 1894, naturalist, taxidermist, popular science writer and beloved professor John Wipple Potter Jenks died on the steps of his museum at Brown University. "He had lunched, perhaps too heavily, . . . and expired without a moment's sickness or suffering," one of his students would write

The Jenks Museum offered students and local visitors glass cases packed with taxidermied animals, ethnographic items from around the world, and other museum-worthy "curiosities"—some 50,000 items. But even before his death the museum had come to seem old-fashioned.

Brown University closed the museum in 1915 and discarded most of its collections in the university dump in 1945. For many years I was a museum curator at the Smithsonian. Now, I'm a professor of American studies at Brown, and the mostly forgotten Jenks Museum has long fascinated me. I've made it the framework of my new book, Inside the Lost Museum. Through the lens of Jenks' lost museum, my book details the valuable work that goes on in museums today: collecting, preserving, displaying, and studying art, artifacts and natural history specimens.

In 1850, when the Smithsonian Institution issued a call for natural history specimens—in particular for “small quadrupeds, as field mice, shrews, moles, bats, squirrels, weasels”—Jenks was one of many naturalists who responded. He sent Baird (who would later become the Institution's second secretary) hundreds of mice, voles, shrews, weasels, muskrats and skunks, along with one rat and two foxes.

“I interested my pupils and others to bring them into me till he cried enough,” Jenks wrote in his autobiography. (Jenks paid them six cents per mouse.)

The Smithsonian’s Annual Report thanked him for his work: “One of the most important contributions to the geographical collections of the institution has been the series of mammals of eastern Massachusetts received from Mr. J. W. P. Jenks of Middleboro.”

Baird analyzed the specimens he received for his 1857 compendiumThe Mammals of North America: The Descriptions of Species Based Chiefly on the Collections in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

When Baird finished looking at and measuring Jenks’ “varmints,” they were stored at the Smithsonian along with all of the other animals Baird had used for his Mammals.

They were also made available for other scientists to use for their work.

In 1866 Joel Asaph Allen, a curator at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), began work on his Catalogue of the Mammals of Massachusetts. This 1869 catalog was based mostly on Allen’s own collecting in Springfield, but Allen knew about Jenks’ collections at the Smithsonian from Baird’s book, and he wanted to examine them.

Jenks’ mice found homes the University of Michigan, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and Women’s College, Baltimore (now Goucher College). (Lukas Rieppel)

On June 24, 1866, the Smithsonian shipped them to the MCZ, not too far from their first home in Middleboro, for Allen to work on. Allen learned new things from Jenks’ mammals and offered this appreciation of his work: “No one has done more to increase our knowledge of their history than Mr. J. W. P. Jenks, of Middleboro.”

Jenks’ mice would continue to show up in taxonomic texts, but they would also serve another purpose. In February 1876 the MCZ received a shipment of rodents from the Smithsonian, among them several of Jenks' specimens. In its role as the national museum, the Smithsonian distributed identified sets of specimens like these to museums across the country. Jenks’ mice found new homes at, among other places, the University of Michigan, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and Women’s College, Baltimore (now Goucher College).

Jenks’ mice were useful. Scientists examined them and measured them—a dozen or more measurements for each mouse—built taxonomies with them, and used them in other types of research. That’s why they were collected, and that’s why they have been preserved. Many of Jenks’ mice are still at the Smithsonian and the MCZ and other museums across the country, awaiting further use. I wanted to see them. That's when I found the large jar at MCZ.

Jenks’ mice tell a traditional story of scientific collections. They weren’t collected for display, have never been on display, and probably never will be. Neither will 99.9 percent of the world’s 3 billion natural history specimens.

Naturalist John Wipple Potter Jenks built a museum at Brown University packed with taxidermied animals and other specimens. The university discarded the entire collection in 1945. (Brown University Archives)

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. Look behind the scenes, and you see them put to use.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead led a virtual tour of the American Museum of Natural History in her 1965 Anthropologists and What They Do.

“Up here, on the curators’ floor, the long halls are lined with tall wood and metal cabinets and the air has a curious smell—a little stale, a little chemical—a compound of fumigating substances and mixed smells of actual specimens, bones, feathers, samples of soils and minerals,” she wrote. You might get the idea that a museum is “a place filled with specimens smelling of formaldehyde, all rather musty and dated and dead.”

But then you open a door into a curator’s office: “A curator’s office is a workshop. Here he spreads out new specimens to catalogue or old ones to study. Here he makes selections for exhibits, comparing his field notes and his field photographs with objects collected on a recent field trip or perhaps a half-century ago.” The researcher gives the specimen new life.

Richard Fortey, a paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum, leads us on another behind-the-scenes tour. He shows us “the natural habitat of the curator,” the “warren of corridors, obsolete galleries, offices, libraries and above all, collections.”

There are endless drawers of fossils, arranged taxonomically, like the mammals at the MCZ. Each is labeled with its Latin name, the rock formation from which it was recovered, its geological era, location and the name of the collector, and, sometimes, where it was published. This is where Fortey does his work, assigning names to new species, comparing examples to understand systematics (the relationships between species), and generalizing about evolution and geological and climate change. “The basic justification of research in the reference collections of a natural history museum,” writes Fortey, “is taxonomic.”

Natural history collections have been the basis of the most important biological breakthroughs from Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon’s 1749 Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière to Georges Cuvier’s theories of animal anatomy in the early 19th century, and from Darwin’s 1859 theory of evolution to Ernst Mayr’s mid-20th-century evolutionary synthesis.

Gathering together and ordering specimens in museums made it easier to learn from them. It became simpler to compare and to build theories from them. “How much finer things are in composition than alone,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson after a visit to the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in 1833. Emerson saw there “the upheaving principle of life every where incipient,” the organization of the universe.

Similarly, scientists could find principles of organization useful to their work. Science historian Bruno Strasser writes, “When objects become accessible in a single place, in a single format, they can be arranged to make similarities, differences, and patterns apparent to the eye of a single human investigator; collections concentrate the world, making it accessible to the limited human field of view.” As Buffon put it in 1749, “The more you see, the more you know.”

Collecting for scientific ends has always been central to American museums. The goal of Charles Wilson Peale’s Philadelphia museum, established in 1786, was the promotion of useful knowledge. That was also the goal of the nearby American Philosophical Society, the Smithsonian when it was founded in 1846, and of natural history museums across the United States in the 19th century. They built collections for researchers. They published volumes of scientific papers. Outreach—exhibits, lectures, popular education—was a secondary goal for much of their history.

Taxonomy and systematics—the identification and classification of plants and animals—was, until the 20th century, the most important work of biology, and put natural history museums at the center of the field. Taxonomy, explains Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, another denizen of the museum storeroom, “is a craft and a body of knowledge that builds in the head of a biologist only through years of monkish labor. . . . A skilled taxonomist is not just a museum labeler. . . . He is steward and spokesman for a hundred, or a thousand, species.”

But by the middle of the 20th century, biology based in the museum seemed less important than biology based in the laboratory. Experimental and analytical sciences—genetics, biochemistry, crystallography, and eventually molecular biology—made natural history seem old fashioned.

Function seemed more important than form, chemistry more important than taxonomy, behavior more important than appearance. Collections were out of fashion.

The museum biologists fought back. Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology was one of the places this battle—Wilson called it “the molecular wars”—was fought. He wrote: “The molecularists were confident that the future belonged to them. If evolutionary biology was to survive at all, they thought, it would have to be changed into something very different. They or their students would do it, working upward from the molecule through the cell to the organism. The message was clear: Let the stamp collectors return to their museums.”

Bruno Strasser points out that the natural historians who worked in museums had always collected more than just specimens of animals and plants. They had also collected, starting in the 19th century, seeds, blood, tissues and cells. More important, they had also collected data: locations, descriptions, drawings.

All those measurements of Jenks’ mice were part of a vast database that included not just the collection of skins and skeletons but also information about the creatures.

This proved useful for answering new questions. Joseph Grinnell, founding director of Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, emphasized the importance of this data for the new biology of the early 20th century: “The museum curator only a few years since was satisfied to gather and arrange his research collections with very little reference to their source or to the conditions under which they were obtained. . . . The modern method, and the one adopted and being carried out more and more in detail by our California museum, is to make the record of each individual acquired.”

Grinnell’s California collection included not only 100,000 specimens but also 74,000 pages of field notes and 10,000 images. “These field notes and photographs are filed so as to be as readily accessible to the student as are the specimens themselves.”

Grinnell thought that this data might end up being more important than the specimens.

When scientists like Wilson became interested in theoretical questions of population ecology in the 1970s, the collections and the data about them proved essential. When issues of pollution and environmental contamination became important in the 1980s, or climate change in the 2000s, the collections were useful.

Museums have pivoted from a focus on systematics to biodiversity as they look for new ways to take advantage of their hard-won collections. Biodiversity research relies on systematics; you can’t know what’s going extinct unless you know what you have.

The 1998 Presidential Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystems called for digitizing collections data as a vital first step—a call that was answered over the next 20 years with systems like the ones that allowed me to find Jenks’ mice scattered across the country.

Over the past decade there have been many arguments for the practical value of natural history collections. Collections are useful in tracking invasive species as well as documenting, for example, the presence of DDT (measuring the thickness of eggs from museum collections) and mercury contamination (using bird and fish specimens). Collections are useful in the study of pathogens and disease vectors; millions of mosquito specimens collected over the course of a century provide information on the spread of malaria, West Nile virus and other diseases. The invasive Asian long-horned beetle was identified from a specimen in the Cornell entomology collections.

The molecular revolution of the 2000s unlocked even more information from the collections. It’s possible to extract DNA from some specimens, not only to improve taxonomy but also to learn about diseases and even the evolution of viruses.

Researchers have used material from collections to trace the history of the 1918 influenza virus. An analysis of the 1990s hantavirus outbreak using museum rodent collections was useful to public health officials in predicting new outbreaks—and researchers argue that had there been good collections from Africa, the recent Ebola outbreak would have been easier to understand and control.

Natural history museums continue to serve as what the director of the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum once called a “great reference library of material objects.” Pulled from across time and space, they pose—and answer—old questions and new.

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Extract adapted from Inside the Lost Museum by Steven Lubar, published by Harvard University Press, $35.00. Copyright © 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A Short History of Groundhog Day

Smithsonian Magazine

As the sun rose on Groundhog Day today, the region’s top furry forecasters all agreed that an early spring is on the horizon. While modern meteorologists may put more faith in weather satellites and statistical data than whether or not a big rodent saw its shadow, Groundhog Day wasn’t always a silly tradition: it's actually rooted in the movements of the sun and dates back thousands of years.

Most ancient civilizations relied on the sun and the stars to tell them when to start planting crops, harvesting, or prepping for the cold winter ahead. This reliance on celestial cues evolved into traditions captured by holidays that have survived to this day.

Many cultures divided the calendar roughly in quarters by the two equinoxes (when the day and night are equal lengths) and two solstices (the longest and shortest days of the year), which fall in the middle of each season. While many people celebrated holidays around these times, including the druids, vikings, and ancient Germanic people, one notable group whose traditions sometimes linger in echoes on our modern calendars was the Celts.

These days "Celt" is most often used to refer to people from Ireland, Scotland, parts of Britain, and Brittany in France (as well as a basketball team). At one point, though, groups of Celts lived all over continental Europe from Turkey to Spain. While it is unclear exactly how much modern Celts are related to the Iron Age civilization, the culture notably left its mark on the calendar, as several of their major holidays have survived in some form into modern times. 

For the Celts, four of the most important seasonal holidays were known as “cross-quarter days,” which marked the mid-point between the solstices and equinoxes. There was Beltane, which marks the first day of summer; Lughnasadh, which celebrated the first day of autumn; Samhain, which fell around November 1 and marked the beginning of winter; and Imbolc, which marked the beginning of spring, Andrew E. Rothovius writes for the The Old Farmer's Almanac

Imbolc (pronounced ee-MOLG) fell right between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and is one of the ancient traditions that many point to as one of Groundhog Day's predecessors. Imbolc was often considered a time for initiations as well as predicting the weather, according to Making a forecast based on whether a groundhog sees its shadow may sound silly now, but during the Iron Age food was scarce by this time of year and people likely looked to their traditions for signs of relief.

As Tim Joyce writes for Q13 Fox News:

One of the legends is that on Imbolc, the creator (in their cultures personified as an old woman) would gather her firewood for the rest of the winter. According to the story, if she wished to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people...believed if February 2nd is a day of foul weather, it means that the creator was asleep and winter is almost over.

Over the centuries, people began to look for signs of the weather in all kinds of animals, from snakes to groundhogs. Ancient Germanic people, for example, would watch to see if a badger was spooked by its shadow, according to When British and German immigrants first came to the United States, they brought their traditions with them, including the celebrations that evolved into Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day isn’t the only cross-quarter holiday that has stuck to the modern calendar: many people now celebrate May Day in honor of workers around the world, and Halloween also has roots in Samhain, the Celtic day of the dead, Joyce writes.

These days, most people know better than to trust a skittish groundhog with predicting the weather. Experts say that groundhogs like Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck are only right about 30 percent of the time. But when you’re in the midst of a long, cold winter, sometimes a little levity is in order.

Editor's Note February 5, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify the Celtic festivals associated with cross-quarter days. The article has also been corrected to emphasize that many cultures, not just the Celtics, have holidays marked by solstices and equinoxes.  

A Shrew-Borne Virus Is Responsible for Deadly Brain Infections in Humans

Smithsonian Magazine

For centuries, Borna disease virus has plagued the livestock of Europe, leaving horses, sheep, cattle and other domesticated animals reeling from a bizarre and often deadly combination of neurological symptoms. Once stricken, usually by picking up the pathogen from an infected but symptomless shrew, animals would act aggressively, stagger about and smash their heads repeatedly into objects.

Slowly, the list of potential hosts began to grow. Cats, too, were vulnerable, researchers found, as well as dogs, foxes, primates and even birds. And when scientists began to experiment with the virus in the lab, they discovered that it could infect virtually any warm-blooded animal they tried.

The virus’ apparent ubiquity quickly sparked concern. Its hop into humans, some argued, seemed more a question of when than if.

Now, after years of fruitless searching for Borna in people, it’s clear that the virus indeed infects humans—and has likely been killing them for decades, reports Kai Kupferschmidt for Science magazine. In a study published this week in Lancet Infectious Diseases, researchers identified eight instances of lethal Borna disease in humans, roughly doubling the number of known infections in our species.

“Borna disease virus infection has to be considered a severe and potentially lethal human disease,” says study author Barbara Schmidt, a microbiologist at Regensburg University Hospital in Germany, in a statement.

But, on the whole, the average person’s risk of infection remains “pretty low,” study author Martin Beer, head of the Institute of Diagnostic Virology at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute in Germany, tells Tanya Lewis at Scientific American.

The findings come just five years after the first confirmed evidence of Borna disease virus entering the human population. In 2015, a strain of the pathogen killed at least four people after triggering severe inflammation, brought on by the immune system, in their brains. Three years later, another viral variant was discovered in the five other individuals, three of whom had recently received organ transplants, Lewis reports.

To better understand these patterns of infection, Beer and his colleagues searched for the genetic evidence of the virus in 56 samples of brain tissue collected in Germany between 1995 and 2018. All the patients had died from some kind of brain inflammation, which can result from autoimmune disease, cancer, infection and a variety of other conditions. Half the specimens had been logged without a known cause for the inflammation. In seven of these, the researchers discovered traces of Borna disease virus. An additional search at another German medical center turned up yet another case, bringing them to a total of eight patients, two of whom had been recipients of organ transplants.

Neither of the organ donors tested positive for the virus. And when the researchers sequenced the viral samples they’d extracted from the dead patients’ brains, they found the virus genomes bore relatively little resemblance to one another, suggesting each case of the disease made an independent jump from animal to person, rather than being passed from human to human.

Exactly how the transmissions occurred, however, is still up for debate, Beer tells Science magazine. Though bicolored white-toothed shrews (Crocidura leucodon) have previously been blamed for transmitting the disease to other animals, the sheer number of other species found to carry the virus leaves the human-infecting culprits mysterious. Five of the patients owned cats, at least two of which regularly gifted their humans with dead rodents and shrews.

Until more cases are identified, the method of transmission will probably remain mysterious, Norbert Nowotny, a virologist at the University of Vienna who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Science magazine.

So far, no known treatment for Borna disease exists, which seems to have a fairly high fatality rate across species (though a handful of human individuals have survived). But people shouldn’t panic: As Nowotny explains in a separate interview with Scientific American, the virus seems to have trouble traveling from person to person, and seems unlikely to cause an epidemic.

A Wild Golden Eagle Can Take Down a Deer Just As Well As a Trained One

Smithsonian Magazine

While checking a camera trap in the Siberian wilderness, zoologist Linda Kerley noticed a sika deer carcass laying nearby. It was an odd scene. She was aiming to capture tigers on the hidden camera, but there were no tracks nearby. And it appeared as if the deer had “been running and then just stopped and died,” she said, in a statement. When she retrieved the images captured by the camera, however, the full story was clear. A golden eagle had swooped down and taken the unsuspecting deer out. That attack, the images show, was over in mere two seconds.

Kerley saw the moment of attack, captured in three images, when the deer appears to have not yet completely realized that winged fury has arrived:

And the final time-series image:

The behavior Kerley’s camera captured is extremely rare. Golden eagles normally prey on rabbits, not large predators like deer, and in Kerley’s 18 years working in the region, this is the first time she’s seen anything like this attack. Although this behavior in eagles is not completely unheard of (researchers have published on eagles taking out bear cubs and coyote, for example), the incident was stand-out enough to warrant its own scientific paper.

There are cases of golden eagles taking down large prey in Mongolia, but those animals aren’t acting of their own accord—they’re trained and instructed to attack by their handlers. Nevertheless, Mongolian golden eagles on the hunt are a sight to behold.

Here’s eagle versus wolf and fox:

And, in honor of the slain sika deer, eagle versus deer:

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A Yank in the R.A.F.

National Air and Space Museum
Various scenes from movie depicted around central text block; "Let's Go! U.S.A., Keep'em Flying!" logo in lower right hand corner. Poster to be displayed in lobby of movie theater. Copyright: "This display is the property of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. It is leased not sold and must be returned to the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Exchange."

Fly Now: The National Air and Space Museum Poster Collection

Throughout their history, posters have been a significant means of mass communication, often with striking visual effect. Wendy Wick Reaves, the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery Curator of Prints and Drawings, comments that "sometimes a pictorial poster is a decorative masterpiece-something I can't walk by without a jolt of aesthetic pleasure. Another might strike me as extremely clever advertising … But collectively, these 'pictures of persuasion,' as we might call them, offer a wealth of art, history, design, and popular culture for us to understand. The poster is a familiar part of our world, and we intuitively understand its role as propaganda, promotion, announcement, or advertisement."

Reaves' observations are especially relevant for the impressive array of aviation posters in the National Air and Space Museum's 1300+ artifact collection. Quite possibly the largest publicly-held collection of its kind in the United States, the National Air and Space Museum's posters focus primarily on advertising for aviation-related products and activities. Among other areas, the collection includes 19th-century ballooning exhibition posters, early 20th-century airplane exhibition and meet posters, and twentieth-century airline advertisements.

The posters in the collection represent printing technologies that include original lithography, silkscreen, photolithography, and computer-generated imagery. The collection is significant both for its aesthetic value and because it is a unique representation of the cultural, commercial and military history of aviation. The collection represents an intense interest in flight, both public and private, during a significant period of its technological and social development.

A bird-quill belt of the Sauk and Fox Indians / by M.R. Harrington

Smithsonian Libraries
Also available online.


NMAIREF copy h782538 is bound with series vol. 9-10 39088011533890. Bound together subsequent to publication.

A catalogue of the shells, arranged according to the Lamarckian system : together with descriptions of new or rare species, contained in the collection of John C. Jay : illustrated by several plates

Smithsonian Libraries
"D. Fanshaw, printer ... New York" --Verso of title page.

"Explanation of the plates"--Pages [111]-[126], followed by the plates.

Plates are hand-colored.

Also available online.


SCNHRB has two copies.

SCNHRB copy 1 (39088008863714) has uncolored plates; the paper used for the plates is heavily speckled (from foxing?).

SCNHRB copy 1 is imperfect: plate VIII has been torn and repaired.

SCNHRB copy 1 has stamps of former owners on front free endpaper and t.p.: S. Stillman Berry ... Redlands, California; Richard I. Johnson; and J.C. McGuire, Washington, D.C.

SCNHRB copy 1 is extensively annotated in pencil and ink.

SCNHRB copy 1 has bookplate: Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Bequest of S. Stillman Berry. Gift of Clyde Roper.

SCNHRB copy 1 has a later gilt-tooled red morocco leather binding with yellow paste-paper endpapers and sprinkled edges. Approximately 40 leaves of paper (lined white sheets and brown) are inserted at the end of the volume as filler.

SCNHRB copy 2 (39088003483997) inscribed in ink on original front free endpaper: J. Lea Esq with the respects of the author.

SCNHRB copy 2 stamped on title page: Isaac Lea Collection [and] Division of Mollusks Sectional Library.

SCNHRB copy 2 stamped on title page: Library, U.S. National Museum Smithsonian Institution jan 7 1890 [manuscript accession no.] 134776.

SCNHRB copy 2 bound in brown buckram, title in gilt on spine.

A marriage of art and industry

Archives of American Art
Clipping : 2 p. : photocopy ; 28 x 22 cm. Photocopy of article "A marriage of art and industry- Precision of both produces 'Bench House'" written by Catherine Fox, from the Lifestyle section of the Atlanta Journal. The article profiles the collaboration between Jackie Ferrara and Cardinal Industries on the wooden sculpture Bench House, which was donated to the High Museum of Art.
Clipping features photograph of Ferrara with Bench House (recto) and photograph of Ferrara directing workmen (verso).

A new dictionary of natural history; or, Compleat universal display of animated nature ... By William Frederick Martyn ..

Smithsonian Libraries
Also available online.

Imperfect: foxed; plates 65 and 81 mutilated.


A reading of primitive and archaic poetry [sound recording] / arranged by Jerome Rothenberg, with David Antin, Jackson Maclow, and Rochelle Owens

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Cover design by Ronald Clyne. Cover illustration: "American Indian Bronze Bird, 15th-16th century?, Ohio".

Notes with text of selections in booklet (8 p.) inserted in original cover.

Read by Jerome Rothenberg, Rochelle Owens, David Antin, and Jackson MacLow.

Related materials may be found in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, also held by this repository. Related materials may include correspondence between the studio, producers, and/or performers; original cover art designs; original production materials; and business records. Two audiotapes from studio production are also in the collection (FW-ASCH-7RR-3811, FW-ASCH-7RR-1699).

A.H. Fox Gun Co. Double Barrel Break Action Shotgun

National Museum of American History

A.H. Fox Gun Co. Double Barrel Break Action Shotgun

National Museum of American History

A.S. Gatschet Notebook with vocabularies, texts, notes mainly 1878-1879

National Anthropological Archives
Contents: Shawnee, 48 pages. (3-19; 48-62, even pages only; 72-93). Includes texts with interlinear translation: Story of the fox and the wolf, pages 3-6; story about the end of the world, page 18; Waputhua (great rabbit) story, pages 18-19. Vocabulary includes Shawnee names for other tribes, pages 76-79; Shawnee clans, page 80. Informant for part of data, Blue Jacket, Vinita, I. T. Chippewa, 22 pages. (23-65, odd pages only). Mainly vocabulary from Jean Baptiste Bottineau, Pembina Band; includes clans of Pembina Band, page 59. Pottawatomi, 7 pages (22-32a, odd pages only). Mainly vocabulary, from A. J. Toposh, Dowagiac, Michigan. Obituary of Simon Pokagon, Pottawatomi chief (died January 27, 1899), page 30. Narragansett notes, 4 pages. (94-97). Natchez word, page 97. Miscellaneous Algonquian vocabulary notes, 1 page (back cover).

AIDS 2012: XIX International AIDS Conference bag

National Museum of American History
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