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​Electric Eels Carry All Their Organs in Their Heads

Smithsonian Channel
Since the electric eel dedicates most of its energy into generating currents from its body, all of its organs are located in its head. As this zoologist demonstrates, when you open its mouth, you won’t find a tongue. From: ELECTRIC AMAZON

sound►culture A Kukama Language Lesson

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
María Nashnato and Leonardo Tello from the Ikuari school share the Kukama language in the Radio Ucamara booth. Photo by Ronald Villasante, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
María Nashnato and Leonardo Tello from the Ikuari school share the Kukama language in the Radio Ucamara booth. Photo by Ronald Villasante, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

sound►culture is a Folklife Festival podcast series featuring stories, songs, and fieldwork gathered on the National Mall and around the world.

Kukama is a “deeply endangered language” (according to the Endangered Languages Archive) spoken in the city of Nauta in the Peruvian Amazon. María Nashnato, a member of the last generation to learn Kukama as a first language, believes that teaching children to speak Kukama is the key to keeping the language alive. She helped open the Escuela Ikuari language school seven years ago—with help from indigenous media station Radio Ucamara—to teach Kukama to local children.

“We’ve just had the power of our own labor and our own passions to do this project,” Nashnato said. “We want the language to live on in our children. Then, it is guaranteed to be spoken in the future.”

Nashnato and others from Radio Ucamara brought the Ikuari school to the 2015 Folklife Festival, offering language lessons in the Wawawasi Kids Corner.

A Kukama Language Lesson

Learn more on the Festival Blog: Saving Peru’s Endangered Languages

Victoria Gunawan is a social media intern with the 2015 Folklife Festival and a communications student at Eastern Mennonite University.

Zornia latifolia Sm.

NMNH - Botany Dept.

Zinnia elegans Jacq.

NMNH - Botany Dept.

Zingiber officinale Roscoe

NMNH - Botany Dept.

Zanthoxylum rhoifolium Lam.

NMNH - Botany Dept.

Zanthoxylum kellermannii

NMNH - Botany Dept.

Your Smartphone And Sunglasses Could Soon Project Holograms

Smithsonian Magazine

Imagine a future in which wearing a device didn’t make you a walking eyesore (yes, we’re looking at you, Google Glass).

Part of that future came into focus last week, as the California-based Ostendo Technologies showed The Wall Street Journal a display chip that can project crisp images—in both 2D and 3D—when built into a phone, a tablet, a pair of glasses or anywhere else you might normally have a flat display.

The Quantum Photonic Imager (QPI) imager chip, smaller than a Chicklet, is attached to a miniature projector; together, they can be embedded in a variety of mobile devices to bring anything from advertisements to images to life. A smartphone could project an image above its screen, for instance; the contents of a website could be bounced from a chip embedded in the arm of a pair of glasses onto its lenses.

The QPI chip comes at a time when major tech companies are all in hot pursuit of virtual and hyper reality. Facebook recently purchased Oculus Rift, a company credited with the biggest breakthrough in virtual-reality goggles to date. Amazon is rumored to be working on a phone that uses a multi-camera system to make its display appear 3D; Apple has even filed patents that hint at future 3D displays.

The pursuits are bringing to small devices what we've been seeing in things like museums and events for years. Microsoft has demonstrated a full holographic presentation room and there’s an entire holographic museum in Queens, New York; San Diego company AV Concepts famously projected an image of the late rapper Tupac Shakur at Coachella in 2012—and let's not forget the holographic Michael Jackson at this year's Billboard Music Awards.

One of the biggest challenges facing wearable displays, like the one on Glass, though, has been that the internal components are too large to be hidden. Ostendo says it has spent the past eight and a half years quietly developing the QPI image engine to be both compact and high in resolution. 

The 5-by-5-millimeter chip contains an image processor, micro LEDs and image-rendering software. To produce an image, the processor controls the precise distance and angle of each of those LEDs. The images are higher in resolution than those produced by most current phone screens. A QPI image has 3,000 dots per inch; a Samsung Galaxy S IV has 441.

A single QPI module can either project a 2D image or create a small 3D hologram. (For the latter, the Princess Leia references are unavoidable.) Companies could also connect several modules together to create much larger images.


Ostendo's QPI image chip can project virtual 3D objects above a surface. (Courtesy Ostendo Technologies Inc.)

Ostendo says it ultimately wants to embed its chips anywhere there would normally be a display, including storefronts or even our living rooms.

It's a lofty goal. But Ostendo, which means “to show” in Latin, comes with the pedigree needed to make that dream a reality. Founder and CEO Hussein El-Ghoroury served as Executive Vice President of Linkabit Coroporation, the company that would later become Qualcomm, and was the founder of CommQuest Technologies, a company that pioneered the first quad-band cellular chipset in North America and is now owned by IBM.

The company, which has more than 100 patents to its name, has raised more than $90 million in venture capital for this and other projects. Investments include monies from early Facebook funder Third Wave Ventures. Forty million of that sum came from DARPA, the Defense Department’s technology development arm, the company says.

El-Ghoroury told the Wall Street Journal that the company is already in talks with a few smartphone manufacturers. The chips should cost about $30. First to market sometime next year will be a 2D–capable projector chip, with its flashier hologram-producing cousin following shortly thereafter.

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep-fried tarantula, anyone?

You'd Be Astounded to Learn How Much Wildlife Can Fit Into One Cubic Foot

Smithsonian Magazine

Photographer David Liittschwager slowly snorkeled his way across jagged coral in a shallow lagoon of the island of Mo'ore'a, ten miles from Tahiti. Colorful riots of tropical fish scattered as he approached. Sea anemones bobbed in the current. Liittschwager held a foot-wide cube made from green plastic pipes with open sides. It was a cube of his own invention.

Somewhere in this teeming lagoon he would find exactly the right spot to place his cube. The perfect place where as many species as possible would pass through that single cubic foot in a single day and night.

What if you sifted through every last little organism that lives or passes through a single cubic foot of space in a day? On a coral reef? In a forest? How many species would you find?

This was the question that Liittschwager wanted to answer—and photograph. He came up with the idea of a biocube; his proposed standard for sampling biodiversity. A 12-inch cube that he would set in one place and observe long enough to catalog everything within it. He started on Mo'ore'a, but has since brought his biocube method to many locations around the world.

When hundreds of scientists from around the world had descended on Mo'ore'a to try to document every species that the lush tropical paradise harbored. They spent five years and came up with about 3,500 species in total. But then Liittschwager showed up in 2009 with his first biocube and found 22 more that they had missed—in a single cubic foot of space.

Image by David Liittschwager. Periphylla sp., jellyfish, Davidson Seamount West, off the coast of California. (original image)

Image by David Liittschwager. Pantachagon Haeckeli, jellyfish, Davidson Seamount West, off the coast of California (original image)

Image by David Liittschwager. Cyerce nigricans, Sacaglossan sea slug, Lighthouse Reef, Moorea, French Polynesia (original image)

Image by David Liittschwager. Neocirrhites armatus, Flame Hawkfish, Tamae Reef, Mo'ore'a, French Polynesia (original image)

Image by David Liittschwager. Trapezia speciosa, guard crab, Tamae Reef, Moorea, French Polynesia (original image)

“Yeah, it's actually a lovely little story,” says Liittschwager. “It came out of a conversation between myself and my partner, Suzie Rashkis. Just trying to figure out, if you want to show how much life can occur in a small place, how do you do it? It's an exercise in defining limits.”

He photographed more than 350 unique species from that single cubic foot of space in the lagoon and only stopped because he had run out of time after extending a two-week expedition to a month. “We think it had about a thousand species in it,” he says.

Scientists use many different sampling methods to examine the distribution of life on Earth, but  Liittschwager's approach is unique. By working with Christopher Meyer, a research zoologist at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, he arrived at a method of exploration that serves both art and science while being both dramatically narrow and broad at the same time.

Instead of poking around a large area looking for all of the snails, all of the birds, etc., Liittschwager and Meyer restrict their observations to the cube, photographing, counting and cataloguing every visible life form of any branch of the animal kingdom but only within the limitations of what passes through the single cubic foot within the course of a 24-hour period.

And they still might be missing some of the smallest creatures because microscopes are rarely employed due to the sheer volume of work counting the animals already visible to the naked eye. They have employed their method in locations around the world ranging from South Africa, to Belize, to the National Mall in Washington D.C. Biocubes can be used on land, water or even in the air.

A biocube placed upon the Tamae reef off the Pacific island of Mo'ore'a. (David Liittschwager)

Exact locations for the biocubes are chosen carefully. “If you were an alien looking for life on Earth and this was your one place where you could use it, where would you put it to detect a lot of life forms?” asks Meyer. “But if you were going to do it more statistically, would it be more random? It depends on your goals. David's goal is to capture the most on camera, so we spend time searching for a spot that is going to be astounding.”

The collaborators admit that the size is slightly arbitrary. “One cubic foot came up just because it is a familiar size to Americans,” says Liittschwager, adding that the metric system presented some size issues.

“One cubic meter would be an unmanageable sample size,” he says. The 7.48 gallons of water in a cubic foot is manageable compared to the 220 gallons in a cubic meter. “Seven gallons of water, you can deal with. You can pick it up. In a familiar, recognizable unit of measure.” Surveys of all of a particular category of life in a prescribed area are common. Scientists may index all of the plants or insects within, say, a four-foot circle. But the biocube approach offers the objective of identifying everything.

Liittschwager's photographs are often breathtaking. In many cases, he is probably the first photographer ever to attempt to take an artistic image of his subject species. “He manages to get personality out of these creatures—even a flat worm!” says Meyer. “He puts faces to the names and I put names to the faces. An exhibition, "Life in One Cubic Foot" of Liittschwager's work is on view at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. beginning March 4, 2016.

Visitors will see Liittschwager's photographs as well as models of equipment used to set up and analyze biocubes. Videos will demonstrate their processes.

Students remove specimens collected from a biocube in California. (David Liittschwager)

A World in One Cubic Foot: Portraits of Biodiversity

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While any wild place probably harbors hundreds of species in a cubic foot, there have been a few disappointments. “A guy had done one in a corn field in the Midwest and only found six species,” says Meyer. Intensive use of herbicides and pesticides deliberately turned the habitat into a wasteland for anything but corn (which may spell trouble for the health of the soil).

“For this exhibit we tried to look around the National Mall to show everyone you don't have to go to these remote tropical places to find biodiversity. . . . so we're on the Mall but everything is so managed here.” Biodiversity was too low to bother photographing.

On the other hand, results weren't so bad in Central Park in New York City. Upstate, they found even higher biodiversity in a river near Rochester. Tennessee's Duck River provided some of the highest biodiversity in North America. You don't need to go all the way to a coral reef or a rainforest to find diversity in one square foot.

Liittschwager and Meyer usually start by observing from a distance (or through a video camera) what easily visible creatures move in and out of a biocube set down on either land or in water—birds, fish, mammals, amphibians. “Vertebrates are very mobile,” says Meyer. Most of them will leave before a sample of soil, coral or bottom substrate from a river can be removed. Examples of those species will be obtained from specialists (like ornithologists who were already banding birds for their own research) to be photographed before their release. Even the diminutive species that remain to be sorted into cups on a table can present enormous challenges as Liittschwager tries to document them.

“I mean you calculate the acceleration, the athleticism of some small creatures, the speed that they can move across the frame [of the camera] far surpasses larger creatures,” says Liittschwager. “A little springtail can move across the frame ten times faster than a cheetah can move. Going one hundred times your body length in a tenth of a second? That's a speed that nothing larger can do.”

Once the collection phase begins, timing becomes essential. The ecosystem doesn't stop working just because it has been transported to a field laboratory. “Usually there's a bunch of cups because you want to get things away from each other so they don't fight,” Meyer says. Many subjects are still trying to eat one another. “On the day that we extract the cubic foot, we know it’s going to be a three- or four-day effort. We know what the different animals need. Are they durable? So you can prioritize which ones need kid gloves and quick attention.” Insects are given a moistened cloth to keep them hydrated. Some crabs, tiny octopuses and aquatic snails may need frequent water changes to keep them healthy.

The biocube methodology may become something more than a vehicle for art. Meyer and the Smithsonian Institution are working to develop an online system for entering, sharing and tracking the contents of biocubes from around the world.

“These are the biological equivalent of weather stations,” Meyer says. “Smithsonian was actually the organization that founded the National Weather Service.” In 1849, Smithsonian began providing weather instruments to telegraph companies to establish an observation network. Reports were sent back to Smithsonian by telegraph, where weather maps were created. “We now have the technology to do the same thing with biological data,” Meyer says. “These biocubes are little biological monitors. In the same way that the Weather Service made this available to the world, we can do the same thing.”

Meanwhile, the Natural History Museum has put together an online experience through Q?rius, an award-winning education program, to encourage teachers, students and curious people of all ages to explore their own biocubes in their own backyards.

“It's really exciting. You never get bored,” says Meyer. Whether your backyard happens to be in Rochester or South Africa. “You're going to see something different every time.”

Instead of future collections at the Museum being based on taxonomic grouping, Meyer envisions building a library of biocube data for future scientists to examine. “We need to re-think how we treat collections. How do we know what past ecosystems looked like? This way we are capturing whole communities. There are big changes on the horizon.”

“Life in One Cubic Foot” is on view at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., beginning March 4 and throughout the year. Educators and students can find more information of the Biocube Project at Q?rius.

You Do Not Want to Get Tased by This Eel

Smithsonian Channel
The electric eel generates electric shocks of up to 1,000 volts, 80 times the electric voltage of a car battery. Watch as a caiman learns this fact the hard way. From: ELECTRIC AMAZON
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