In the store-rooms of the National Museum of American History curators recently discovered a small microscope made around 1750 by John Cuff (1708-1772), a talented instrument maker whose shop was found “directly against Serjeant’s-Inn Gate in Fleet-Street,” London. Click here to learn more.
Articles on this Page
- 09/30/14--05:26: _New Poison Dart Fro...
- 10/10/14--05:00: _New Book: A History...
- 10/27/14--09:25: _From spines to tequ...
- 12/02/14--12:13: _3-D portrait of Pre...
- 12/11/14--09:57: _International team ...
- 01/12/15--04:42: _Asteroids: Breaking...
- 01/30/15--11:36: _Reptile rejuvenatio...
- 02/13/15--05:18: _Mismatched Twin Sta...
- 04/21/15--08:04: _Panda Semen from Ch...
- 04/28/15--10:45: _Water may Have Been...
- 05/11/15--05:51: _Scientists Find And...
- 05/14/15--06:02: _The oldest microsco...
- 05/28/15--09:39: _geologic mapping of...
- 06/24/15--09:22: _Oasis in the city
- 07/08/15--10:18: _Smithsonian and Par...
- 07/15/15--11:41: _A Precocious Black ...
- 07/21/15--07:52: _Kickstarter funding...
- 08/03/15--07:30: _CASSIOPEIA’S HIDDEN...
- 09/10/15--04:42: _Smithsonian Enlists...
- 10/08/15--06:01: _Colorful Caterpilla...
- 09/30/14--05:26: New Poison Dart Frog from Panama
- 10/10/14--05:00: New Book: A History of Life in 100 Fossils
- 12/02/14--12:13: 3-D portrait of President Obama
- 12/11/14--09:57: International team maps ‘big bang’ of bird evolution
- 01/12/15--04:42: Asteroids: Breaking up is Hard to Do
- 01/30/15--11:36: Reptile rejuvenation at National Zoo
- 02/13/15--05:18: Mismatched Twin Stars Spotted in the Delivery Room
- 04/21/15--08:04: Panda Semen from China arrives at Zoo
- 04/28/15--10:45: Water may Have Been Abundant in First Billion Years after big bang
- 05/11/15--05:51: Scientists Find Andean Bears with Camera Traps In Peru
- 05/14/15--06:02: The oldest microscope in the museum
- 05/28/15--09:39: geologic mapping of mars
- 06/24/15--09:22: Oasis in the city
- Make sure that the garden offers a host source and a pollen source. There would be no butterflies or beetles to pollinate the different flowering plants if there are no caterpillars or larvae first. Make sure that the larvae or caterpillars’ essential food sources (for example, milkweed for monarch caterpillars) are available.
- Plant a variety of plants with differing flower shapes, colors, and bloom times to attract a diverse group of pollinators. Different pollinators have different methods of pollination. A variety of plants helps to give that pollinator the opportunity to find the plant that works best for them.
- Planting native species for that area in the garden is one of the most efficient and sustainable ways to support your local pollinators.
- 07/08/15--10:18: Smithsonian and Partners To Preserve Earth’s Genomic Plant Diversity
- 07/15/15--11:41: A Precocious Black Hole
- 07/21/15--07:52: Kickstarter funding: Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit
- 08/03/15--07:30: CASSIOPEIA’S HIDDEN GEM: THE CLOSEST ROCKY, TRANSITING PLANET
- 10/08/15--06:01: Colorful Caterpillar Chemists
A bright orange poison dart frog with a unique call was discovered in Donoso, Panama, and described by researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Instituteand the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí, both in Panama, and the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. In the species description published this week in Zootaxa, it was named Andinobates geminisae for Geminis Vargas, “the beloved wife of [coauthor] Marcos Ponce, for her unconditional support of his studies of Panamanian herpetology.”
Every new species name is based on a representative specimen. The specimen for this species was collected Feb. 21, 2011, in the headwaters of the Rio Caño, in the district of Donoso, Colón Province, Panama, by Samuel Valdés, who was then the MWH Global Inc.environment office director, and his field assistant, Carlos de la Cruz. Additional specimens were collected between the Rio Coclé del Norte and the Rio Belen by biologists Marcos Ponce and Abel Batista, then a student at the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí. The specimens were deposited in the Museo de Vertebrados at the University of Panama, the Museo Herpetólogico de Chiriquí at the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí and in the Círculo Herpetólogico de Panamá.
“Abel Batista and Marcos Ponce were the first to note the presence of this species,” said Cesar Jaramillo, Smithsonian herpetologist. “They’ve known it was there for several years. However, they were not sure if it was only a variety of another poison dart frog species, Oophaga pumilio, which exhibits tremendous color variation. Based on morphological characteristics of the adult and the tadpole, I thought it might be a new species of Andinobates.”
Andrew Crawford, professor at Universidad de Los Andes and former STRI postdoctoral fellow, sequenced the DNA, confirming that this was a new species of Andinobates. Genetic information about this species is available in the Barcode of Life Data System and in GenBank. A recording of the call is available at AmphibiaWeb.org.
Because this new frog species appears to be found in only a very small area, habitat loss and collecting for the pet trade are major threats to its existence. The authors recommend the formulation of special conservation plans to guarantee its survival. A. geminisae is included in the captive breeding program of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, a consortium of six zoos and research institutions dedicated to saving amphibians from the chytrid fungal disease, which is decimating amphibians worldwide, and habitat loss.
Left-handed snails, giant wombats, spiny trilobites, zombie ants, glyptodonts…these are a few of the fascinating animals and plants whose fossils spring to life across the pages of A History of Life in 100 Fossils, a new offering from Smithsonian Books.
Selected from the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and the Natural History Museum in London, each fossil is beautifully photographed and explored in-depth with a captivating description of its importance to the story of evolution and life on Earth. Organized chronologically from the Precambrian through the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, the book reveals the remarkable and persistent unfolding of fantastic life forms across the Earth as revealed in the fossil record.
Co-authors Aaron O’Dea of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and Paul Taylor of the Natural History Museum in London carefully compiled the images in this book from hundreds of possibilities.
One of the first and oldest entries, a 3.5 billion-year-old rusty red stromatolite fossil, is arguably the most important. Dominating the world’s oceans for a staggering 3 billion years, stromatolites eventually filled the atmosphere with enough oxygen to enable the rise of complex oxygen-breathing organisms.
The oddest entry is a spiral bezoar (fossilized feces) recovered from ancient sea sediments and which once was imbedded in the intestine of a prehistoric shark.
Most touching: The Laetoli footprints from Tanzania, left in a matter of seconds some 3.5 million years ago, appear to show the path of a small family of early hominins, Australopithecus afarensis, wandering through a volcano’s devastation.
Steller’s sea cow wins as the saddest entry, “a sad tale of a once magnificent beast driven to extinction by hunting,” O’Dea, a paleobiologist, says. “Without its fossil record we would have had no idea that the animal was naturally widely abundant until a few thousand years of hunting whittled them away to almost nothing.”
Other fossils examined include Cambrian worms from China that provide a window on early animal life in the sea, ancient insects encapsulated in amber, the first fossil bird Archaeopteryx and the last ancestor of humankind.
Writing A History of Life in 100 Fossils with Taylor “was a fantastic experience,” O’Dea observes in his blog. “Researching in detail about fossil groups I had previously paid little attention to, spinning evolutionary tales with a single slab of rock and crafting them in a way that could be accessible to all. As I wrote I tried to weave all the big biological themes into the book; natural selection, convergent evolution, sexual selection, extinction, the origin of life and even parasitism.”
A History of Life in 100 Fossils is brimming with epic tales of survival and migration, evolution and destruction once concealed in the buried remains of animals and plants that lived long ago.
Available from Smithsonian Books October 14.
Like most icons of cool, bats are highly complex and the often-misunderstood rock stars of the animal kingdom. Check out these seven little-known facts about bats…or don’t. Bats don’t really care about your approval.
1. Bats like to rock out to heavy metal music.
Bats are highly intelligent animals, just ask bat researcher Inga Geipel from the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama. She managed to train bats in just one night to come back to her when she plays German heavy metal music…all in the name of research of course! Read more…
2. Bats can be beautiful.
Bats are not always thought of as beautiful creatures but amongst the ugly ducklings, some beautiful swans can emerge. The recently discovered Bolivian golden bat is one of six new bat species uncovered by scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Its striking golden fur was the first clue that it was a different species hidden away in the drawers of the largest bat collection in the world. Read more…
3. Do you love tequila? Then you must love bats!
Do you enjoy tequila? Then you need to raise your glass to the pollinating bats that help make it! Smithsonian Science explores the unique relationship between bats and the agave plant with Don Wilson from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Watch our video…
4. Penis spines help scientists identify bat species.
Bats can look very similar to one another, and sometimes you need to look in unusual places to tell species apart. While these genital spines look like they could hurt, they are only about 20 micrometers long and only visible under an electron microscope. Scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History look at bats from Central and South America, finding potential differences in the tissues, glans and spines that cover the skin of their tiny penises to help identify different species. Read more…
5. From chewing tough insects to soft fruit, bat teeth are highly specialized.
With more than 1,300 species of bats around the world, it is not surprising that these fascinating creatures eat a wide range of food, including insects, fruit, small animals and, rarely, blood. Scientists interested in the evolution of these different diets have used GPS technology to “map” the topography of bat teeth to show how tooth structure has evolved to suit different diets. Read more…
6. Bats use water ripples to hunt frogs.
Looking for love in the Central and South American rain forest can have some unintended consequences for the túngara frog (Physalaemus pustulosus). As the male frog serenades females from a pond, he creates watery ripples. Túngara frogs will stop singing when they notice a bat overhead, but the ripples continue for a few seconds after a frog stops calling. Researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute found bats use echolocation to detect these ripples to home in on their froggy meal, even after he has stopped calling. Read more…
7. Are you friend or foe? Bats use echolocation socially!
To find flying insects and navigate in the dark, bats emit ultrasonic calls and then listen to the echoes that are reflected back to them. Scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute found that bats use these echolocation calls not only to find their way around but also to identify other bats as friend or foe! By listening to the ultrasonic calls of other bats, individuals can identify roost mates, bats of the same species, members of the opposite sex and intruders to their territory. Read more…
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The first presidential portraits created from 3-D scan data are now on display in the Smithsonian Castle. The portraits of President Barack Obama were created based on data collected by a Smithsonian-led team of 3-D digital imaging specialists and include a digital and 3-D printed bust and life mask. A new video released today by the White House details the behind-the-scenes process of scanning, creating and printing the historic portraits. The portraits will be on view in the Commons gallery of the Castle starting today, Dec. 2, through Dec. 31. The portraits were previously displayed at the White House Maker Faire June 18.
The Smithsonian-led team scanned the President earlier this year using two distinct 3-D documentation processes. Experts from the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies used their Light Stage face scanner to document the President’s face from ear to ear in high resolution. Next, a Smithsonian team used handheld 3-D scanners and traditional single-lens reflex cameras to record peripheral 3-D data to create an accurate bust.
The data captured was post-processed by 3-D graphics experts at the software company Autodesk to create final high-resolution models. The life mask and bust were then printed using 3D Systems’ Selective Laser Sintering printers.
The data and the printed models are part of the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The Portrait Gallery’s collection has multiple images of every U.S. president, and these portraits will support the current and future collection of works the museum has to represent Obama.
The life-mask scan of Obama joins only three other presidential life masks in the Portrait Gallery’s collection: one of George Washington created by Jean-Antoine Houdon and two of Abraham Lincoln created by Leonard Wells Volk (1860) and Clark Mills (1865). The Washington and Lincoln life masks were created using traditional plaster-casting methods. The Lincoln life masks are currently available to explore and download on the Smithsonian’s X 3D website.
The genomes of modern birds tell a story of how they emerged and evolved after the mass extinction that wiped out dinosaurs 66 million years ago. But the family tree of modern birds has confused biologists for centuries and the molecular details of how they arrived at more than 10,000 species is barely known.
Now that story is coming to light, thanks to an ambitious international collaboration underway for four years that has sequenced, assembled and compared full genomes of 48 bird species. The first findings of the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium are being reported nearly simultaneously in 23 papers — eight papers today, Dec. 12, in a special issue of Science and 15 more in Genome Biology, GigaScience and other journals. The full set of papers in Science and other journals can be accessed by clicking this link www.sciencemag.org/content/346/6215/1308.full
Led by Guojie Zhang of the National Genebank at BGI in China and the University of Copenhagen, Erich D. Jarvis of Duke University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and M. Thomas P. Gilbert of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the consortium focused on species representing all major branches of modern birds including the crow, duck, falcon, parakeet, crane, ibis, woodpecker and eagle.
The Avian Phylogenomics Consortium has so far involved more than 200 scientists from 80 institutions in 20 countries, including the BGI in China, the University of Copenhagen, Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian Institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Louisiana State University and many others.
This first round of analyses suggests some remarkable new ideas about bird evolution. The first flagship paper published in Science presents a well-resolved new family tree for birds, based on whole-genome data. The second flagship paper describes the big picture of genome evolution in birds.
Six other papers in the special issue of Science describe how vocal learning may have independently evolved in a few bird groups and in the human brain’s speech regions; how the sex chromosomes of birds came to be; how birds lost their teeth; how crocodile genomes evolved; ways in which singing behavior regulates genes in the brain; and a new method for phylogenic analysis with large-scale genomic data.
The new family tree resolves the early branches of Neoaves (new birds) and supports conclusions about some relationships that have been long-debated. For example, the findings support three independent origins of waterbirds. They also indicate that the common ancestor of core landbirds, which include songbirds, parrots, woodpeckers, owls, eagles and falcons, was an apex predator, which also gave rise to the giant terror birds that once roamed the Americas.
The whole-genome analysis dates the evolutionary expansion of Neoaves to the time of the mass extinction event 66 million years ago that killed off all dinosaurs except some birds. This contradicts the idea that Neoaves blossomed 10 to 80 million years earlier, as some recent studies suggested.
Based on this new genomic data, only a few bird lineages survived the mass extinction. They gave rise to the more than 10,000 Neoaves species that comprise 95 percent of all bird species living with us today. The freed-up ecological niches caused by the extinction event likely allowed rapid species radiation of birds in less than 15 million years, which explains much of modern bird biodiversity.
(Visit Science to learn more.)
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Hundreds of thousands of asteroids are known to orbit our Sun at distances ranging from near the Earth to beyond Saturn. The most widely known collection of asteroids, the “main belt,” contains some of the largest and brightest asteroids and lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers think that the asteroids, like the planets, formed in the early solar system from the gradual agglomeration of smaller particles but that, in the case of asteroids, their growth was interrupted by mutual collisions that caused them to fragment rather than to coalesce into planets. This is an hypothesis which astronomers are trying to test by gathering new data. Their work has some immediate repercussions: NASA is currently planning an “Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)” as part of America’s next human spaceflight enterprise. Understanding the origins of asteroid sizes – and then identifying a good one for an astronaut to recover – are prime US goals.
The discovery rate of asteroids and comets has increased in recent years thanks to new technology detectors. The Solar System today is seen as teeming with activity, and filled with related, evolving small bodies (including asteroids) whose orbits and sizes are shaped by gravitational interactions with the giant planets, but also by other forces like collisions and radiation effects. Radiation effects include the evaporation of water ice or other volatiles, differential thermal expansion, and radiation pressure — and they are critical when addressing the issue of asteroid sizes. Because asteroids are irregularly shaped, the pressure of incident sunlight and also effect of their own outward radiation (which is unevenly directed) can cause them to spin and, when the spinning is fast enough, to break-up.
A “catastrophic disruption” is defined as the breakup of an asteroid into fragments each smaller than half the original mass. Traditionally small asteroids have been thought to be made in collisions between a parent body and a smaller projectile body, but these events seem to be very rare, both from observations and newer modeling. Renewed attention has recently been given to non-collisional break-up mechanisms like radiation effects, especially for asteroids smaller than a few hundred meters in diameter.
CfA astronomer Tim Spahr and his colleagues have completed a new set of calculations for catastrophic disruptions of main belt asteroids, building on new survey results of faint (that is, probably small) asteroids. They find that for asteroids about one hundred meters in diameter collisions are not the primarily cause of break ups – rapid rotation is. Moreover, because the rate of collisions depends on the numbers and sizes of objects but rotation does not, their results are in strong disagreement with previous models of collisionally-produced small asteroids.
Reptiles have a rough exterior that make them seem like they don’t need a lot of very specific care. The reality is quite the opposite. Caretakers at Smithsonian’s National Zoo introduce us to some of the most charismatic reptiles in residence … and their particular grooming routines.
The majority of stars in our galaxy come in pairs. In particular, the most massive stars usually have a companion. These fraternal twins tend to be somewhat equal partners when it comes to mass – but not always. In a quest to find mismatched star pairs known as extreme mass-ratio binaries, astronomers have discovered a new class of binary stars. One star is fully formed while the other is still in its infancy.
“We caught them at just the right time. In effect, we’re seeing these stars in the delivery room,” says lead author Maxwell Moe of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
The more massive a star is, the brighter it shines. This makes it difficult to identify extreme mass-ratio binaries because the heavier star outshines, and thereby hides, the lighter star.
To combat this effect Moe and his CfA colleague Rosanne DiStefano looked for eclipsing systems, in which the two stars line up in such a way that they periodically pass in front of each other as seen from Earth. When the fainter star eclipses the brighter star, their combined light drops detectably. These systems are rare because they require a precise alignment as seen from Earth.
After sifting through thousands of eclipsing systems, they identified 18 extreme mass-ratio binaries in a neighboring galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. The stars circle each other tightly in orbits with periods of 3 to 9 days. The more massive stars weigh 6 to 16 times as much as the Sun, while the less massive stars weigh about 1 to 2 times the Sun.
A clue to the young nature of these systems came from an unusual feature in the data. The fainter star shows illumination phases, just like phases of the moon, as the two stars orbit each other. This indicates that the companion is reflecting the light of the brighter, more massive star.
We only see phases because the fainter and less massive companion is not yet a full-fledged star. Astronomers describe it as being “pre-main sequence.”
A star forms when a giant clump of gas pulls together under its own gravity, growing denser and hotter until nuclear fusion ignites. This process happens faster for more massive stars.
“Imagine if a human baby shrank as it got older instead of growing. That’s what happens for young stars,” says DiStefano.
In the young systems this research identified, the more massive star is already on the main sequence, while the less massive companion is not. As a result, that companion is puffier than it would be, since it is still contracting. This effectively lets the pre-main sequence star act as a giant mirror, reflecting the brilliance of its partner.
The discovery of these stellar twins could provide invaluable insight into the formation and evolution of massive stars, close binaries, and star nurseries.
These 18 systems were culled from millions of stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud observed by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment. Due to their rarity, finding examples in our galaxy likely will require an extensive survey using facilities like the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.
This research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.
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Caitlin Burrell, research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, returned from China last night April 20, with frozen giant panda semen that had been stored at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base’s cryopreservation bank. The sperm may be used for an artificial insemination on the Zoo’s female giant panda Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) when she goes into estrus this spring. This is the first time frozen semen has been transported from China to the National Zoo for breeding.
The semen sample was collected from Hui Hui (h-WEI h-WEI). A cub sired by Hui Hui would be more genetically valuable than a cub sired by the National Zoo’s male Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN). Hui Hui lives at the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, Sichuan Province. He is 9 years old and has not yet sired any cubs.
The frozen semen was flown from Chengdu and kept frozen at minus 196 degrees Celsius in liquid nitrogen for the more than 7,000-mile journey. After landing at Dulles International Airport, the semen was taken to the SCBI’s cryopreservation bank at the National Zoo. The Zoo documented the trip on its @SmithsonianZoo Instagram account using #InstaScience and #PandaStory.
“This is the first time we have imported semen from China for panda breeding,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “I want to thank everyone involved, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, China’s State Forestry Administration, and our own team of panda scientists, who made this transport possible.”
The National Zoo received the semen as the result of a breeding recommendation. Each year SCBI scientist Jon Ballou calculates the best genetic matches for all of the eligible breeding pandas around the world. He originally developed the mathematical formula used to make the recommendations in the 1990s for golden lion tamarins. It is now used to make breeding recommendations for all species managed by Species Survival Plans in human care. Scientists are working to preserve 90 percent of the genetic diversity of the giant pandas living in human care for the next 200 years. There are currently 392 giant pandas living in human care; scientists hope to grow the population to 500 bears.
The Zoo’s panda team expects that Mei Xiang will go into estrus for 24 to 72 hours this spring. Research shows that females usually go into estrus 45 to 50 days after they have weaned and separated from their cubs. The panda team slowly simulated that natural process for Mei Xiang and 20-month-old juvenile Bao Bao. They have been living separately since March 1.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have produced two surviving cubs while living at the National Zoo. Tai Shan, their first cub, was born July 9, 2005. He now lives in China. Bao Bao, their second cub, was born Aug. 23, 2013. She will leave the Zoo and travel to China when she turns 4 years old.
China’s State Forestry Administration released new giant panda census data in February; an estimated 1,864 giant pandas are now living in the wild. That is an increase of 16.8 percent since the last census, which found 1,600 pandas in the wild.
How soon after the Big Bang could water have existed? Not right away, because water molecules contain oxygen and oxygen had to be formed in the first stars. Then that oxygen had to disperse and unite with hydrogen in significant amounts. New theoretical work finds that despite these complications, water vapor could have been just as abundant in pockets of space a billion years after the Big Bang as it is today.
“We looked at the chemistry within young molecular clouds containing a thousand times less oxygen than our Sun. To our surprise, we found we can get as much water vapor as we see in our own galaxy,” says astrophysicist Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
The early universe lacked elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. The first generation of stars are believed to have been massive and short-lived. Those stars generated elements like oxygen, which then spread outward via stellar winds and supernova explosions. This resulted in “islands” of gas enriched in heavy elements. Even these islands, however, were much poorer in oxygen than gas within the Milky Way today.
The team examined the chemical reactions that could lead to the formation of water within the oxygen-poor environment of early molecular clouds. They found that at temperatures around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (300 Kelvin), abundant water could form in the gas phase despite the relative lack of raw materials.
“These temperatures are likely because the universe then was warmer than today and the gas was unable to cool effectively,” explains lead author and PhD student Shmuel Bialy of Tel Aviv University.
“The glow of the cosmic microwave background was hotter, and gas densities were higher,” adds Amiel Sternberg, a co-author from Tel Aviv University.
Although ultraviolet light from stars would break apart water molecules, after hundreds of millions of years an equilibrium could be reached between water formation and destruction. The team found that equilibrium to be similar to levels of water vapor seen in the local universe.
“You can build up significant quantities of water in the gas phase even without much enrichment in heavy elements,” adds Bialy.
This current work calculates how much water could exist in the gas phase within molecular clouds that will form later generations of stars and planets. It doesn’t address how much water would exist in ice form (which dominates within our galaxy) or what fraction of all the water might actually be incorporated into newly forming planetary systems.
This work has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available online. The authors are Shmuel Bialy & Amiel Sternberg (Tel Aviv University) and Avi Loeb (CfA). This joint project was carried out as part of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Tel Aviv University-Harvard Astronomy Program.
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For the first time, a team from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s (SCBI) Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability collected photo evidence of an Andean bear (also known as the spectacled bear) in Peru’s Amarakaeri Comunal Reserve using camera traps—automated cameras with motion sensors. Three camera trapping locations within the Reserve documented the species between late February and early March 2015. The data collected from these cameras will help the Amarakaeri Comunal Reserve protect this culturally and ecologically important species. Andean bears are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Red List of Threatened Species. It is estimated that there are only 20,000 left in the wild due to threats including hunting and habitat loss from deforestation, mining, and road construction.
The team, including Tremaine Gregory and Hadrien Vanthomme from SCBI, Alejandro Portillo from the Universidad de Cusco, Peru, and Alcides Fernandez, from the local Yine community of Diamante, is conducting studies in the Southern Peruvian Amazon to understand changes in the distribution of large mammals over the course of the construction of a natural gas well. Since June 2014, researchers have recorded more than 25 mammals in the Reserve using camera traps.
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Geologic mapping is an integral part of exploration and understanding a planetary landscape, because it shows the relationships between geologic units and helps delineate the history of a surface. New orbiting spacecraft are obtaining data with progressively higher resolution, and as a consequence maps constantly need to be updated and improved. Read more from the National Air and Space Museum…
Pollinators like butterflies, bees, beetles, flies, and moths help to pollinate almost 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants, one benefit of which is providing food for humans. Because their daily activities have such beneficial consequences for all life, it is important to make sure pollinators have places to rest, feed and reproduce.
James Gagliardi, lead horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, says that the museum’s Butterfly Habitat Garden is setting the example by offering a balanced ecosystem for these pollinators right in the middle of Washington, D.C.
“Our garden offers butterflies a place to stop, pollinate, lay their eggs and get the rest they need,” Gagliardi says, pointing to the garden as a great example of how the Smithsonian is complying with the recent memorandum from President Obama asking federal buildings to make a concerted effort to be more pollinator friendly.
The Smithsonian has been making an effort to help pollinator populations for years, and continues to focus on helping educate the public about what they can do in their own backyard to attract and help pollinators.
“When people step into our garden they aren’t just getting to see the butterflies. We offer wonderful education panels so the average homeowner can produce the same pollinator-friendly spaces in their own yard,” Gagliardi says of the upgrades being made to the Butterfly Habitat Garden in anticipation of its upcoming name change to the Pollinator Garden. “The garden has always functioned as a pollinator garden. Now with the broad emphasis on supporting all pollinators we want our garden to reflect that commitment” Gagliardi says.
Gagliardi’s top three tips for creating a pollinator-friendly garden:
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History announced today that scientists with the museum’s Global Genome Initiative will attempt to capture the genomic diversity of half the world’s living plant genera in the next two years. To start, GGI scientists and field teams from the museum’s Department of Botany have begun sampling plants in the holdings of Smithsonian Gardens, the U.S. Botanic Garden and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. National Arboretum.
Tissue samples from these collections will be preserved by freezing in liquid nitrogen and then stored indefinitely in the Smithsonian’s biorepository at its Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md. A pressed specimen of each plant will be housed in the U.S. National Herbarium at the National Museum of Natural History. Scientists worldwide will be able to access the samples through the Global Genome Biodiversity Network’s data portal.
“This pilot collaborative effort between the Smithsonian, U.S. National Arboretum and the U.S. Botanic Garden comes at an urgent time when the scientific community’s access to the world’s plant genomes—the blueprint of life—is limited due to biodiversity loss and lackluster genomic-research infrastructure,” says Jonathan Coddington, director of the National Museum of Natural History’s Global Genome Initiative. Scientists have estimated that the recent rate of species extinction is faster than at any other time in recorded history, perhaps 100 times faster than normal.
The gardens in Washington, D.C. contain plants from around the world, culled from desert climates to lush tropical rainforests. Young and aspiring scientists will assist the sampling project as part of GGI’s commitment to train the next generation of genomic scientists.
“Now more than ever, the Smithsonian is dedicated to increasing our knowledge about life on Earth through emerging genomic technologies and capabilities,” said John Kress, the Smithsonian’s interim Under Secretary for Science. “Partnering with botanical gardens around the world is an essential step in opening new doors to the hidden benefits that can emerge from the world’s plant genomes.”
To read a blog about this effort click here.
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Researchers have discovered a black hole that grew much more quickly than its host galaxy. The discovery calls into question previous assumptions on the development of galaxies.
The black hole was originally discovered using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, and was then detected in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and by ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
Benny Trakhtenbrot, from ETH Zurich’s Institute for Astronomy, and an international team of astrophysicists, performed a follow-up observation of this black hole using the 10 meter Keck telescope in Hawaii and were surprised by the results. The data, collected with a new instrument, revealed a giant black hole in an otherwise normal, distant galaxy, called CID-947. Because its light had to travel a very long distance, the scientists were observing it at a period when the universe was less than two billion years old, just 14 percent of its current age (almost 14 billion years have passed since the Big Bang).
An analysis of the data collected in Hawaii revealed that the black hole in CID-947, with nearly 7 billion solar masses, is among the most massive black holes discovered up to now. What surprised researchers in particular was not the black hole’s record mass, but rather the galaxy’s mass. The result was so surprising that two of the astronomers, including Hyewon Suh from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA, had to verify the galaxy mass independently. Both came to the same conclusion. The team reports its findings in the current issue of the scientific journal Science.
The distant young black hole observed by the team weighs about 10% of its host galaxy’s mass. In today’s local universe, black holes typically reach a mass of 0.2% to 0.5% of their host galaxy’s mass. That means this black hole grew much more efficiently than its galaxy – contradicting the models that predicted a hand-in-hand development. From the available Chandra data for this source, the researchers also concluded that the black hole had reached the end of its growth. However, other data suggests stars were still forming throughout the host galaxy. Contrary to previous assumptions, the energy and gas flow, propelled by the black hole, did not stop the creation of stars.
The galaxy could continue to grow in the future, but the relationship between the mass of the black hole and that of the stars would remain unusually large. The researchers believe that CID-947 could thus be a precursor of the most extreme, massive systems that we observe in today’s local universe, such as the galaxy NGC 1277 in the constellation of Perseus, some 220 million light years away from our Milky Way.
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.
(Source: Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass)
The Smithsonian is embarking on a multi-project partnership with Kickstarter, the funding platform for creative projects. The inaugural project will support conservation of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit at the National Air and Space Museum. The funds also will be used to digitize and exhibit the 46-year-old suit.
The campaign will start July 20, the anniversary of the first walk on the moon in 1969. Click HERE to learn more.
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Skygazers at northern latitudes are familiar with the W-shaped star pattern of Cassiopeia the Queen. This circumpolar constellation is visible year-round near the North Star. Tucked next to one leg of the W lies a modest 5th-magnitude star named HD 219134 that has been hiding a secret.
Astronomers have now teased out that secret: a planet in a 3-day orbit that transits, or crosses in front of its star. At a distance of just 21 light-years, it is by far the closest transiting planet to Earth, which makes it ideal for follow-up studies. Moreover, it is the nearest rocky planet confirmed outside our solar system. Its host star is visible to the unaided eye from dark skies, meaning anyone with a good star map can see this record-breaking system.
“Most of the known planets are hundreds of light-years away. This one is practically a next-door neighbor,” said astronomer Lars A. Buchhave of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
“Its proximity makes HD 219134 ideal for future studies. The James Webb Space Telescope and future large ground-based observatories are sure to point at it and examine it in detail,” said lead author Fatemeh (Ati) Motalebi of the Geneva Observatory.
The newfound world, designated HD 219134b, was discovered using the HARPS-North instrument on the 3.6-meter Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands. The CfA is a major partner with the Geneva Observatory on the HARPS-North Collaboration, which includes several other European partners.
HARPS-North detects planets using the radial velocity method, which allows astronomers to measure a planet’s mass. HD 219134b weighs 4.5 times the mass of Earth, making it a super-Earth.
With such a close orbit, researchers realized that there was good possibility the planet would transit its star. In April of this year they targeted the system with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. At the appropriate time, the star dimmed slightly as the planet crossed the star’s face. Measuring the depth of the transit gave the planet’s size, which is 1.6 times Earth. As a result, the team can calculate the planet’s density, which works out to about 6 g/cm3. This shows that HD 219134b is a rocky world.
But wait, there’s more! The team detected three additional planets in the system using radial velocity data. A planet weighing at least 2.7 times Earth orbits the star once every 6.8 days. A Neptune-like planet with 9 times the mass of Earth circles in a 47-day orbit. And much further out, a hefty fourth world 62 times Earth’s mass orbits at a distance of 2.1 astronomical units (200 million miles) with a “year” of 1,190 days. Any of these planets might also transit the star, so the team plans to search for additional transits in the months ahead.
HD 219134 is an orange Type K star somewhat cooler, smaller and less massive than our Sun. Its key measurements have been pinned down very precisely, which thus allows a more precise determination of the properties of its accompanying planets.
This discovery came from the HARPS-North Rocky Planet Search, a dedicated survey examining about 50 nearby stars for signs of small planets. The team targeted nearby stars because those stars are brighter, which makes follow-up studies easier. In particular, additional observations might allow the detection and analysis of planetary atmospheres.
HD 219134 was one of the closest stars in the sample, so it was particularly lucky to find that it hosts a transiting planet. This system now holds the record for the nearest transiting exoplanet. As such, it likely will be a favorite for researchers for years to come.
The paper describing this research has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
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The National Air and Space Museum is asking Star Trek fans to search their memory banks for firsthand, pre-1976 images or film of the original studio model of the USS Enterprise. Conservators are working to restore the ship to its appearance from August 1967, and they will use the primary-source photos as reference materials for the project. Hailing frequencies are open to the public at StarshipEnterprise@si.edu.
Sept. 8 marks the 49th anniversary of the original Star Trektelevision series. The 11-foot-long studio model used in all 79 episodes is currently in the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. It will go on display in the museum’s Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in 2016. The public can watch for updates on the museum’s social channels and join in the conversation by using #MilestonesofFlight.
The Enterprise model has undergone eight major modifications since it was built in 1964, both during and after production of the series. The current restoration will restore the ship to its August 1967 appearance, during and after the production of the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” which is the last time the Enterprise was altered throughout the original Star Trek.
Fans’ first contact was in April 1972, when the model appeared at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif., during Space Week, a 10-day gathering of space-related activities attended by more than 50,000 people. In 1974 and ’75 the ship was displayed in the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building in Washington, D.C., while the National Air and Space Museum’s new home on Independence Avenue was under construction.
Firsthand, original images or film of the ship under construction, during filming or on public display at any time before 1976 are particularly useful. Screen captures from the television series, or existing images and clips available online, are not needed. To find out more about submitting material, the public can contact StarshipEnterprise@si.edu.
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Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama compared the diets of two caterpillar species, expecting the one that exclusively consumed plants containing toxic chemicals would more easily incorporate toxins into its body than the one with a broad diet. They found the opposite. The new finding, published in the Journal of Chemical Ecology, flies in the face of a long-held theory that specialist insects are better adapted to use toxic plant chemicals than non-specialists.
The discovery opens new avenues for understanding plant-insect coevolution—an ongoing arms race of plants producing new defense chemicals and insects finding ways around them. Toxic plant chemicals also have potential medical applications against microbes or cancer cells.
The tropical plant Vismia baccifera protects itself by producing a number of repellent chemicals, including three compounds that are toxic to living cells. Few plant-eating insects can stomach such a cocktail, but for those that can, the advantages are clear—less competition for a meal, and a chemical toolkit they can use in their own defense.
Skipper butterfly, Pyrrhopyge thericles, caterpillars only eat plants in the genus Vismia. The caterpillars of a large moth,Periphoba arcaei, have a much broader diet, including Vismiaplants and many others. Brightly colored caterpillars, one with flamboyant stripes, and the other blue-green with bristles, teach predators to associate their striking looks with toxicity—a defensive warning system known as aposematism.
“Brightly colored plant-eating insects help us to identify plants containing compounds active against important human diseases,” said Todd Capson, a former associate scientist at STRI, who oversaw visiting researcher Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, the lead author of the new study. The work documents the first known occurrence of Vismia chemicals in butterflies and moths.
The researchers analyzed several life stages of the two caterpillar species for the presence and concentration of plant toxins called vismiones. While two vismione compounds are found at a ratio of 1:6 in the plants, in the specialist butterfly caterpillars the compounds were barely detectable, and at roughly equal ratios. Meanwhile, the generalist moth caterpillars contained significant quantities of the rarer of the two compounds, suggesting that they were able to actively store this plant chemical in their own bodies. Both caterpillars’ fecal matter revealed a 1:2 ratio of the plant compounds, indicating that their bodies might uptake compounds selectively or convert molecules of one type over the other.
“We know very little about just how each plant-eating insect handles these chemicals—how they store them or eliminate them,” said STRI staff scientist and study coauthor Annette Aiello. Some insects might isolate the compounds so they do not cause them harm, while others might convert the molecules into forms that are harder for scientists to detect. Insects that process harmful toxins without damaging their own cells have a survival advantage. For a generalist species, said Aiello, “the ability to sequester toxic compounds might be an early evolutionary breakthrough,” the first step along the pathway to becoming a toxic plant specialist.
Previous work suggests that the presence of plant-eating insects sporting bright warning colors may signal plants containing potentially useful chemicals. And while specialist insects share an obvious history with their host plants, the new study suggests that generalist insects also may play an important role in the chemical arms race that drives plant-insect coevolution. “The study of insects with generalist diets can sometimes yield results that are just as rewarding as the study of specialists,” Capson said.
This study was conducted through STRI and McGill University’s collaborative Neotropical Environment Option program. The work was supported in part by Panama’s International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups program. The authors’ present affiliations include STRI, McGill, the Centro de Investigaciones Farmacognósticas de la Flora Panameña, University of the Western Cape and the National Bureau of Science, Technology and Innovation of Panama.