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Unlocking the Treasure Chest of Natural History

Posted on February 8, 2013 by in The OFI Blog

(From left to right) Aimée Becker, Norma Oldfield, Sara Gonzalez, Catherine Fravel, Katie Anania, Erin Grosskurth

(From left to right) Aimée Becker, Norma Oldfield, Sara Gonzalez, Catherine Fravel, Katie Anania, Erin Grosskurth. (Not pictured: Emily Reckinger.)

Nestled in among the 126 millions specimens that make up the NMNH collections are some very special items, including some with a unique history, special importance to science or society, and those that many of us just find fascinating.  And yes, a bit like that last scene of the original Indian Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where viewers see the Ark moving into a VERY large storage warehouse, the NMNH collections safe keeping facilities are vast!  Identifying and uncovering the special treasure specimens can be a challenge, but an easy to use reference list would not only be useful but could be fun to compile.

So, while many other students were spending their winter break navigating shopping malls on a quest for the latest sales, seven interns from around the country ventured behind the scenes of the Smithsonian for a treasure hunt through the collections in a quest to uncover some of Natural History’s most interesting, most valuable, most amazing, and, well, just way cool specimens (okay, yes, and secretly see if they could find that Indiana Jones Ark).

Intern teams were formed and students sent out to interview staff for leads into the top Natural History treasures.   The intern’s strategy: divide and conquer, explore and enjoy!

Up first, Aimee Becker, from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and her assignment: Anthropology.  Aimee’s Anthropology investigations followed preliminary research conducted during the summer by Andrew Tse (University of Maryland, College Park) and Jordan Sinclair McIntyre (American University) during the fall.

What did we find?  Among the Anthropology collections is an amazing Unangan Gut Skin Cape, created by the Unangan people of Alaska who used the intestines of a seal in order to construct this coarse cape.  And, a beautiful porcelain water jar, collected by Commodore Matthew C. Perry during his expedition to Japan.  There are shrunken heads in the collection, an 800,000 year old hand axe – considered to be one of the first man-made tools in existence, Samurai armor which was given to President Theodore Roosevelt from Emperor Meiji of Japan as a token of gratitude for aiding in the Portsmouth Treaty, and the Human Studies Film Archives has film footage showing a re-enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn with some of the original participants.  No, didn’t find Bigfoot, or his footprints.  But, and as a bit of a surprise, we found the Anthropology collections do include Grover Krantz and his Irish wolfhound dog, Clyde.  That’s right.  Upon his death in 2002, Krantz donated his body to the Museum for education and study and in 2009, Krantz’s skeleton was painstakingly articulated and, along with the skeleton of his dog, Clyde, was included in the Smithsonian’s “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake” exhibition.  Back to the Bigfoot thing, Krantz was an anthropologist and his investigations included all aspects of human evolution, but he was best known outside of academia as the first serious researcher to devote his professional energies to the scientific study of Bigfoot, beginning in 1963, including scientific investigation of some of the first “Sasquatch” footprint casts.

Up next, Emily Reckinger from Notre Dame University, who followed up on initial investigations by summer intern, Beth Diamond (Rutgers University), into the Invertebrate Zoology collection treasures.

So amid the 126 million NMNH specimens, what caught their eye?  The eye – of a giant squid (Architeuthis dux), part of the Invertebrate Zoology collection; it’s remarkably large—the size of a dinner plate.  Also from IZ, the Giant Vent Tube Worm: Riftia whose discovery in the late 1970’s revolutionized our thinking about life in the extremes, demonstrating that life could follow different energy pathways, chemosynthesis instead of direct photosynthesis, and here is the original specimen, sent to researcher Meredith Jones in 1977.  And of course there’s Grandma Moses, 1 of 2 adults of the Giant Amazon Leech (Haementeria ghilianii) that was rediscovered in the 1970’s in a pond in French Guiana.  Grandma Moses founded a leech breeding colony at the University of California, Berkeley producing more than 750 offspring in 3 years and from these more than 46 medical, neurological and natural history research publications resulted, based on research using her offspring.

The team of Sara Gonzalez (Cornell University), Norma Oldfield (University of Maryland, College Park) and Erin Grosskurth (College of New Jersey) focused their attention on the rest of the biology departments (Botany, Entomology, and Vertebrate Zoology), following up on the summer Biology Treasure Team of Paige Engelbrektsson (College of William and Mary) and Katherine Woods (State University of New York, Geneseo).

In Entomology, the recent acquisition of Nefertiti the Spidernaut, a spider (Phidippus johnsoni) that was launched into space in July 2012, remained aboard the International Space Station for 100 days before returning safe and alive to Earth, but unfortunately died shortly afterward of natural causes, is sure to be a long time favorite.  The Entomology collections also hold six butterfly specimens collected by the infamous French convict, Henry “Papillion” Charriere, whose story of escape from Devil’s Island, French Guiana was popularized by the film Papillion.

The Vertebrate Zoology collections include Martha, the last passenger pigeon.  A once abundant North American bird, Martha was born and bred in captivity and her death on Sept. 1, 1914 finalized the extinction of her species.  Some other VZ stand-out treasures?  What visitor to the Museum hasn’t noticed the Elephant in the rotunda?  Known as the Fénykövi Elephant, he once held both records of largest land mammal on display and largest African bush elephant, and may have been almost 100 years old when he died.   And yes, there are whales, in fact, the world’s largest scientific collection of marine mammals, with skeletons and skulls representing nearly all of the known species, which have been invaluable for use in scientific research and aiding in conservation efforts. There are the remains of Karisimbi, one of the mountain gorillas studied by Dian Fossey.  There’s the story of Bendire’s Egg.  In the midst of the American Indian Wars, Army surgeon Major Charles Bendire climbed up the nest of a zone-tailed hawk, secured this egg in his mouth, and fled on horseback with several in pursuit, demonstrating his remarkable single-minded protection of the species.  And we have Presidential contributions, especially from President Theodore Roosevelt, who was an avid naturalist and donated many collections to the Museum including a Pahranagat Valley Montane Vole collected by Roosevelt while he was President.  He spotted the vole while touring Yellowstone, jumped off the wagon and caught it by putting his hat over it.  Among the Vertebrate Zoology collections are also a variety of Galapagos Island finches captured and studied by Charles Darwin—the very birds on which Darwin based his theory of evolution.

The Botany collections also include specimens collected by Charles Darwin as part of his voyages, six to be exact, including two members of the Sunflower Family and 4 members of the Grass Family.  The metallic blue berries of Pollia condensata, a plant in the family, Commelinaceae, caught attention amid the normally dull-brown and dry botanical specimens.  The fruits of Pollia keep their color even after long-term preservation because the metallic bright blue hue comes from the structure of their cells reflecting light rather than a pigment, and their blue hue is considered the most intense of any known biological material.   With a little humor, The Umbrella Alga was named after Dr. Harold Humm after a competition was held to name it; the winning name was Hummbrella partly because of its umbrella-like shape, partly because it’s fun to say.

More superlatives, amid the biology collections, the oldest is a plant specimen in the Foxglove family (Scrophulariaceae), collected sometime between 1594 and 1598 by Gaspard Bauhin.

Rounding out the group, Catherine “Katie” Anania (George Washington University) and Erin Grosskurth (College of New Jersey) made up the Geology Treasures Team, interviewing staff and scouring records in the Departments of Paleobiology and Mineral Sciences.

In the Paleobiology Department, it’s the woolly mammoth skin preserved in ice with its hairs still intact that caught the intern’s attention.  There’s also the ever amazing Burgess Shale, and favorite Anomalocaris.  A fearsome-looking arthropod beast, it’s the most widely-distributed and largest known Burgess Shale animal–some related specimens found in China reach a length of six feet.  A specimen of Problebeia domicanana, part of the Early Miocene Dominican Amber deposit, is among the 5,200 some pieces revealing the ecologic structure of an ancient Caribbean forest; providing insight into insect behavior, plant-insect relationships, and revealing fine morphological detail such as leg pollen baskets, mouthparts, and genitalia.  And there are the dinosaurs, of note Marsh’s Triceratops.  The holotype of the species, Triceratops elatus.  This specimen was collected 23 October 1890 in Niobrara County, Wyoming by John Bell Hatcher, an entomologist who mostly studied butterflies.  It took a lot back then to get a fossil of that size back to the Museum, not the butterflies but the dinosaur!  The specimen was shipped by railcar, box 8, to Yale University for study by O.C. Marsh who named and published the specimen as a new species of Triceratops and then sent it to NMNH.   And we learned a bit about taxonomy, because scientists later determined that it’s correctly identified and grouped with Triceratops horridus.  However, how scientific nomenclatures goes, it remains the holotype of T. elatus, and one pretty cool specimen.

Everybody thinks of the Hope Diamond as the stand out, hands down, treasure from the Department of Mineral Sciences, possibly of the NMNH.  It’s known world-wide for its large size, vivid blue color, history and mystery and is an iconic symbol of the Smithsonian.  But, the William Foshag Paricutin Films showing volcano formation are pretty amazing.  Paricutin literally formed in a corn field in Mexico beginning on February 20, 1943, and Smithsonian geologist William Foshag filmed the growth of the volcano over the next 3 years, providing a priceless record of the birth of a volcano.  There are also out-of-this-world wonders lurking among the collections, like the Life on Mars Meteorite, officially known as Meteorite Allan Hills 84001.  It was found in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica, and reinvigorated the exploration of Mars after it was discovered that it formed more than 4 billion years ago as part of the ancient crust of Mars and suggested that ancient water that deposited minerals may have hosted microbial life.  News of this made headlines all around the world, although the initial claims proved incorrect, these studies reinvigorated the study of Mars as a habitable world and spurred scientists to rethink how to identify ancient life elsewhere in the Solar System.  And then there’s the Krafft’s Volcano Helmet.  Not really a representative rock or mineral but instead a symbol of the dedication of scientists to their work.  It was owned by Maurice and Katia Krafft, dedicated and inspiring volcanologists who perished in an eruption at Mt. Unzen in Japan in 1991.  They were determined to provide first-hand observation and authentic film documentation of volcanic processes around the world and using this specially designed helmet were among the first to get up close and personal with erupting volcanoes, allowing ground breaking research and bring stunning images to the public.

The Natural History Treasures go on and on.  In fact, at last count the interns have uncovered over 2,300 and each with a special story.  Through the Natural History Treasures project the interns got the inside scoop on some of the NMNH’s coolest holdings and had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with some of the best researchers in their fields, learning the stories first-hand, and viewing prized items, many of which aren’t on view to the general public.

Commented Katie Anania about her Natural History Treasures internship:

This internship has given me a behind-the-scenes look at the National Museum of Natural History. Prior to my internship, I wasn’t really aware of all the research that goes on here at the Museum. For me, the highlight of interning here was definitely being able to talk to numerous researchers and scientists about their projects. In particular, I have gained a new appreciation for mineral science studies. Until now, I had never really thought about all the complex chemistry that is responsible for the creation of a mineral, and the research potential minerals have as a result of their unique chemical structures. Another aspect of the Mineral Science Department that really interested me was the Global Volcanism Program. I have always been fascinated by volcanoes, and I really enjoyed learning about the research conducted on them by Smithsonian staff. All in all, I learned that there is a lot more to the Department of Mineral Sciences at NMNH than just the Hope Diamond and gem collection.”

And, no, after all our investigations we didn’t find the Indiana Jones Ark, but we did enjoy our time in Natural History’s Academic Resources Center – ARC!