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On Sunday, the tree of life lost another member: Lonesome George, the famed last survivor of the Pinta Island tortoises (Chelonoidis abingdoni). Director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiveristy and Conservation Eleanor Sterling has been in the Galápagos for the past few days. She recently answered a few questions about Lonesome George’s passing and legacy.
What are you doing in the Galápagos?
Eleanor Sterling: The Galápagos National Park Service and the Galápagos Conservancy called together a meeting of experts on public participation in monitoring and conservation and I was invited as a specialist.
Who was Lonesome George?
Sterling: Lonesome George was a giant tortoise who was close to a century old and who was quite famous for being the last known representative of his species. And with his death, the whole species that was found on Pinta Island in the Galápagos is now extinct. There are other individuals who have some of the genes of Pinta Island tortoises, but he was last known individual to have the full genome of this species.
What role did humans play in the decline of his species?
Sterling: Seafaring individuals stopped by the Galápagos and collected tens of thousands of tortoises over the years. They packed their hulls with tortoises to use as food as they traveled around rest of world, because tortoises could last a long time without dying. Humans also introduced species such as rats to the islands where tortoises live, and those introduced species compete with tortoises for food or depredate on their young and eggs.
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Underwater photography is always a challenge, but try doing it at night. That’s how David Gruber, a Museum research associate and consultant for the exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, will be spending the next few weeks in the Solomon Islands as he searches for glowing organisms to photograph. Gruber is writing about his experiences for The New York Times’s “Scientist at Work: Notes From the Field” blog along with fellow Museum research associate Vincent Pieribone.
“The scientific goals of this trip are manifold,” Gruber writes in his first post, “but above all we are after elusive near-infrared fluorescent and bioluminescent molecules to aid in biomedical research.” Both bioluminescent animals—creatures that generate light—and biofluorescent organisms—which absorb light and re-emit it at other wavelengths—have wide applications in medicine by allowing certain cells, such as those within cancerous tumors, to be visually tagged and tracked.
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In 1950, as part of a publicity campaign, the Hayden Planetarium began accepting reservations for what was billed as the first trip into space. After ads appeared in newspapers and the story was picked up by BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke, letters poured in from as near as Newark and as far as Northumberland, with requests to book trips to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Some were accompanied by elaborate drawings of spacecraft, others by offers to serve as crewmembers on the flight. All came from applicants who wrote passionately about becoming the first to experience a trip to outer space, and the result is a treasure trove of letters that capture the public fascination with space exploration, a selection of which are now available for viewing on the Museum’s Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration site.
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Much like the sunscreen-toting crowds hitting the beaches this summer, coral reefs may be carrying some protection from the sun’s strong rays.
In the case of corals, however, the “sunscreen” may come in the form of fluorescent proteins—and the protection is not from sunburn but from a fatal phenomenon known as bleaching.
Bleaching occurs when coral polyps, the animals that make coral reefs, expel photosynthetic algae under environmental stress, including too much sunlight. Under normal conditions, the algae, which give coral its brown color, are important symbiotic partners: embedded under the polyps’ skin, they produce carbohydrates that the polyps depend on for most of their energy.
Corals, in turn, need sunlight to fuel the algae’s photosynthesis. But too much sunlight can damage the algae’s photosynthetic machinery, leading them to produce damaging free radicals. This stress, combined with stress from warming seawater, can lead to bleaching.
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For the last two months, scorpion expert Lorenzo Prendini has been criss-crossing the globe to train others in finding, collecting, and preserving scorpion specimens for study.
In May, Dr. Prendini, an associate curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, traveled to Pakistan as a guest of the country’s Higher Education Commission to present a lecture at the University of Sargodha and to train a team of local scientists. One of these researchers, Dr. Muhammad Tahir, was recently awarded a grant by Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission to carry out a survey of local scorpion species, which include species of interest to medical research, and he will travel to the U.S. this fall to spend nine months working with Prendini at the Museum.