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Science at the Museum: Building the Trees of Life

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To walk the fourth floor of the Museum — peering at the jagged “teeth” of armored fish Dunkleosteus, ducking under the 23-foot wingspan of the flying reptile Pteranodon, studying the long curved tusks of the elephant relative Mammuthus — is, in a sense, to walk the tree of life.

Each branching point represents the arrival of an evolutionary innovation — jaws, water-tight eggs, hooves, respectively — that unites one group of animals and distinguishes them from lineages that lack the feature. Known as synapomorphies, or shared traits derived from a common ancestor, these are the tracks of evolution.

Scientists have used trees to order life since before Charles Darwin first scribbled a spiky diagram in his notebook. In the 1950s, German biologist Willi Hennig formally proposed that trees of life should reflect evolutionary relationships among organisms, founding cladistics: a method for grouping organisms into ancestor-descendent clades, from the Greek word for “branch,” based on shared, derived features. But it took a Museum scientist, ichthyologist Gareth Nelson, to disseminate the idea among English-language biologists. Together with students and colleagues at the Museum — including another ichthyologist, Donn Rosen, paleontologists Eugene Gaffney and Niles Eldredge, ornithologist Joel Cracraft, and invertebrate specialists Norman Platnick and Randall T. Schuh – Nelson steadfastly argued the case for cladistics as the tool to test classification during academic talks, in research papers, and even on napkins over meals.

Tags: Tree of Life

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March 2 SciCafe: Know Your Roots

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Medicinal plant use thrives even in urban centers like New York City. At the upcoming SciCafe on Wednesday, March 2, Dr. Ina Vandebroek of the Institute of Economic Botanyat the New York Botanical Garden will discuss the role of medicinal plants in primary healthcare among indigenous peoples in the Bolivian Amazon and immigrant communities in New York City. She recently answered a few questions about her upcoming talk.

What is ethnobotany, and how is it practiced?

Ethnobotany is the science that documents how people perceive, manage, and use plants for healthcare, nutrition, clothing, construction, tools, ritual and social life. An ethnobotanist is part anthropologist and part botanist. He or she shares life in the field with local community members, conducts interviews, and collects the plants that are mentioned by participants to make herbarium specimens that cross-link common plant names with botanical plant names.

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The Butterfly Brief: Heliconius cydno

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Butterflies that belong to the Heliconius genus, known colloquially as longwings, have discovered the secret to butterfly longevity. Like most members of the order Lepidoptera, longwings sip nectar from flowers using a straw-like organ called a proboscis. What distinguishes them from fellow butterflies — and moths — is that longwings can broaden their diet beyond these sweet liquids — which, in turn, is thought to extend their life.

That’s because Heliconius butterflies are able to ingest pollen by secreting enzymes onto their proboscides. When these enzymes mix with pollen grains, they create a protein-rich liquid that the butterfly can absorb. Longwings spend hours collecting and processing pollen grains and depositing them at other stops along the way. The plants pay them back, big time: the amino acids found in pollen are thought to increase egg production and lifespan up to eight months, making longwings one of the longest-living groups of butterflies in the world.

Tags: Butterflies

New Update to Museum's Cosmic Discoveries App

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The first major update of the American Museum of Natural History: Cosmic Discoveries iPhone App was released on February 15 as part of an ongoing effort to create a gallery of the universe that fits in the palm of your hand. The updated app features five new chapters, which combine fascinating images with in-depth descriptions of astrophysical phenomena, the people who discovered them, and the technology that makes it all possible.

The new stories describe the extremes of star formation (“Massive Stars” and “Brown Dwarfs”), galaxies like our own Milky Way (“Spiral Galaxies”) and the dense clumps of stars that swarm around them (“Globular Clusters”), as well as astronomical phenomena caused by runaway thermonuclear explosions (innocuously called “Novae”).

Download the app today in order to automatically be notified about new updates via the App Store. More updates will be released every few months.

Learn more about the app here, and download it for free from iTunes here.


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Melba Joyce Salutes Our Jazz Elders For Global Weekends

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Anyone who has listened to jazz — a uniquely American musical form that is fundamentally interpretive, improvisational and creative — will describe the way it seems to stimulate the mind. And in recent years, new scientific research has shown that improvisation really does activate the parts of the brain that enhance self-expression and lower inhibitions.

On Saturday, February 19, from 12:30 to 5 pm, the American Museum of Natural History will honor jazz’s trailblazing artists and musicians and highlight the ways jazz can stimulate and enhance the brain with a special Global Weekends event, Saluting Our Jazz Elders, which will feature performances by celebrated jazz vocalist Melba Joyce, New Amsterdam Music Association, Joey Morant, and McCollough Sons of Thunder, as well as conversations throughout the day with Robert O’Meally, co-founder of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University about the connections between jazz, the brain, and education.


Tags: Global Weekends

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