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American Museum of Natural History scientists first experienced the beauty and incredible biodiversity of the Solomon Islands nearly 100 years ago on a legendary expedition to collect birds, plants, and anthropological items. This month, Museum researchers are back in the captivating archipelago with scientific tools their predecessors couldn’t have dreamed of. Watch a video and see photos from the early days of their journey.
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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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We wanted to include a panoramic image of a magnificent coralscape in Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, and Bloody Bay Wall [off Little Cayman Island] was the perfect place.
But capturing Ansel Adams-like vistas are impossible under water, where sections of the light spectrum—especially reds—are absorbed within a meter. We need to get in very close to our subject and use flash photography to capture the reef ’s true color. We have to repeat this process hundreds of times over the wall face. Then, the small consecutive images are painstakingly stitched together to create a life-sized, true-color view.
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Ichthyologist John Sparks, curator of Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, recalls two challenging expeditions in Madagascar in search of new species of blind cavefishes. Read an excerpt of the interview below.
We were in Ankarana Reserve in far northern Madagascar, a surreal landscape of exposed karst formations. These are one-of-a-kind formations of permeable rocks, with rivers and streams in between. It’s kind of like Swiss cheese, with water running through it. We were looking for a species of blind cavefish endemic to this region.
But first, we had to make our way through the piles of bat guano [dung]. The cavefishes, which lack pigment and have no eyes, eat some of the invertebrates that are in the water, but a lot of them survive mainly on guano. There are enormous piles of it in these caves, 20- to 30-foot mounds. When you get closer, the mounds seem to come alive, with millions of clicking, rustling cockroaches that run over your feet and up your legs. It’s just like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie.