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After flying nearly 5 billion miles over six years, the MESSENGER spacecraft is scheduled to begin orbiting the innermost planet. On Thursday, March 17, join Denton Ebel, associate curator in the Museum’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Joe Boesenberg, senior scientific assistant in the department to watch a live feed from MESSENGER operations center at Johns Hopkins University and hear about new information that has been gleaned from the mission so far, such as the importance of understanding the planet’s high-density composition.
To date, three flybys of Mercury have yielded insights into this least explored terrestrial planet, starting with a historic flyby in January 2008. The Museum’s Science Bulletins chronicled the MESSENGER science team’s reaction as the orbiter’s first images of Mercury rolled in. Click below to watch the Science Bulletins video feature. For more about the MESSENGER mission, check out the article, “First Planet Finishes Last.”
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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.
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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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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.