Archive for the ‘Smithsonian Research Notes’ Category

From Our Newsdesk: Smithsonian researchers find differences between Galapagos and mainland frigatebirds

Monday, October 4th, 2010

A frigatebird in the Galapagos Islands

Although the magnificent frigatebird may be the least likely animal on the Galápagos Islands to be unique to the area, it turns out the Galápagos population of this tropical seabird may be its own genetically distinct species warranting a new conservation status, according to a paper by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the University of Missouri-St. Louis published last week in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The Galápagos Islands, which once served as a scientific laboratory for Charles Darwin, boast a number of unique plant and animal species, from tortoises to iguanas to penguins. Magnificent frigatebirds, however, can fly hundreds of kilometers across open ocean, suggesting that their gene flow should be widespread and their genetic make-up should be identical to those of the magnificent frigatebirds on the mainland coast of the Americas. Even Darwin predicted that most Galápagos seabirds would not be very different from their mainland counterparts. But researchers at SCBI conducted three different kinds of genetics tests and all yielded the same result—the Galápagos seabirds have been genetically different from the magnificent frigatebirds elsewhere for more than half a million years.

“This was such a surprise,” said Frank Hailer, a postdoctoral research associate at SCBI and lead author of the paper. “It’s a great testimony to just how unique the fauna and flora of the Galapagos are. Even something that is so well-adapted to flying over open oceans is isolated there.”

Scientists began the research to determine whether the magnificent frigatebird on the Galápagos was more similar genetically to the magnificent frigatebirds on the Caribbean side or the Pacific side of the islands. Using frigatebird samples from Betty Anne Schreiber at the National Museum of Natural History, Iris Levin and Patricia Parker at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and those they collected in the field, SCBI researchers determined that the Galapagos version differ not only genetically, but also morphologically.

Now scientists are left with a number of questions: Are the genetics of the magnificent frigatebird on the Galápagos different enough to classify it as a distinct species? And what, exactly, accounts for the genetic and morphological differences when the seabirds can travel far and wide and therefore should not be isolated to one area to reproduce? SCBI and National Museum of Natural History researchers plan to collaborate with others in the field to find the answers.

What is clear, however, is that this small population of genetically unique magnificent frigatebirds is a vulnerable population. Any catastrophic event or threats by humans could wipe out the approximate 2,000 magnificent frigatebirds that nest on the Galápagos Islands.

“The magnificent frigatebirds on the Galápagos are a unique evolutionarily significant unit, and if the Galápagos population did go extinct, the area will not likely be recolonized rapidly by mainland birds,” said Robert Fleischer, head of SCBI’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics and one of the paper’s co-authors. “This emphasizes the importance of protecting this small population of birds there.”

Magnificent frigatebirds are currently considered of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but the Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper recommends that, because of the genetic uniqueness of those on the Galápagos, this status be revisited.

For more information, please contact Lindsay Renick Mayer at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park at

To see the frigatebirds for your self, click here to see our tours to Galápagos.

SI Research Notes: Ancient Egyptian Art

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Linda Stevens is the Field Notes Coordinator for Smithsonian Journeys. Combing the Institution for interesting projects happening around the world, she prepares these research notes especially for travelers.

Statue of the falcon god at the Temple of Horus, Egypt

From 1906 to 1909, Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art, visited Egypt on three separate occasions. On the first, he traveled by train and boat along the Nile River from Alexandria in the Nile Delta south to Wadi Halfa, visiting many well-known tourist destinations such as museums, archaeological sites, churches, and mosques. On all three trips, he also frequented the shops of antiquities dealers and the homes of private collectors, seeking to acquire works of Egyptian art to add to his already extensive collections of Chinese and Japanese art and late 19th-century American painting. Unlike many collectors of his day, whose knowledge of Asian and Egyptian art was gained exclusively through museum collections, dealers’ shops, and international expositions in Europe and the United States, Freer placed a high value on studying the art of a civilization in its’ native land.

Egypt’s ancient monuments captivated Freer. His first trip convinced him that his collection would be incomplete without examples of Egyptian sculpture in stone and wood.

Most of Freer’s Egyptian acquisitions were made during his final trip to Egypt in 1909, which was devoted largely to visiting dealers’ shops in and around Cairo. The most important of these was a private collection of nearly 1400 glass objects, including vessels, beads, inlays, and fragments, ranging in date from the New Kingdom (1550 – 1070 B.C.E.) to the Roman period (30 B.C.E. – 395 C.E.). Among his other purchases were bronze figurines, limestone plaques, and sculptures of wood and stone.

Today, part of the Smithsonian’s National Museums of Asian Art, the Freer Gallery’s Ancient Egyptian Collection  comprises more than 1,000 objects with a historical range from 2,500 B.C.E.- 400 C.E. In addition to the world-famous collection of glass vessels, highlights of the collection include a pair of stone falcons, probably from a temple near Alexandria, dating to the Ptolemaic dynasty (ca. 305-30 B.C.E.) and a collection of amulets made of faience, stone, metal, and glass depicting gods, goddesses, and sacred animals.

A small exhibit representing the Freer’s vast Egyptian holdings is on display at the Gallery.

What’s your favorite thing about ancient Egyptian Art?

If you’ve always dreamed of visiting Egypt, we can help. Click for our travel to Egypt.

SI Research Notes: Taxidermy

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Linda Stevens is the Field Notes Coordinator for Smithsonian Journeys. Combing the Institution for interesting projects happening around the world, she prepares these research notes especially for travelers.

Best Taxidermy EVER! by woodenmask.

Lifelike taxidermied animals in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Courtesy of Flickr user Woodenmask

The secret to a lifelike taxidermy mount is finding just the right supporting structure and parts—from the perfect eyeball to an accurate head shape. A selection of commercially available glass and plastic eyes, ears, and tongues, represent just a few of the products that taxidermists use to create mounts. However, some needed items just are not commercially available. Exhibiting taxidermy mounts can involve sculpting foam and clay, casting heads and hands, toes and tongues, tanning hides, shampooing and dyeing hair, sewing thousands of tiny stitches, painting feet and beaks, and many more transformational tasks.

For example, primates are rarely mounted, so when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History wanted to exhibit an orangutan in its Hall of Mammals, the taxidermy team members needed to build all the supporting forms themselves—a huge collaborative effort that resulted in one of the most striking specimens in the Hall. Each body part was carved from foam based on measurements taken from the animal carcass.

The parts were glued together and then altered with foam to create a lifelike body shape that fit the skin. The skin was tanned and then tested several times on the form to be sure it fit perfectly. A death mask of auto body filler was made, recording the distinctive facial features of the specific orangutan in question. From that, SI taxidermists built the facial structure of clay, using the death mask and other measurements as references. A small, preliminary model, or maquette, was sculpted of clay to help the team envision the pose in three dimensions and plan the life-size model. Days were devoted to sculpting the body and head, the hair was prepared, and the finished mount was placed on display along with a white rhino donated by former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 in addition to 272 other mammal specimens.

Ever been fooled by really good taxidermy? Share below!

What makes a mammal, how did they evolve, and where do they live? Click  for answers from our mammal exhibit.

If you like your mammals live and up close, join us on a  natural history or wildlife safari  tour.

SI Research Notes: NMNH Division of Birds

Monday, August 31st, 2009
At the Division of Birds in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History preserved bird specimin stretch as far as the eye can see. Photo: Chip Clark

The Division of Birds storage facility in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Photo: Chip Clark

Linda Stevens is the Field Notes Coordinator for Smithsonian Journeys. Combing the Institution for interesting projects happening around the world, she prepares these research notes especially for travelers. Click here to learn more about Linda.

The National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Birds houses and maintains the third largest bird collection in the world with over 625,000 specimens. The National Collection, known in ornithological literature by the acronym USNM (referring to the old name of United States National Museum), has specimens of 80% of the 10,000 known species in the world’s avifauna. While the majority of these specimens consist of study skins, the USNM also manages skeletal and anatomical (alcohol preserved) collections. Additional collections include egg sets, nests, and mounted skins. In recent years, tissues frozen in liquid nitrogen have also been preserved.

The USNM Bird Collection contains many specimens of historical importance. The first group originated from the private collection of Spencer Fullerton Baird, who collected in Pennsylvania in the early 1840’s. Baird later became the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Another early component of the collection derived from the U.S. Exploring Expedition from 1838–1842, commanded by Captain Wilkes of the U.S. Navy. Theodore Roosevelt collected birds as a boy and later as a member of the Smithsonian African Expedition, and his specimens are part of the USNM collection. Finally, a major portion of the collection has been derived from the activities of the U.S. Biological Survey from the 1890’s to the 1930’s.

The National Collections are maintained as a resource to promote ornithological research and as such are irreplaceable.

The USNM holds approximately 3,500 bird specimens from Baja California. John Xantus, who was one of Spencer Baird’s corps of collectors, collected a significant portion of the Baja specimens. Xantus was originally an army officer who collected for the Smithsonian while he was posted to various forts in the west. In Baja, he was assigned to do coastal surveys and record weather observations. Other significant portions of the Baja California collections came from the International Boundary Survey in 1896, and several expeditions of the U.S. Biological Survey.

Click here to learn more about our small ship expedition to Baja California.

SI Research Notes: The Wright Flyer

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Linda Stevens is the Field Notes Coordinator for Smithsonian Journeys. Combing the Institution for interesting projects happening around the world, she prepares these research notes especially for travelers. Click here to learn more about Linda.

The centerpiece of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) is the 1903 Wright Flyer. But its journey to Washington, D.C. from Kitty Hawk, NC was long and complicated.

The 1903 Wright Flyer began to acquire the status of a national treasure in the 1920s as a feud developed between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian. The dispute centered on the Institution’s public display of the aeronautical achievements of its former Secretary, Samuel Langley, and its reluctance to credit the Wright brothers as the true inventors of the airplane. Langley had tested his aircraft, the Aerodrome, in October 1903 and again two months later. Both times it failed to achieve sustained controlled powered flight.

Orville Wright at controls of the Wright Flyer and Wilbur running alongside at Kitty Hawk, 1903. Photo: Library of Congress

Orville Wright at controls of the Wright Flyer and Wilbur running alongside at Kitty Hawk, 1903. Photo: Library of Congress