Posts Tagged ‘natural history’

Stepping Back in Time on an African Safari

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Study Leader Hillary Young is a Research Fellow in the Division of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She earned her Ph.D. in Biology from Stanford University and has done extensive field research on community ecology of mammals and birds. She currently splits her time between Washington D.C. and East Africa, where she is studying the effects of changes in mammal community composition on human health. She is editor of a new book, Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests: Biology and Conservation, focusing on the ecology of savanna and dry forest ecosystems. Here, she shares her thoughts on leading Smithsonian travelers on our popular African Safari. All photos on this post provided by Hillary Young.

Elephants. Photo by Hillary Young.

African Elephants. Photo: Hillary Young.

Driving over the ridge into Chobe National Park on the first afternoon of our arrival in Botswana, there is a collective intake of breath on the initial glimpse of the spectacle that was to capture us for the next three days. Hundreds, and then thousands of elephants can be seen moving slowly towards the river, coming for their afternoon drink at the only water source for miles around.

Crocodile - Photo by Hillary Young.On closer examination, we can also see many more slowly crossing the rivers, their trunks held up as oversize snorkels, as they slowly swim their way from bank to bank. Yet more, can be seen cooling themselves in the shallow mud, or spraying themselves with water and mud, providing a thick layer of primitive sunscreen to protect themselves from the radiating heat. Even from the comfort of a shaded landcruiser with a bottle of water in hand I must admit it looks like a good idea. Except of course… for the crocodiles.

The elephants, while the largest, are hardly the only animals to be gathering here at this point. Languid large crocodiles lounge on the river banks, their mouths held open to regulate their body temperature. Nile monitor lizards, move in slow undulations through the high reeds and slip back into the water almost unseen. They join rafts of enormous hippopatumus, that awkardly move from near invisibility in the water to intimidating grazers on river banks. There they are joined by the rare endemic antelopes, the puku, with splayed feet and an awkward gate that keeps them permanently constrained to the moist banks around this river.

Lion. Photo by Hillary Young.In the next few days we will glimpse many, many more animals clustered at this most verdant of refuges – rare sable and roan antelopes, large creches of giraffes, dozens of brilliant kingfishers and elegant wading birds, and stuffed prides of lion trotting back from their hunting.

Here is a place where it is easy to forget that large wildlife no longer rule the world, that man now dominates much of the landscape. We have talked in many of our Smithsonian lectures about the historical and modern importance of large animals in ecosystems, and the value of intact ecological communities in preserving ecological function.

Photo by Hillary Young.We have thought a lot about what the world might have been like in times of early man when large wildlife was so much more widespread. Here for a moment, we can stop imagining and just step back in time and watch in awe.

Antarctica: Who Claims It As Their Own?

Monday, August 2nd, 2010
A rockhopper penguin on the Falklands Islands

A rockhopper penguin on the Falklands Islands

We know there aren’t any indigenous groups who claim Antarctica, so which country actually has political control of it? The answer is pretty simple, but the explanation is a little more complex.

The answer is: No one.

Here’s why: It wasn’t until the early 1820s when British and American commercial operators began exploring the region, as did official British and Russian national expeditions. Even then, Antarctica was not confirmed to be a continent until 1840, since many groups believed there were only clusters of islands around the South Pole. The area did not become the focus of attention or human activity until early in the 20th century. After World War II, Antarctica became a multi-national center for scientific research.

During this time period, seven countries have attempted to make territorial claims. However, not all countries recognize these claims. As a result, no country has claim to the region. Instead, the Antarctic Treaty  was negotiated and signed in 1959—and it states that no country may deny nor give recognition to existing territorial claims.

29 countries now collaborate in scientific research in Antarctica, with most of the work being done during the summer season when the population balloons to 4,490 people (from its winter population of 1,100 people). The majority of the population is from Argentina, Chile and Australia, but includes scientists from India, South Korea, the Ukraine, and South Africa. Truly a worldwide effort in scientific research!

Click here  for more information on Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough’s recent visit to the white continent

Have you been to Antarctica? Share your favorite memories with us.

Geysers on Earth… and Other Far Away Places

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010
A  geyser erupts against a background of snow. Photograph by JR Douglass, National Park Service

A geyser erupts against a background of snow. Photo: JR Douglass, National Park Service

Yellowstone National Park is known around the world for its amazing geysers. Although geysers can also be found in Russia, Chile, New Zealand and Iceland,  Yellowstone is special because it has the largest concentration of geysers on the planet. With between 300-500 active geysers, as well as the renowned Old Faithful, Yellowstone is home to half of the world’s geysers. It’s a fairly rare phenomenon here on Earth.

But did you know there are geysers in our solar system too?

A geyser is a spring characterized by temporary releases of steam and water, which are ejected turbulently. Geysers on Earth eject water, but on some moons in our outer solar system, geysers release carbon dioxide or nitrogen. Space geysers are also easier to see because of low ambient pressure and  because their eruptions don’t include liquid, but rather dust and ice that are carried by the gas.Neptune’s moon Triton emits nitrogen from its geysers. When the nitrogen is released, it can eject the material almost 5 miles high and be carried by winds for almost 90 miles. Water vapor jets have also been observed on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Closer to home are the carbon dioxide geysers near the south polar ice cap of Mars.

But it is nice to know you don’t have to go that far to see a geyser. And that’s one of the many beautiful things about Old Faithful.

Have you seen geysers in other places besides Yellowstone? Share Below.

Watch Old Faithful perform surrounded by snow on our Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone tour.


Five Things You Didn’t Know About the Great Lakes

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010
The American Falls of Niagara

The American Falls of Niagara

Those of us who grew up near the Great Lakes already know the basics.

They consist of Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan Ontario, and Superior. They provide 20% of the world’s fresh water, and are the largest grouping of freshwater lakes on the Earth’s surface. And, of course, the lake effect snow from these waterways create endless frustration every winter.

Then there are those of us who like to have a little more advanced knowledge…

  1. Lake Erie is the shallowest lake at 210 ft while Lake Superior is the deepest at 1,332 ft.
  2. Each lake has Native American roots to its name, except Lake Superior. While they are all either Ojibwe, Wyandot, or Iroquois names, Lake Superior is actually an English translation of French term “lac supérieur” (“upper lake”), referring to its position above Lake Huron. But the Ojibwe have their own name for it and call it “Gitchigumi.
  3. Travel through the Great Lakes began in 1844 and expanded in 1857, when palace steamers carried passengers and cargo around the Great Lakes. Tourism really picked up throughout the 20th century when large luxurious passenger steamers sailed from Chicago all the way to Detroit and Cleveland.
  4. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society in Paradise, Michigan explores notable historic maritime sites ranging from the infamous SS Edmund Fitzgerald to recently discovered 1902 ship Cyprus – which sank on its second voyage carrying iron ore from Superior, Wisconsin to Buffalo, New York.
  5. The redheaded stepchild of the Great Lakes is Lake Champlain, which was briefly labeled as the sixth great lake by the Federal government on March 6, 1998. But after much media and public ridicule for being too small to be “Great,” the offer was rescinded on March 24, 1998.

Did you grow up near a Great Lake? What are your favorite memories? Share Below.

Join us on the luxorious Clelia II and explore the Great Lakes in all their splendor.

Save $700 per person off your cabin price for Categories E-AA. Also, save $2,000 per person off your cabin price on Categories VS and PHS.

* This ship is no longer in use. For the most up to date ship information, please see our ship page.


It’s Not Easy Being the First

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

No one can say this more than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their transcontinental expedition was filled with unpredictability, natural dangers, and Native communities who were not ready to have anyone move into their territory. The story itself, without any embellishment, is dramatic with equally intriguing characters including Thomas Jefferson, a young Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, and a team of men known as the Corps of Discovery who faced a landscape that had never been navigated or mapped.

Why had it taken until 1804 to even start exploring the Pacific Northwest? It was a project that Jefferson had been pondering while living in France in the 1780s, knowing it could lead to huge opportunities for the very young United States of America. He also heard talk that King Louis the XVI of France was interested in exploring the region. While the royal had officially proposed a scientific expedition, Jefferson felt the French King had a political mission in mind.

Knowing the expedition was extremely dangerous, President Jefferson provided peace medals to the Corps to introduce themselves to the various tribes they met along the way. But on the trail, it was Sacagawea and her infant son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who slept wrapped on a cradleboard, that reassured the tribes that the group meant no harm.

Although Lewis and Clark are best known for laying the groundwork for westward expansion and creating the first maps of the region, their observations were also useful to scientists researching the natural wildlife that the Corps of Discovery encountered. Even though they were never intended to be a scientific expedition, their work helps us preserve the indigenous species and natural landscape of the early 19th century.

Explore the natural landscape as the Corps of Discovery would have seen it on the In the Wake of Lewis and Clark: Aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion tour. 

Do you think Lewis and Clark have received enough credit for their contribution to American history? Share Below.