Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Virtual Science Café: Tropical Forests in Wyoming, Himalayan Birds, and Crafting Nature

Virtual Science Café: Tropical Forests in Wyoming, Himalayan Birds, and Crafting Nature
Aired February 4, 2021

Naimah Muhammad:
Hello everybody. And welcome to today's Virtual Science Café presented by Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. We're so glad to have you this evening or this afternoon, depending on where you're tuning in from. And my name is Naimah Muhammad. I'm the public programs coordinator at NMNH.

Amanda Sciandra:
And I'm Amanda Sciandra. Tonight, today, wherever you are, we'll be your host for this event. Whether this is your first time joining us or you've attended before, we're so glad to have you here. And although we can't see you, we want to feel your energy. So, let us know in the Q and A box where you're tuning in from and send your questions throughout the program in that same box. It'll be at the top or bottom of your screen, so we can get to as many as possible during the Q and A.

Naimah Muhammad:
Awesome.

Amanda Sciandra:
Oh, looks like we have Will and Mary from Madison, New Jersey. Someone from Wisconsin. Hello everyone. Thank you so much for joining us.

Naimah Muhammad:
Thanks everyone. And so this series, if it's your first time or whether you are back, thank you. This series was developed with science communication resources, generously provided by Smithsonian Regent and former board member, John Fahey and his wife, Heidi Fahey. With support from the Selig-Krichbaum Endowment .

Amanda Sciandra:
Our sincere thanks to them for making this possible and to all of those who support the museum's mission and outreach.

Naimah Muhammad:
We also want to thank our local restaurant partner and collaborator, Busboys and Poets, who, if you didn't get a chance to take advantage of, definitely next time. They were awesome enough to provide two recipes for a theme to cocktail and mocktail for today's event. And if you are already enjoying those, please let us know in the Q and A. And they also provided a special discount code for attendees for tonight. So, thank you so much Busboys and Poets.

Amanda Sciandra:
Before we turn it over to our speakers, we have just a few housekeeping notes. We have three incredible speakers who will present back to back lightning style talks and then they'll answer your questions during the second half of the hour. The Q and A goes by so quickly. So, please help us answer as many questions as possible by submitting your questions as you have them, during and right after each talk. Again, that Q and A box is located at the top or bottom of your Zoom interface.

Naimah Muhammad:
Awesome. So at this point, we are going to dive in and I'm going to go ahead and bring on screen our first speaker, Dr. Vera Korasidis. And, I'd like to invite her to come on here with me. Hi Vera.

Vera Korasidis:
Hi.

Naimah Muhammad:
So glad to have you this evening. Dr. Vera Korasidis is a paleo biologist and Peter Buck fellow at the National Museum of Natural History. She's interested in the links between floral evolution, paleo climate and extinction events. And, this information allows us to look back in time and see how environments and ecosystems have responded to extreme climate events, to help us look ahead at the future and what might happen again. So this evening, you'll learn more about the tiny microscopic fossils illuminating this very big picture. Thanks Vera.

Vera Korasidis:
Thank you. Can you hear and see me?

Amanda Sciandra:
Yep.

Vera Korasidis:
Excellent. Okay. Well, good evening everyone and thanks so much for being here. So as many of you know, our new fossil hall opened mid-2019. And when walking around the exhibit, I'm sure you notice the huge dinosaurs and mammals on display. But I must admit the first time I visited, my eyes were immediately drawn past the dinosaurs to the stunning reconstructions of the plants present. And I was so excited to see that a concerted effort had been made to depict the entire ecosystem, which of course includes the plants true to time. So how do we, as paleontologists actually know what plants were present millions of years ago. And then which plants to depict with certain dinosaurs or certain mammals. So during my talk this evening, we are going to travel together back through time to uncover just how paleontologists solve this. And, I'll also provide you with some new answers that I've been generating using our collection. And I really hope the next time you visit a museum, including ours, you'll see the exhibit in a new light and realize that every fossil, even the smallest ones have a really big story to tell.

So as you can see, I've always been really interested in plants. And this in combination with my passion for the outdoors and uncovering the history of life on Earth, has resulted in me currently working as a paleontologist at the museum. And as part of my research, I was actually fortunate enough to visit Wyoming last summer. And that's really where our story begins. So after a long day out in the field, collecting fossils, I spotted something really large and brown running across the prairie. Now, I knew it wasn't a kangaroo, but I couldn't quite decide what would have such broad shoulders, run like a cat and have a long tail. My American colleagues however, thought they might know. And so that night, while we were at camp, it was brought up that perhaps I'd seen a cougar or a lynx. But in the 50 years, some of my colleagues had been visiting the area, no one had ever seen one.

So, what were the chances that I'd actually seen one? So that evening, as I lay in my suddenly very thin wall tent, I tossed and turned and kind of tried to convince myself that perhaps I hadn't seen what I thought I had. The next morning however, our suspicions were confirmed when we spotted these fresh paw prints produced by a cougar, less than a mile from where we were camping. So, at least that mystery was solved. But what were we actually doing, camping for a few days actually, after this, in that same region? Well, we were looking for a really specific and special layer of rock that contains beautifully preserved fossil leaves and what I'm interested in particular, fossil pollen.

So pollen, as you can see here is produced by plants in order to make more plants. It can of course, unfortunately cause us hay fever as well, but that's not the reason. Of course the plants produce the pollen, it's so they can reproduce. And as you can see, they really can produce just a huge volume of pollen. Even flowers of course, can also produce pollen. They tend to produce slightly less, but nonetheless, they still produce it on the end part of the flower known as the stamen right here. So regardless of the type of plant that actually produces the pollen or pollen is made out of an incredibly hard substance, which can be preserved in rocks for hundreds of millions of years. Every plant also produces a really unique looking pollen grain with the shape, actually relating to the pollination strategy. And once plants evolve a certain pollen type, they tend not to change it. So, some plants have had the same pollen type for over a 100 million years, which is incredibly useful.

Pollen is however, incredibly small in general, smaller than the width of one human hair. So, we of course require some special techniques to actually isolate the pollen from the rocks, and then of course to see them. So for me, this involves starting off with rocks housed in our collection at the museum. I then break off a small fragment, crush it up, add a series of chemicals, which then dissolve actually the rock, but leave the chemically resistant pollen, which I can then place on a slide and then examine. And to actually see the pollen, I use a special transmitted light microscope, and this is what I see when looking down the microscope. Now initially, I'm very excited by what I see, because I can see a pollen grain. Have you found it yet?

So here it is. And again, at a higher resolution. And so, then I'll tend to proceed to scan around the slide and identify hundreds of pollen grains. I'll then assign each of those fossil pollen grains for modern family. I will then use the current climatic and geographic distribution of those modern plant families, to then infer what the climate was like in the past. So in this instance, this particular grain is today produced by members of the Palm family. And because I've seen quite a lot of them, I would interpret this as a very warm Palm-dominated forest. So, what can we actually use this approach for today? How can it help us? Well, as we all know, the current is changing at an alarming rate. And so, scientists are really interested in what's actually going to happen on land and in terrestrial ecosystems. And of course, pollen, which is produced by plants can give us a really unique insight into what's actually going to occur on land.

And so to investigate that further, you and I are now going to jump back around 56 million years to a really interesting time in Earth's history, known as the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. And this is a really unique part of Earth's history, because it's associated with a really rapid increase in temperature around 56 million years ago. As you can see, there's this really sharp spike and globally temperatures increase between seven and 14 degrees Fahrenheit. And if we look at this depiction of temperature change through time, here we're starting at around 60 million years up towards the present and into the future, you'll see that where we're heading, if we don't decrease our CO2 emissions, most closely resembles conditions experienced back 56 million years ago. So, that's why we're really interested in this particular time period. And the specific reason we're in Wyoming, is because it contains the best record of this really warm CO2-enriched period in Earth's history.

And our museum also contains the best record of the specimens collected from this area. Thanks to decades of collecting and really careful curation. So before I jump to my interpretation, I'd just like to take this opportunity for us to think about what the current climate of Wyoming is. And as you can see, it ranges from being very dry and warm, to snow dominated just like DC was over the weekend and quite cool. However, it's unlikely that Wyoming always looks like this. And so, based on some of the pollen I've extracted from rocks from between 60 and 57 million years ago, I'm suggesting that conditions in Wyoming were once very warm and wet, with warm temperate forest.

Today, this would include regions such as Georgia or Florida, for example. However, at the start of the PETM event, I see abundance of new pollen types, in particular pollen today produced by plants, such as palms or beans. And today these plants tend to grow in really seasonally dry tropical forests, which suggests that pollen records can actually preserve records of ancient climate change. It also suggests that when CO2 increased in the past, landscapes did actually become a lot drier. So, we can use this information potentially to predict which areas will experience change conditions as CO2 continues to increase. Another thing I found in these samples, is an increased abundance of charcoal produced by burning plant material. Again, consistent with suggestions that perhaps a CO2 increases, we will unfortunately see an increased prevalence of fire.

So, a surprise find along the way has actually been the discovery of some new species of pollen. And as paleontologists, we're actually allowed to name new species after what we'd like. So, we have that kind of freedom. And so, it only seemed fitting of course, that I'd name this new species after a very special animal we spotted not far from where this sample was collected from. So of course, I'm going to choose the name cougar as part of the species name. So then of course, that encounter will live on. So, I'm really hoping that the next time you visit a museum, including ours, you'll see it in a new light and appreciate that every fossil, regardless of its size, can tell a really important story. And most importantly, that it's so important that we understand and reconstruct ecosystems as a whole, and that we're able to do this, thanks to the work of palynologist, who's now studies frozen pollen, and our colleagues, paleobotanists who study the fossil leaves, which we can use to then inform these reconstructions. So, thank you so much.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thank you so much, Vera. Palynologist is a new term for me. I know there'll be a lot of great questions from the audience and thank you to those who have already submitted your questions. Keep them coming. We'll get to as many as we can after our third speaker. Our next guest is Sahas Barve. Dr. Sahas Barve is an avian evolutionary ecologist. As a kid growing up in Mumbai, India, he loved being outside and observing the natural world around him, especially birds. And it's this curiosity that sparked his research path. Sahas explores how variation in behavior leads to significant differences in the life history of birds. More specifically, at the National Museum of Natural History, where he's a Peter Buck fellow. His research explores how birds survive extreme climates, especially cold weather at high elevations. With that, I pass the mic to Sahas and invite him to our virtual stage. Take it away.

Sahas Barve:
Thanks. Amanda, it's saying, sharing failed to start. But I'm trying. Hold on.

Amanda Sciandra:
Okay. No worries.

Sahas Barve:
It says, please try again later. There we go.

Amanda Sciandra:
Yay. Okay. Thank you.

Sahas Barve:
Hello everyone. Thank you so much for your patience. And, I want you to come with me to the Himalayas. The Himalayas, as you know, are the highest mountains in the world. And the word Himalaya means the abode of snow and ice. It's a Sanskrit word, that means the abode of snow and ice. And these high mountains definitely live up to that name. The high elevations of the Himalayas are cold and unforgiving. And yet, the Himalayas are a world biodiversity hotspot. Today, I'm going to tell you how small birds live on these big mountains. How species that are separated by millions of years of independent evolution, have found a way to live side by side in the same environment. And how museum specimens in natural history collections, can tell us about the future of Himalayan biodiversity. The story of this research began on a balmy day in the Himalayas.

It was only 14 degrees Fahrenheit and I was wrapped in multiple layers of wool and down. And, I was out doing forging observations of birds. Now, I was at 10,000 feet, which means that in the winter, there are not a lot of birds there. But, this tiny guy was flitting about, chasing bugs in a tall spruce tree. This is a gold crest, a tiny bird that weighs six grams, which is the same as a packet of sugar. Now, this tiny bird was actively forging around. So, I quickly took out my hand out of my mitten and started taking notes. But within just a few seconds, my hands froze, became too numb and I couldn't write anymore. And yet this tiny bird was going about its daily life, like everything was totally normal. Now to put that into context, this bird has almost the same circulatory system, the same physiology, the same digestive system, the same skeletal system as us.

And yet, it has the toughness to survive cold weather at that high elevation. The other thing that's also cool is that, it has to maintain its heart at 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, the outside temperatures of 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and the distance between the outside air and the heart of this bird was barely an inch. So, it had to maintain a difference of 90 degrees Fahrenheit across the space of an inch or risk dying because of freezing. I was blown away by how tough this bird was and I quickly made a mental note to myself to study how birds keep warm. And about four years later, I'm doing just that at the Smithsonian museum. So, birds keep warm in two main ways. They have an insulating layer of plumage that keeps the cold air out and the warm body heat in. Just like sometimes we wear a jacket that's not insulating enough for us. When feathers are not enough to keep the birds warm, they start producing body heat by shivering. Exactly like we do. We are both vertebrates. We both depend on shivering thermogenesis as it is called, to produce body heat.

Now, shivering to produce body heat is a very, very energetically expensive activity. And so, it is expected or predicted that birds that live at really high elevations are really cold environments in general, to have very insulative plumage. Now, there are two ways in which a bird's plumage can save it from the cold. The first is at the level of the individual feather. Each feather on a bird is made up of two components. The bottom part of the feather is called the downy part and it is made up of these downy, fuzzy barbs that don't interlock with each other, but trap all the body heat in, close the body of the bird.

The part that's further away is called the pennaceous part and it's made up of barbs that interlock with each other, creating a seal, so it didn't let the body heat escape and they're colorful and water repellent. Birds that live in cold areas have a bigger proportion of their feathers made up of these downy barbs. And, this is seen with the snowy owl here on the right, which has a much bigger proportion of its feather made up of downy barbs, than the borrowing owl on the left, where the downy barbs only make up the bottom third of the feather. The burrowing owl of course lives in warm Southern California.

The other thing birds can do, is just layer up. Just like we all layer up when we go to a really cold place, birds can have feathers that are really long. They overlap with one another and create a deep plumage that is insulating against the outside air. So, having more downy feathers and having long feathers are the two ways in which birds can increase thermal insulation. The really fascinating part about birds that live on mountains is that, no matter where you are in the world, the top of the mountain is always cooler than the bottom of the mountain. Now in this photo from the Himalayas in my field side, the top of the mountain is Alpine Tundra, at almost 13,000 feet. The bottom of the mountain is a subtropical forest. So, the birds that live basically within a couple of miles of each other, as the crow flies, live in completely different environments. The birds that live at the top of the mountain live in a really cold environment, the birds that live at the bottom of the mountain, only a couple of miles away, live in the relatively warm environment.

And so, mountain birds are actually adapted to living in the elevational band that they live in and are uniquely adapted to those environmental conditions at the elevations they live at. The cool thing about Himalayan birds is that, the Himalayas themselves were created by this massive geological event, where the Indian plate crashed into the Eurasian plate, which created the first 40 highest peaks in the world. Now, as the mountains were forming, these mountains were colonized by birds, both from Europe and Northern Asia and Russia and tropical Southeast Asia. So, these birds that had evolved independently for millions of years in Europe and Southeast Asia, now lived together in the same habitat and have adapted to live in the same conditions. So, I was really excited to understand whether birds that live at high elevations have more downy feathers and greater plumage depth or longer feathers on them, whether birds that are from temperate or tropical lineages, show differences in their feather thermal insulation and adaptation to cold.

And, because small birds lose heat much more easily, whether small birds have better thermal insulation than large birds. So to do this, I went to the Natural History collections and I stared at feathers of birds, 262 species of birds and almost 2,100 feathers of birds. And I measured the amount of down and the number of tenacious barbs that these feathers had. And what I found was that, in fact, birds that live at high elevations, do in fact have more downy feathers. But, this is irrespective of weather, they're tropical or temperate. As the elevation goes up, bird feathers become more downy in the Himalayas.

Total feather link or plumage tip doesn't vary with elevation as strongly, but we found that birds that are small in size have disproportionately long feathers than birds that are large in size. And so, as the body size of the bird goes up, the feather size goes down. Which suggests that small birds, because they lose heat faster, have much more insulative plumages. This is the first study to actually look at how feathers modify or how feathers change along the elevation gradient in such a large number of birds. And, it's critical information to add on to the information that we already have about the metabolic rates or body heat generation capacity of birds. So, we now know how much insulation they provide and how much heat they can produce. And this information is critical, because the Himalayas are changing really rapidly because of climate change.

Not only are the mountains warming, but the intensity, frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events is also increasing. So not only do Himalayan birds have warmer summers every year, but they also have bigger, more massive, freaky snowstorms in the winter. So, understanding how birds keep warm in extreme cold is really important. So, I've been using specimens collected over the last 150 years to study the feathers on those specimens to help us predict the next century of Himalayan biodiversity. So the next time you see a bird all poofed up with its feathers, think about the cool feathers they have and how they act as down jackets, keeping these tiny birds warm. Thank you.

Naimah Muhammad:
Thank you, Sahas. Thank you so much. I'm sure, looking at over 2,000 feathers is not an easy feat. So, I'll already see we have some questions about that, that I look forward to diving in on. But now, I will bring on our last speaker, Dr. Adrian Van Allen to join me here. Hey Adrian.

Adrian Van Allen:
Hello.

Naimah Muhammad:
Dr. Adrian Van Allen is a cultural anthropologist. She's a postdoc fellow at the National Museum of Natural History. And, she's also a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences. She brings a unique perspective, you might not have thought of before tonight, as she examines scientific cultures within exams. Meaning, in other words, she studies how scientists decide what specimens are collected, why these specimens and collections are studied and how the scientists choices shape our collective ideas about nature and culture. Her ethnographic research explores behind the scenes of museums. And today, she'll tell us more about her great work. Thanks Adrian.

Adrian Van Allen:
Thank you. So hello, everyone. So, I'm a cultural anthropologist and the people that I study are scientists in museums. I analyze how they're creating a frozen archive of life for the future. And, scientists are also people and they make choices. They make choices about what to preserve and what to discard as they create this archive of life. Choices that will affect our collective ecological future. So if there's one idea, I hope you take away today. It's that, nature is not just a place or a species or an ecosystem. It's also an idea. And one that changes over time. And the choices that scientists are making today shape how it changes and are shaping our collective future. So, I study how museum scientists are cataloging preserving life, but also why they're doing this. For instance, how the bird scientists value things differently than the beetle scientists. Ways of making specimens change and what is valuable about a specimen changes over time too.

So, here's a bird collected by Charles Darwin in 1837. It's just a skin stuffed with cotton, with a label tied to its leg, telling us when and where it was collected. And one of the staff in the Division of Birds calls this method of stuffing his skin and discarding the insides, like throwing away the present, but keeping the wrapping paper. But now, almost two centuries later, here are just some of the kinds of information that can be collected from a specimen. Stomach contents, combining mites from feathers, environmental contaminants and liver tissue, sampling bone fragments for stable isotope and mapping its genome, among many other things. So, ideas about nature change over time. But so do ideas about how to save it. Driven by increasing extinction rates, museum scientists are rushing to document and preserve as many species as they can, before they disappear.

One group of scientists I study are this Smithsonian's Global Genome Initiative. This is a group of scientists that are part of a global coalition of herbariums, museums and biorepositories, and they're working to freeze genome quality tissue samples of half of all taxonomic families of life in the next few years. That is, putting life on ice for an uncertain future. To understand the choices that all of these scientists are making today, I focus on the behind the scenes spaces of the museum. Studying the scientists who work in the collections, the laboratories in the workrooms. And I use my own background as a photographer before I became an anthropologist, to engage with scientists in their daily work, learning alongside them to make specimens myself. But also, as they make choices about what to preserve and what to throw away. This helps me understand these pivotal moments of transformation as animals and plants are made into specimens.

Whether I'm photographing collections, this is my office at the Smithsonian, or I'm learning to stuff bird skins, or pin beetles, or extract DNA and assemble genomes. Or even becoming one of the different communities in the museum itself by adopting the local dress and customs in the Laboratories for Analytical Biology, for instance. And through this, I try to unravel how specimens hold different layers of information that are valuable to different groups across the museum. That is, how the same object can hold a different meaning in a different context. Going through the process of transforming a bird into a specimen, I learned how scientists are crafting different versions of nature as they make specimens. But how does a bird become a specimen? A tool for science? What parts are saved, transformed, or discarded and why? So, I'll begin with the body of a bird. Actually, this bird.

And one of the most amazing things I learned is how the body of a bird can unravel into many different pieces in the back rooms of the museum. I learned to peel the skin from the bird's body, turn it inside out, clean it, stuff it, and so it closed. And along the way, take various samples from a two milliliter cryo vial of heart liver and muscle to feather clippings, to salt glands from around its eyes. And I did this using a set of tools that were essentially unchanged from the last few 100 years. And each preparator had a different narrative to tell through their tools. In inventory of their prep kit, turned into inventories of their skills and of their own histories. I also looked at the other kinds of folded time that I found. Cotton and upholstery shed were the same as an 1853 specimen prep manual. But the superglue and the cryo tubes were more recent editions.

So while the skin found its way into the collections, after it had dried, pinned out to the desired shape, the bones could also be removed, cleaned, and articulated into a skeleton or put into a collection to compare the same bones between different species. And the carcass, now classified as biohazard by the Division of Birds, could be taken up by the invertebrate zoologists, where the curator of the National Parasite Collection specializes in carefully teasing out tapeworms from the bird's intestines, using the tips of two needles. The bird's intestines in a sense become her field site. And biohazardous waste in birds becomes a precious specimen for the parasite collection, where the worm is carefully stained and mounted on microscope slides. And they did this using perhaps my favorite tool in the entire museum, which is a curator's eyelash glued to the end of a stick. How great can you get? And this is used to arrange the worm slices on the slide. It's just delicate enough.

So, part of the worm goes to the lab to be DNA barcoded, while other parts are frozen in liquid nitrogen and biorepository, for as yet unknown future uses. Through learning to prepare a specimen, I began to track the unbound biology of my bird. An idea that signals the fractioning of living things into new kinds of objects, such as a tissue sample in a tube frozen in the biorepository, which we see here, or a DNA extract or a set of genomic data. And each of these new objects, these fractions of a living thing are capable of carrying different values as they shift across time and across different cultural, economic and technological domains. As we saw with the bird skin, the tapeworm and its tissue samples, all going to different parts of the museum and meaning something different in each of those places.

A key thing I came to understand is that, collections are always changing. From 100-year-old bird skins being rediscovered as valuable sites for collecting genetic samples, divisions of the future, where the frozen tissue collections in the biobank can be used for mapping past ecologies or expanding the breeding stock of critically endangered species. These biobanks are being thought of as an archive of life frozen for the future. But what future exactly? Who decides on that future and how does each discipline in the museum from the ornithologist collecting birds to entomologists collecting insects, to botanist collecting plants, how do each of these see the natural world and then decide what specific part to preserve? What it means to preserve life is fundamentally changing. And those changes can be seen by looking at the details of how specimens are made in different parts of the museum. Why a specimen is valuable and how that changes over time can be seen in the specimens themselves.

Like Ling-Ling here. She was a giant panda from the National Z, who was added to the mammal collection after she died. She was originally a gift from China to President Nixon in 1972, a symbol between nations. But now she's also a specimen in the collections and perhaps a site for genetic samples in the future. Thinking about this panda as an individual with a life, but then a specimen with an afterlife in the collections and also as a potential future site to extract DNA. This lets us understand and maybe get a little closer to the idea of the layers of data, meaning and value that exist inside. Every object in the 155 million objects in this Smithsonian collections. And with the increasing extinction rates, the urgency and scope of biobanking projects like the global genome initiative at the Smithsonian, are going to continue to expand.

Biobanking is getting cheaper, easier and faster. And will continue to be seen as a solution for biodiversity loss, among many other concerns. But it's also important to understand that these different types of time are central part of museum culture. Where the past is preserved, will also thinking towards making specimens that will last for centuries. As the director of the global genome initiative told me, museums are in the forever business. And while each specimen has multiple lives, museums also have their own life cycles. Specific ways of organizing time as scientists follow migrating birds and flowering plants on expeditions, collecting specimens and tissue samples, measuring the times since death for capturing specific kinds of genomic data, to the frozen time of the bio repository.

So thinking about natural history collections as these kinds of layered time, but also layers of value. From skins and drawers to frozen tissue tubes. This raises many questions about how why, and by whom life is being archived and for what kinds of imagined futures. It's just so fascinating to me that collections hold all of these layers of information, but also these layers of value and meaning to different scientists. So from this perspective, collections are not simply accumulated objects, but instead we can think them as this continual re-assemblage of the materials of the specimen, its different values, the places that they come from, but also of the people involved in the process. And these all exist in a shifting composition, changing over time with the specimen and its different parts. A bird skin, a tissue tube, a parasite, its data set. They all collectively become a map of the different people who have made, used and collected these specimens, but also the different futures that they can be used to create.

So in the context of my research in the museum, I've really come to think of the potential future use of these different collections as using the dead, to preserve the living. Thank you. And an extra thanks to all the scientists who welcome me into their labs and collections and helped with this research. And I'd now like to bring back my fellow presenters and ask them a question. So, you guys ready? So in all of this looking at, our massive Smithsonian collections and all the different ways that have been used and been accumulated over time, when you are preparing specimens, how do you think about the different futures that they might have?

Vera Korasidis:
Yep. So, I can start. I guess even my whole project came really from using specimens already in our collection. In this instance, the leaves, I've taken a fragment dissolved or got pollen. But along with the pollen, I've also found other plant remains including chunks of cuticle, pieces of charcoal, pieces of fungi. Then, they can be used subsequently by other researchers to then I guess, investigate lots of other really interesting research questions. So yes, I have my slide preps, but I also keep vials of that entire mixture, which then other scientists, hopefully in the future can sub-sample and use to answer really different questions. So, whether it's what happened to fire occurrence during this interval, or can we use cuticles produced by plants to, I guess, inform us about ancient CO2. So, I think it is really important when we're preparing to think about the other uses or even if we don't know exactly what they are to keep the specimen, so that they can be used for a future project.

Sahas Barve:
When I make a specimen or collect any data for that matter, I am often fascinated by ways in which I don't know the specimen will be used. And this was brought to me when I was doing research in the museum. I was measuring feathers on these specimens that were collected 150 years ago. I think the oldest specimen that I measured was collected in the 1860s in a part of the world that is really inaccessible. And so I was like, "Did William Abbot know that somebody is going to come along and measure the feathers on this specimen that he's collecting, 150 years later?" And so, because museums are such amazing storehouses of information, I almost daydream about what awesome ways that they potentially could be used in the future.

Adrian Van Allen:
Thank you. That's fascinating.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thank you, Adrian, Vera and Sahas for sharing your research with us. We have a lot of questions from the audience already. So, let's just get right to it. Vera, this first question is for you from Maggie. Maggie wants to know, "How was it determined that that particular area in Wyoming had such a good fossil record from that period? And how did you know which rock samples would contain the pollen if it cannot be seen without a microscope?"

Vera Korasidis:
That's a really great question. So, we knew the area contained that particular event, thanks to decades of work from scientists studying the plant leaves and also the animals at the time and the mammals. And, we also knew based on the chemical signatures of the rock. But in saying that, it took a really long time to find it. So, some of the scientists in our museum were working in the area for decades before they really figured out that it's that event. Because, the Earth's history is 4.5 billion years and what's the chance that you're going to get that a 100,000-year interval. So it took a really long time to find. And when it comes to your question, how do we know there's going to be pollen? We actually don't.

So, there are some things we can look for out in the field. So usually, if we find leaves, it means there's also going to be pollen. But sometimes you've just got to have a go and see what happens and that's the nature of science. So, some of the samples did have pollen and that's great and others didn't have any, and we can explain why they don't, because of environmental reasons. But, I guess we just use what information we have. But generally, if a rock contains leaves in it and it's a dark color which suggests there's lots of fossilized plant material present, that's generally a good sign there will be pollen present.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thanks.

Naimah Muhammad:
Awesome. And so, we have a question Sahas for you. First is maybe a short question, a short answer from Laura who asks, "How long does it take to study that many feathers?" And I think that's going back to those 2,000 plus feathers that you should.

Sahas Barve:
Well, it took about nine months. Give or take.

Naimah Muhammad:
Wow. Goodness.

Sahas Barve:
But it was awesome, because you get to ... The cool thing is, there are so many birds in there that I haven't even seen in the wild. And so, it was really cool to hold them and look at their plumage up close and get views that I probably wouldn't get in the wild either.

Naimah Muhammad:
Yeah, absolutely. And so, that sure that took lots of focus and I hope your eyes were okay afterwards. And then, we have a question from Steve, which is, "Do the elevational migrants like the Rufous-breasted accentor, that spend warmer weather at high elevations and migrate during the winter to lower altitudes, have differences in their insulation and heat output?"

Sahas Barve:
See, that's a fantastic question. And, we actually looked at mostly only summer plumages. So, basically we tried to control for where the birds were and all that. And, that's sort the next step of our research is to understand whether birds that migrate up and down the mountain have potentially less insulative plumage than birds that have to spend the winter at high elevations. So, thank you for that question. That was excellent.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thanks. Adrian, this next question is for you. You mentioned the Global Genome Initiative. So, David wants to know more about what that is. Can you tell us?

Adrian Van Allen:
Yes. It's a program, an initiative started at this Smithsonian and that's where the beginnings of this huge global network of different natural history museums, herbariums, and also biorepositories and genetic data banks around the world have come together to try to capture a picture of genomic life on Earth before it disappears. So, the project currently has almost 200 members and I believe there's a website link that was put into the chat and it's really amazing to see it unfold. These partnerships are around the world to try to go into biodiversity hotspots in particular that are being threatened by climate change and agricultural expansion and try to really get a look at what the genomic life on Earth looks like. And in my conversations with all of the scientists at the Smithsonian who are working on this, they really think about not just all the different genomes of all the different organisms, but as the genome of the Earth itself, that all of this biodiversity masses together to come to be analyzed as one genomic map, that is interrelated and very dependent on all the different pieces.

So as species go extinct, we become far more vulnerable to things like viral infections that move across species barriers. Relevant to us all right now from our little boxes.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thank you. Yeah. And as you mentioned, there is a link in the chat if people are interested in learning more about that.

Naimah Muhammad:
Vera, let's switch gears with a question to you from Robert. And the question is, "If you find pollen that doesn't resemble any modern species, is there any way to connect it to an extinct species? And what is that process?

Vera Korasidis:
That's a really, really good question. And sometimes it's really difficult. Maybe if we have a leaf associated with the pollen or those reproductive structures all preserved together, that might provide us with a clue, but yeah, you're right. There are certain species, especially as we go further back in time. So, plants have been around for over 450 million years and obviously the further back we go, the less relatives are still around. So, it does get quite difficult, but sometimes you can actually use things like the shape of the pollen indicate what relative it might have, because certain groups of plants produce certain looking pollen grains. So, we can actually use the physical characteristics to attribute it to at least some form of modern relative.

Naimah Muhammad:
Thank you so much.

Amanda Sciandra:
All right. Let's keep it moving here. This next question is for you Sahas. "Do smaller birds feathers, allow them to puff out bigger?" Oh, you're muted still.

Sahas Barve:
Potentially, yes. It'll have to be relative to body size. But actually, I don't know the answer to that question. So, it could be a cool project for someone to measure that there are so many photos out there. We can crowdsource images of birds popped up and measure that. So, if you guys are interested, write to me and we can do this project together.

Amanda Sciandra:
That's the beauty of science. We just keep asking more questions.

Sahas Barve:
Exactly.

Amanda Sciandra:
All right.

Naimah Muhammad:
Okay. So let's see. Adrian, let's go to you. Okay. So we have a question that I think touches on technology and kind of the use in influence in increasing use of technology and museums and in science. And the question from Milan is, "How can we be sure that scientists are people? And I think that's getting at that scientists aren't replaced with technology?" And maybe you all actually call in touch on this in your different fields honestly. Adrian, can you start?

Adrian Van Allen:
Sure. That's a really interesting question. And trying to think about what technology is exactly. And, technology is actually not separate from us. It's a product of human beings and therefore has all the fingerprints of human thinking and making embedded in it. So, I don't think technology is going to take over in perhaps the way that you've implied, but I think it's really, really important to think about how and why we use technology in particular ways. Instead of thinking of it as a sort of black box solution to all of our problems, to think about how it was developed, how it reflects the particular culture that made it and the values and goals of that particular scientific culture. So for instance, and I'm sure Sahas and Vera can speak to this more. But much of the genomic technology that's being used in the museum right now is trickled down from human biomedical work.

So, the way that tissue samples are collected and stored and the way that they're processed to give us genomic information, those really come from studying human beings, because we're very interested in our own bodies and our own health. But, that makes it very weighted in many ways towards things that have physiologies like us, like birds. So, it's much easier to get good genomic data from a bird than it is from a plant. But, technology is constantly evolving and the different kinds of layers of value in those different technologies and the ways that we use them and implement them should be something that we reflect on a lot as we use them. So, I'm sure Sahas and Vera have really interesting different answers to that as well.

Sahas Barve:
Yeah. So, I completely agree with what Adrian said. And I just wanted to say that, scientists are actually using a lot of technology that ... Much better technology. And so, we benefit from better technology every time, every year almost. In previous research, I studied how birds adapt to the hypoxic or low-oxygen environments at high elevations. And, I use the hand held hemoglobin monitor that you would probably have in the hospital. If you go to a hospital and the doctor will come and stick it in the exact same monitor. So, we use technologies that are developed for some other purpose. And actually, there's a really cool read it about reviews that scientists leave for everyday objects that they use for a scientific thing. But, the other thing that's interesting is that, at least in field biology. And so, I'm a field biologist and the human brain is so much more powerful right now than any technology be. We are right now trying to train computers to identify bird songs and so put out recorders and then we want the computers to tell us what species of birds are found in the forest, for example.

But that is so difficult, while I, as a birder can go out and identify 50, 60 species by sound in a few hours. And so, it may happen, but it's a long way away before technology can replace skills like that in scientists.

Vera Korasidis:
Yeah. I think we can really use technology to help us with our science. So, I guess especially as a micro-paleontologist, we've got little slides there. Now again, using medical technology to take really high resolution photos and training computers to identify certain common pollen grains. So for me, I'm actually okay with the computer doing that, because I still get to go out into the field, do the lab work, it'll spend the months counting all the different species, which then I can double check. And then to me the fun part is, I get to interpret it and put everything together. So again, we're still quite a long way to go, but I think we can definitely use technology together to help us become more efficient and just provide new answers, which is, I guess one of the motivations of course, for doing science is to uncover the mysteries in my sense, preserved in rock. So if a technology can help me do that, then I think that's great.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thank you. And there's actually a related question to something you mentioned Sahas. I think now would be a good time to ask it if that's all right. It's a two-parter and the question is, do such birds have evolutionary adaptations? Oh, this question was from Steve, by the way, I think, or somebody. "Do such birds have evolutionary adaptations for their respiratory system to allow them to survive at higher elevations and do such birds travel across elevations as easily as within the same elevation?"

Sahas Barve:
Right. That's again a great question. So, I think you're referring to the partial ... The amount of oxygen in the air and high elevations have more rarefied air as we call it. And the scientific ways, the partial pressure of oxygen is less at high elevations. And yes, so birds have a suite of different adaptations that they use, including their lungs. Some birds have very differently shaped lungs. I particularly studied how birds use their hemoglobin to extract more oxygen out of the air. And so what I found was, these elevational migrants that we talked about, that move between high and low elevations, do actually exactly the same thing that we do. So, when we go up to high elevations, we increase the number of red blood cells in our blood and extract more oxygen from the enhanced hemoglobin concentration. And so, that's what birds do as well.

Sahas Barve:
While birds that live at high elevations all year round, actually have more hemoglobin stuffed into each red blood cell. So, that is an advantage to them for living at high elevations all year round. So yeah, there is a bunch of different adaptations that birds have to live at high elevations.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thank you.

Naimah Muhammad:
Thank you. And, I think we have time for one more question, these always go so fast. So, thank you. I think this question we can actually probably address to all, but I will start by reading the question from Debbie, which is to Adrian and Sahas, "Given this idea that collections change with time and with the collector, are there other interesting details that scientists you talked to, wished they had about their subjects?" And Vera, I'm going to branch out, because in our conversations earlier, I believe you mentioned something about the pollen that was found in a bird feather. So, maybe you could all kind of talk about these connections and these other areas that became illuminated. And whoever... Maybe Adrian, you want to take us?

Adrian Van Allen:
I'll start. Sure. Since I study the scientists and then the scientists can talk. So, the scientists that I've worked with across the Smithsonian, but also in other museums, they're always fascinated by what was preserved and what wasn't in the past. And, while there is a little bit of that frustration as that quote, one of my favorite quotes from one of the division of bird staff of keeping just the bird skin was like keeping the wrapping paper and throwing away the present and wishing that they had all of those internal organs and the stomach contents, as Debbie mentioned, as well as being able to get really good genome-quality tissue samples from all of that nice meaty innards. At the same time, usually the mode that scientists have or the relationship that they have to collections is one of intense gratitude and reverence, I have to say, of having this record of life back through time. And, are so thrilled when they find a really old specimen that's in really good condition, that can now offer up more information, given emerging technologies.

And, included in that is the computational capacity to take tiny, tiny bits of information and weave them together into a meaningful piece of data, to be able to make new kind, to answer new kinds of questions with really old specimens. So, there are all sorts of things people wish they had, but in general, people seem really grateful for what they do have and for the increasing potential for all of those specimens to render new kinds of information. So, why don't I pass off to you guys.

Sahas Barve:
Yeah. Sticking to birds, I again feel absolute privilege to be working with these really old specimens or for that matter, any specimens because it takes so much time and effort to go collect those specimens, keep them and bring them back and preserve them. And Chris, our collections manager is constantly fretting about whether the temperature is right, whether the humidity in the room is right and it's a huge task to even keep a collection well preserved. But, there are more things that we are beginning to collect and archive that weren't around even a few years ago. So since the 1980s, people have started making collections of sounds of birds that are now there. So, these are behaviors that we can collect and archive. So, there's multimedia collections now of the behaviors of... There's video footage of birds making a nest or audio recordings of birds singing. And so, the types of things that we collect is constantly evolving and developing. And so, I'm always privileged to get what I can and we are doing a better job of it every year.

Vera Korasidis:
I'll keep this short because I know we're running out of time. But I'd just say, one thing is we never really know what we can use the collection for until we have a specific answer and name you mentioned. One classic example is, someone had collected lots of stuffed animals. They were interested in what the plants were like because of political issues. They couldn't go back into the region, but they thought, "Hey, let's vacuum the pollen off the fur, have a look and that'll give us an insight into the vegetation." So, it's just one of those things that I think it is really important that we preserve what we have. Because like you said, we just don't know what we can use them for. And even in my instance, look at the advent over these microscopes. Some of our plant specimens are really old. Back then, like we said, maybe we didn't even know there was pollen in them. And then all these years later, we can come across and there'll be other things we can find in them. So, I think everyone's doing a really great job just preserving what we have.

Naimah Muhammad:
That's perfect. And that's a perfect way to conclude tonight's program. Thank you to each of you.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with Vera Korasidis, Sahas Barve, and Adrian Van Allen aired February 4, 2021, as part of the Virtual Science Café series. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

In this video, we explore research surprises in the field and the changing role and value of research collections. The program includes these short presentations:

"Tiny Fossil, Big Insight," by Vera Korasidis
Summary: Sometimes the smallest organisms tell the biggest stories. Palynologist and geologist Vera Korasidis conducts field research in Wyoming — known for its vast prairies and snow-topped mountains — to uncover the history of its landscapes and ecosystems. She’ll share stories of her research and findings, including the discovery of fossil pollen that reveals a different, more tropical picture of North America.

"Do Himalayan Birds Wear Down Jackets?" by Sahas Barve
Summary: Self-proclaimed bird-nerd Sahas Barve has observed thousands of birds around the world. His recent work focuses on how birds stay warm in cold Himalayan habitats and if — like humans wearing jackets to stay toasty — their feathers act as one big coat, or if they take the “layer up” approach to keep warm on the highest mountains in the world.

"Crafting Nature in a Genomic Age," by Adrian Van Allen
Summary: As an anthropologist, Adrian Van Allen studies the cultures of science in museums. As she  interviews scientists and learns to prepare specimens, she discovers how ideas about nature are formed — and how they change as new technologies such as genomics shape what is collected, prepared, and preserved for the future. In her talk, she’ll share her ethnography of how frozen collections of tissue samples and DNA are made at the Smithsonian and what drives scientists to preserve our collective ecological heritage by putting “life on ice.”

Moderators: Naimah Muhammad, Public Programs Coordinator; and Amanda Sciandra, Adult Programming Manager

Related Resources

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Topics
Life Science, Paleontology, Social Studies