Tag Archives: Museum Of Natural History

Snake Oil

by Richard

There’s some jobs people really shouldn’t have to do. And, dudes? Every one of them is one I would not want to be involved in. Heck, most of them I don’t even want to know about.

This one, however, while exceedingly gross, is actually pretty interesting. But first, a little background.

There’s folks around who love snakes. I’m one of them. The thing is, though, I don’t love them enough to want to keep one as a pet. There are people who do. And, among those dudes, there’s people who are so irresponsible and — basically — idiotic enough that they buy a snake, knowing it’s going to grow to a huge size and do it anyway. Then, when — surprise! — the snake grows to a huge size, they just toss it outside somewhere in the wild, leave and never look back.

That sort of thing’s happening in the Florida Everglades. Thanks to idiotic pet owners, the ‘Glades are suffering through an invasion of giant snakes. Burmese pythons, to be exact.

The snakes, first reported in the (Everglades) park in 1979, are likely descended from released or escaped exotic pets. Their current population is in the thousands, and they are proliferating rapidly. “The first way to prove the danger they’re causing to the environment is to figure out what they’re eating and how much of it they’re eating,” said Carla Dove, head of the National Museum of Natural History’s Feather Identification Lab.

That snake/penis metaphor? Not so sexy now.
Burmese pythons mating

So, with that in mind, she began having the stomach contents of captured Burmese pythons shipped to her from the Everglades National Park. Yeah, that’s right, she gets the enviable task of rooting through semi-digested, sloppy, goopy remains of birds eaten by Burmese pythons shipped to her so she can identify the bird species.

Identifying any birds in such samples is messy, time-consuming work—a task Dove embraces with gusto. “My job is not so glamorous,” she says, picking up a brown glob in a plastic sandwich bag. She washes it in warm water, then dries it with compressed air: “Feathers are made of keratin, like your hair, so they are very durable and easy to clean and dry.” She examines them under a microscope, looking for fine variations in color, size or microstructure that tell her which taxonomic group a given bird belongs to.

Dove then takes the sample into the museum’s collection of 620,000 specimens from more than 8,000 species of birds and looks for a match; it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. “This is the way we’ve been doing it for 50 years,” she says. “We have DNA now, but DNA is not going to help us in this case”—the python’s digestive system has destroyed or contaminated the genetic material—“so you really have to rely on those basic skills of identifying things based on your experience and your knowledge.”

In the past year, Dove has identified more than 25 different species of birds taken from the stomach contents of approximately 85 of the Burmese pythons infesting the Everglades. Even better, the snakes — as they grow larger — start noshing on things other than birds, including alligators and deer. Yeah, you read that right, dudes. These Burmese pythons can get seriously big — up to 23 feet in length, weighing in at 200 pounds with a girth the size around as a telephone pole. These suckers can get huge!

For now, Dove said she envisions a three-step strategy for ridding the ‘Glades of these monster reptiles: education (making sure idiots don’t do idiot things), prevention (keeping new snakes out of the ‘Glades), and suppression (killing any exotic snakes found in the park).

That’s something for others to work on, though. Dove gets to stick to wading through the goopy garbage and identifying bird and other animal species under attack.

And that, dudes, is a job I’m more than willing to let her handle.

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Trippin’ At The Smithsonians

by Richard

If you’re going to hit Washington, DC, you’ve got to make sure you hit some of the most amazing museums in the world during your trip: The Smithsonian (fill in the blank with whatever your obsession is) museum. It is a blast.

The first place we went was, of course, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. This place is an absolute blast. The first thing you see when you walk in is this very small kiosk that, unlike in most museums, actually invites you to touch. What do they invite you to touch, you ask? Oh, nothing much. Just a freaking moon rock! A rock that came back with the astronauts from the freaking moon! You might say I was a little bit excited about the whole thing there.

The entire entrance hall is filled to the brim with amazing pieces of history. The orbital module from Apollo 11, which sent our first men to the moon, a balloon cabin which traveled around the world, a plane that went around the world without a refueling stop, and more and more and more.

There’s so much neat stuff, I’d have a hard time cataloging all of it. Exhibits out the wazzoo, and each more interesting than the last.

According to George of the Jungle and Speed Racer, though, the best part were the flight simulators. They stepped inside and found out that this was a very realistic simulation in that George of the Jungle, the pilot, could actually turn the plant — and themselves — upside down while flying. Sort of reminded me of his driving, but that’s another story. Speed Racer served as the gunner and made 8 kills of enemy aircraft. Of course, neither of them could walk straight for about 10 minutes after they came out, but they said it was well worth it.

Eventually we staggered out and walked down the Washington Mall (many of the museums are located along the sides of the Washington Mall) to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where Zippy the Monkey Boy had his time in the sun.

This museum was — of course — wonderful. We walked in and were greeted with a full-sized diorama of a trumpeting elephant. After staring at that in rapt attention for a while, we wandered up to the gem section and saw meteorites and jewels and even the Hope Diamond. There were so many people there crowding in to see it, we could barely breathe, but it was worth it.

Dudes, the ocean section featured a huge right whale, a preserved carcass of a giant squid, a prehistoric fish called the coelacanth, which was thought to have gone extinct millions of years ago and was found in the last few decades, and more. We got to experience some of the finest taxidermy known to man in the hall of mammals and see mummies and suchlike in the western cultures wing. It was amazing.

My only regret is that we didn’t get to stay in each place long enough. Each of these museums could have taken up an entire day all by itself. Because we’re only here for such a short time, we had to split a day. If you’re coming to Washington, DC, I urge you to set aside enough time to really see these the right way, and that’s at your leisure.

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