Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Collection Spotlight: NMNH Vertebrate Paleontology

Fig.1. Hatcher the Triceratops and Stan the T. rex are center stage in “The Last American Dinosaurs” at the National Museum of Natural History (Credit: Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution).

In this new article series, we will highlight interesting collections and the people involved with them. Last week we spoke with Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Here is what he had to say about this intriguing (and old) collection.

If you wanted to know Dr. Sues’ favorite collection specimen, he would probably stop you from finishing the question.

Friday, December 19, 2014

In the News: Conserving the Living and the Dead

Fig.1. The northern white rhinos are all but extinct, with with only five members of the species left (Credit: Derek Keats)

Among this week’s topics are tropical deforestation, ‘missing’ ocean plastic, and the loss of another northern white rhino. These articles emphasize the importance of conservation efforts in both living collections and in the wild.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Science of Soil

Fig.1. Banded sedimentary rock layers in Wyoming were drilled and sampled to obtain details of global warming (Credit: Scott Wing, Smithsonian Institution)

About 55.5 million years ago, the Earth experienced a period of sudden warming triggered by two rapid, immense releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This event, known as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), was originally thought to have occurred at either too slow or too fast a rate to be useful for addressing our own climate problems. The PETM was marked by temperature increases of 5℃ to 8℃ (9℉ to 15℉), along with a rise of sea levels, ocean acidification (seen in previous post), and extinction of deep sea organisms. Although most species survived and even flourished, it took 200,000 years for the world to recover from such high temperatures and carbon dioxide levels. New research suggests, however, that the PETM carbon emission rate may be close enough to hold lessons on modern global warming.

Friday, December 12, 2014

In the News: Biodiversity Ancient and New

Bunny-sized dinosaurs are among the important paleontological studies released this week. We also read about rethinking human migration, the dangerous loss of biodiversity, a unique mushroom collection, and more:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

DNA in the Details

Fig.1. This parchment's DNA could hold clues to agricultural development three centuries ago. Document shows a sewn repair in Archbishop’s Register 7 Greenfield, 1306-1311.  (Credit: by permission of The Borthwick Institute for Archives)

Researchers may soon be looking into libraries and archives instead of natural history museums for ancient animal DNA. A recent study done at Trinity College Dublin and the University of York sought to trace agricultural development across the centuries through a DNA analysis of parchment documents. Instead of translating text, scientists extracted ancient DNA and protein from tiny samples of parchment from late 17th and 18th century documents. They were able to determine the type of animal from which the parchment was made, providing key information about agricultural expansion centuries ago.

Friday, December 5, 2014

In the News: Missing Brains and Lost Plants

This week, we have learned about examining zoonotic diseases in a new light, Shakespearean monarchs, and missing brain collections. Click below to read more:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Discovery of a Dinosaur

Fig.1. Pentaceratops aquilonius, a newly discovered species and a smaller, five-horned cousin of the Triceratops (Credit: Nick Longrich, University of Bath).

The recent release of the Jurassic World trailer has many fans excited and some scientists up in arms. Although our understanding of paleontology has certainly advanced since the original Jurassic Park in 1993, the new trailer raised a few eyebrows with it’s scaly, oversized dinosaurs and other scientific inaccuracies. Luckily, a new paleontological discovery has brought a more realistic view of the ancient world to the forefront of science. Dr. Nick Longrich, a researcher at the University of Bath, discovered a new dinosaur hidden among the collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. This specimen dates to the Late Cretaceous epoch -- about 70 million years after the end of the Jurassic period -- and provides an important insight into a very old world.

Friday, November 28, 2014

In the News: Preserving Collections and their Museums

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving! Studies have shown that the turkey you just ate may not be the reason why you are tired.

This week in science saw ongoing troubles in an important research station in the Galapagos, as well as in other collection-holding institutions. Despite this, several museums are taking steps to preserve important collections and improve upon field techniques.

Friday, November 21, 2014

In the News: Return of the Piltdown Man

Fig.1. The Piltdown man, originally thought to be the fossilized remains of an early human, proved to be a forgery (Credit:

Often called the "greatest hoax in the history of science," the Piltdown man was purportedly the missing link between apes and humans. In 1953, 41 years after its original "discovery," the Piltdown man was revealed as nothing more than a forgery, with pieced together orangutan, chimpanzee, and human bones. In this week's headlines, fake fossils return, along with advances in disease research, movement of carbon dioxide, ice core studies, and more.

  • Taking a fossil out of context can have devastating effects on its scientific utility, not to mention what happens if you start mixing and matching: "How Fake Fossils Pervert Paleontology," Scientific American (Nov. 15, 2014)

  • Feeding nine billion people by 2050 will be no easy task. These scientists play a vital role for the future of food security: "Mineral Uptake and Genetic Diversity in Rice," Crop Science Society of America (Nov. 18, 2014) 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Evil Twin" of Climate Change

Fig.1. A pteropod (sea butterfly) shell placed in seawater with pH and carbonate levels projected for year 2100. The shell dissolved over 45 days. (Credit: David Liittschwager/National Geographic Stock)

A routine survey off the U.S. West Coast conducted by the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program in 2011 found frightening results. More than half of their collected pteropods (sea butterflies) had severely dissolved shells. The ocean’s absorption of human-caused carbon dioxide emission created an acidic environment that has only recently caught the public eye. Now dubbed as “climate change’s evil twin,” ocean acidification represents a serious problem brought about by global warming. As more carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, marine organisms and the humans that depend upon them are put at risk.

Friday, November 14, 2014

In the News

Follow Friday is a new weekly post where we list what we’re reading this week. Our focus spans current scientific research related to SciColl’s research initiatives.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Collecting for the future

In 1993, an unexplained pulmonary illness occurred in the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States, killing otherwise young and physically fit people. Virologists from the Centers of Disease Control established the disease as a novel hantavirus which had a natural reservoir in the deer mouse. In an effort to locate the origin of the virus, researchers studied frozen tissue samples from people who had died of unexplained lung problems. Several samples from 1978 contained the hantavirus, proving that this virus had been around earlier but had been unrecognized. Over the next two decades, 40 more types of hantavirus have appeared in the Americas, most of which affect humans and have rodents or other mammals as natural reservoirs.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Experts talk scientific collections' role in disease research

Some of the world’s leading minds in emerging infectious diseases met Thursday and Friday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to discuss scientific collections’ role in the disease outbreak cycle and research.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Smallpox, now online!

Fig.1. Transmission electron micrograph depicts smallpox virus virions (Mag. 370,000x). Credit: Dr. F. Murphy and S. Whitfield, CDC-PHIL #1849.

In 1979, the World Health Assembly declared the world free from smallpox. This virulent disease killed about 300 million people in the 20th century alone and reached all corners of the Earth. Decisive multilateral and bilateral efforts to eradicate the disease officially began in 1966 and ended with the last naturally occurring case in Somalia in 1977. A recent New York Times opinion piece, however, argued that the smallpox could return with a vengeance.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In the age of humans

No other species has affected their surroundings as much as humans have affected the planet. This mantra was repeated throughout last week’s symposium , “Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security," at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C. The “Anthropocene,” or the age of humans, is the increasingly popular term for an era of expanding urbanization, agricultural intensification, and an ever-growing population. Dr. George Luber, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke on the extremely timely topic of the widespread public health problems resulting from climate change.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Birthplace of the HIV-1 pandemic

Fig.1. HIV-1 under electron microscope.

Like all gripping stories, the origin of HIV/AIDS is steeped in sex, a population boom, and a rapidly changing culture. A recent study in Science traced the source of the pandemic HIV-1 group M to Kinshasa, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The international team of researchers, led by Oxford University and University of Leuven, used archival HIV-1 strains and demographic data dating to the early 20th century. Researchers concluded that the “perfect storm” of factors -- including sharp urban growth, increased transportation, and changes to sex trade -- led to the global pandemic that has infected more than 75 million people.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

CDC for Wildlife Diseases

Fig.1. Little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) are especially vulnerable to White Nose Syndrome, with 90%-100% mortality during an outbreak (Photographer: Merlin Tuttle)

Last week, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service awarded more than $1.2 million to 30 states in an effort to combat White Nose Syndrome, a deadly disease affecting many bat species. Since its appearance in 2006, this disease has spread fast with greater than 90 percent mortality in some bat species. A 2009 study done by researchers at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI, determined that the fatal epizootic was caused by the fungus Pseudogymonoascus destructans. Although the White Nose Syndrome is only known to infect bats, declines in bat populations affect ecosystems and agriculture.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

No Man is an Island

Fig.1. Salmonella bacteria can cause food poisoning and typhoid fever

One mild September day around 4 p.m. nearly two years ago, members of FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network sat down with their state and federal partners to talk about a Salmonella outbreak. They quickly traced the outbreak’s source to a brand of peanut butter sold in Trader Joe’s. By 8 p.m. EDT that evening, they had a call with Trader Joe’s corporate offices, and by 9:40 p.m., Trader Joe’s issued a nationwide advisory to remove the product from their shelves.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tracing the History of Disease

In 1894, two research physicians independently identified the bacterium that causes bubonic plague. The bacillus, now known as Yersinia pestis, had finally been found as the pathogen to a disease that killed millions. This discovery was timely because just six years later the plague arrived to the United States on a ship carrying passengers from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Over the next nine years, the bubonic plague swept through the city.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Modern Solution to an Ancient Problem

Eight centuries before the Black Death, a plague swept through the Byzantine Empire and then Europe with devastating consequences. More than 100 million people were killed from the 6th to 8th centuries in a pandemic known as the Plague of Justinian, or the first pandemic. Until last year, the cause of the disease was disputed, with arguments ranging from influenza to smallpox. Dave Wagner, an associate professor at Northern Arizona University, worked with scientists from around the world to confidently identify the bacterium Yersinia pestis as the cause of the pandemic.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Disease Collections and How They Can Save the World

In 1976, a young Belgian scientist named Peter Piot received a small, inconspicuous -- and broken -- vial of blood taken from a sick patient in the region that is now known as Democratic Republic of Congo. The sample, which had traveled as a passenger’s hand luggage in an ice box, was treated to the same routine lab tests as other medical samples. What Piot found under the microscope, however, was anything but ordinary. The worm-like structure belonged to a virus that looked remarkably similar to the Marburg virus, which, barely a decade earlier in Europe, had killed seven people in one fell swoop. After a lengthy visit to Africa by Piot and his colleagues, and the deaths of nearly 300 people, the epidemic was stopped. The Ebola virus had taken its place in medicine as an emerging infectious disease.