Once there were billions

September 1, 2014 • 6:10 am

JAC: Yesterday I mentioned that today is an anniversary of note. I forgot that it was the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Poland by the Germans, and thus the beginning of World War II. But it’s also a biological anniversary, and Greg has volunteered to tell us about that one:

by Greg Mayer

Exactly 100 years ago today, on September 1, 1914, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) became extinct. We rarely know when a species becomes extinct with such precision, even in those cases, like the passenger pigeon, when the species succumbed at the hands of man. We know for the passenger pigeon, though, for by this date 100 years ago it had been many years since a passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild, and the only remaining birds were in captivity. And on this date, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo at the age of 29.

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, by Carl Hurlbert, USNM.
Martha, the last passenger pigeon, photo by Donald Hurlbert, USNM.

Her demise marked the end of a sad chapter in the history of human exploitation of nature. In the first half of the 19th century, flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies of eastern North America, and could take days to pass by. Their numbers were estimated to be in the billions. A few decades of remorseless market hunting more than decimated them, and, once below a certain number, the intensely social species seemed unable to successfully reproduce. The last few pigeons in captivity stemmed mostly from the efforts of Charles O. Whitman, one of Jerry’s predecessors in biology at the University of Chicago, and an expert on pigeons. Whitman’s attempts at breeding, including sending Martha to the Cincinnati Zoo, did not succeed. Martha outlived Whitman, who died in 1910, so he did not live to see the ultimate passing of the pigeons.

The National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian has a temporary exhibit commemorating this sad milestone, “Once There Were Billions“, which opened in June and will be up till October of next year. I got a chance to see it just a few days after it opened. It’s a small exhibit—just two cases—but dense with specimens, objects, and information, a fine example of the style of museum exhibition that I call the “cabinet” style, which we’ve praised before here at WEIT.

Once There Were Billions, first case, at the USNM, 26 June 2014.
“Once There Were Billions”, first case, at the USNM, 26 June 2014.

After Martha’s death she was sent to the Smithsonian, where she still resides, and she is a highlight of the exhibition.

Three specimens, including Martha herself (11). Martha and number 10 are mounted for exhibition, while 12 is prepared as a standard”study skin”. (Almost all bird specimens in a research collection are prepared in this fashion.)
Martha signage from “Once There Were Billions”.

A number of classic illustrations are included from the Smithsonian Library, including from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina from the 1700s.

A passenger pigeon from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina.

The exhibit also features 3 other once abundant species which were driven extinct largely by hunting: the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, and the heath hen.

The second case in the exhibition at the USNM.

The great auk is shown in an illustration from Walter Rothschild’s Extinct Birds (which also has a passage on passenger pigeons on pp. 167-170),

Great auk from Rothschild’s Extinct Birds.

as well as by a preserved specimen.

Great auk at the USNM.

And the Carolina parakeet is represented by two specimens; note the passenger pigeon illustration from Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology to the left of the parakeets.

Carolina parakeets. Note Wilson’s passenger pigeon illustration to the lower left.

On the exhibit web page, there are links to a fine collection of illustrations and books about all four species from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Signage for “Once There Were Billions”.

The Smithsonian is also showing a set of sculptures by by Todd McGrain from the Lost Bird Project; his passenger-pigeon sculpture is displayed on the USNM’s ‘front lawn’.

Passenger pigeon sculpture at USNM.

The Lost Bird Project sign at USNM.
The Lost Bird Project sign at USNM.

For further reading on passenger pigeons, I recommend A.W. Schorger’s The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1955). Two new books have been published this year, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury USA, New York) by the noted Chicago naturalist Joel Greenberg, and Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha: The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its Relevance Today (Bloomsbury Natural History, London), but I have not read them.

h/t  Mark Joseph

Shaping Humanity- a new book by John Gurche on science and art

January 14, 2014 • 9:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

John Gurche, the well known scientific illustrator and “Paleo-Artist” has recently published a new book, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins (Yale University Press, 345 pages, $49.95)

Gurche book coverGurche is best known for his exacting reconstructions of fossil hominids in paintings, bronzes, and life reconstructions, although he also occasionally tackles other subjects, as in his highly regarded “Tower of Time” vertical mural at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which treats much of the whole history of life. WEIT readers may recall that back in 2010 I had occasion to praise his reconstructions (slide show) and bronzes (slide show) for the then new human evolution exhibit, also at the National Museum of Natural History. Here are two I showed back then; a facial reconstruction of Paranthropus boisei:

Paranthropus boisei (skull pictured in first photo in post)
Paranthropus boisei by John Gurche at the USNM.

and a bronze of a Neanderthal mother and child:

Mother and child
Mother and child

Beginning with the bones, Gurche layers muscles and other soft tissues, using living forms and anatomical principles as a guide, to build up a three dimensional image of his subject. Many of his decisions must be guided by his anatomical intuitions, instincts, and his own creativity, so while his works are rigorous scientific speculations, they are also creative works of art. The book is an explanation and examination of his science and his art, by the scientific artist himself. The National Museum of Natural History has produced a fine video showing Gurche’s creative and reconstructive process.

Gurche has posted on Youtube a short video in connection with his book, showing a great number of his life reconstructions morphing into one another. (Which is not strictly correct from a phylogenetic point of view, since most of these are probably collateral ancestors rather than direct ancestors and descendants, but it’s a nice video effect– plus their eyes move! And guess who the last hominid is!)

The New York Times has published an excerpt from the book; it’s on my list of books to get.

Koch to fund renovation of Smithsonian’s dinosaur hall

May 4, 2012 • 6:11 am

by Greg Mayer

David Koch, billionaire industrialist and bankroller of right wing causes, has announced that he will donate $35 million to the National Museum of Natural History (aka the USNM) for an overhaul of its dinosaur hall. The New York Times’ Patricia Cohen writes:

In 2009 he gave the Smithsonian $15 million to create the museum’s Hall of Human Origins. And in 2006 he gave the Manhattan museum [i.e. the American Museum of Natural History in New York] $20 million to create the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing. This latest gift, the largest donation in the museum’s 102-year history, will result in the new dinosaur hall in Washington also being named for Mr. Koch. The total cost of the new hall, with 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, is estimated to be $45 million, a museum spokesman said.

According to this longer AP piece, it seems as if the renovation will extend to the other adjacent fossil halls, and not just the dinosaurs.

As noted by Cohen, Koch funded the Hall of Human Origins at the USNM, which Jerry (here and here) and  I reviewed here at WEIT. Koch’s funding also elicited some controversy, regarding whether his climate denialism would be included in the exhibit, which we also noted (here, here  and in the PS here) at WEIT.

David Koch and the Hall of Human Origins

October 7, 2010 • 12:42 pm

by Greg Mayer

PZ noted my and Jerry’s pieces on the new Hall of Human Origins at the USNM, and one of his commenters, DavidCOG, points to this piece at Climate Progress (based in part on Jane Mayer’s (no relation) New Yorker article on the Koch brothers), which in turn points to a couple of  items at Think Progress, and this by Matt Yglesias (among others). In summary, these pieces detect a much more sinister motivation for Koch’s funding of the exhibit, flowing from his global warming denialism. As I’d noted in the comments on my piece, there is material about climate change in the exhibit, but nothing I regarded as untoward. The scale of climate change discussed in the exhibit– tens of thousands to millions of years– doesn’t seem relevant to the decade to century scale of current warming. And, there is, as far as I saw, no discussion of current warming in the exhibit.

Perhaps Koch wanted the point made that climate does change, and that this influenced human evolution– that’s true of course– and he hoped that, by non sequitur, visitors would conclude that recent rapid climate change is nothing to worry about. But that is a non sequitur, and a fairly subtle one at that, so I’m not sure he’s getting his money’s worth. I’ll let Climate Progress make the argument for its view in their video.

PZ has now commented directly on the issue.

Is there life in the Solar System?

October 6, 2010 • 8:14 pm

by Greg Mayer

Matthew recently asked if there is life on Gliese 581g— a newly discovered Earth-like (in some ways) planet (I’m tempted to say “class M planet“).  There’s also the question of if there is life in the Solar System (Earth doesn’t count)– on Europa, or Mars, or Enceladus, say. On the same trip that I got to see the Hall of Human Origins at the USNM, I also visited the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, and got to see the candidate planets and moons up close and personal. There I saw the exhibit “Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System“, a series of exquisite photographs compiled by Michael Benson.

Beyond title signage.

Compiled from the photographic results of what is now several decades of interplanetary probes and Earth satellites, the exhibit includes images of all the planets, the Sun, many moons, and a number of asteroids (a catalogue, with images, is available on Benson’s website, as is a wonderful set of wide angle views of the exhibit hall). The exhibit is, in a word, magnificent. The large format prints, placed on the walls without intervening cases, allows the visitor to examine every detail of the photos.

Images of Mars

The detail and high resolution turn the planets from objects of astronomy– moving points of light– to objects of geology, and even hydrology– out wash plains and hills, volcanoes and glaciers. They’re not quite objects of biology yet.  We, or our machines, will have to investigate on the surface more closely to see if that’s the case. Here are a few more of the over 100 images.

Mars– note lander in foreground of lower photo.
Mars again
Glorious Saturn (the two bright dots are reflections, not moons or UFOs)

I can recommend this exhibit without reservation. It will be at Air & Space till next May.  A companion volume of exquisite photos, Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes (Abrams, New York, 2003) is available. (The exhibit contains newer photos, as well as ones from the book, some as recent as 2009.)

The Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History

October 5, 2010 • 9:53 pm

by Greg Mayer

The Hall of Human Origins, a new permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History (aka the USNM) opened last March (at which time I got only a peek), and over the summer I finally got a chance to take in the whole exhibit. Like Edward Rothstein of the New York Times, whose review I noted in an earlier post, I have somewhat mixed feelings. There are many excellent displays in the hall, and it does bear “repeated, close viewing” (which is to my mind the highest praise for a museum exhibit), but there are also lost opportunities, slack use of space and objects, and, frankly, abdication of curatorial responsibility.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m a fan of the “cabinet” style in natural history museums. This style emphasizes well-labeled displays rich in the number and diversity of specimens and objects on display. An alternative style, which I’ve taken to calling “interactive”, is characterized by sparse specimens, large fonts, blank space, and interactive displays. Along with the late Steve Gould, I’m less fond of this style. First, some of the good stuff. The hall opens with a number of reproductions of well-known hominid skulls, such as this Paranthropus boisei (one could quibble with some of the taxonomy adopted in the exhibit, but it’s not a major concern of most visitors, and I’ll use what’s in the labels). For complex three-dimensional structures, such as skulls, the ability to walk around, look under, and touch the object greatly enhances the visitor’s grasp of the object, and I applaud taking some of the skulls out of the display cases, and putting them into the hall and the visitor’s hands.

Paranthropus boisei, KNM-ER 406

The following two skeletons, nearly complete, of Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, are well-labeled, and, placed side-by side, allow the visitor to compare and contrast their form, while the signage guides the eye to particularly interesting parts, and their interpretation.

Homo erectus (left) and Homo neanderthalensis

The exhibit includes a number of life reconstructions of hominid heads by John Gurche. Any life reconstruction must be a work of art as well as science, and is, of necessity, in part speculative. Gurche is well-known for making his art as informed as possible by science, and the fact that corresponding skulls for most or all of the life reconstructions are in the exhibit allows the visitor to compare the art with the inspiration.

Paranthropus boisei (skull pictured in first photo in post)

I also liked some large bronzes scattered about, which, like Gurche’s life reconstructions, are both art and science, and, like the skull casts, walk-aroundable. They reminded me of Carl Akeley’s famous bronzes, found at museum such as the Field in Chicago, and the American Musuem in New York.

Mother and child

Paleoanthropological materials (bones, tools, art) are sufficiently rare that even great museums like the USNM must rely on reproductions for most of the display materials. This is a disappointment, but understandable.

Ancient art works– note that they are all casts

But some aspects of the hall, generally those in the more “interactive” style were less successful to my mind. Here is the theme of the hall–  “What does it mean to be human?”– which to me seems an ill-formed question, not subject to any clearly comprehensible response. I was tempted to say, “Fortytwo.” Note that the exhibit designers quickly translate the theme to a different, and more answerable, question.

The hall’s theme.

Some early parts of the hall don’t seem to make good use of the space available.

A really lost opportunity is presented by a “cave wall” with fine reproductions of cave art, but little or nothing to guide or inform the visitor as to the import of what is displayed. There is some interpretive signage, but it’s in another case, not closely adjacent. As Edward Tufte has urged, we should integrate our images, words, numbers, and –for museums– objects; keeping all within an eyespan. These are thrilling achievements by among the earliest of human artists, but we are given little to go on in interpreting them, and our appreciation stays at a purely aesthetic level.

Horse and hands
Lion (?) heads

The part of the exhibit I found most wanting is the reproduction of a famous cave painting known as “The Sorcerer”, an anthropomorphic figure that combines deer and man.  The reproduction is fine.

The Sorcerer

But the signage (enalrged below) is not fine. The question “What do you see?” reflects a trend in pedagogy and museum display that is thought to be ‘active’, and ‘inquiry’ based. But you can’t make intelligent inquiries into something about which you know nothing. Are those the antlers of a caribou or a red deer? Are the dark markings in the leg similar to the bones or the muscles? And do they look like parts of a deer or of a man? What other paintings, if any,  are on this wall? Have any artifacts or bones been found in the cave? What animals lived in the area at the time? Without addressing these and many other questions, your inquiry goes nowhere. You may have an opinion, and it may feel good to have your opinion asked for, but your opinion is worthless– it is an uninformed speculation at best. The curators have abdicated their responsibility to provide the necessary context, and to share with us their informed opinion. They may of course be wrong, and further discoveries or reflection might lead us and them to another interpretation, but this does not excuse them for not letting us know what they think. I do not want to know what the visitor next to me sees, or even what I see; what I want to know is what is seen by the men and women who have studied this painting and its context most thoroughly, and reflected on it most deeply.

What do you see?

There are of course the now requisite interactive displays. (Note the question on the right!) Jerry has been to the exhibit on his current east coast tour, and he will likely have more to say about this aspect when he posts about it.

Can the concept of evolution co-exist with religious faith?

Overall, I’d give the exhibit a B- ; it does, as Edward Rothstein said, repay close and repeated viewing, but it could have been more.

An odd item I’ll close on are the curious politics of David Koch, chief funder of the exhibit (it’s actually called the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins). As I noted before, he’s a global warming denialist, and, as Frank Rich of the New York Times recently detailed, along with his brother, he’s a major funder of the tea party movement. Since tea partiers tend to be creationists, this is a real head scratcher– what is Koch thinking? The people he’s funding would probably want the USNM shut down. (I did keep an eye out for anything about climate in the exhibit, but noticed nothing untoward.)

Another day at the museum

June 8, 2010 • 12:56 pm

by Greg Mayer

Last summer I made a visit to the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum of Natural History (aka the USNM), which I reported on here at WEIT. At the time, a couple of special evolution exhibits, tied to the Darwin bi- and sesquicentennials, were scheduled to open in September, and during my visit in March (mentioned at WEIT here and here), I was able to see both of these temporary exhibits.

Darwin’ Legacy, in the lobby at the 10th and Constitution entrance, consists of two large cases containing items from the Smithsonian’s archives and libraries– books, manuscripts, photographs– including a number of illustrations from the Zoology of the Beagle. It is arranged in what is called the “cabinet” style (referring to the origin of many museums in older “cabinets of curiosities”). This style is characterized by a high density of items of a diverse nature, each well-labeled. It is the style of exhibit which I generally prefer. Rich in its content, the exhibit merits close attention, and repays repeated viewing. Darwin’s Legacy will be up till Oct. 17.

Contrasting with this exhibit is Since Darwin : The Evolution of Evolution, which is designed in a more recent style, that might be termed “interactive”, although this is only one part of the new style. Steve Gould characterized this style as having fewer specimens and more overt pedagogy.

The exhibit, though lacking interactive features, does have few specimens, and a more didactic labeling and design, emphasizing bright colors and large fonts. It begins with Darwin’s life, work and predecessors, moving to an explication of artificial and natural selection, and islands as laboratories of evolution. It then discusses the tree of life, recent developments in evo-devo and genomics, and closes with a brief account of new species discovered by USNM researchers. Throughout the exhibit, panels are devoted to highlighting USNM scientists working in evolutionary biology, such as my colleagues Helen James and Hans-Dieter Sues. The newer exhibit style may be seen clearly in the following photograph, which shows the relative paucity of specimens, and a reliance on illustration, and large-font, but widely spaced, text.

The exhibit does, though, of course have specimens, and I liked the integration of text, image, and objects in two cases on snails and the domestication of dogs.

Since Darwin will be up till July 18, so you should see it soon if you get the chance. Neither of these temporary exhibits are worth a trip to Washington (though worth seeing if you are there). Probably worth a trip is the new Hall of Human Origins, which I just missed on my visit in March (see the NY Times‘ Edward Rothstein’s review here). I hope to see it myself this summer. A colleague who just came back from Washington reported favorably on it. He mentioned that in a small lecture space within the exhibit there was some presentation on climate change going on; this is curious, since the exhibit’s principal funder and namesake, David Koch, is a well-known global warming denialist.

On a final museological note, I can also recommend the National Museum of the Marine Corps, just south of Washington in Quantico, Va. The museum covers much of the history of the Marine Corps, although it has obviously been constructed to allow future expansion. When I was there in March there was a special exhibit on the photojournalism of Eddie Adams, famed for his photo of a Viet Cong being executed by a South Vietnamese policeman. The museum as a whole leans to the cabinet style in terms of the density and diversity of objects, but does have much didactic labeling. There are some interactive elements as well. In an interesting but not wholly successful exhibit designed to simulate coming ashore in a landing craft, the walls of the craft vibrated strongly as each (sound only) machine gun round struck the craft.

Note the painted sand and sea, just as in the USNM’s African waterhole “diorama”, in the Marine Corps museum’s lobby.

Albino squirrel update

March 29, 2010 • 10:39 am

by Greg Mayer

Observant reader Chris Helzer saw an albino squirrel outside the National Museum of Natural History a few days after I did, and got a much better picture of it, which he has kindly allowed me to post here.

Albino gray squirrel outside the USNM, Washington, DC, 28 March 2010.

This is probably the same squirrel I saw, and it seems to be on the same tree. In Chris’s much better picture you can see the pink eye, showing that it is a true albino, not merely albinistic.

UPDATE. I came across this posting at The Chicken or the Egg blog about white squirrels at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, my (and Jerry’s) alma mater. It seems that white squirrels have an affinity for natural history museums. Note that the MCZ white squirrel is albinistic, not true albino (it has a dark eye). Chicken also links to this wonderful site, the White Squirrel Research Institute, devoted to the white squirrels of Brevard, North Carolina. The Brevard squirrels, like the MCZ ones, are also albinistic rather than albino.