The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
On March 1, 2017, the first clouded leopard was born as the result of an artificial insemination procedure using frozen/thawed semen. Born at the Nashville Zoo, this cub represents decades of collaboration between the Nashville Zoo and the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. The first successful artificial insemination of a clouded leopard was also performed at the Nashville Zoo, in 1992, by National Zoo theriogenologist JoGayle Howard.
Dr. Howard (whose research records are part of the Archives’ collections) dedicated her career to breeding endangered species in captivity by adapting techniques commonly used for human infertility treatment. Much of her research focused on felines - clouded leopards, cheetahs, fishing cats, Florida panthers, and even domestic cats - and she frequently collaborated with zoos and wildlife conservation organizations throughout the United States, Africa, and Asia.
Howard also oversaw the black footed ferret breeding program at the National Zoo. In the 1980s, there were only 18 individuals left. Under her supervision, more than 500 kits were born, including more than 100 by artificial insemination. Many of these animals have been reintroduced into the wild. For her leadership in the effort, Howard was named "Recovery Champion" by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009.
The most famous result of her work was the birth of giant panda Tai Shan in 2005. Reproduction rates for giant pandas were low at zoos and breeding centers worldwide and the National Zoo had not produced a healthy panda cub after almost three decades of attempts. Howard worked with Chinese colleagues to develop new protocols for sperm cryopreservation and artificial insemination which contributed to a sharp increase in panda births. Howard was personally responsible for the artificial insemination of Mei Xiang, the National Zoo's female panda, that resulted in the birth of its first surviving cub.
Howard's success in the field of assisted reproduction earned her the nickname "Sperm Queen." In fact, her research records include thousands of images of both sperm and ova, as well as thousands of pages of sperm and ova data and data analysis. She was also a tireless and passionate champion for endangered species, who looked beyond biology to animal behavior and diet in order to understand the bigger picture. She also readily shared her knowledge, expertise, and skills with hundreds of fellows, interns, veterinarians, and wildlife specialists, and even the general public through interviews and television programs.
Howard died of cancer in 2011 at the age of 59, but left behind new clouded leopard facilities at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, reams of reproductive data, new protocols for breeding, a generation of veterinarians building upon her work, and healthier populations of several endangered species.
- Leopard Lifesaver: Smithsonian Scientist JoGayle Howard, SmithsonianScience YouTube
- The Smithsonian Mourns: Dr. JoGayle Howard, Wildlife Biologist (1951-2011), Smithsonian Magazine
- Accession 17-101, National Zoological Park, Department of Reproductive Sciences, Animal Research Records, 1980-2010, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Recently, I had a conversation with Dr. Jorge Santiago-Blay, an entomologist whose research includes fossilized insects. A Resident Research Associate in the Department of Paleobiology with the National Museum of Natural History, and faculty member at both the University of Maryland University College and Penn State University York, Dr. Santiago-Blay’s keen interest in insects is contagious.
In his recent investigations, a small, fossilized head in amber was proving difficult to identify. “I was working with students on this old (approximately 100 million years old) fossil, but its identity kept eluding us. What was it? We always seemed to be asking,” Dr. Santiago-Blay said. “Eventually, it became apparent that the fossil specimen was the head of a larva. Sadly, the rest of the body was not available in the fossil. The team began to wonder how large the fossilized larva was. Because, as far as we know, there is only one such fossilized larva available, we decided to measure modern look alikes of the fossilized larva to try to guess the size of the fossilized specimen.” As Dr. Santiago-Blay’s team began garnering and analyzing data, new questions appeared. “As I dug further into the data, the available photos, and so on … I noticed a pattern that reminded me of Dyar’s Rule, but it was different because we were measuring the dimension of a softer body part, the abdomen.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, entomologist Harrison Gray Dyar, Jr. (1886 - 1929) and others researched growth patterns of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Diptera (flies, such as mosquitoes), and other arthropods. Dyar identified a geometric pattern of increase in the exoskeleton length and width relationships over progressive molting events—indicating that this progression could be measured so consistently that one could reliably predict the size at which the next molting events would occur. We see the first mention of a “Dyar’s Law” in the scientific literature, referring to this progression, as early as the 1920s.
No data set is perfect; there is always extraneous data. When a scientific standard like Dyar’s Law is developed, the analyses used to arrive at the standard include filtering out the “noise” in the data. Dr. Santiago-Blay’s team is taking a fresh look at Dyar’s original, unfiltered observations for clues that might explain how Dyar reached his conclusions.
Santiago-Blay and his team hope to find some answers in Dyar’s original field observations and his personal papers located at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. That will require transcribing a number of Dyar’s field books cover to cover to make as thorough an examination as possible. Last spring, the Smithsonian Transcription Center held a #DigIntoDyar campaign to tackle a number of Dyar’s sawfly field books from the Archives collections.
“I think the Transcription Center and its volunteers are wonderful. The work they do is extremely important. Hopefully, their help transcribing Dyar’s materials will make it possible to discover more answers and better understand Dyar’s Law,” Santiago-Blay said. More of Dyar’s field books are available now for transcription at the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
- Record Unit 7101. Harrison Gray Dyar Papers, 1882-1927, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Harrison G. Dyar Notebooks, Department of Entomology, 1882 - 1925, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Impossible Case of Harrison G. Dyar, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Bizarre Tale of the Tunnels, Trysts and Taxa of a Smithsonian Entomologist, Smithsonian Magazine