The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Field Book Project
There they were, tucked between the pages of a catalog of Alaskan bird skins, and eggs by Edward William Nelson , but . . . what were they? They certainly didn’t look like they belonged to a bird. About five inches long, wavy and coarse, with brown and white banding, the mystery hairs presented themselves as a question and an opportunity. Being a pre-program conservation intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives on the Field Book Project has been such a pleasure and the path to discovering the answer to this hairy problem is exactly the kind of thing I love about working with cultural heritage items.
Just looking at the hairs with an unaided eye, my first guess was that they were the guard hairs of a porcupine. The first step to find out if I was right was to head to the microscope. Working first with a stereo microscope and then with a polarized light microscope, I set to work learning more about the hairs. The animated GIF below illustrates how polarized light microscopy works (click on the picture below to see it). As the microscope stage is turned, the hairs change appearance. When viewed through a transmitted light analyzer (a type of filter,) the polarized light allows us to observe different features based on how light is refracted or transmitted through structures differently. The first image in the GIF is the hair under unfiltered polarized light.
The microscopy yielded lots of important information, for instance you can see the striations and the empty space known as the medulla, rather than a central shaft. Along with the scale pattern, this verified that these were not feathers. The particular scale and medulla patterns seen above, when compared to a known example indicated that it wasn’t quite a porcupine. On to the next guess. A deer, perhaps? Nope! The unique ribs on the hairs meant it probably couldn’t be a deer, despite a lot of similarities. What other animals were there in Alaska that might have this type of hair structure?
I was officially stumped, so I turned to the experts. Luckily, being an intern with the Smithsonian has its perks and the experts were right across the National Mall at the National Museum of Natural History. I met with Suzanne Peurach, a Collection Manager on the U. S. Geological Survey staff (a descendent of the same organization Edward William Nelson worked for), in the Division of Mammals. In no time, she and her colleague, Al Gardner, deduced that it was not in fact a deer hair, nor was it that of a porcupine. It turns out I had been looking at animals in the wrong part of the world. Edward William Nelson didn’t just spend time in Alaska, though the book I was working with detailed an Alaskan collection. For nearly a decade, Nelson was a field researcher in Mexico. It was here that he would have picked up the two hairs which had spent so much time puzzling me, not in the cold of Alaska. The hairs turned out to be those of a javelina, a.k.a. collared peccary! Using existing slides to compare, Suzanne found the same ribs that I couldn’t find in any other specimen I had looked at. Furthermore, she pointed to a clue I had not even seen (that’s why she’s the expert). The split ends of the hair, which I had not thought of as special, were the key indicator that it belonged to a member of the family Tayassuidae, which includes the javelina.
As I said, being a conservation intern at the Smithsonian Archives has been a wonderful experience, and the best part of it by far is the opportunity to meet and work with the people who make up the staff and volunteer corps of the Smithsonian. Microscopy had given me a lot of clues, but it was the access to and the spirit of collaboration among experts at the Smithsonian that ultimately guided me to the answer of the mystery hairs.
- Record Unit 7364 - Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman Collection, circa 1873-1946 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 12-320 - Edward William Nelson Field Notes, 1869-1886, Smithsonian Institution Archives
We just launched a set of images from the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey program which took place in the 1960s/early 1970s and sought to learn about plants and animals occurring on the islands, the seasonal variations in their numbers and reproductive activities, and the distribution and population of the pelagic birds of that area. The images were taken on Sand and Johnston Islands from various vantage points, including from LORAN (Long Range Navigation) towers. Since it was the first time I had heard of a LORAN tower, I did a little digging and found out they are radio towers which helped ships to navigate. They are a thing of the past since they have been replaced by GPS and satellite systems. They did offer up some pretty stunning views from this expedition, however. Enjoy the slideshow!
- Record Unit 245 - National Museum of Natural History, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, Records, circa 1961-1973, with data from 1923, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- LORAN images on Flickr Commons.
- It’s a (Sea) Bird, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Over 50 years ago, a team of over 40 Smithsonian researchers were deployed to survey plants and animals living on the islands and atolls of the Pacific Ocean as part of the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program. The major goals of the program were to learn what plants and animals occurred on the islands, the seasonal variations in their numbers and reproductive activities, and the distribution and population of the pelagic birds (birds living over the open ocean) of that area.
During the six and a half years of field work, 1,800,000 birds were banded and approximately 150,000 observations of pelagic birds at sea were made. We hope you enjoy these completely adorable pelagic chicks, all in the name of science!
Last June, I joined the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservation at the Smithsonian Institution Archives as a pre-Master's program art conservation summer intern. My focus was on the preservation and rehousing of scientist’s exploration journals that are part of the Field Book Project. In September, I was fortunate to remain at the Archives as the conservation technician for the Field Book Project. Over the past year I've flipped through hundreds of field books containing fascinating information that detail collected field data, as well as the author's experiences with indigenous cultures from around the world. Surprisingly, I've even come across an endearing poem or two nestled amongst daily diary entries or numbered lists of technical field data. It's been a pleasure to discover that the scientists who authored these books were quite creative in how they depicted their observations and gathered scientific information while in the field. At the time in which many of these explorations took place (often pre-photography), the noted interactions and observations of the author best depicted life in exotic and foreign locations.
My involvement and contribution to this project wraps up in a couple of months, but I wanted to share some of the more fascinating items I've found pressed between the pages of the field books I've come across; items that are great descriptors of life while away on an exploration.
During the holidays, it is a tradition in my family for everyone to get together and go see a movie in the theaters. While the action and the company are nice, what I really love is the popcorn! There are many different flavors of popcorn out there, but the flavors are usually determined by what is put on the popped kernels, such as chocolate or caramel, and not on the natural flavor of the popcorn itself. With all the different varieties of corn you can buy at the grocery store, have you ever wondered which one would make the best popcorn? Well, while digitizing the field books of American botanist Paul Allen, I discovered that he pondered the answer to that very question, and decided to do some testing of his own.
Paul Hamilton Allen was born in Oklahoma in 1911. After high school, he joined the Missouri Botanical Garden as a student apprentice, where he got his start as a botanist. He went on to manage the Missouri Botanical Garden’s field station in Panama from 1936 to 1939, allowing him to be one of a handful of American botanists with experience in the tropics by the time World War II started. Allen used this tropical experience to support the war effort by joining the United States Rubber Development Corporation where he helped obtain rubber from trees in Columbia.
After the war was over, he resumed his overseas work on orchids. It was during one of his collecting trips to Panama in 1947 that Allen came across a spot in the Darien Province that contained numerous varieties of corn. Being the good scientist that he was, Allen decided to try popping different types and tasting them to determine the best variety for consumption. Of the nineteen different varieties of corn Allen described in his notes from that area, he only chose to test six of them. Allen achieved success with three of the corns he popped, writing for the other entries "will not pop" or "would not pop." He then ranked the three varieties of "popped" corn in order by taste. Allen noted that the least appealing popcorn came from a variety of corn that is used to make chicha, a Central American drink that is usually made from germinated corn. He describes the winning corn as being "dwarf yellow – with scattered purple and black grains," which is certainly a change from the white or yellow color of modern day popcorn.
After his experimentation with popcorn, it seems Allen fell for another type of food. In 1959, he went on to work for the United Fruit Company on a major banana breeding project, where he collected specimens from around the world until his death in 1963.
So the next time you are watching a movie and enjoying a bowl of popcorn, thank scientists like Paul Allen for their taste-testing efforts!
- Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Paul Hamilton Allen Records
- Field Book Project, Smithsonian Institution Archives/National Museum of Natural History
- Accession 11-101 - Paul Hamilton Allen Field Books, 1936-1961, Smithsonian Institution Archives