I have loved the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History since the first time I walked through the doors at seventeen. I was on my senior class trip from Kentucky and I ended up using almost all of my film taking photos of the animals. I was awed by the White House and Capitol and Lincoln Memorial and I walked down every step of the Washington Monument, but I didn’t get pictures. I did, however, get great shots of the 8-ton, 13-foot tall elephant in the rotunda of the Natural History Museum and the “herd” of deer in the glassed-in, make-believe forest.
After moving to DC, I took every family member and friend who visited us to the Natural History Museum. I still do. I started taking my son on museum jaunts when he was still in the stroller, and I had a great excuse to spend inordinate amounts of time there when he later volunteered at the museum in middle and high school.
On occasion I took my work along with me, writing in the butterfly garden and the cafes and in quiet corners and hallways. Once I sat on a stone bench in the South America hall in front of a replica of a small chapel in the Andes. Most people passed without even noticing, but one little girl kept staring at me. Finally, she tugged on her mother’s arm. “That dummy looks almost real,” she said, pointing to me. I smiled. I wish I had a picture of the look on her face.
I have found some of my favorite reads at the bookstore in the Natural History Museum’s main gift shop. Of course, these books are available many places, but I’m not sure I would have discovered them in a regular bookshop.
My latest find is Bats Sing, Mice Giggle: The Surprising Science of Animals’ Inner Lives by Karen Shanor and Jagmeet Kanwal. Dr. Shanor is a neuropsychologist and an advisory member of Discovery Channel Global Education. Dr. Kanwal is Associate Professor in the Departments of Neurology, Neuroscience, and Psychology at Georgetown University. Both have a long list of professional credits and interesting experiences.
This book is a wonderful exploration of the latest scientific research on how animals express grief, joy, anger, and fear and how they entertain themselves and others. Some can problem-solve even more effectively than humans. Is that really a surprise? This book is interesting, funny, surprising, and occasionally shocking. I don’t have the background to write a critical review of the scientific research or how the nuggets of that knowledge are presented. So I decided to share a few tidbits of info that caused me to dogear pages and underline, gasp and laugh. If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book.
1) Wildlife officials were stunned when the tsunami in Sri Lanka killed around 22,000 people but they could not find any dead animals. How did the animals know to flee?
2) The tiny brain of the monarch butterfly can calculate distances and directions that would confound the most skilled airline pilot.
3) The brains of bats have computational circuits that are more advanced than the most powerful supercomputer ever built. It extracts all of the relevant information in a sound signal almost instantly. Getting the signals right is important. In order to power themselves bats have to eat thousands of mosquitoes every day. They have a heart rate of over 600 times a minute and some species can sustain this for up to 34 years (a human would have to live more than 300 years to work in this many beats). And bats never go to hospital or visit a cardiologist.
4) Squirrels, as well as most other animals, are more particular about their food than one may think. Taste matters. A squirrel can eat really fast, biting through acorn and peanut shells with little effort. But, unless you’ve been really close to a squirrel, it’s impossible to see the tongue at work. While the teeth drive through nut shells like a knife through butter, the tongue separates all those little bits — the not-so-tasty ones get spit out and only the delicious ones are swallowed.
5) Cockroaches can live up to two weeks after being decapitated. That’s two weeks without a head! They’ve been around for more than 300 million years and can tolerate about 100,000 times the dosage of radiation that humans can. (Also, females can have up to 2 million babies a year. That’s a depressing thought.)
6) Pregnant green turtles swim over 600 miles in the course of a typical pregnancy (ouch). They swim from their feeding grounds in Brazil back to their birthplace of Ascension Island in the middle of the south Atlantic Ocean to lay their eggs.
7) Many animals make and use tools or find other creative ways to get what they want. Crows use twigs or bend wire to get at morsels of food. Herons use various kinds of bait and hold it just above the water to lure fish to the surface. Octopuses, in laboratory experiments, have opened jars to get the food inside. Chimps use stones as nutcrackers and sticks to reach bananas. Chimps also use tools for defense and will even carve sharp sticks for that purpose. One chimp at a zoo was observed collecting rocks and knocking off pieces of boulders that he then stacked in a pile. Later in the day he started hurling these rocks at the onlookers who had stopped to see the cute monkey.
8) Frogs and toads engage in social eavesdropping. Females, especially, eavesdrop on the social activities of their male friends and use the info to make mating decisions. (You really have to read the book to understand this one.)
9) Bar-headed geese can fly over 1,000 miles a day up to an altitude of 34,000 feet when crossing the Himalayas. These birds have to be in tip-top shape to fly at high altitude, so they watch their weight. Hummingbirds, on the other hand, have to chow down before their migrations each season.
10) A salamander can regenerate an amputated limb in less than a month. It can replace its tail, jaws, the lens and retina of its eye, and its intestine. Neuroscientists have also taken out the brain of the salamander, ground it up, and put it back in its cavity. Soon the salamander is able to function quite well again. The brain connections grow back quickly.
Other interesting nature reads…
Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid by Tim Ecott