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The Smithsonian announced an awesome Open Access library of their collections

The Smithsonian Museum announced the launch of Smithsonian Open Access on Tuesday (link at the bottom of the article). Under this program, roughly 2.8 million of the museum’s digital image and data collections, gathered over nearly two centuries, have been made free to access, download, transform, and use for any purpose, for free, without further permission from the Smithsonian.

The Apollo 11 Command Module, “Columbia”.

It is the largest open-access program launched by a museum to date and the most varied in regards to the fields of science it touches upon. The Smithsonian will also continue to add items to the library, with plans to have over 3 million images designated as open access by late 2020.

The Smithsonian, Opened

“Open access is a milestone for the Smithsonian in our efforts to reach, educate and inspire audiences,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in a press release unveiling the program. “Through this initiative, we are empowering people across the globe to reimagine and repurpose our collections in creative new ways.”

The 19 museums, 9 research centers, as well as the libraries, archives, and the National Zoo that are part of the Smithsonian Institution all participated in the Open Access program. The content they pooled includes 2- and 3D images of the items in their collections, research datasets, and collection metadata (i.e. data about the data they have). There’s something for everyone here — the collections include art, culture, and design just as much as they deal with hard sciences, history, technology, and 3D scans of dinosaur skeletons.

Or this humble but pretty Platycerus agassizii from the National Museum of Natural History.
Triceratops skull from the collection of Mr. John B. Hatcher.

The program comes as a continuation of one of the Smithsonian’s previous programs, in which it made over 4.7 million collection images available online for personal, non-commercial and educational use under the Smithsonian Open Access initiative. Some 3 million of those images have been placed under a Creative Commons Zero designation, meaning you can use them for pretty much anything without needing permission from the Smithsonian or requiring that you pay them.

The guitar played by Edward Van Halen while on tour in 2007, currently at the National Museum of American History.
A statue of Mr. Peanut, also at the National Museum of American History.

“Open access exemplifies the Smithsonian’s core mission: the ‘increase and diffusion’ of knowledge our institution has fostered for nearly 175 years,” said John Davis, interim director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, who led the initiative from its inception.

“With Smithsonian Open Access, we’re inviting people everywhere to make that knowledge their own–to share and build on our digital collections for everything from creative works, to education and scholarly research, to bold innovations we have yet to imagine.”

The Smithsonian Institution hopes that their open access program will inspire the public to use their collection to “understand and solve today’s challenges” says Effie Kapsalis, the Smithsonian senior digital program officer, who managed and guided implementation of the program. The data itself will be hosted by Amazon Web Services Public Dataset Program and the whole program was built in partnership with Google Arts & Culture.

All the images used in this article were obtained from the Smithsonian Open Access library.

New dolphin species found in … museum collection

A fossil that has been lying in the Smithsonian collection for more than 50 years may help piece together an evolutionary puzzle of dophin and whales.

Artistic reconstruction of a pod of Arktocara yakataga, swimming offshore of Alaska during the Oligocene, about 25 million years ago, with early mountains of Southeast Alaska in the background. The authors speculate that Arktocara may have socialized in pods, like today’s oceanic dolphins. Art by Alexandra Broesma.

The fossil, a partial skull about 9 inches long, was discovered in southeastern Alaska by Donald J. Miller, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey, back in 1951. It was carefully stored in the museum collection, alongside tens of thousands of other specimens and largely forgotten. Nicholas D. Pyenson, the museum’s curator of fossil marine mammals, and Alexandra Boersma, a researcher in his lab, finally got to analyze the fossil, writing that it belonged to a dolphin that swam in subarctic marine waters around 25 million years ago, during a period called the Oligocene. It represents not only a new species, but also a new genus – a superior taxonomic rank.

“We are always learning new things about the vast legacy built by our predecessors at the museum,” Pyenson said. But earlier this year, he and Boersma were captivated by and focused their attention on what Boersma calls “this beautiful little skull from Alaska.”

It happens more often than you think: researchers find a throng of fossils, but with limited funds and time, many of them lie undescribed. If you’ve ever seen a museum collection, you probably know what I mean. Huge, warehouse-like rooms are filled with fossils and there’s no way a handful of people could ever analyze them properly. Even valuable specimens such as this one are sometimes forgotten, unseen not only by patron museums but also by staff.

“There’s all this stuff that no one has ever had time to go through,” Alexandra Boersma, who studies fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian, told The Washington Post. “Some of it has been sitting there for decades,” Boersma adds. “No one has gotten around to describing it.” Sometimes, all you need to do to find a new species is wander on the museum halls.

They named the fossil Arktocara yakataga. After comparing its features to both living and extinct dolphin species, they learned that it is a relative of the South Asian river dolphin Platanista. This used to be a large and diverse group of dolphins, but today, Platanista is the only survivor. So the entire legacy of A. yakataga hangs by a thread. Platanista is poorly understood and tragically endangered, threatened by fishing nets, pollution and habitat destruction with only a few thousand specimens surviving in the waters of Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Paleontologists hope that by studying this older fossil, we can better understand Platanista’s needs and vulnerabilities, tailoring better strategies to ensure its survival.

“One of the most useful ways we can study Platanista is by studying its evolutionary history, by looking at fossils that are related to it to try to get a better sense of where it’s coming from,” Boersma said. “Exactly how that once diverse and globally widespread group dwindled down to a single species in Southeast Asia is still somewhat a mystery, but every little piece that we can slot into the story helps.”

For starters, the fact that today’s dolphin lives in waters in eastern Asia and the Oligocene dolphin lived in Arctic waters is a surprise.

“Considering the only living dolphin in this group is restricted to freshwater systems in Southeast Asia, to find a relative that was all the way up in Alaska 25 million years ago was kind of mind-boggling,” Boersma said.

Journal Reference: Arktocara yakataga, a new fossil odontocete (Mammalia, Cetacea) from the Oligocene of Alaska and the antiquity of Platanistoidea.


Rare dolphin fossil might show why dolphins left rivers

Scientists from the Smithsonian have a surprising fossil dating about 6 million years old. The fossil seems to have been an ancestor of modern dolphins and might explain why dolphins left rivers and set out for the ocean.

3D printed reconstruction of the dolphin’s head. Image via Smithsonian.

Today, there are almost 40 species of dolphins, and all of them are intriguing animals. For starters, all dolphins are marine mammals, which in itself is pretty rare; they evolved from land mammals need to breathe air from the surface and their skeleton is still characteristic of land animals – not fish. The traditional theory of cetacean evolution (whales and dolphins) suggests that this happened sometime around 50 million years ago. But the interesting thing is that they initially lived in rivers, and only started inhabiting the oceans much later. They were also pretty successful from the start.

 “Fossil evidence suggests that river dolphins’ ancestors were widespread around the globe,” the Smithsonian press release states. I. panamensis was one of these flourishing dolphin ancestors.

Today, there are only 4 species of river dolphins, and all of them are endangered… so what happened? Why were they so successful then, and not so much now? Which leads us to this fossil.

The fossil, which dates from 5.8–6.1 million years ago, was found on the Caribbean coast near the town of Piña, Panama. It consists of half a skull, lower jaw with an almost entire set of conical teeth, right shoulder blade and two small bones from the dolphin’s flipper.

“We discovered this new fossil in marine rocks, and many of the features of its skull and jaws point to it having been a marine inhabitant, like modern oceanic dolphins,” Nicholas D. Pysenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the lead author of the study, said in the release.

Scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute collect the fossils of Isthminia panamensis, a new fossil dolphin, from the Caribbean coast of Panama on 18 June 2011. The fossil is encased in a white plaster jacket, and recovered as the tide rushed in.
Credit: Aaron O’Dea / Smithsonian Institution

This seems to be one of the earliest fossils which shows a marine dolphin, potentially capturing the species in a transition period.

“We discovered this new fossil in marine rocks, and many of the features of its skull and jaws point to it having been a marine inhabitant, like modern oceanic dolphins,” added Pyenson“Many other iconic freshwater species in the Amazon, such as manatees, turtles and stingrays have marine ancestors, but until now, the fossil record of river dolphins in this basin has not revealed much about their marine ancestry. Isthminia now gives us a clear boundary in geologic time for understanding when this lineage invaded Amazonia.”

Other fossilized animals found at the same site as Isthminia panamensis were marine species, further confirming that I. panamensis lived in a salty, marine environment.

 “Isthminia is actually the closest relative of the living Amazon river dolphin,” said study co-author Aaron O’Dea, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “While whales and dolphins long ago evolved from terrestrial ancestors to fully marine mammals, river dolphins represent a reverse movement by returning inland to freshwater ecosystems. As such, fossil specimens may tell stories not just of the evolution these aquatic animals, but also of the changing geographies and ecosystems of the past.”


Because river dolphins are so threatened now, understanding the environmental constrains which made them leave rivers initially is more important than ever, as it may enable biologists to understand and set up better conservation plans.

A new kind of planet found – the mega-Earth – suggest higher possibilities of locating habitable worlds

A rocky world weighing 17 more than the Earth was discovered, and because it’s not only way much bigger than the previously discovered ‘super-Earths’, but also all solids, the scientists called it ‘mega-Earth’. Until this recent discovery, scientists believed that a world of such dimensions would be physically impossible to form, because of the thickness that would absorb the hydrogen gas as it grew and become a Jupiter-like gas giant.



Xavier Dumusque, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) representative, who led the data analysis and made the discovery, declared that they were very surprised to have identified such a formation. Kepler-10c was previously known to have a diameter of approximately 18,000 miles (2.3 times bigger than the Earth), which would have placed the planet into the mini-Neptunes category, characterized by thick gaseous envelopes.

The newly discovered mega-Earth circles a sun-like star every 45 days, according to the researchers. Its location is approximately 560 light-years from the Earth, in the Draco constellation.  A 3-Earth-mass ‘lava world’, Kepler-10b is also contained by the solar system, whose main characteristic is the uncommonly fast 20-hour orbit. While it’s hard for the scientific world to explain the formation of such large, rocky planet, the latest observational studies suggest that’s highly possible for other planets to have similar characteristics. Accordingly, astronomer Lars A. Buchhave managed to find, recently, a correlation between the period of a planet (representing the time it takes to orbit its star) and the size at which the transition from rocky to gaseous is made, theory which implies that there are more mega-Earths yet to be discovered, along with the extension of the planet hunters and their data towards longer-period orbits.

The CfA researcher Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, declared that ‘This is the Godzilla of Earths! But unlike the movie monster, Kepler-10c has positive implications for life.’  Kepler -10c was discovered by NASA’s spacecraft, Kepler. The satellite uses the transit method in order to disclose planets, searching for dimming stars whenever planets pass in front of it. After the receptive process, the dimming represents the key information by whose interpretation the astronomers can measure the planet’s physical size or even its diameter. What Kepler can’t inform is whether the planets found are solid or gassy.

But the discovery of the mega-Earth is only merely significant in itself, as it’s far more important what it connotes: given that the Kepler-10 system is approximately 11 billion years old, it means that the planet formed only 3 billion years after the Big Bang, discovery which has significant implications on both the history of the universe and the possibility of life on other planets.

The explanation of this is purely deductive as the scientists see it: it is believed that the early universe only contained hydrogen and helium, since heavier elements, which are necessary in order to form rocky planets, were only created during the first generations of stars. It was when they exploded that these materials were scattered through space and only after that moment could they have been incorporated into later generations of stars and planets. The above mentioned process is believed to have taken billions of years. The fact that this planet exists in a rocky form at these dimensions means that the universe was able to form such huge rockets even during the time when heavy elements were scarce.The immediate conclusion of the scientists is that

if you can make rockets you can make life!Dimitar Sasselo.

At its turn, this implies that if we shouldn’t necessarily rule out the much older stars when searching for Earth-like planets given that they could host rocky Earths as well, this discovery implies that the chance of locating potentially habitable worlds is significantly larger.

The 2014 Smithsonian Photo Contest Finalists

© Daniel D’Auria. Finalist – Natural world.

Smithsonian has just announced the 60 finalists for their 11th Annual Photo Contest. They selected the 60 photographs out of over 50.000 entries, sent by photographers all over the world.

© Graham McGeorge. Finalist – Natural world.

They selected 10 finalists for each of their 6 categories The Natural WorldTravelPeopleAmericanaAltered Images and Mobile – which is a newly added category.

© Nicolas Reusens. Finalist – Altered images.

Everyone and anyone can vote! You can cast 1 vote here every 24 hours, so hurry up – voting is only open until May 6, 2014 at 6:00 PM ET. The winners will be announced on May 15.

© Simon Morris. Finalist – People.

Sadly, one of the entered photographers was actually stolen – it was origianlly published by Chris Bellamy in Alberta, Canada in 2010. It was of course retracted from the competition.

© Aspen Wan. Finalist – Natural world.

I really encourage you to vote! It’s one of the best photo contests in which readers get the chance to decide the winner, and the photos are indeed amazing! Definitely worth checking out.

© José De Rocco. Finalist – Natural world.

© Matthew Zheng. Finalist – Travel.

© Vo Anh Kiet. Finalist – Travel.

© Karen Lunney. Finalist – Natural World.

© Richard Masters. Finalist – Natural World.

© Mark Kaplan. Finalist – Americana.




Artist impression ofthe Daemonosaurus chauliodus shows its size relative to an American quarter. (c) Jeffrey Martz

New dinosaur species found bridges evolutionary gap

Artist impression ofthe  Daemonosaurus chauliodus shows its size relative to an American quarter. (c) Jeffrey Martz

Artist impression ofthe Daemonosaurus chauliodus shows its size relative to an American quarter. (c) Jeffrey Martz

A team of paleontologists from the Smithsonian Institute have uncovered the fossils of a brand new dinosaur species in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico which posses a particular importance by filling the family tree gap between early predatory species such as Herrerasaurus and later theropod dinosaurs.

Researchers named the species Daemonosaurus chauliodus, based on the Greek words “daimon” meaning evil spirit, since it was found in Ghost Ranch (superstitious excavators, uh?) and “sauros” meaning lizard or reptile. The species name chauliodus is derived from the Greek word for “buck-toothed” and refers to the species’ big slanted front teeth as seen in the skull and neck of the Daemonosaurus, which were actually the only fossils found.

Because of the scarce number of fossils, it’s size is difficult to asses it’s length. What researchers know, though, is that the dinosaur’s skull is narrow and relatively deep, measuring 5.5 inches long from the tip of its snout to the back of the skull and has proportionately large eye socket.

Scientists have dated the Daemonosaurus approximately 205 million years ago, in the Triassic Period, just before the beginning of the Jurassic Period, which posses a remarkable significance since all basal (primitive) dinosaurs had vanished millions of years earlier.

“Various features of the skull and neck in Daemonosaurus indicate that it was intermediate between the earliest known predatory dinosaurs from South America and more advanced theropod dinosaurs,” said Hans Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and lead author of the team’s findings. “One such feature is the presence of cavities on some of the neck vertebrae related to the structure of the respiratory system.”

This new discovery shows that there is still much to be learned about the early evolution of dinosaurs. “The continued exploration of even well-studied regions like the American Southwest will still yield remarkable new fossil finds,” Sues said.

NASA to announce permanent homes for retired shuttles

Exactly 30 years ago, the first orbital space shuttle launch took place, marking the start of a slew of successful missions, with 135 successful launches, which provided important insights in space exploration, offered satellite deployment, space lab work and indispensable International Space Station service.

The shuttle program however will be permanently retired soon, with only two more flights left – shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis. Discovery, which completed its final journey to the International Space Station last month, and Enterprise, the first shuttle, which took its maiden voyage in 1977 but was a test orbiter and not capable of spaceflight, have been already retired.

All four shuttles will be symbolically donated to four worthy institutions for displaying purposes, with the official announcement settling the resting place for each shuttle going live this Tuesday. Currently there 27 institutions across the US competing to have one of the shuttles on permanent display, among which Houston’s NASA Mission Control or Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. I’m pretty sure one of the two will have a shuttle on display somewhere, it would be most fitting, really. Other institutions  that would love to host a space shuttle are the  Johnson Space Center, the Air Force Museum in Ohio and museums in New York City, Seattle and Chicago.

Apparently, Shuttle Discovery, which ended its flying career last month, is going to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

This Tuesday, April 12th, also marks the 50th anniversary of the first human journey into outer space. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became an international celebrity after his Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit around Earth April 12, 1961.

We’ll keep this post updated as soon as the remaining three institutions each hosting a shuttle for permanent display are officially announced. Be sure to return to this page, if you’re still curious.

Smithsonian Wild – a database of wildlife photos 200,000 captured with automated cameras

Some animals in the wild are so elusive and hard to glimpse that they’re almost impossible to capture with a camera. This is why researchers often use trip cameras with motion sensors that film or photograph whenever an animal is in the vicinity. The Smithsonian today launched a new searchable website, siwild.si.edu, that presents more than 202,000 wildlife photos captured in this manner. The website both still photos and video clips of more than 200 species of mammals and birds, and you’ll also be able to learn more about each species by clicking through the reference links leading to Encyclopedia of Life, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s own “North American Mammals” page.

“This site provides the public a glimpse of what the scientist sees when surveying remote places,” said William McShea, research wildlife biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “Not every photo is beautiful but every photo provides information that can be used to conserve wild animals. It is addictive to scroll through the photos at a single site and see the diversity that walks by a single camera in the forest.”

Discovery shuttle prepares for final landing

As I told you yesterday, the Discovery shuttle is preparing for a well deserved retirement, after 365 days spent in space, during which it traveled more than 150 million miles. All systems are go for landing at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, thus concluding its 13th and final mission.

The shuttle left the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday after the crew performed one last check on Tuesday, and found that everything is working correctly. Discovery’s orientation and steering. Cmdr. Steve Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt, Nicole Stott and Steve Bowen also put away hardware and equipment.

When they wake up, Wednesday morning (if they haven’t already) they will begin the preparations, and if everything goes according to plan, the de-orbit burn will begin at 10:52 and Discovery will land at 11:57 a.m, according to NASA.

After the shuttle returns to Earth, it will be given a golden retirement at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, but only after NASA will turn it into an unflyable mechanism.