Ornithology, Methods & Mystery


Ping Zhu

Some contributors to our pages here would likely have much more clear views on this story than I do. I am certain that I favor scientific method, and this scientist followed protocol. And yet, the fallout from his scientific methods was intense. And it was not as simple as trolls gonna troll. I understand the fallout but instead of outrage I am full of questions about this story about The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer by Kirk Wallace Johnson:


The mustached kingfisher. Robert Moyle

For some time, I’d been searching for Christopher Filardi, a biologist with decades of field experience in the Solomon Islands. I wanted to interview him for a book I was writing, but the email system at the American Museum of Natural History, which once listed him as the director of Pacific programs at its Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, bounced back my message.

The auto-reply said that he’d moved to another organization, Conservation International. When I wrote him there, another auto-reply informed me that he had moved on. I couldn’t find him on Facebook or Twitter. The man seemed to have vanished.

When I finally found a working number for him, he was reluctant to talk. Three years ago, his life was overturned by an online mob that accused him of murder. The fact that the mob’s outrage was driven by ignorance didn’t make it any less frightening. Continue reading

Attenborough & Visionary Realism


Illustration by Jasu Hu

Another from the last issue of the year and part of a series that the New Yorker offers to help us reflect on the big picture (each in this series is a very short read with disproportionate impact):


His game-changing shows remind us that ours is an impermanent and fragile world.

By Téa Obreht

No trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York is complete without a visit to the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. It’s a blue-tinged room, booming with surf-roar and the cries of gulls and rimmed with marine dioramas: teeming kelp forests and coral reefs, a walrus lost in thought, dolphins and tuna fleeting through twilit seas. Continue reading

Ghost Snake Discovered in Madagascar

Iconic limestone Tsingy rocks in Ankarana National Park in northern Madagascar where the ghost snake was discovered. Photo by Sarah Ruane, LSU

Last month it was Mexico, and this time it’s Madagascar – once again, a new snake species with a presumably localized distribution has been discovered in a little-explored area. The elusive and pale gray snake has likely evolved to camouflage against the rocks of the region, and was named Madagascarophis lolo (lolo meaning ghost in Malagasy) by researchers from the LSU Museum of Natural Science, the American Museum of Natural History and the Université de Mahajunga in Madagascar.

The ghost snake is part of a common group of snakes called Madagascarophis, or cat-eyed snakes, named for their vertical pupils, which is often found among snakes that are active in the evening or night. Many of the cat-eyed snakes are found in developed areas or degraded forests. However, the researchers found the ghost snake on the national park’s iconic pale grey limestone Tsingy rocks.

Continue reading

Bringing Nature To An Urban Audience


Installing the Birds of Paradise group, 1945. COURTESY AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Our interest in the display of natural history makes this is a must-read:

The dioramas at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History—those vivid and lifelike re-creations of the natural world, in which the taxidermied specimens almost seem to breathe and the painted horizons seem to stretch for miles—are very much products of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century milieu in which many of them were created. Temporally and aesthetically sandwiched between the cabinet of curiosities and “Planet Earth,” the dioramas grew out of the intersection between a nascent conservation movement and an age of swashbuckling adventurism…

Of course, we prefer natural history in natural places, preferably intact and living and resplendent as hinted at in this video which we have featured previously. But museums have their place, and the mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is just the most recent of a long line of efforts to get the inanimate to animate our interest. But for those of us who grew up making dioramas, this feature brings to mind the power of three dimensions, even when inanimate, to animate.


An eagle for the bird-group exhibit, 1961. COURTESY AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

…The word “diorama,” which comes from the Greek for “to see through,” Continue reading

Undiscovered Species in Natural History Museums

Evon Hekkala and a crocodile skull at the AMNH. Photo by Ed Yong.

We’re big fans of museums, especially those of natural history with specimens of life in the world that are invaluable to science. Now, in a piece for the Atlantic, Ed Yong (previously here) writes about the dozens of new species being identified many years–or in the case of some Egyptian mummified crocodiles, millennia–after their collection. These specimens, Yong reports, can inform us further on the evolution of animal body types, on cycles of diversity, and on the origins of epidemics, among other things:

In the darkness of the Akeley Hall of Mammals, swarms of kids gawk at beautifully staged dioramas of Africa’s wildlife. The stuffed safari, nestled in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, includes taxidermied leopards stalking a bush pig, preserved ostriches strutting in front of warthogs, and long-dead baboons cautiously considering a viper. In one corner, in a display marked “Upper Nile Region,” a lone hippo grazes next to a herd of lechwe, roan antelope, and a comically stern shoebill stork.

“This is my favorite one,” says Evon Hekkala, pointing to the display. “There’s a taxidermied crocodile tucked away down there.”

Continue reading

Systematically Distributing Holiday Cheer

The holiday season is about giving and the classic song quantifies the largess. The American Museum of Natural History is home to many happy childhood memories and I embrace their scientific form of expressing holiday cheer. Not everyone can claim their “True Love” is a “Science Geek” – but kudos to AMNHNYC for helping us all be Science Lovers!




Awesome Oceans, Awesome Curator, Awesome Book


The American Museum of Natural History is a favorite childhood and parenthood hangout of many of the readers of these pages and visitors to places where Raxa Collective does its work. Our sense of awe about the natural world often starts in an urban institution like this one. No surprise, its curators are awesome in their own right. Here is one example from the AMNH blog a few weeks back:

Q&A with Curator Melanie Stiassny

This month marks the publication of Opulent Oceans:Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library (Sterling Signature, 2014), the third in a series showcasing the spectacular holdings of the Rare Book Collection in the Museum Library. Written by Curator Melanie L. J. Stiassny, the book includes essays about pioneering biologists who studied marine life. (And like the preceding volumes—Natural Histories (2012), which inspired the current exhibition, and Extraordinary Birds (2013)—it also showcases a variety of scientific illustrations that brought new discoveries to a growing audience of experts and laypeople alike.)

We recently spoke with Dr. Stiassny, who is Axelrod Research Curator in the Department of Ichthyology, about her experiences researching the book. Continue reading

Panoramic Viewpoints

Fred F. Scherer, left, and James Perry Wilson, center, paint the background for the American Bison/Pronghorn antelope diorama in 1942.

Visitors to the American Museum of Natural History look at a diorama for which Scherer painted the background decades prior.

Growing up in and around New York I spent many happy hours at the American Museum of Natural History. In addition to it being the depository of many anthropological, archeological and paleontological wonders, it also successfully brings the outside inside for many city dwellers. One of the ways they effectively did this was through museum dioramas. In the age that preceded high-quality large format photography the dioramas required skilled mural painters to help bring the taxidermic animals “to life”. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In New York

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The exhibition goes well beyond that big whale you may remember in that great open space at the Museum:

Whales: Giants of the Deep explores the latest research about these marine mammals as well as the central role they have played for thousands of years in human cultures. From the traditions of New Zealand’s Maori whale riders and the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of the Pacific Northwest to the international whaling industry and the rise of laws protecting whales from commercial hunting, the exhibition traces the close connections humans and whales have shared for centuries.  Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In New York City

In New York, of all places, you can see and learn about one of our favorite phenomena.  If we have not written about it yet, we will post on this topic from the perspective of some of our own contributors who have seen this in southern Chile, and as recently as last summer Seth took photos while at Morgan’s Rock in Nicaragua.  Here is what the New York Times has to say about the exhibition at the Museum of Natural History in New York:

A thoroughly engrossing exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History that opens on Saturday — “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence” — teaches us quite a bit about the phenomenon. Yet it still manages to preserve that otherworldly mystery, even cherishing it — treating it as if it were one of those ecologically vulnerable bioluminescent bays of glowing plankton in the Caribbean by whose shimmer visitors could once read in the middle of the night. Continue reading