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Earwax plug from a 53-year-old female fin whale (S.Trumble/Baylor University)
In this occasional series, go behind the scenes to meet experts who have some of the most intriguing professional specialties. In this session, hear from scientists who use samples from a Smithsonian collection to reconstruct the last 110 years of ocean contaminants and life histories of baleen whales, and one who monitors the fluctuating hormone levels in some of our favorite zoo residents.
One of the greatest challenges in studying animals is how to get in-depth information about their health and wellbeing with the least amount of disturbance or stress, so scientists have devised clever, low-impact ways to extract and work with valuable samples—even from animals who are no longer alive.
To learn about the hormonal and environmental conditions of baleen whales throughout the 20th century, Stephen Trumble and Sascha Usenko at Baylor University read bands of whale earwax plugs archived in the Natural History Museum’s marine mammal collection as if they were tree rings. The chemical deposits in the plugs can tell them a whale’s age, epigenetics, and even the contaminants it was exposed to in the ocean.
Sarah Putman an endocrinologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal, Virginia, monitors the hormone fluctuations of cheetahs, pandas and other members of the zoo’s captive breeding population for signs of stress, breeding readiness, or pregnancy. Faced with the problem of differentiating among urine or fecal samples collected from critters living in the same enclosure, Putman explains how she has made innovative use of craft supplies to get the job done.
Tony Cohn, co-producer and host of the Smithsonian’s podcast Sidedoor, is the evening’s moderator.
In a Sidedoor podcast, Tony Cohn reports on how the scientists at the National Zoo’s exotic-milk repository stepped in to develop a special formula for a finicky feeder named Fiona, a premature baby hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo who was critically underweight.
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