One of the perks of living in D.C. is its many museums and their delightful oddities—some of which I got to see on a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology last week.
In a lobby made of fossil-rich Paleozoic limestone, Chris Mah, a research collaborator at the museum, set me and my colleagues straight on the invertebrates the museum collects and studies—basically, spineless animals that aren’t insects (think a coral or starfish).
Mah himself is one of only a few starfish experts in the world: “There are more people familiar with obscure Godzilla monsters than there are people who study starfish,” he quipped. Mah’s apparently not the only invertebrate zoologist with a sense of humor—amid a display of bubblegum coral and brittlestars near the elevators was a jar with a “preserved” hot dog—appropriately lacking a backbone, and labeled as “Hotdogia, 1986.”
Mah walked us past row after row of high filing cabinets containing all manner of scientific treasures, some of them from as far back as 1900. Smithsonian scientists still use these specimens for research and species-identification requests, many of them from the general public.
In this sense these “valuable artifacts” are not just specimens “we sequester away—we use them to better science,” Mah said. The Smithsonian Institution as a whole recently hit its millionth catalogued specimen, most of which are kept at a storage facility in Maryland.
Smithsonian scientists also work with other institutions to conduct research on evolution and conservation biology, Mah noted. For instance, the museum participates in expeditions that use deep-sea submersibles equipped to collect and record ocean creatures.
“Seeing the deep-sea bottom on a hi-def video like that, followed by immediate sampling? It’s like the QVC of biology,” Mah said.
(Get more invertebrate news on Mah’s Echinoblog.)
We stopped outside Mah’s office, where he promptly opened a jar containing a preserved giant isopod, releasing noxious ethanol fumes. We all exclaimed at the monstrous creature, which is essentially a huge version of your garden variety pillbug.
Watch Mah talk about giant isopods.
Other curios included a deep-sea slime star—or a “living pillow of mucus,” as Mah described it—a crown-of-thorns starfish, and a shingle sea urchin, which was covered with armadillo-like plates that help the animal survive in rough ocean waters.
He also showed us a sea spider—an arthropod but not actually a spider—which I’d seen alive and squirming in a touch tank during my 2011 fellowship to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
(Related blog post: “Expedition Antarctica: Creepy Crawlers and Explorers.”)
But the pièce de résistance awaited. Mah took us down the hall—past portraits of Victorian men with handlebar mustaches, old wooden card catalogs, and the odd microscope—into a room with a giant squid eyeball.
The largest invertebrate, giant squid—along with their kin the colossal squid—also have the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, which measure some 10 inches (25 centimeters) wide. The massive organs allow them to detect objects—like a hungry sperm whale—in the ocean depths. Peering close into the jar, the eyeball didn’t look all that different than ours, white with a round black pupil at the center.
Mah sent us off with an invitation to visit again and a renewed appreciation for the spineless among us.
Readers, where should my next quest for the weird and underappreciated take me?