How Scientists Use Old Museum Specimens to Make New Findings

Matthew J Parker, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Matthew J Parker, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

More and more researchers are making new discoveries using old museum specimens. By digging through archives and collections, they've identified scores of new species, including the teddy bear–like olinguito and the Ruth Bader Ginsberg mantis.

Now, scientists examining cyanobacteria found during an expedition in Antarctica more than a century ago have made a surprising find: It looks an awful lot like the bacteria living there today. Their report on the bacteria’s stability appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Cyanobacteria are itsy-bitsy organisms that have occupied Earth’s fresh and salt water for more than 3.5 million years. Also known (inaccurately) as blue-green algae, these single-celled microbes grow in clumps, balls, and sheets all over the world—even in the punishing cold of Antarctica.

Tolypothrix cyanobacteria under a microscope.Matthew J Parker, Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

The earliest expeditions to Antarctica had multiple goals, including scientific study. During the Discovery Expedition (1901–1904), Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team fished a soggy mat of cyanobacteria from Lake Joyce. They brought the mat back to London’s Natural History Museum (NHM), where it was examined, pressed like a flower between sheets of paper, and shelved for safekeeping.

Fast-forward more than 100 years, and things aren’t looking so great for the Antarctic. Climate change is melting icecaps, changing the landscape, and altering plants’ and animals’ behavior and evolution. Researchers with NHM and the University of Waikato wondered if the same was true for the continent’s bacteria.

Anne Jungblut and Ian Hawes journeyed back down to Lake Joyce, where they used drills, cameras, and sediment traps to collect new cyanobacteria samples. Back in London, they retrieved Captain Scott’s algae mats from the archives. They compared the old and new samples, inside and out, scouring the mats for microbe fossils and sequencing their genes.

The results suggested that not much has been going on at Lake Joyce this past hundred years. The two groups of bacteria were remarkably similar, comprising the same species in the same proportions.

This could be good news, the researchers say. "We suggest that this relates to Antarctic freshwater organisms requiring a capacity to withstand diverse stresses," they write, "and that this could also provide a degree of resistance and resilience to future climatic-driven environmental change in Antarctica."

As genetic testing technology improves, museum-based discoveries like this one become more and more common. Biologist Evon Hekkala, of Fordham University, tells Mental Floss, "We are seeing time and time again (no pun intended!), that museum collections originally made for exploratory purposes can take on new and critical roles in helping us to understand the fine details of how living things are responding to our rapidly changing environment. They have helped in some cases to confirm that human activities are driving the loss of genetic diversity and in other cases to exonerate us. This paper is a nice example where we have a comparison across time that can help us to understand how resilient certain living things can be in the face of change. I always say that with museum collections time travel really is possible!"

Hekkala has herself made discoveries using museum specimens. She identified a new crocodile species lurking in the drawers of the American Natural History Museum (AMNH) when she took samples from two crocodile specimens collected from different sides of the Congo River, as she recounts in a recent episode of the AMNH video series Shelf Life: "I was dumbfounded when I looked at the DNA sequence. It turns out that one specimen represents the Nile crocodile species that we all know and love, and the other represents a completely separate species of crocodile. In fact, they’re so distinct that they’re not even each other’s closest relatives. They haven't exchanged genes in millions of years."

Hekkala says museum collections are more important than ever as climate change, deforestation, and habitat loss destroy our planet’s plants and animal populations: "These specimens represent an irreplaceable resource that can never be re-acquired."

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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The Psychological Tricks Disney Parks Use to Make Long Wait Times More Bearable

© Jorge Royan, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
© Jorge Royan, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

No one goes to Disneyland or Disney World to spend the day waiting in line, but when a queue is well-designed, waiting can be part of the experience. Disney knows this better than anyone, and the parks' Imagineers have developed several tricks over the years to make long wait times as painless as possible.

According to Popular Science, hacking the layout of the line itself is a simple way to influence the rider's perspective. When a queue consists of 200 people zig-zagging around ropes in a large, open room, it's easy for waiting guests to feel overwhelmed. This design allows riders to see exactly how many people are in line in front of them—which isn't necessarily a good thing when the line is long.

Imagineers prevent this by keeping riders in the dark when they enter the queue. In Space Mountain, for example, walls are built around the twisting path, so riders have no idea how much farther they have to go until they're deeper into the building. This stops people from giving up when they first get in line.

Another example of deception ride designers use is the "Machiavellian twist." If you've ever been pleasantly surprised by a line that moved faster than you expected, that was intentional. The signs listing wait times at the beginning of ride queues purposefully inflate the numbers. That way, when a wait that was supposed to be 120 minutes goes by in 90, you feel like you have more time than you did before.

The final trick is something Disney parks are famous for: By incorporating the same level of production design found on the ride into the queue, Imagineers make waiting in line an engaging experience that has entertainment value of its own. The Tower of Terror queue in Disney World, which is modeled after a decrepit 1930s hotel lobby down to the cobwebs and the abandoned coffee cups, feels like it could be a movie set. Some ride lines even use special effects. While waiting to ride Star Wars: Ride of the Resistance in Galaxy's Edge, guests get to watch holograms and animatronics that set up the story of the ride. This strategy exploits the so-called dual-task paradigm, which makes the line feel as if it's going by faster by giving riders mental stimulation as they wait.

Tricky ride design is just one of Disney's secrets. Here are more behind-the-scenes facts about the beloved theme parks.

[h/t Popular Science]