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.

Microscope image of Tolypothrix cyanobacteria
Tolypothrix cyanobacteria under a microscope.

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."

Blue Apron’s Memorial Day Sale Will Save You $60 On Your First Three Boxes

Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

If you’ve gone through all the recipes you had bookmarked on your phone and are now on a first-name basis with the folks at the local pizzeria, it might be time to introduce a new wrinkle into your weekly dinner menu. But instead of buying loads of groceries and cookbooks to make your own meal, you can just subscribe to a service like Blue Apron, which will deliver all the ingredients and instructions you need for a unique dinner.

And if you start your subscription before May 26, you can save $20 on each of your first three weekly boxes from the company. That means that whatever plan you choose—two or four meals a week, vegetarian or the Signature plan—you’ll save $60 in total.

With the company’s Signature plan, you’ll get your choice of meat, fish, and Beyond foods, along with options for diabetes-friendly and Weight Watchers-approved dishes. The vegetarian plan loses the meat, but still allows you to choose from a variety of dishes like General Tso's tofu and black bean flautas.

To get your $60 off, head to the Blue Apron website and click “Redeem Offer” at the top of the page to sign up.

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26 Fascinating Facts About the Human Body

Ridofranz/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Ridofranz/iStock via Getty Images Plus

You may not think about it very often, but there's so much to learn about the human body. For instance, did you know that people are actually covered in invisible stripes? In this article, which was adapted from an episode of The List Show, we take a look at some fascinating facts about the human body you might not know.

1. Only humans have chins.

Humans are the only animals with chins. While you may think every animal has one, that’s just what we tend to call the bottom of the head. But in reality, a chin is a very specific bone feature that extends forward from the lower jaw. Some experts propose that elephants and manatees have chins, but others argue that they’re such fundamentally distinct structures they shouldn’t be compared to humans. Experts still aren’t sure why people evolved to have chins; the reason might have to do with eating or speaking, or they may just have emerged as a side effect from some other useful feature.

2. Humans have a strange bone called the hyoid.

A peculiar bone humans have is the hyoid. This is the one bone that doesn’t form a joint with another bone. Instead, it’s connected to muscles and ligaments. The hyoid sits between the jaw and the voice box and it’s used to keep all the lower mouth muscles in place. It also helps with swallowing and talking.

3. People that have more hair and innie belly buttons are more prone to lint.

Hairy people with innie belly buttons are more prone to belly button lint, which comes from fibers that rub off of clothing over time. Your stomach hair grabs onto the fibers and pulls them into your belly button.

Starting in 2011, a group of scientists started the Belly Button Biodiversity Project to learn about what's going on inside these little caves of mystery, and as it turns out, it's quite a lot. Samples from about 60 people revealed over 2300 total species of bacteria. And of those, only eight were identified as common, appearing in over 70 percent of belly buttons.

4. While it varies person to person, fingernails grow faster than toenails.

Your fingernails grow faster than your toenails. Though it varies from person to person, typically, fingernails grow about a tenth of a millimeter each day, while toenails grow at around half that pace. There’s a correlation between nail growth speed and the length of the nearest bone. This means that your longest fingers have faster-growing nails than your shorter fingers.

5. Fingernails grow faster on your dominant hand.

Your fingernails grow faster on the hand that you write with. No one knows why.

6. As you age, your nails change.

Specifically, they grow more slowly and then nail cells, known as onychocytes, start accumulating. That’s why older people have thicker toenails. Fingernails aren’t as noticeably different because people manage them better, plus our toes endure a lot of damage throughout our lives.

7. It's a misconception that people's hair and nails continue to grow after they die.

What’s actually happening is the skin dehydrates and then recedes. So it looks like the hair and nails are getting longer, but in reality it's actually the skin that's getting shorter.

8. Breastfeeding will not cause breasts to sag.

It's a common misconception that breastfeeding causes breasts to sag. Pregnancy itself might affect breasts in that they may stretch and then recover differently. But research on breastfeeding confirms it will not cause breasts to sink. A behavior that will, though, is smoking.

9. Hands and feet contain over half the bones in an adult body.

With around 27 bones in each of your daddles—that’s an old slang word for the hands—and about 26 bones in each of your plates of meat—which is another old slang term for feet—these appendages account for over half of an adult’s bones, of which there are around 206 total. But that’s not always true. Feet mostly contain cartilage at birth, then bones form over time. They don’t fully harden until humans are in their early twenties.

10. You can fracture a rib just by sneezing.

While it's rare, it is possible to fracture a rib by sneezing. In 1885, there was an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association about a 72-year-old man who fractured his eighth rib while sneezing. Sneezer, by the way, is a 1940s Australian slang term meaning “excellent, wonderful,” which could definitely describe a good sneeze—but probably not one that would break a rib.

11. You can see stars if you rub your eyes.

If you've ever seen stars while rubbing your eyes, you’re not imagining it. The cells in our eyes are interpreting the pressure as an input, and treat that the same way they’d treat a light input.

12. Goosebumps are pretty much useless.

Goosebumps are frequently associated with adrenaline being released in the body, like when we’re feeling a particularly strong emotion, for example. They used to be important when people had way more hair on their bodies because goosebumps would elevate that hair and make a person look bigger when they were in danger. But now, they’re a pretty useless feature.

13. Spleens help the immune system.

The spleen is surprisingly not totally useless even though that was the belief up until the 1950s. It’s OK to get your spleen removed, but it does assist the immune system. While blood is in the spleen, the immune system creates the necessary antibodies to fight bacteria in that blood. A fetus’s spleen also creates red blood cells.

14. The appendix seems to help the immune system.

It's OK to get your appendix removed, but the organ also aids the immune system. In 2018, Dr. Mohamad Abouzeid, assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Health told Mental Floss, "[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls." Experts don't know exactly how the appendix affects the immune system, but it seems to play some role in keeping us healthy.

15. A fetus's face forms in the first three months after conception.

During the first three months after conception, a fetus’s face comes together, fusing in the area of the top of the lip. That means the dent under the nose, which is called the philtrum, is evidence of a person's time in the womb.

16. Babies don’t just see in black and white.

A newborn baby has pretty terrible vision. But it’s not true that they can only see in black and white. In reality, if there’s a large amount of the color red, they can identify it, but only if it appears in front of gray. Newborns have about 5 percent of the visual acuity that adults do, but it improves quickly and takes only around six months before they can see about as well as a grown-up. Though there are some eye tests that babies can school adults on, which are ones centered around subtlety. For example, up until 6 months old, a baby can tell monkeys apart, while older babies and adults can’t do that.

17. The liver is very good at regenerating itself.

In fact, with just 25 percent of the original liver tissue, it can regenerate. Liver transplants are generally only needed if someone has experienced severe damage to the organ or an injury.

18. Some people are born with three kidneys.

Some people had a kidney split while they were still in the womb, so they're actually born with three. This makes them prime candidates for donation, but the problem is people often don't know when they have three kidneys.

19. A person's large intestine can be stretched 5 feet and the small intestine can stretch 20 feet.

The intestines are pretty long: The small intestine stretches to about 20 feet and the large intestine hits 5 feet. The surface area of your intestines could take up two entire tennis courts, although some Swedish researchers have downgraded it to studio apartment size. Compare that with a blue whale, though, which has over 700 feet worth of intestines.

20. The stomach can hold up to 50 fluid ounces.

The stomach may not be tennis court size, but it can hold around 16 to 50 fluid ounces. It's interesting to note that a Trenta size at Starbucks is 31 fluid ounces, which is more than many adult stomachs can technically hold.

21. The neurotransmitter serotonin can be found in the gut.

Our gut contains 95 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin. In fact, the gut, with its 100 million neurons, is so important to mood that it’s sometimes called the “second brain.” Medications that affect serotonin will often also cause GI issues.

22. The skin is the largest organ.

The skin is considered an organ and it's the body's largest one. An adult may have 22-square feet of skin on their body. Basically that means your skin could comfortably stretch across half the floor of the typical bathroom.

23. The skin makes up a large part of your body weight.

Fifteen percent of your total body weight, to be exact.

24. The ovaries are in communication with the brain.

It was once believed that the ovaries and uterus sort of sat dormant until they were needed, but the ovaries actually communicate with the brain in ways we’re just learning about. The hypothalamus and ovaries work together to make sure that the levels of hormones in the ovaries, like estrogen and progesterone, are where they need to be.

25. Humans are covered in stripes.

The human body is covered in stripes called Blaschko’s Lines, which are typically invisible. They’re cellular relics of our development from a single cell to a fully formed human.

26. Humans glow, but our eyes aren't able to detect it.

Humans glow, but it’s just around 1000 times weaker than our eyes can detect. Every animal that has metabolic reactions glows because in that process, photons get emitted, causing light. In 2009, a study was published in which a camera captured the bioluminescence of five men. According to that study, our upper body lights up the strongest. And the glow is on a cycle; when we’re on a normal sleep schedule, our bioluminescence is at its strongest at about 4 p.m.