Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

Here’s What You Need to Know About the New Coronavirus

jarun011/iStock via Getty Images
jarun011/iStock via Getty Images

This morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the second case of the recently discovered coronavirus in the U.S. Find out what it is, where it is, how to avoid it, and all the other need-to-know information about the illness below.

What is the new coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses named for the crown-shaped spikes that cover their surfaces (corona is the Latin word for crown). According to the CDC, human coronaviruses can cause upper-respiratory tract illnesses, including the common cold, and can sometimes lead to more severe lower-respiratory tract issues like pneumonia or bronchitis.

Because this latest coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, is so new, health officials are currently trying to figure out how it works and how to treat it. It’s not the first time a potent new coronavirus has caused an international outbreak: SARS-CoV originated in Asia and spread to more than two dozen countries in 2003, and MERS-CoV first infected people in Saudi Arabia before spreading across the globe in 2012.

Where is the coronavirus outbreak happening?

The majority of cases are in China, which counts more than 800 confirmed diagnoses. Most are in Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei province where 2019-nCoV was first detected last month. Additional cases have been reported in South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The CDC has confirmed two U.S. cases—a man in his thirties outside Seattle, and a 60-year-old woman in Chicago—both of whom had recently returned from trips to Wuhan. A CDC official said another 63 potential cases are being investigated in 22 states, and airports in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Francisco are conducting health screenings on passengers arriving from China.

Chinese officials have shut down transportation to and from Wuhan. Tourist spots like Beijing’s Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland, and a portion of the Great Wall are also closed temporarily.

What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus?

Symptoms are similar to those caused by a cold or the flu, including fever, dry cough, and breathing difficulty. The New York Times reported that as of Friday morning, 25 people in China have died from the virus, and most of them were older men with preexisting health conditions like cirrhosis, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

How does the new coronavirus spread?

Because most of the early cases of 2019-nCoV were traced back to a seafood and meat market in Wuhan, health officials think the virus originally spread from infected animals to humans, but it’s now being transmitted from person to person.

Though scientists are still studying exactly how that happens, the leading theory is that it travels in tiny droplets of fluid from the respiratory tract when a person coughs or sneezes.

How do you avoid the new coronavirus?

The CDC is warning everyone to avoid any nonessential trips to Wuhan, and to avoid animals or sick people if you’re traveling elsewhere in China. If you’ve been to China in the last two weeks and experience any of the symptoms listed above, you should seek medical attention immediately—and you should call the doctor’s office or emergency room beforehand to let them know you’re coming.

Otherwise, simply stick to the precautions you’d normally take when trying to stay healthy: Wash your hands often with soap and water, cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, stay away from sick people, and thoroughly cook any meat or eggs before eating them.

Should you be worried about the new coronavirus?

The global health community is taking 2019-nCoV seriously in order to curb the outbreak as quickly as possible, but you shouldn’t panic. The CDC maintains that it’s a low-risk situation in the U.S., and public health officials are echoing that message.

“We don’t want the American public to be worried about this, because their risk is low,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told USA Today.

[h/t USA Today]

Has An Element Ever Been Removed From the Periodic Table?

lucadp/iStock via Getty Images
lucadp/iStock via Getty Images

Barry Gehm:

Yes, didymium, or Di. It was discovered by Carl Mosander in 1841, and he named it didymium from the Greek word didymos, meaning twin, because it was almost identical to lanthanum in its properties. In 1879, a French chemist showed that Mosander’s didymium contained samarium as well as an unknown element. In 1885, Carl von Weisbach showed that the unknown element was actually two elements, which he isolated and named praseodidymium and neodidymium (although the di syllable was soon dropped). Ironically, the twin turned out to be twins.

The term didymium filter is still used to refer to welding glasses colored with a mixture of neodymium and praseodymium oxides.

One might cite as other examples various claims to have created/discovered synthetic elements. Probably the best example of this would be masurium (element 43), which a team of German chemists claimed to have discovered in columbium (now known as niobium) ore in 1925. The claim was controversial and other workers could not replicate it, but some literature from the period does list it among the elements.

In 1936, Emilio Segrè and Carlo Perrier isolated element 43 from molybdenum foil that had been used in a cyclotron; they named it technetium. Even the longest-lived isotopes of technetium have a short half-life by geological standards (millions of years) and it has only ever been found naturally in minute traces as a product of spontaneous uranium fission. For this reason, the original claim of discovery (as masurium) is almost universally regarded as erroneous.

As far as I know, in none of these cases with synthetic elements has anyone actually produced a quantity of the element that one could see and weigh that later turned out not to be an element, in contrast to the case with didymium. (In the case of masurium, for instance, the only evidence of its existence was a faint x-ray signal at a specific wavelength.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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