Archive for: March, 2003

Fireworks over NYC, Bombs over Baghdad

Mar 22 2003 Published by under Uncategorized

Lightning flashes, thunder explodes in the skies over NYC. The sound blends in with the sounds of bombs falling into the heart of Baghdad that are broadcast over my radio. Even though it is getting late here and I always try to leave early on Fridays so I can spend the evening relaxing at the Met, I cannot bring myself to leave tonight.

Another flash and I jump, visions of airplanes slamming into tall buildings flicker into my consciousness.

The clouds are oppressive. Heavy, like smoke. The sky changes from a muddy brown to a flat battleship grey. Rain drenches the streets, transforming them into glistening multicolored rivers of oil while the sky growls menacingly.

Jumpiness is contageous in NYC. Earlier today, part of La Guardia Airport was evacuated temporarily and six baggage handlers were decontaminated because one piece of luggage was found to contain a "suspicious white powder". Fortunately (or maybe not -- it did generate a lot of drama), this powder proved to be harmless, as are most personal hygiene products that are commonly carried in luggage.

There is an overwhelming sense of fear and anger here; cold, hard, unyielding. Barely restrained. Suddenly, being loud, rude and obnoxious is no longer a game that New Yorkers excel at: It is serious business. Some people use our bombs in Baghdad as an excuse to reveal and indulge their feelings of racism or sexism. It's very ugly sometimes.

But other New Yorkers cope differently with the stress. Today, I realized that I cannot postpone the inevitable any longer, so I ventured out to buy some food. When I managed to get into Fairway and Zabar's, the best food stores in the city, I found their narrow isles nearly empty (well, nearly empty by NYC standards) and shopping was almost pleasant. An older woman wearing a dark grey velvet top-hat, burnt sienna coat and red silk scarf -- all matched in a strange sort of way -- chatted with me for quite some time about her secrets for adding extra "zing" to canned Progresso soups. After talking for a few minutes, she decided I was an actress in the theatre. I laughed and said, no, I am a scientist but I'll take that as a compliment.

"Oh, it's a compliment," she said and winked. "Don't let anyone keep you from doing the thing you want to do," she added mysteriously as she walked away.

But this small moment of camaraderie was short-lived. Walking down the sidewalks back to the museum, snippets of conversations on the streets reminded me of the threat ... Afghanistan ... Baghdad ... I look up at the sky, hoping to be cheered up as I was a couple days ago by the unexpected sight of a pair of mourning doves flying overhead ... bombs ... Iraq ... marines ... dead ... but instead I see a 727 flying over like a missile, fast, deadly, purposeful ... hey, isn't that plane a little low ... ? My gut twists and I hold my breath, the plastic grocery bags cutting into my hands. But the plane misses the steeple of the cathedral across the street from me and continues on to its destiny, its close proximity to buildings merely a optical illusion.

Nine one one.

New Yorkers are very afraid right now. I wonder how they can live with such crushing fear.

And just now, a brilliant flash transforms night into day, a frozen strobe light moment. The sidewalks are submerged. crash, nature's fury explodes all around NYC.

Thunder is so astonishingly loud here, how will I know if a bomb goes off in Manhattan? But I wonder if this knowledge even matters: If I evacuate my building now for any reason, I will be soaked to my underwear in five minutes. I wonder if the storm will continue like this all night? I need to get home to my lories, who will no doubt be rioting soon.

And now, outside my open apartment window, hail falls like white knives from the heavens. More lightning, thunder, rivers.



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Dead Birds Do Tell Tales (A Story)

Mar 11 2003 Published by under Uncategorized

I have not talked about my research at all since I've started my Postdoctoral Fellowship, although I have written copious vignettes about life in NYC and I've even dared to mentioned birds to you a few times. But this time, I am going to do something different and tell you a story about one of the birds that I will use in my research. This story is actually being published soon, so some of you may receive see this more than once.

Dead Birds Do Tell Tales
by GrrlScientist.

"Can you help us identify a mystery lory in our collection?" I was pleasantly surprised to find this email request from Donna L. Dittmann, Collections Manager and Museum Preparator for the Section of Genetic Resources at Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

"Sure," I wrote back. "Send it to me and I'll see what I can do." I, and some of my lories, recently relocated to New York City to begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History, where I am examining evolutionary relationships among species of lories and lorikeets. To obtain essential materials for my research, I sent out requests to natural history museums around the world for tissue samples from the Loriinae, which led LSU to ask for assistance with identifying this particular museum study skin.

Tissue specimens are an excellent source of many proteins and particularly DNA used in a variety of research projects. These tissues (usually pieces of liver or skeletal muscle) are removed from animals that were either collected from the wild or died in captivity and were donated to museums or universities. After tissues are collected, they are carefully catalogued and stored in liquid nitrogen for use in future research projects. Many of these projects (including mine) were unimagined when these tissues were first collected a few years ago.

While many natural history museum study skin collections have specimens that are more than 100 years old, most museum tissue collections are very recent, many were initiated during the 1980s. Due to the perishable nature of tissues, they are expensive to maintain and must be carefully managed and continually replenished. Unfortunately, funding shortages and other considerations have made it more difficult for museums to collect animals as often as they did in the past. Therefore, tissues from both wild and captive animals are limited, particularly those from rare and difficult-to-collect animals, such as lories.

A few days after I received that email message, a package arrived in the mail. It contained a beautifully prepared -- almost lifelike -- study skin from a small lory. A tag delicately tied to the bird's right leg indicated that this skin was prepared on 7 December 1993 by DL Dittmann. Also mentioned was the size of the bird's ovaries and that its skull was fully ossified, indicating that she was an adult female.

Lightly penciled on the tag was a tentative identification that this bird might be a hybrid between Trichoglossus iris and T. versicolor. But I knew with one glance that this was not a hybrid lory. Comparing this specimen to our study skins prepared from wild lories confirmed that this was a perfect example of Trichoglossus flavoviridis meyeri, commonly known in American aviculture as the Meyer's Lorikeet.

Closer inspection of the tag revealed that this bird came from Dick Schroeder's aviary in Inglewood, California in 1991. Mr. Schroeder owns a birdseed supply company, Cuttlebone Plus and manufactures Avico specialty lory foods. Additionally, Mr. Schroeder has bred lories and other birds for 30 years.

Because museums leave all identification tags and bands in place on their study skins and skeletons, I looked more closely and discovered that this bird was banded. I contacted Mr. Schroeder with the band number to inquire about this bird's history. After recovering from his surprise that this bird was located in the LSU collections, Mr. Schroeder said that he bred and raised many Meyer's Lorikeets in the early 1980s and donated "anything unusual" to Kimball Garrett, the Ornithology Collections Manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Los Angeles, California.

According to Mr. Garrett, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County occasionally exchanges specimens with other institutions so this bird might have been included in such a trade with LSU. However, this event would have occurred more than ten years ago and there is no record of this exchange because the movement of lories between research institutions is not covered under any US Fish and Wildlife Service regulations (such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, for example).

And the best news of all? Tissues were obtained from this bird for the LSU tissue collection. The bird has been correctly identified and the tissues are now available to my research project and others like it. The DNA that I will obtain from this bird's tissues is precious because it represents another species and subspecies that I can add to my growing database of DNA sequences.

When analyzed, this DNA sequence data will provide clues to the evolutionary relationships between all Loriinae genera and may result in reclassification of the entire subfamily. Further, analysis of these DNA sequences may result in the discovery of new species that have not been formally recognized previously. These discoveries are crucial for the future of both captive lory breeding and conservation efforts.

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Included with the Best of Me Symphony
Issue 101.

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