These dirty birds show why we need natural history museums

Popular Science | 5/6/1906 | Staff
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As the male field sparrow soared through the smoke-laden Illinois sky on May 6, 1906, it had no idea that the end was near. It also had no idea that its feathers were collecting scientific data—information that would prove invaluable to researchers more than a century later.

The field sparrow was soon captured, killed, and carefully tagged with the location of its death, the date, and a reference number. It was sent to the Field Museum, where it joined the growing collection of other birds, insects, plants, animals, and artifacts which now numbers 30 million.

Sparrows - Larks - Towhees - Woodpeckers - Field

Other sparrows, larks, towhees, and woodpeckers joined the field sparrow over the years. Some had endured soot-laden skies during their journeys, and others soared through cleaner air, building up a record of over 1,300 specimens that effectively documented air pollution over the course of 135 years.

When two graduate students at the University of Chicago, one in art history (Carl Fuldner) and one an evolutionary biologist (Shane DuBay) took a closer look at the black, oily residue on the birds’ feathers, they found they were able to document the pervasiveness of coal in society from the late 1800’s through the crash of the Great Depression, a spike in soot as the industrial engine of the country churned through World War II, and a decline in the 1960’s as more regulations came into effect, and power supplies shifted away from distributed steam boilers to more centralized power plants and natural gas.

Study - Proceedings - National - Academy - Sciences

In the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, Fuldner and DuBay’s analysis of the oily soot on the bird feathers showed that the amount of black carbon spewed into the air during the industrial age was higher than other studies, which relied on ice cores and historical records.

“We knew from anecdotal accounts that...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Popular Science
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