Zoos and museums also focus on discovering the new.
Tracking moose and tigers with satellite radio collars. Pinpointing toxic substances in the water supply. Devising design strategies to keep high-flying birds from smacking into skyscrapers.
We think of our museums as rest homes for old treasures, but some are also making new discoveries and improving the environment not only in Minnesota, but around the world.
A research team from the Science Museum of Minnesota, working with University of Minnesota scientists, was recently in the news because it found increased levels of triclosan, a common antibacterial ingredient in liquid soaps, in some Minnesota lakes. The findings led to a ban at state-owned properties on soaps that use triclosan, which may turn toxic as it breaks down in the environment.
It’s unusual for a museum to embark on research separate from its curatorial concerns, said Daniel Engstrom, the 25-year-old director of the Science Museum’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station. But previous leaders at the museum, including former president Phil Taylor — an aquatic scientist himself — “were interested in how things like climate change, agricultural runoff and mercury are affecting our water. So we’re not just communicating science, we’re doing it.”
The Minnesota Zoo is active around the state in the study or restoration of several native species, including moose, bison, prairie butterflies and trumpeter swans. Dr. Rachel Thompson, an associate veterinarian, is assisting the DNR in finding out why the moose population in northern Minnesota has been declining so markedly. After trained tranquilizing experts shoot darts into a pregnant female moose from a helicopter, Thompson steps in to quickly gather as much data as she can before the 900-pound mammal wakes up. Which will be in about 15 minutes.
“We collect blood, fecal and hair samples,” she said. “We also take an ultrasound that checks muscle and fat amounts, which tell us a lot about the body’s condition.” When the moose starts moving a bit, it’s time to give her a reversal drug that counteracts the tranquilizer, then back off and wait “to make sure she gets up and on her way.”
The zoo is also involved in endangered species work abroad, as a leading partner in tiger preservation and sustainable-seafood studies. Poaching of the desert black rhino has sharply increased over the past several years in South Africa. The Minnesota Zoo has no rhinos, but sent a staffer to ride “donkey patrol” along the northwestern border of neighboring Namibia, helping protect the 150 or so black rhinos living there.
This summer, the zoo will launch its Biodiversity Project, which will monitor native animal and plant life on the nearly 60 percent of the zoo’s 485 acres that is natural habitat. It will eventually become a “citizen science” program, involving visitors in observing and recording changes as naturally occurring species increase, and a website for sharing similar discoveries in their own neighborhoods.
The U of M’s Bell Museum of Natural History is involved in several projects helmed by university researchers. David McLaughlin, curator of fungi, is using updated DNA analysis to rewrite all the genetic families of lowly spore-spewers that grow in the Land of 10,000 Lakes — including our state mushroom, the morel.
“Mushrooms are much more diverse than we realize, and once we establish a baseline of all the different types, they can tell us a lot about climate change.”
Other Bell projects include a study of how to reduce the number of birds that run into the windows of tall buildings, and how salamanders in Appalachia are being forced up the mountains by rising temperatures. Also, citizen scientists are helping university astrophysicists to identify stars by analyzing thousands of images of the Andromeda Galaxy taken via by the Hubble Telescope. They’ll be compiled into a 3-D atlas for the museum’s ExploraDome, where you can get 3-D tours of space while lying on floor mats, creating a feeling of being inside the images you see.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046