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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

"Natural History Highlight" features interesting and exciting activities and objects from the Museum. We will frequently introduce new highlights that come from our research, collections, exhibits, and projects.

Natural History Highlight features interesting and exciting activities and objects from the Museum. We will frequently introduce new highlights that come from our research, collections, exhibits, and projects.

Current Highlights

17th-century Jamestown Settlers

Cannibalism revealed among 17th-century Jamestown settlers.

A forensic analysis of 17th-century human remains proves that survival cannibalism took place in historic Jamestown, Va. (July 2013)

Past Highlights


17-year Cicadas: 2013

After 17 years Brood II adult periodical cicadas will be overtaking the East Coast from mid-May through mid-June, 2013 - billions of them. These insects are spread widely over the eastern half of the United but nowhere else in the world. This particular brood has not appeared since 1996. And after 2013, they won't reappear for another 17 years, until 2030 (Updated May 2013)


The Coelacanth: More Living than Fossil

The coelacanth, an ancient fish once thought to exist only as a fossil, was discovered in 1938 living in South African waters. Since 1938, other discoveries of this "living fossil" have been made not only in the Comoros and along the eastern coast of Africa, but in Indonesian waters as well. (Updated November 2012)

Protanguilla discovery

The Palauan Primitive Cave Eel, Protanguilla palau

In 2009, research diver Jiro Sakaue was able to collect the first specimen of this unusual eel-like fish easily by hand during his dive. After consulting with other ichthyologists, including the Smithsonian's Dave Johnson, it was unequivocally determined to be a previously unknown member of the Anguilliformes. (October 2011)

Neanderthal Diet

Investigating the Diet of Neanderthals

There have been many theories proposed as to how the Neanderthals disappeared, yet no one knows for sure. However, the theory that Neanderthals disappeared due to a focused meat-based diet has been laid to rest by recent research by scientists from the Smithsonian and George Washington University. Their research uses a novel technique in Neanderthal research focusing on fossilized tartar (calculus) recovered from multiple teeth found in two different locations. When viewed under a microscope, microfossils of plant starches were observed indicating that the Neanderthals' diet was more extensive than previously thought. The evidence they collected shows that Neanderthals ate grains, seeds, and even palm fruits and diet is likely not the reason for their demise. (October 2011)

The Puffer Fish Voucher Library

The Puffer Fish Voucher Library

Certain species of poisonous puffer fish are considered a culinary delicacy. Under carefully controlled circumstances, puffer fish can be safe to eat, but ingesting even a small amount of their neurotoxins can cause serious illness. Careful control of the market supply of puffer fish meat in the U.S. is required to keep the public safe. Learn how scientists at the Smithsonian Institution and the FDA are collaborating in the development of a DNA voucher library to help prevent mislabeled or illegally imported puffer fish from entering our food supply. (May 2011)

Social Media Allows Rapid Remote Taxonomic Identification

Social Media Allows Rapid Remote Taxonomic Identification

In early 2011, a Smithsonian (NMNH)-sponsored team of ichthyologists performed the first survey of the fish diversity in the Cuyuni River of Guyana. Faced with the daunting task of identifying over 5,000 specimens in less than a week's time, they turned to Facebook and a social network of colleagues for help. Read more...

Smithsonian Scientist Discovers Seven New Fish Species

Smithsonian Scientist Discovers Seven New Fish Species

Things are not always what they seem when it comes to fish—something scientists at the Smithsonian Institution and the Ocean Science Foundation are finding out. Using modern genetic analysis, combined with traditional examination of morphology, Carole Baldwin and colleagues discovered that what were once thought to be three species of blenny in the genus Starksia are actually 10 distinct species. The team's findings were published in the scientific journal ZooKeys, Feb. 3, 2011.

Charles Bradford Hudson: Blending Art and Science

Charles Bradford Hudson: Blending Art and Science

An article presenting the lifetime work of the artist Charles Bradford Hudson (1865-1939) may seem out of place at the Museum of Natural History. However, a closer look at his many endeavors reveals his role in the field of ichthyology.


An Overdue Family Reunion

For a century, the tapetails, bignoses and whalefishes were each considered discretely different kinds of fishes. After decades of study of the more than 600 whalefishes, 120 tapetails, 1 hairyfish, 65 bignoses, and 3 transitional specimens that exist in museum collections, as well as DNA analysis based on additional fresh specimens, Smithsonian scientist Dave Johnson and his colleagues have finally reunited them in a bizarre family tree that confounds comparative anatomy. (November 2010)

Flesh-eating beetle

The Story of the Osteo Prep Lab

In the Museum's Osteology Hall visitors can examine the skeletons of a vast array of vertebrates from tiny birds to exceedingly large marine mammals in intricate detail. However, what visitors may not realize is the diligent work done behind the scenes to prepare those bones for display and research purposes, with the help of flesh-eating beetles and compost piles. (November 2010)

Stomiid fish. (Photo Credit: Nalani Schnell).

Unraveling a Skeletal Mystery: Award in Zoomorphology Received for Smithsonian Research

An international team of scientists including Nalani Schnell (Germany), Ralf Britz (England), and Smithsonian ichthyologist Dave Johnson, has been awarded the Reinhard Rieger Award for excellence in research in zoomorphology for their 2010 publication in the Journal of Morphology, “New Insights into the Complex Structure and Ontogeny of the Occipito-Vertebral Gap in Barbeled Dragonfishes (Stomiidae, Teleostei).” (September 2010)

Homo floresiensis Tibia and Foot

Homo floresiensis - Walking, but not running, with the real 'Hobbits'

Scientists are a big step closer to understanding the evolution of walking in humans. Bipedalism has long been considered one of the hallmarks of human evolution, signaling the transition from an ape-like reliance on arms and hands for locomotion to an upright gait using the legs and feet. (May 2009)

Giant Squid

Giant Squid

The giant squid (Architeuthis) is among the largest invertebrates on Earth — with lengths measuring nearly 60 feet (18 m)!  They are one of the largest predators that live in the deep sea. (Winter 2009)

Jellyfish Romance - (Carybdea sivickisi)

Jellyfish Romance

For most jellyfish, reproduction is not a particularly romantic affair. But recent research explores at least one species, called Carybdea sivickisi by scientists, shows a more intimate courtship routine.(August 2008)

Hope Diamond

UV Rays Shed New Light on the Hope Diamond’s Mysterious Red Glow

What causes the 45.52-carat blue diamond to give off a fiery red glow for several minutes after being exposed to ultra-violet light? Scientists have finally researched this phenomenon known as phosphorescence. (August 2008)

The Truth about Crystal Skulls

The Truth About Crystal Skulls

Handmade by ancient Aztecs? The work of supernatural powers? Or carefully crafted fakes? After decades of mystery, the real nature of crystal skulls is finally clear, thanks to scientists using modern technology to determine how they were made. (July 2008)

Carla Dove - Feather Identification

CSI for Birds: Scientists Use Forensic Techniques to Improve Airport Safety

Researchers use the museum’s bird collections to identify birds that are involved in birdstrikes using both traditional morphological identifications and molecular techniques. (October 2007)

Neuropteris, part of a frond of a “seed fern”, seen on the mine ceiling or roof.

Four Square Miles of Carboniferous Forest Discovered

Smithsonian paleontologist Bill DiMichele and colleagues Howard Falcon-Lang (University of Bristol), John Nelson and Scott Elrick (Illinois State Geological Survey), and Phil Ames (Peabody Coal Company) discovered the remains of one of the world's oldest tropical rainforests, preserved in the ceiling of a coal mine 250 feet below the surface. Their discovery was recently published in the journal "Geology" entitled “Ecological Gradients Within a Pennsylvanian Mire Forest.”

Naked Corals

Naked Corals: Did They Lose Their Skeletons?

Corals structure the most diverse ecosystems in the oceans, the tropical reef environments, and are essential to all marine life. Scientists including Allen Collins at the National Museum of Natural History are working to understand coral biology and evolution. All corals in the sea have hard external skeletons, but their close relatives, the anemones, do not. How are these groups related and can their relationships shed light on the future of the thousands of stony coral species today facing pressures of increasing CO2 in the ocean brought about by human activity.

Tales of Extinction and Recovery

Tales of Extinction and Recovery

The greatest mass extinction of the last 600 million years of Earth history occurred 251 million years ago. How can scientists be sure of their evidence for this mass extinction and how can they best understand how terrestrial ecosystems recovered from it? Research in South Africa’s Karoo Basin by NMNH scientist Conrad Labandeira is illuminating answers to these questions. (August 2006)


Phytoliths: An Archaeobotanist's Best Friend

How can scientists tell us what prehistoric peoples ate? How do we know when humans began to cultivate the grains they ate rather than simply gathering wild foods? Could the plants themselves leave us any tell-tale signs? Smithsonian scientist, Dolores Piperno, has discovered new ways to answer these tantalizing questions. (June 2006)

Mississippi to Montana: Plants Danced to Climate’s Quick Tune

Mississippi to Montana: Plants Danced to Climate’s Quick Tune

At the February 2006 AAAS meeting, Smithsonian Paleobiologist Scott Wing updated results of his November 11 cover story in Science. A team led by Wing found that a period of rapid global warming 55 million years ago caused major changes in where plants grew. (March 2006)

The common myna, Acridotheres tristis. Photo by Kim Bridges.

Escape from Parasites: Tracking the Distribution of Infectious Disease

A recent NMNH/NZP study makes clear that bird introductions have the ability to move parasites around the World, an important finding in this time of emerging infectious diseases. (January 2006)

Dan Chaney and Pete Kroehler

Giant Fossil Scale Tree

In June, 2005, the National Museum of Natural History received one of the largest plant fossils ever collected - 3.9 m (13 ft) long and 3.7 m (12 ft) high, and weighing more than 16 tons. New images added to the gallery October 2006. Come take a look...
(Nov. 2005)

Scanning Electron Microscopy SEM) Lab

The Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) Lab

For more than 30 years the SEM Lab has assisted researchers at the museum to explore and understand our world at the microscopic level. Take a microscopic tour of NMNH research as seen in the SEM Lab. (Feb. 2005)

Complex Magmatic Processes Operating in Deep Volcanic Plumbing Systems

Complex Magmatic Processes Operating in Deep Volcanic Plumbing Systems

Analysis of decades-old volcanic cinder samples provides a glimpse into the complex interplay among the volcanic processes of degassing, crystallization, and crustal assimilation during the rise of magma (molten rock) through Earth’s crust just prior to eruption. (April 2002)

Discovery of a New Plant Genus

Discovery of a New Plant Genus

NMNH Botanist W. John Kress and his colleague Kai Larsen, University of Aarhus, Denmark, have named a new genus of ginger. Discovery of a new plant genus is unusual, unlike the more frequent naming of a new species. The new genus Smithatris, in the plant family Zingiberaceae, joins 50 other genera and over 1,200 species.


Parataxonomy Building Expertise at Research Locations: Relying upon Parataxonomists

Biologists recognize the tremendous diversity in the earth’s tropical rainforests, and many pursue research projects in them. Despite the great interest in studying the rainforests, there aren’t enough highly trained taxonomists who are resident in those locations, which means that the existing capacity to collect and analyze specimens is not great enough to support the high amount of research to be done. A strategy has emerged for developing on-site expertise, a form of "capacity building", while pursuing research - and NMNH entomologists and their colleagues provide examples of this growing trend. In pursuing the goal of understanding the earth’s biodiversity, scientists increasingly are training and relying upon parataxonomists when collecting and identifying insects, plants and animals.

Collections Profiling

Profiling the NMNH Collections from the Process to the Results

Caring for the NMNH’s 124 million biological, geological and anthropological objects and specimens is a monumental task. Thorough, accurate and complete information about the collections’ preservation status is critical to planning for and ensuring the appropriate care of each different type of collection, be they invertebrates preserved in fluid-filled jars, dried mammal skins, pressed plants, a Triceratops leg bone, historic photographs of Native Americans, or African musical instruments made from wood, plant fibers and hide. (January 2001)

Ancient Insect-Plant Relationship Persists through Time

Ancient Insect-Plant Relationship Persists through Time

How far back in time can we trace plant-animal interactions? NMNH scientist Conrad Labandeira and his colleagues have identified specific plant-animal interactions stretching back in time 66 million years ago, to the late Cretaceous period. (Dec. 2000)

Building a Dinosaur

Building a Dinosaur

With the arrival of a prototype reproduction Triceratops skull in August, NMNH is nearing completion of a major project - the world's first anatomically accurate Digital Dinosaur, rendered from real fossils. The Museum's Triceratops has been the subject of intensive conservation, measurement, scientific discussion and interpretation, computer analysis, and animation. Now, scientists can exhibit a newly-mounted Triceratops that is anatomically correct and, for the first time, model its movements to better understand the behavior of this three-horned, plant-eating animal from the Cretaceous Period, more than 65 million years ago. (Oct. 2000)

Old Goats in Transition

Old Goats in Transition

Along the craggy limestone ridges of the Zagros Mountains that run through western Iran and northeastern Iraq, the relationship between humans and goats dramatically changed around 10,000 years ago. New research by Dr. Melinda Zeder, Curator of Old World Archaeology & Zooarchaeology at the National Museum of Natural History, and Dr. Brian Hesse of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, shows that goats, hunted in the region since the time of Neanderthals, were now being bred and herded instead. Their findings on this historic shift, which forever changed both the societies of human herders and the ecology of regions where goats and other livestock animals lived, were reported in the March 24, 2000 issue of Science. (Sep. 2000)

Dr. Timothy J. McCoy

Asteroid Naming Honors Stellar Scientist

NMNH Mineral Sciences Curator Dr. Timothy J. McCoy recently had an asteroid named for him in recognition of his research in meteoritics, the study of meteorites. The asteroid is now known as Asteroid 4259 McCoy. It was discovered by Dr. Bobby Bus at Cerro Tololo, Chile, in 1988. (June/July 2000)

Giant Squid

Giant Squid Resurfaces

The giant squid exhibit has reopened to the public after several months in storage, as major building renovations make way for a new permanent exhibit on mammals. The exhibit has been relocated to the second floor, near the hall of South American Cultures. (June 2000)

Ancient Axes

Ancient axes - Asian puzzle

For more than 50 years prehistorians have been perplexed by what seemed to be a puzzle piece missing from the archaeological record of East Asia, stone tools. (May 2000)

Is Spring Springing Earlier?

Is Spring “Springing” Earlier?

Find out what a 30-year study of Washington-area plants reveals. (April/May 2000)

Kennewick Man Highlight

Kennewick Man

Who were the first people to visit the American continents? Where and when did they arrive? How and why they might have come? (Feb. 2000)

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