Are There Any Fossils Left and Other Questions From Smithsonian Readers

We brought your questions on paleontology, Civil War photography and other subjects to the Institution’s experts

Chris Buzelli

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Are there any paleontological discoveries, such as dinosaur bones, left to be made in the United States?

Susanne Ott, Bern, Switzerland
There sure are. So many areas have yet to be searched that we may not run out of finds for several lifetimes. Just think: We’ve found only about 2,000 species of dinosaurs for the 160 million years they were alive. Given that a species lasts only a few million years, we must be missing many thousands of dinosaur species. The most promising places are out West; it’s drier and paleontologists can get access to fossil-bearing rocks.
Matthew Carrano, Paleontologist
Museum of Natural History

How much artistic license do scientists use when they portray astronomical features detected by radio telescopes?
Jeanne Long, Atlanta, Georgia
Quite a bit. Radio telescopes record electromagnetic radio waves sent out by distant galactic objects—what our ears might pick up if we could hear the universe. Based on the intensity of the radio waves, astronomers plot signal strengths and assign different colors to them, but there’s no convention for those color assignments. Why do astronomers take that license? To isolate elements and molecules, depicting the composition of the object in the image. It’s a way to illustrate their data.
David Aguilar, Astronomer and Illustrator
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Is the Smithsonian still cataloging items from Charles Wilkes' United States Exploring Expedition?
Kevin Ramsey, Washington, D.C.
That expedition returned from its four-year exploration of the Pacific in 1842 with an immense trove—hundreds of fish and mammal specimens, more than 2,000 bird specimens, 50,000 plant specimens and much more. But no, the Smithsonian is not still cataloging them. That job largely fell to the scientists who accompanied Wilkes, and they completed it, well, expeditiously.
Pamela M. Henson, Historian
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Did Mathew Brady take all the Civil War photographs that are credited to him?
Patrick Ian, Bethesda, Maryland
No; the war photographs were typically made by cameramen he sent into the field. But the portraits produced in his studios, such as those in the National Portrait Gallery exhibit “Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals” (March 30, 2012-May 31, 2015), reflected his aesthetic even when he was not present.
Ann M. Shumard, Curator of Photographs
National Portrait Gallery

Why do birds like to congregate around electric transformers?
Luis Tewes, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
Transformers—like power lines, poles and towers—provide elevated perches, but they may also produce heat. A bird can perch on a high-voltage line safely, but as soon as it makes secondary contact with a conductor that leads to a ground, it will be fried. Large birds taking flight or producing “streamers” of fecal material often complete the circuit to their demise.
Russell Greenberg, Wildlife Biologist
Migratory Bird Center, National Zoo

Chris Buzelli

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