NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
What Mummified Shrews and Giant Hornets Reveal About Biodiversity
Celebrate Earth Day by revisiting stories about the museum’s research on a bevy of bizarre and wonderful creatures
To celebrate Earth Day, Smithsonian Voices wanted to highlight several of the wonderfully weird creatures, like a strange shark with a massive mouth and a glistening snake that burrows beneath the rainforest floor, that call this planet home. Gain an appreciation for the staggering diversity of life on Earth, from beneficial (and bizarre) mosquitoes to moisture-loving mummified shrews.
Here are some of our top articles covering biodiversity research at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
In 2019, Smithsonian scientists were conducting a biological survey in the densely forested limestone mountains of northern Vietnam when they spotted a strange snake splayed out on a jungle road. With tiny eyes, small scales and an iridescent sheen, the creature looked unlike any snake Smithsonian research fellow, Aryeh Miller, had seen before.
Upon closer inspection, Miller and colleagues at the museum and the Institute for Ecology and Biological Resources at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology determined that the shimmering serpent was a new member of the rare genus Achalinus, a collection of burrowing snakes known for their odd scales. They named the new species Achalinus zugorum in honor of the Smithsonian’s retired curator of reptiles and amphibians, George Zug. Due to its odd scales and small eyes (which lack bright-light photoreceptors), the researchers believe the snake spends much of its time worming around below the jungle floor.
Achalinus zugorum was collected by Miller and his colleagues during an expedition to catalog the species diversity of Vietnam’s limestone mountains, known as karst formations, that support a rich tapestry of life. The work supports the Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative — an effort to collect and preserve Earth’s genomic biodiversity — and comes at a crucial time for environments like Vietnam’s karst jungles, which face threats like quarrying and deforestation. “It’s happening so quickly that we can’t keep up,” Miller told Smithsonian Voices in 2020. “Some of the species unique to this region are gone before they’re even described.”
Long before vertebrate animals like birds and bats took to the sky, there was Weigeltisaurus jaekeli, an ancient reptile who soared some 255 million years ago. Discovered by a fossil collector in a German mine’s scrap heap in 1992, the enigmatic creature’s skeleton is stamped onto a shale slab. Although the fossilized body was twisted, the reptile seemed to be brimming with long rods extending from its chest and stomach.
The first detailed assessment of the animal’s anatomy was in 2021, when Adam Pritchard, an assistant curator of paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History and former Peter Buck postdoctoral fellow, teamed up with Hans-Dieter Sues, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology. In their paper, they posit that these bony rods supported a winglike membrane that helped it glide above primeval Europe much like a modern flying squirrel.
Although Weigeltisaurus probably looked like a mix between a chameleon and a flying lizard, it was actually not a lizard at all. Instead it was a member of an ancient lineage of reptiles that thrived before the reign of dinosaurs. While the new findings support that Weigeltisaurus was capable of gliding, much of the animal’s life history — including what airborne creatures were on the menu — is yet to be discovered.
For many of us, mosquitoes range from irritating blood suckers to reviled vectors of deadly diseases. Which is warranted — mosquitoes are the deadliest animals on earth to humans.
But these incredibly diverse insects are not all bad news. Only three percent of them spread harmful diseases like malaria. According to Yvonne-Marie Linton, the curator of the Smithsonian’s National Mosquito Collection, the rest are a colorful amalgamation of bizarre insects. “We have been grossly underestimating the diversity of mosquitoes,” Linton told Smithsonian Voices in 2021. “The number of new species that we find everywhere we go is phenomenal.”
With the help of the Smithsonian’s 1.7 million mosquito specimens — the largest mosquito collection in the world — Linton and her co-authors recently published Mosquitoes of the World, a sprawling tome dedicated to the thousands of mosquito species that are often overshadowed by their disease-ridden brethren. These include romantics like Sabethes cyaneus, a colorful mosquito that performs a synchronized dance with its feathery legs to woo mates, often while dangling upside down.
Mosquitoes are more than just natural curiosities. They serve a variety of ecological roles and can even benefit human health. Many species prefer nectar to blood, making them important pollinators like butterflies and bees. Others have a taste for their harmful relatives. The larvae of some species, like the elephant mosquito, snack on the larvae of harmful mosquito species. As a result, these ravenous mosquito larvae have been used everywhere from Uganda to Samoa as a natural way to control mosquito-spread diseases.
In 2018, anglers off the coast of Taiwan reeled in a truly monstrous catch — a giant shark sporting a gaping mouth. As its name attests, the megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) has quite the maw. Like whale sharks, it gulps massive amounts of water to filter out tiny prey. Despite growing up to 17 feet and weighing some 2,700 pounds, these filter-feeding behemoths were not discovered until 1976. Since then, megamouths have only been observed around 100 times, likely because they reside deep in the ocean.
With so few opportunities to study the shark in the wild, museum specimens are vital to understanding this mysterious fish. So when Smithsonian scientists heard about the specimen caught off Taiwan, they sprang to action to bring the mammoth catch stateside. Once the shark arrived at the Museum Support Center, they froze the fish in a massive block of ice to prevent it from rotting. Once scientists collect tissue samples to learn more about the megamouth’s ecology and life history, the specimen will be fixed with formaldehyde and pickled in ethyl alcohol to last decades — and potentially even centuries.
Having a long-term home at the Smithsonian is a boon for marine biologists, who will be able to study the enigmatic shark without having to probe the deep-sea according to Diane Pitassy, a museum specialist and Assistant to the Chair for Collections for the Division of Fishes who facilitated the acquisition. “We’re preserving this for everyone for what it shows about basic biodiversity. It could also answer questions that haven’t been asked yet,” Pitassy told Smithsonian Voices in 2020. “100 years from now, someone might say we want to look at the megamouth and it will be available.”
The taming of the (mummified) shrew
Ancient Egyptian mummies have long captured the collective imagination because they provide an intimate, and creepy, view into an ancient world. The mummified remains of non-human animals like crocodiles, falcons and baboons act in a similar way, revealing to ecologists what ancient Egypt’s environment was like thousands of years ago.
One of the places where scientists are attempting to uncover these ecological secrets is an archaeological site in the Nile Delta known as the Falcon Necropolis. Buried here are falcons and other local critters that were interred for religious purposes more than 2,000 years ago. Today, these animals act like mummified capsules of ancient environments.
For example, a mummified shrew at the site recently helped Neal Woodman, a United States Geological Survey scientist and research associate at the museum, and colleagues discover that this area of Egypt was wetter 2,000 years ago than it is today. This ancient shrew is a member of a species called Güldenstaedt's white-toothed shrew, which prefers damper climates than the shrew species found in the area today. Woodman believes that studying other shrew mummies from the site can tell researchers about how fluctuating moisture levels impacted animal diversity in ancient Egypt.
“We are uncovering how the animal community was changing,” Woodman told Smithsonian Voices in 2021. “And there’s a cascading effect ecologically when you lose little things that no one usually cares about.”
In early 2020, Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia) took the country by storm when the non-native insects turned up in Washington State. At two-inches long, these potential invaders are a giant amongst insects and are a ruthlessly efficient predator. Although their “murder hornet” moniker is excessive, they are adept at dispatching honeybees. Which is why their North American arrival caused so much concern — native bee populations are already in decline thanks to pesticides. A giant predator is the last thing they need.
Thankfully, entomologists at the Washington State Department of Agriculture were able to identify and round up many of the exotic insects before they became established. The specimens were sent to the United States Department of Agriculture to confirm their identity. Then they were deposited among the more than 35 million specimens in the Smithsonian’s National Insect Collection, where they will remain for further study.
And later this summer, some of these specimens (along with the first Asian giant hornet nest discovered in the United States) will go on exhibit for museum visitors to see up close.
Meet Seven Species Named After Musicians
Eight of Nature’s Wildest Mating Rituals
Shocking Study Finds Electric Eels Hunt Together
10 Popular Scientific Discoveries from 2020