Is the Giant Squid Near Extinction and More Questions From Our Readers

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ask smithsonian
Illustration by Mari Araki

Is the giant squid threatened with extinction?
Jeaneth Larsen
Mitchell, South Dakota

No. It’s impossible to count such deep-dwelling creatures, but their number can be extrapolated from the number of sperm whales (the squid’s primary predator), the number of squid beaks found in the stomachs of stranded or hunted whales and other factors. By my calculations, millions of giant squid are living in the world’s oceans. This species will be around for a very long time.
Clyde Roper,
curator of cephalopods, National Museum of Natural History, and author of
Giant Squid: Searching for a Sea Monster

I have an old bill that says “Two dollars and two-thirds” and entitles the bearer to that amount in gold or silver. What might this bill be?
Jaycee LaRhonda Knight
Clinton, Arkansas

It might be currency issued after 1766 by Maryland. Britain forbade its North American colonies to issue currency, but they issued “unofficial” paper money to facilitate trade. Fractional values reflect colonies’ efforts to calibrate their money to the international trade occurring in ports like Annapolis. It was theoretically redeemable in gold or silver because people trusted precious metals over paper notes. Of course, an expert would have to see the note to confirm its authenticity.
Karen Lee
curator, numismatics, National Museum of American History

My house cat seems to yawn when happy. Do big cats do that, too?
John H. Weber
Upper Darby, Pennsylvania

Well, big cats yawn. But so do many other vertebrate species, as disparate as baboons and Siamese fighting fish. And no one knows why.
John Seidensticker
curator of big cats, National Zoo

Scientists sometimes write about meteors from Mars. How can they tell a meteor actually came from the red planet?
Edwin Anderson
Glendora, California

The best evidence is in the bubbles: Some Martian meteorites contain trapped gas bubbles whose concentrations of elements match those of the Martian atmosphere, as measured by the Viking missions. Age, composition and the amounts of certain isotopes also strongly suggest that certain meteorites came from Mars.
Andrew W. Beck
postdoctoral fellow in mineral sciences, National Museum of Natural History

What gives flowers their scent?
Margaret Riconda
Bayside, New York

My friend W. Mark Whitten, a botanist at the University of Florida who works with orchid fragrances and pollination biology, says: Flowers are miniature chemical factories. The epidermal cells of the flower petals (and sometimes other parts) pump out a mix of volatile chemicals unique to each species. These chemicals advertise the presence of the flower and help guide pollinators, who are equipped with chemical detectors.
Tom Mirenda
orchid collection specialist, Smithsonian Gardens

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