Q: In North America, we worry about invasive species from other continents. Are there North American species that have become invasive elsewhere?
—Ricardo Berry | Socorro, New Mexico
Europeans and Asians dread the Colorado potato beetle, says Floyd Shockley, entomology collections manager at the National Museum of Natural History. The interloper, commonly found in the Rocky Mountains, destroys eggplant, tomato and tobacco plants as well as spuds. The fall armyworm, native to eastern and central North America, spread a few years ago to Africa and then Asia, where it began eating lucrative cash crops like maize and sorghum. And since the late 20th century, the Western corn rootworm, common in Iowa, has been attacking corn plants across Europe. Like the Colorado potato beetle, this pest also causes problems in the U.S., but it’s harder to control in Europe and Asia, where farmers use fewer pesticides. Many other American plants and animals, from Virginia silkweed to Louisiana crawfish, are wreaking havoc abroad.
Q: How do museums transport priceless artifacts without risking theft?
—Dennis Svaldi | Arvada, Colorado
It’s a rigorous process involving a lot of paperwork, risk-based planning and on-the-ground protection, says William Tompkins, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Collections Program. Earlier in his career, when he was managing numismatic collections at the National Museum of American History, Tompkins was assigned to travel to a conference in New York with priceless coins. He made the trip accompanied by plainclothes security officers. Arriving at the conference, Tompkins was greeted by a handful of security guards who “looked like they worked for the mafia,” he recalls. “You could tell they were all carrying weapons.” Generally,
it’s the receiving party’s responsibility to foot the bill for all the necessary security precautions.
Q: What is the protocol for adding new stars to the U.S. flag?
—Donald Rohlck | Holton, Michigan
If Puerto Rico, another territory or the District of Columbia were to gain statehood, the road to a 51-star flag would be wide open, says Jennifer Jones, military history curator at the National Museum of American History. Back in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson established the Heraldic Program Office to approve Army insignia and coats of arms. A restructured version of that program, the Institute of Heraldry, now has designs on deck for flags up to 56 stars. The law states that any new flag shall be unveiled on the next Fourth of July.
Q: I’ve heard that in the ’60s, many American astronauts drove Corvettes. How did that connection happen?
—Julia Hamilton | Boalsburg, Pennsylvania
It started in 1962 when General Motors presented a white Corvette to Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Then, in a burst of promotional savvy, a Florida Chevrolet dealer named Jim Rathmann negotiated with GM to offer astronauts a $1-a-year lease on any model in his showroom, says Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collection at the National Air and Space Museum. Not surprisingly, the rocket men chose the flagship sportscar. Sometimes they even drag-raced on beach roads.
It’s your turn to Ask Smithsonian.