Friday, August 31, 2012

What You Need to Know about Temple Grandin and Cows

“Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be.” ~T. Grandin

Temple with friends
The relationship between man and cow is ancient. Evidence for domestication of cattle dates back to Mesolithic times (10,000 to 5000 BCE). For thousands of years, humans have made use of cows for labor, leather, milk, butter, cheese, meat and manure – among other things. (see diagram below) It is humbling to know that  our modern society, an urbane environment seemingly so far removed from the life of a shepherd, is built on the foundation of pastoralism and animal husbandry. We are indebted to cows, who in-part have helped transform human subsistence into secure existence.  In return for their contributions to mankind, cows only require that we feed, shelter, and defend them against wild animal attacks and disease. Regrettably, the commercialization of the beef industry has changed our ancient relationship with the cow dramatically for the worse. Over the past century, humans have been reneging on their end of the bargain to provide for the general welfare of these docile creatures. Common today are news stories like ‘Farmers Feed Cows Candy to Reduce Costs; The Case of the Cannibal Cows’; which led to ‘Mad Cow Disease Kills Mother and Son. And there is always your standard run-of-the-mill cow cruelty story -- all highly disturbing reads, in varying degrees. This stream of horror lays bear man's  broken contract with the cow. Isn’t it high time we make good on our end of the bargain? Appearing on the scene in the early 1970's, one young woman named Temple Grandin seemed to think so.

Temple Grandin & compassion for cows
For those of you who have yet to see the Emmy award-winning biopic on Ms. Grandin, the story begins with a brilliant young autistic girl whose affinity with cows commits her to an up-hill journey to reform the beef industry and the inhumane treatment of livestock. The rise of the modern meat-packing industry and the commodification of “cow products” have effectively altered the delicate, and in some cultures highly revered relationship, with our kindly bovine friends. As a rule, mass-production focuses exclusively on economic bottom-lines rather than respect and fair treatment of Life.  Mentioned earlier, a few of these news stories describe humans being cruel for the sake of being cruel but, in most cases these ghastly stories are motivated by systemic greed. Profit, not barbarism, is the root cause of the perversion of our relationship with cows. In light of this modern dilemma between profitability and animal welfare, Grandin brought us good news: unlike global warming, the damage that we have done is not irrevocable, we can treat cows humanely and it can make good business sense.

Designed to reduce stress.
Instead of asking everyone to become a vegan tomorrow, Grandin takes the more pragmatic approach maintaining that humans have always been omnivores, herself included. By working within the realm of possibility, focusing on what people can do rather, than what people should do the famed animal behaviorist revolutionized the beef industry by designing better facilities for cows. Her point-of-view is unique (Temple sees in pictures) and it has helped her understand the needs of cows in a way that you or I cannot.  She has worked tirelessly on policy to train and reform meat-packers, handlers, farm workers, agricultural companies, and big beef purchasers. The secret to her success is that she rarely uses emotional arguments to win her battles but rather, helps to implement change by working with regulatory bodies that economically punish meat-packing plants that do not pass regular audits. She has also persuaded big beef purchasers like McDonalds and Wendy’s to sever ties with meat-packers that fail these audits. She has proven that economic consequences typically get fast results. In addition to helping to transform the meat-packing industry, she also worked to change society’s negative perception of autism by showing that her condition is an asset that informs her work. Most laud all of Ms. Grandin's accomplishments yet, there is some heated rhetoric aimed at Temple for not advocating veganism altogether. In response, Temple cites the laws of nature:

“Unfortunately, most people never observe the natural cycle of birth and death. They do not realize that for one living thing to survive, another living thing must die.

Added as a corollary to this statement is:

“any animal that has the capacity to suffer when raised for human food deserves to live in an environment that prevents suffering and provides it with a life where it has opportunities to experience positive emotions. Nature cannot be moral or evil because it has no intent.”

Whether you agree with Grandin or not, one thing is for certain, she has worked tirelessly to ease the suffering and preserve the dignity of cows.

Book of the week: The Biggle Cow Book 
Since it was Temple’s birthday this past Wednesday, we wanted to gift her with a lovely selection from the BHL. The Biggle Cow Book (1898), has jewels of advice about how to care for our lowing friends:
See all the Biggle Cows on Flickr.
  • A low voice makes a quiet cow
  • Old advice but excellent: Speak to a cow as you would to a lady
  • If the stable is cold at calving time blanket the cow after the birth of the calf, and the calf too
  • To scratch a nervous heifer between her forelegs has a wonderfully soothing effect
  • Don't forget that continued good health requires proper feeding, good air, sunlight and exercise
Agrobiodiversity needs our attention too.
Alongside sound cow care advice, the Biggle Cow Book touches on an important area of biodiversity that gets very little attention: Agrobiodiversity. Conservation of a genetically diverse livestock population is a component of global biodiversity efforts that struggles to get proper exposure. Most conservation efforts are aimed at preserving wildlife biodiversity, a far sexier cause. However, this does not change the fact that the diversity of livestock animals is under threat. Surprised? Did you know that there are over 800 breeds of cattle that have been accounted for, and most of these breeds are at great risk of being wiped out? The very definition of "domestication" negates the process of natural selection. Instead cattle are bred via artificial human selection of certain high-performing breeds and thus determines which taxa will dominate the livestock landscape. The unfortunate consequence is reduced genetic variation. The future danger of emphasizing certain genotypes over others is best summarized by author of Livestock Biodiversity, Genetic Resources For the Farming of the Future, Stephen J.G. Hall: "the thousands of breeds that exist were mostly developed in very different circumstances from those of today, but they are not anachronisms, they represent the genetic diversity that will enable the livestock farming of the future to respond to new challenges.” This is especially true in light of global climate change; who can predict which breed of cow will be better adapted to the environment of tomorrow? Current breeding practice is predictably only concerned with short-term gains like high-milk production or large meat yielding breeds—these are called high-input, high-output breeds (HIHO). Breeding that is driven by profits ignores the long-term viability of cattle and a vulnerable cow population flies in the face of the growing demand for meat: by 2020 global meat demand will increase from 209 tons to 327 tons, milk demand will rise from 422 million to 648 tons. Sound like another sustainability crisis?

Where do we go from here? 
As our collective ethical consciousness edges ever closer to a moral crisis, the subjects of livestock conditions, treatment, and breeding practices is often a depressing discourse that most of us would much prefer to avoid. Yet, if you look for the silver-lining you will find it: as with the recent case of the cruelty violations by the Central Valley Meat, California-based fast-food chain supplier to In-N-Out Burger and McDonalds. Both fast-food companies immediately suspended their supplier relationship with Central Valley Meat after a video of brutal treatment by handlers went viral. Grandin’s strategy that stresses the importance of economic consequences as punishment for poor meat-packing practices was at work here. Additionally, there has recently been more focus on the preservation of cattle breeds. In regards to agrobiodiversity conservation, we can look to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, one of the few organizations whose mission includes promoting research and increasing awareness about livestock biodiversity. They maintain one of the most important resources for researchers, the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System or DADIS database which is a data source for the worlds’ livestock breeds. Additionally, regional efforts in countries like the UK have been leading the way with the established Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The organization has spurred other smaller organizations to form and work to gain funding for agrobiodiversity studies and policy. One last piece of good news is that the average person can make a difference just by knowing where their meat comes from, voting with their dollar, and exploring diets that reduce their red-meat intake. During the process, if you decide to become a vegetarian, great! Either way, eating less red-meat helps to decrease the global demand for an unsustainable food resource. Adhere to this Chinese proverb: Eating what stands on one leg is better than eating what stands on two legs which is better than eating what stands on four legs. When and if you eat red-meat, realize that you are eating a once living breathing creature that gave its life so that you may continue to live yours. This sacrifice should be honored and respected. Let’s wish Temple a very happy birthday this week and thank her for helping us to uphold our end of this ancient contract betwixt cow and human.

Cows a' roamin!
 -Jacqueline Ford, Biodiversity Heritage Librarian

Agrobio Resources:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Interested in improving access to millions of digital images?

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) has made significant contributions to the research community over the past five years.  One of the largest has been to successfully digitize a significant mass of biodiversity literature (nearly 40 million pages) and make that literature available for open access and responsible use as a part of a global “biodiversity commons.”

Yet despite this success, BHL continues to have several challenges with access to and distribution of its digitized content.  One of which is the ability for users to easily find the millions of natural history illustrations hidden within the pages of the BHL corpus.  Only a small percentage of pages have been tagged as having illustrations because this is currently a labor-intensive manual task (a small selection of the diversity of BHL images can be viewed in its Flickr stream at   Once tagged, users still cannot search on the illustration’s content using criteria such as species names, dates, and creators because images have not been described at that level of detail.

The NEH-funded Art of Life project has set out to solve this problem both by developing an algorithm to automatically identify which pages contain illustrations and by creating a schema to further classify and guide the description of the illustrations so as to increase their accessibility to users.   Once the algorithm tags pages containing illustrations, they will be pushed out to image-sharing platforms such as Flickr and Wikimedia Commons for crowdsourcing of the descriptions.  The schema will provide guidance on the recording of fields and their values.  (see an example of a BHL illustration marked up with the Art of Life schema below)

Example of BHL illustration marked up with proposed Art of Life schema


Here’s how you can help

A draft  of the schema has been developed; we are looking for feedback on how well it will serve the needs of five primary audiences that we believe would benefit from access to these illustrations:   1) Artists, 2) Biologists, 3) Humanities Scholars, 4) Librarians, and 5) Educators. We particularly want to know if the schema incorporates the access points by which these user groups want to find images, or whether they might want to search for images based on fields not incorporated in the schema.

Whether you anticipate being a user of the illustrations from the BHL or you are a subject specialist or cataloger interested in helping us describe their content, we are interested in hearing from you as to how this schema may be improved to support the description of and access to these images.

We have provided a brief survey for feedback here:


Feedback can also be posted to this blog, added directly on the schema draft (with Google Docs comments) or emailed to me ( )

Trish Rose-Sandler, Data Analyst, Missouri Botanical Garden

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why Predators Protect Biodiversity

In the 1920s, a once-familiar face in the northwestern United States all but disappeared. The majestic gray wolf, a top predator in the Rocky Mountain ecosystem, gave way to the pressures of habitat loss and human hunting. By the 1930s, a previously healthy breeding population of wolves was extinct in Montana. While the decimation of any species is tragic, the loss of top predators can have an even more profound effect on an ecosystem.

The Impact of Top Predators

Top predators are imperative for healthy ecosystem functioning.

Lion populations have fallen by over 350,000 since the 1940s
This statement might sound like a paradox, as predators eat other animals, thereby seeming to cause death, not life. However, by keeping other populations in check, predators ensure that a multitude of species occupying a variety of environmental niches can survive and thrive. Sadly, we're now learning first-hand just how critical these creatures are in nature.

Science Illustrated recently published a blog post about the impact of predator disappearance. Calling on such examples as the decline of wolves, sharks, and raptors, the article states, "In some places, top predators have become so scarce that they have affected whole ecosystems and are threatening to alter food chains, changing the ecological order on land, at sea and in the air."

But just how do predators help maintain a healthy balance in nature? Without predators to regulate prey populations, these species will reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of their environments, decimating the populations of smaller animals, plants, and coral reefs. As these species decline, additional organisms that rely on their presence will also decline, resulting in a domino effect that can ultimately push populations and habitats beyond the point of recovery.

An Example: Shark Decline

90-99% of large shark species have disappeared off the U.S. coast
In the wake of Shark Week, awareness about the current status of shark conservation is high. The shark fin business alone is responsible for up to 73 million shark deaths each year. "The populations of all shark species in the Mediterranean have declined by 97% in the past 200 years," and "populations of large sharks have fallen by more than 90%."

The disappearance of large sharks has resulted in the increase of 12 out of 14 small shark and ray species, which are usually preyed upon by larger sharks. These smaller organisms in turn are wreaking havoc on mollusk populations, as, without predators to regulate them, their populations are growing at a faster rate than the mollusk community can support. The Cownose Ray is a perfect example of this, with a population increase of 9% annually. At these numbers, the rays can consume upwards of 840,000 tonnes of Atlantic Bay Scallops in the Chesapeake Bay region in their first 100 days each year in the region. The decline of large sharks in more southern, tropical waters has led to an increase of species that consume reef-building corals, thus threatening the health of coral reefs.

MIA: Nature's Natural Clean-up Crew

Ecosystem disruption is, of course, not limited to the disappearance of top predators. The loss of any species has an impact on healthy habitat function, including the oft-despised scavengers. Last year, we wrote about the fate of the vulture in South Asia. Like sharks and raptors, vulture populations have plummeted as a result of poisoning which primarily contributed to the loss of over 14 million birds. The absence of this species, resulting in road kill abundance and resulting disease occurrence, threatens India's ecosystem and may have severe human health consequences.

A Use Case from BHL: The Wolf Story

The American Wolf is a great example of a successful conservation effort
As outlined earlier, the status of wolf populations in the United States was jeopardized in the early twentieth century. As wolves disappeared, elk populations, along with other grazers, increased unchecked. Aspen, cottonwood, and willow tree stability fell, affecting the smaller mammals and birds that relied on them. The carcasses left behind by wolves were also of critical importance to scavenger species, like coyotes, ravens, and eagles, particularly during the winter. With no wolves around, these species suffered as well.

Happily, wolves are an example of how humans can also positively affect the fate of a species. In 1980, the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery team devised a plan to help reintroduce wolf populations to the northern United States. In 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, the scope and results of which are articulated in the department's annual report, and, consequently, our book of the week.

Under the plan, with support from federal funding, the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks manages wolves in northwestern Montana. As a result of natural reproduction, dispersal, and the reintroduction of wolves from Canada, wolf populations increased at rates of 10-34% annually, with a minimum estimate in 2005 of 256 wolves in Montana. As of 2011, approximately 650 wolves are estimated to live in the state. 

Wolf Population Estimates

A crucial step in setting up a successful conservation program is constructing a robust method to monitor how many specimens are in a given area. The Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was no exception. Monitoring involved a variety of methods, including radio telemetry, howling and track surveys, and reports from natural resource agency professionals.

Perhaps most exciting, however, was the program's use of the public to help monitor wolf populations. Encouraging people to share any sightings or evidence of wolf activity, program officials essentially crowd-sourced the monitoring project. Officials set up a website to allow members of the public to report their sightings easily and efficiently. Volunteers were also utilized to "systematically search areas of current wolf reports, areas of past wolf activity, or noted 'gaps' in wolf activity despite adequate prey base." 

Using these methods, officials determined that, by the end of 2005, there were a total of 46 packs, defined as consisting of two or more wolves, with a minimum of 256 wolves in Montana. The average number of wolves per pack also increased from 4.5 in 2004 to 5.5. in 2005. The Montana program is an excellent example of not only how successful conservation programs can be, but also how members of the public can play a critical role in that success. Learn more about the recovery program and the results in BHL.

Verified Wolf Pack Distribution in Montana as of Dec. 31, 2005


Predators are critical for healthy ecosystems, ensuring that a greater variety of species survive and thrive by keeping prey populations in check. While many predator species are threatened today, our wolf use case shows us that there is hope. If we are proactive, conservation programs are capable of ensuring a positive future for these and other species. Increasing awareness about the effect of species decline is a critical step in saving biodiversity.

By providing free access to literature about these species, BHL is helping conservations, ecologists, and researchers gain the critical knowledge they need to protect and bolster these populations. You can help support our endeavors with a donation to BHL. Be sure to take advantage of the free resources we provide, particularly the thousands of illustrations in our collection, some of which, to celebrate the threatened species we've highlighted today, are presented below.

Remember, each person can make a difference, and unless we act now, the future for many of these creatures, and our own planet, may be quite bleak.

Created with flickr slideshow.

- Grace Costantino
Program Manager | Biodiversity Heritage Library

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book of the Week: Shark Week Celebrates its 25th year!

I hope everybody here is taking time out of their day to celebrate the greatest week of the year, shark week.  
~Tweeted by MattG124 ‏@MattG124

A Great White in Action!
Tweeter Matt G124 is just one of many, in the throngs of people who are amping up for Discovery Channel’s 25th annual Shark Week. This week long commemoration of all things sharks is aired in 72 countries watched by ~ 30 million viewers and is the longest running program event on cable. Every year schools of shark fans around the world countdown the days in anticipation for this late summer shark line-up and when it arrives they organize home-screening parties, play games, trivia, award prizes, shave their hair, get manicures and generally remain glued to their televisions marveling in the jawsome mystery and power of sharks. 

What we here at the BHL love about this week of shark finaticism, is the remarkable thing that the Discovery Channel has done for shark conservation efforts. Over the course of 25 years, Discovery has significantly raised public awareness about declining shark populations by partnering with conservation organizations such as Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and The Pew Charitable Trust whose public service announcements are aired during prime-time commercial breaks, informing viewers about plummeting shark populations. Shark inspired mohawks and manicures aside, what the Discovery Network has really done is move public sentiment about sharks from a place of fear to a place of compassion. Moreover, they have successfully built a conservation army of shark lovers and enthusiasts. If every animal and organism on the planet had the same following that sharks have it would be a wonderful thing. We would all be a lot more knowledgeable about the earth’s biodiversity and the steep challenges that we face. Most importantly, we would know that there is still much work to be done.

Johannes Müller
Book of the Week: BHL’s selected homage to cartilaginous fishes aka Sharks
One hundred and fifty years ago, before twitter, television, and home-screening parties attended by folks in full shark regalia, there was a famous comparative anatomist cum ichythyologist named Johannes Müller who was also really into sharks. He may have expressed his fascination with sharks in a more traditional way by today’s standards, opting instead to publish one of the first comprehensive anatomical studies of sharks but, we think he would be tweeting it up if he was around today. In his tome, Systematische Beschreibung der Plagiostomen or Systematic Description of Cartilaginous Fishes, Müller and his co-author Jakob Henle, provide anatomical descriptions of 214 Chondrichthyes (sharks, rays and skates). Their medical background in comparative anatomy helped to settle some taxonomic disputes about how certain species should be classified. For taxonomists, Müller asks that special attention be paid to the supplements and the detailed index of his book which guides you through his classificatory scheme. And naturally, one of the best parts of this week’s book of the week are the lovely plates provided in the text of some seriously jawsome sharks! 

Want more sweet shark images? Check out the Biodivlibrary's Flickr Stream and Pinterest Board!

Distorted Public Perception about Sharks
We are unsure what the public perception of sharks was like in Müller’s day. Were people afraid of sharks? Did these creatures evoke blood-curdling fright and haunt them in their worst nightmares? Probably not. It was more likely that the average person never even saw a shark nor gave them much of a thought at all. Unfortunately for us, we have been subliminally programmed to be very afraid of sharks. Movies like Jaws and over-sensationalized news stories about shark attacks have had the effect of damaging shark conservation efforts.The proof? According to a survey conducted in 2003 by the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland “seventy percent of Americans surveyed [...] believe that sharks are dangerous. 72 percent also believe that shark populations are just adequate or too high.” Basically, more than half of the population seems to think that we don’t need to do anything to save sharks. This is a very dangerous sentiment indeed because the populations of these apex predators are on an alarming decline. Without sharks who will regulate the health of the ocean, chiefly coral reefs?  Sharks eat sick and diseased organisms, opening-up ocean habitats for healthy fish – in particular algae-grazing fish which act like coral vacuum cleaners. This video simulation created by the Nereus Program explains in detail how vital sharks are to reef eco-systems:

Seven Swell Facts about Sharks!

  • You are 15 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bit by a shark, and 89 times more likely to die of being struck by lightning than dying from a shark bite. 
  • 2/3 of a shark’s brain is dedicated to its sense of smell.
  • In the 10 years between 1999 and 2009, there were 51 fatal shark attacks throughout the world. Annually, humans kill 79 million sharks. Now multiply that number by 10 years. And who’s afraid of whom again?
  • Sharks have seven senses compared to mammals that have five. What are the two extra that we don’t have: An electrical sense and pressure sensitive cells beneath the skin.
  • Of the millions of sharks killed annually, most of these deaths are a result of the high price for their fins to make shark fin soup. Fins go for $300 dollars a pound.The good news? States like California are banning the soup.
  • Some species of shark must keep swimming forward in order to breathe and therefore, are never stationary; they even swim while sleeping.
  • Some mother sharks can have parthenogenic births meaning that they can produce asexually. They are the Virgin Maries of the ocean.

  • Become a Shark Advocate
    Convinced that sharks need your help? Here are some tangible things you can do to help shark conservation efforts:
    Lastly, please educate yourself. Check out the iTunesU Shark collection that we put together that honors the power and mystery of these amazing creatures.

    -Jacqueline Ford, Biodiversity Heritage Librarian

    Thursday, August 9, 2012

    Book of the Week: The Not-So-Quiet Countryside

    The fast-paced life of city-dwelling can make anyone yearn for a relaxing weekend in the country. When imagining such a refuge, the idyllic English countryside often comes to mind. While one might envision such an escape to be much quieter than the city, it is by no means dull. Stimulation abounds around every corner, if you simply have the patience to look for it.

    Stimulation, you scoff! What possible stimulation can the countryside offer? Life, we say! Life of every variety and degree, from the minute ant to the towering Alder. The bustling bee, the alert hare, the wriggling cod. Each species contributes a wealth of activity and interest to the countryside that, when properly appreciated, is as inviting as it is stimulating. English naturalist and reverend John George Wood endeavored to ensure that this diversity of life hidden in the hills and meadows of his beloved England was acknowledged and appreciated by all people, young and old, learned scholar or curious observer. And he was surprisingly successful at it. His book The Common Objects of the Country, published in 1894, sold 100,000 copies in a week - quite a feat for a humble country reverend. Or was he?

    John George Wood: The Man Behind the Pulpit

    John George Wood was born in London on July 21, 1827, to a surgeon. Educated at home during his early years, Wood eventually attended Merton College, Oxford, earning his B.A. in 1848 and his M.A. in 1851. Following his time at Oxford, he became curate of St. Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, becoming an ordained priest in 1854. He also served as assistant-chaplain to St. Bartholomew's Hospital and held the office of precentor to the Canterbury Diocesan Choral Union.

    But there was another side to Rev. Wood. Throughout his life, he harbored a fascination for natural history and a love for writing. Combining those interests together, Wood found himself a very successful popular natural history writer and lecturer. Not particularly scientific in nature, his works rather presented natural history as an object of interest and beauty for the everyday observer, providing baseline scientific description without alienating the casual reader with technical jargon. Beginning in 1876 and continuing until 1888, he delivered lectures in Great Britain and the United States, enhancing his presentations by drawing related sketches on blackboards or large sheets of paper - a habit he came to refer to as "sketch lectures." His popular published works included The Common Objects of the Country, Illustrated Natural History, Animal Traits and Characteristics, Common Objects of the Sea Shore, and Out of Doors. If book sales weren't enough to validate Wood's success, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's quotation of Out of Doors in his Sherlock mystery "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane," surely was!

    Common Objects of the Country

    The Common Objects of the Country is Wood's celebration of the English countryside. Wood described the work beautifully himself within the preface:

    As this little work is not intended for scientific readers, but simply as a guide to those who are desirous of learning something of natural objects, scientific language has been studiously avoided, and scientific names have been only given in cases where no popular name can be found...Every object described by the pen is illustrated by the pencil, in order to aid the reader in his researches; And the subjects have been so chosen that no one with observant eyes can walk in the fields for half-and-hour without finding very many of the objects described in the book.

    Wood's genuine love for these creatures is blatantly expressed in his invocation to protect and preserve, not destroy, them. Wood writes,

    Some call themselves Naturalist, and under the shelter of that high-sounding name occupy themselves in destroying nature. The true naturalist never destroys life without good cause, and when he does so, it is with reluctance, and in the most merciful way; for the life is really the nature, and that gone, the chief interest of the creature is gone too. We should form but a poor notion of the human being were we only to see it presented to our eyes in the mummy.

    Wood claims that to truly appreciate nature, you must observe it in motion, in activity, in life. His book is meant to serve as a guide to everyone who wishes to tackle this challenging yet rewarding endeavor. The beautiful illustrations within the work, composed by W.S. Coleman, aid the reader in identification, after which true appreciation can begin. We hope you'll take the time to admire the simplicity of this presentation, enjoy the illustrations, and take a walk to put your observational skills to work (thanks to BHL and Cornell University, who digitized this work, you can download it and take it with you on your adventure to help you identify the critters in your path!). Be sure to check out all of the illustrations in Flickr and find selections in Pinterest, where you can repin to allow even more people to enjoy them!

     - Grace Costantino, Biodiversity Heritage Library Program Manager

    Thursday, August 2, 2012

    Book of the Week: Beebe, Barton and the Bathysphere

     "There is one joy of reading, another of painting, and another of writing, but none to compare with the thrill which comes to one who, loving Nature in all her moods, is about to start on a voyage of discovery to a land familiar in dreams alone."  ~William Beebe

    In 1934, William Beebe and Otis Barton made the first historic deep-sea submersible descent off the coast of Nosuch, Bermuda. At the time, they had reached a world record depth of 3,028 feet (923 meters). Beebe and Barton would later inspire ever deeper submersible dive records by many more explorers to come. In fact, just over a month ago, China set the world record for deepest manned dive: The Jiaolong submersible reached depths of 22,600 ft (6,908 meters) in the Marianas Trench. The water pressure at that depth is equivalent to 1,600+ elephants standing on the roof of a small car! It's important to remember that all submersible dives, including the Jiaolong are built on the initial explorations of two very brave men -- William Beebe and Otis Barton.

    Today, researchers have the security of new technological advances, exhaustive testing, and deep-sea robots that allow us to observe life in these extremely pressurized ecosystems with relative safety. In contrast during the 1930's, Beebe and Barton did not have this luxury, being the first to dare such a dangerous feat. These were men whose curiosity overcame their fear, taking no refuge in the certainty that they would come back to the surface alive. 

    Created with flickr slideshow.

    Unsophisticated by today's standards, the original Bathysphere designed by Otis Barton, was essentially a 2.25 ton ball of casted steel, 4.75 ft. in diameter, with two windows made of three inch-thick fused quartz. Barton approached Beebe with the design after Beebe publicly made available his own preliminary design for a cylindrical deep-sea vehicle in the New York Times. Barton saw Beebe's plans and knew that his alternative spherical shape submersible would be a superior design, able to better withstand the pressure of the deep-sea.  Beebe met with Barton and approved his designs. The rest is history. 

    The origins of Beebe's quest: The Arcturus Adventure
    Many scientists at the time questioned Beebe's motives, seeing the Bathysphere as a publicity stunt by a media hungry scientist cum celebrity. Beebe's bitter public divorce, late nights dancing in jazz clubs and stints on game shows made him an easy target for drama-driven gossip columns. In Beebe's defense, we believe his intentions were honorable since he was so often lamenting over the fact that his deep-sea dredges off the coast of Bermuda brought back only lifeless bodies of the creatures whose behaviors and tendencies he wished to study in their own habitat. In this week's book of the week, The Arcturus Adventure, Beebe writes, after another round of deep-sea dredging, that the eels brought back to the surface from a half-mile down only raise more questions:
    "If tentacles were needed by this eel why in the name of holy natural selection must the jaws be thus sacrificed! These eels were always quite dead when I found them in the heart of the salpa mass, and how they live and move and satisfy their appetites in the icy blackness half a mile beneath our keel I shall perhaps never know. " (p.382)
    Beebe's need to know pushed him ever further to take new risks and thus, his search for a deep-sea submersible design began, ending with Barton in 1930. Four years later on August 15, 1934 they would make headlines with the world's first, only and deepest submersible dive. The results of these dives produced Beebe's account of his many journeys in the Bathysphere, Half Mile Down along with a 1938 film titled, Titans of the Deep. 

    Lucky for Beebe and his insatiable curiosity, it would be only a few years later that we would have the answers to once unknowable questions about deep-sea creatures and Beebe would share his conclusions with us in his rivetingly written and richly illustrated books. The Arcturus Adventure gifts us with some fabulous images from the New York Zoological Society expedition that acted as the catalyst to the Bathysphere dives. For your viewing pleasure, please check-out some of Beebe's dredged-up fish:

    Fig. A, Argyopelecus ; Fig. B: Sternoptyx
    Bodianus eclancheri
    Cypselurus furcatus
    Melanocetus johnsonii

    Xanthichthys Ringens
    Fig A: Young Mola mola ; Fig. B: Holocentrus; Fig C: Taractes
    The full-set is available for download on Flickr. This week we thank MBHLWHOI for digitizing Arcturus.

    Happy Birthday Beebe 
    And why do we highlight Charles William Beebe today? Besides the fact that he was no ordinary scientist, this past Sunday marked Beebe's 135th birthday. Happy belated Beebe and thank you for your contributions to the body of knowledge about life on Earth with such infectious flare! Even though Beebe was often accused by critics of "spicing" things up in popular accounts of his scientific adventures, we think he was just a man on a mission with some serious curiosity, courage and commitment to knowledge. He lived like a man who was running out of time, indefatigable to the last: on his expeditions he was noted to rise at 5AM and end the day around 10PM; the fact that a volcano was erupting did not deter him from hiking into it -- almost being killed by toxic gasses. It would take a man like this to place himself into a 2+ ton steel ball called a "Bathysphere" and head down into the unexplored deep. We know Beebe was not interested in notoriety, Beebe was interested in Life.
    "...the supreme joy of learning, of discovering, of adding our tiny facts to the foundation of the everlasting why of the universe; all this makes life [..] one never-ending delight."~ William Beebe

    William Beebe’s Official Website
    Beebe, Barton, Cameron

    Beebe Media
    Welcome to Bermuda (recommended)
    William Beebe's Galapagos Expeditions (recommended)
    Sounding the Deep, a 2012 Hull Philharmonic Orchestra production inspired by Beebe.
    Titans of the Deep (1938)
    Information Please, Beebe airing as a guest on the popular quiz show.

    -Jacqueline Ford, Biodiversity Heritage Librarian