‘Tis the season: Use your scientific smarts to wow ‘em during the holidays

As holiday and end-of-the-year parties are getting closer, it may be time to think of new topics to bring up when there’s a lull in conversation with coworkers, family, friends and new acquaintances. And what better way than bringing up some interesting science facts?

Here are some of the most interesting facts that I have learned while working at HMNS, and hopefully, some of these will catch your interest too.

Show off your excellent and expanding vocabulary.

sparkbirdHow about the word “spark bird”? A “spark bird” is any bird species that excites an interest in further bird watching.

How to use “spark bird” in a sentence: “The spark bird for Alexander Wilson, a legendary ornithologist in the 1700s, was the Red-headed Woodpecker.”

Offer some unconventional advice to those suffering from a winter cold.

Marshmallow can help ease sore throat pain. Unfortunately, we aren’t talking about the delectable variety of marshmallows you can buy in the grocery store. The marshmallow that we are referring to here is from the marshmallow plant, Althea officinalis. Historically, the sap from the marshmallow plant was used to treat sore throats in addition to coughs, colds and skin inflammation. Roots and leaves of the marshmallow plant can also be used to make teas. Yum! Marshmallow tea!

Settle some debates.

“Are they bison or buffalo?!” Great question!

If you are looking at the animal in North America, then the likelihood is that you are looking at a bison. The American bison (Bison bison) lives only in North America and is known for its large wooly head. Buffalo and bison are closely related, but buffalo are only indigenous to Asia and parts of Africa.

So if you’ve ever eaten a burger made of buffalo meat, the chances are that you ate bison instead. Or they imported some buffalo meat from another hemisphere, which would be a very fancy burger.

bisonorbuffaloOr just go for shock value.

Blue jays aren’t really blue.

This might sound a little farfetched, but hear me out. Feather colors can be determined by pigment or structure. When color is determined by structure, the feather itself can be a different color than what we perceive.

The blue jay is a perfect example. The structure of the feather includes air pockets that allow yellow and red wavelengths to travel through, but reflect blue wavelengths back. Thus, we perceive blue jays to be blue. If you were to take a blue jay feather and backlight it, then you would see the brown pigments showing through instead — because the light is not reflecting the blue wavelengths anymore.

I hope you enjoyed these interesting facts. Feel free to use them throughout the holiday season!

Plains Indian Culture: The Rest of the Story

Indian Scout
Creative Commons License photo credit: timsamoff

The image of horse-riding warriors wearing flowing feather bonnets two hundred years ago is an enduring one. However, it is not necessarily a complete, or even a correct picture. Here is “the rest of the story.”

Consider the history of the horse. This animal evolved in North America, as early as 55 million years ago. During the Ice Ages, some 2.6 million years ago, they expanded their territory into South America as well as the Old World. The earliest settlers in the Americas may have seen the last survivors of the genus Equus in the Americas before these animals became extinct on the continent, surviving only in the Old World (Asia, Africa and Europe). It was only with the arrival of European settlers that modern horses, now much bigger than their ancestors, were reintroduced into the Americas. Horse riding culture among American Indians dates back at most a few centuries, not millennia.

this guy
Creative Commons License photo credit: nalilo

Another iconic image associated with Plains Indian culture is buffalo hunting. Bison hunting (the term buffalo is a misnomer) must have been impressive in its scale and the scope of planning that preceded it. Bison were hunted long before the arrival of European horses. Texas is home to the famous Bonfire kill site,  located on the border with Mexico.  There, in a small side canyon of the lower Pecos River, hunter-gatherers ran bison over the edge of a cliff several times over a time span of several centuries. These types of hunt were exceptional; they were supplemented by hunting other animals and gathering plant foods. The latter activity probably provided the greatest amount of sustenance to American Indians. Not all Plains tribes hunted bison. Numerous tribes were farmers planting crops, such as corn, introduced from what is now Mexico.

Public Domain: Dakota Delegation, ca. 1871-1907 by unknown (NARA)
Creative Commons License photo credit: pingnews.com

Plains Indian culture is still around today and it is part of a wider American Indian society. Plains Indians can be found on the reservations throughout the United States, or on the bus sitting next to you. Like any other human culture, Plains Indian culture has evolved, while celebrating aspects of its past. Traditional dances became Powwow dances about a century ago and remain very popular.  Beadwork, introduced about 150 years ago, also continues to evolve.

Interested in anthropology? Learn more:
Who were the first Americans?
Could you outwit a monkey Machiavelli?
What did Neandertals sound like?