“Bird-Airplane” Collisions and Forensic Ornithology

The New York Times recently published an article, Trafficking in Contraband that Sings, on birds from Guyana that were being smuggled into the US for singing competitions. Strangely enough, these competitions are judged by humans and not by female birds. The part of the article that intrigued me the most, however, also aired on NPR, about the Forensic Ornithologist (Dr. Train) called upon to testify in court regarding these birds. This was a field of science new to me and, curiosity piqued, I did a little research.

Forensic Ornithology has been used in a variety of ways and with a variety of methods including DNA or by “eyeballing” the species. Experts in the field have been called upon to help solve such problems as bird-airplane collisions, homicide investigations, and endangered species’ poaching cases. It is an interesting field of study where you have to incorporate a lot of information on feather structure, bird bones and even DNA.

Credit: NASA

In the wrong place at the wrong time, a bird is silhouetted against the clear blue Florida sky (upper left) as it falls away from Space Shuttle Discovery after hitting the external tank during liftoff of mission STS-114 in July 2005. Credit: NASA

Take bird-airplane collisions like the Hudson River Landing. By knowing which bird(s) collided with the airplane, a management plan for that bird species can be made to prevent such collisions in the future. (As an aside, is it really fair to put the bird first in “bird-airplane collision”? Or what about “Bird hits External Tank during Shuttle Launch”? As if the bird was the one traveling with boosters strapped to its keel.)

All kidding aside, analysis of the bird remains can help focus on which species may need management. Leading to alternate aircraft routes during peak bird activity to avoid potential collisions, using bird radar to track flocks of birds such as NASA uses and even sound cannons strategically placed to keep birds out of the aircraft’s flight path.

So where does one go to have birds or their remains identified? If it is a larger sample, the Museum’s very own collection can help. Dr. Dan Brooks, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, has identified parts of birds for museums and the USF&WS (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) to ascertain whether or not it was a species listed as Threatened, Endangered or CITES. He has also used the collection (and his own vast knowledge) to identify feathers in Indigenous people’s ornaments, including the “Ice Queen” mummy of National Geographic fame. Pretty cool! For the high-tech study of bits and pieces used as evidence in court cases, professionals usually turn to the NMNH’s Feather Identification Lab.

 black vultures
Creative Commons License photo credit: ljmacphee

In another article by the NY Times, the initial forensic analysis performed by the Lab of the remains collected from a collision produced deer DNA. That seemed odd, since the collision took place at 1500 feet. Analysis of a feather sample that was also collected identified the bird as a Black Vulture, evidently with deer remains in it’s stomach. Science is awesome!

Here is a link to NPR’s interview “The Tale of a Bird Detective.” So turn up your speakers and learn something new today!

UPDATE: The world is still here

Atlas
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ethan Hein

Science definitely wasn’t sleeping last night -in the very wee hours of the night, (2:30 a.m. Central time to be exact) physicists at the world’s largest particle physics laboratory – CERNthrew the switch on perhaps the most massive physics experiment ever attempted. (The AP confirms: we’re still here.) The eventual goal: find the Higgs-Boson particle, also called the “God Particle.”

In simple terms (and they would have to be, for me to understand them) physicists theorize that the Higgs-Boson particle is the particle that gives all other particles mass. Without mass – well, there wouldn’t be anything. So, physicists would like to have a look at it – and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, an $8 billion, 14-mile particle accelerator - was designed to help them. Basically, they’re going to crash a bunch of tiny particles together and see what comes out, in an effort to create the conditions that existed just after the Big Bang.

(This is all happening in Switzerland, where CERN is located – but as the Houston Chronicle reminds us today, this cutting-edge science could have been coming from Waxahatchie. The US spent $2 billion building the Superconducting Super Collider project – it’s super! – there, which would have created a particle accelerator three times as large as the LHC – before Congress pulled the funding in 1993.)

What brought so much attention to CERN over the last few months – so much so that CERN physicists went through improv comedy training to improve their skills at relating to people – were allegations that flipping the switch would literally mean the end of the world – in the form of a giant black hole that would swallow the Earth. Specifically:

The Hole
A tiny black hole will not
swallow the Earth.
Creative Commons License photo credit: jepoirrier

“…the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a ‘strangelet’ that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called ‘strange matter.’” (You can read an explanation of why that won’t actually happen here.)

So grave were fears, that Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho filed a lawsuit in a Hawaiian federal court (despite obvious issues of jurisdiction). (The above quote is from the New York Times’ coverage of their suit.) This kicked off a daily chronicle of the suit, as well as the Large Hadron Collider CERN was in the process of building and testing – and breathless speculation on whether this time, those crazy scientists really are going to kick the bucket for all known life.

Because of all this, an extremely technical branch of physics became – amazingly – a cultural phenomenon. A rap video filmed inside the Large Hadron Collider, explaining what would be tested and how, has almost 2 milion views on YouTube (the fact that it’s hysterical – but also an extremely easy-to-understand explanation – certainly helps.) Keep in mind – this is a video about physics. (Google has also marked the occasion with an LHC graphic on it’s search page today.)

The controversy could perhaps be reduced to the simple fact that people fear the unknown. We are profoundly afraid of what we can’t explain – and don’t even get started on what we can’t predict. At the very edges of science (and sometimes, smack in the middle of everyday investigations), you’re never quite sure what is going to happen. Scientists are fully aware of those risks. As the New York Times reported:

“…the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.”

Which is why the LHC Safety Assessment Group - a group of independent scientists – went back over their calculations, concluding that the experiments CERN was proposing pose “no conceivable threat.” CERN also opened the whole process to the science community and the public for examination – and continue to reassure people that:

“…if particle collisions at the LHC had the power to destroy the Earth, we would never have been given the chance to worry about the LHC, because regular interactions with more energetic cosmic rays would already have destroyed the Earth.”

This driving curiosity about the world we live in is what has taken us from cave dwellers to space walkers in less than 500,000 years – and how we’ve gone from paper maps to Google Earth in less than 15. This fear of the unknown is universal – but it is not a reason to stop trying, to stop reaching into the unknown and pulling out magic, taking it apart, figuring it out and then putting it back together again. I hope that the world will continue watching what’s happening at CERN (and in science labs all over the world) with anticipation – not of the Apocalypse, but of the wonders we we still have left to discover.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.13.08)

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Creative Commons License photo credit: nicolasnova

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

The Internet is only 5,000 days old. That is an astonishingly brief period of time to go from writing letters to Twittering your Facebook status. So, what’s in store for the next 5,000?

What if you could edit video as easily as a photo – without being a staffer at Industrial Light & Magic? A program called Unwrap Mosaics is in the works to help you do just that – easily.

It’s like our very own Loch Ness Monster - a Texas sheriff’s deputy caught something very weird on film. Chupacabra, perhaps?

~ My Python (DE NIRO) ~
Creative Commons License photo credit: KhayaL

Don’t worry – the Burmese pythons are going to stay in Florida (rather than expanding their habitat to over 32 states, as originally predicted.) The bad news? They could destroy the ecosystem of the Everglades.

Return of the Jedi: student researchers at Drexel University have developed a video game that you control with your mind.

CERN fired up the Large Hadron Collider – and we’re still here. Find out how it went at Daily Galaxy.