Tag Archives: plos

Anatomy lesson at PLOS

You can’t learn anatomy from a book.

For a while I’ve been wanting to write about anatomy lessons and the use of human cadavers. Throughout that same period, I’ve been struggling with this story. How to approach it?

Meanwhile, my sister and I visited the Mutter Museum and its medical oddities. The early drawings of human anatomy from the 18th and 19th century strike me more as art than science.

Like this:


An absurd rendition of a human skeleton next to a rhino, because why not. Via Drawing Seeing.

So I wrote the story about cadavers, and and based it on personal experience. I had extra encouragement by mentor George Johnson, and finally published it on Sci-Ed PLOS blog:

It was a typical muggy day on a tropical summer afternoon. I walk down the stairs, straight to the basement. The building’s architecture follows the Portuguese Colonial style. There is no air conditioning, despite the 90 degree heat. The strong smell of formaldehyde is the first thing to notice. It is everywhere, even in the hallway and stairs. I’m used to it by now and it doesn’t bother me, not nearly as much as the humid heat. The smell changes with the weather though, and becomes much more aggressive in that AC-deprived Brazilian basement. I walk the hallway until I get to the last door on the right. Waiting inside are a few classmates, and our subject of study, which lies atop aluminum tables covered with white sheets.

Continue reading after the jump…

Can a museum object be more like a dog? New post at PLOS Sci-Ed

Dog owners out there may sympathize whit this: say you are outside walking your dog and are approached by friendly strangers who ask to pet him. Your dog just mediated a conversation with a stranger that would have not happen otherwise.

Like a dog, a museum object offers an excuse for strangers to have a conversation.


Giant drill at the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Photo by Lara Solt at Dallas News.

This giant drill illustrates hydro frakking at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science’s energy hall.  If this seems controversial it’s because it is: is the museum celebrating such technique, or opening up for debate among visitors?

For more examples and ideas, read the entire post at PLOS Sci-Ed.

New PLOS post: Wildlife documentaries or dramatic science?

I have a new post up at PLOS. This time I look into wildlife films and nature documentaries and analyze if they can teach us something. See below:


Behind the scenes with To the Arctic 3D. Photo credit: © Florian Schulz/Visionsofthewild.com via Smithsonian blogs.

I first met Chris Palmer when I attended his lecture about ethics in wildlife film. Palmer is a wildlife filmmaker, and his CV includes IMAX productions like Whales and To the Arctic, and the book Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. Also a conservation advocate, Chris believes that filmmakers “have a responsibility of raising viewer awareness of the serious environmental problems facing the world”. We talked further (he graciously agreed to answer a few interview questions) and we both agree that wildlife films are great opportunity to educate the general public about science and spread a message of conservation. But, like Chris said, “[solely] promoting the beauty of the natural world is not the same as conservation.” How can we use wildlife films to educate?

Continue reading after the jump.

New post on PLOS blogs: museum education versus consumerism

A whale’s heart goes for a ride. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

A whale’s heart goes for a ride. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

I have a new post up at PLOS Sci-ed, titled Selling memories: the tenuous line between museum education and consumerism.

A few months ago, the science blogosphere was ablaze with an ad campaign from the a science museum in Vancouver. This campaign combines unusual ads with a quirky scientific message. A sign saying “a blue whale’s heart is the size of this car” is fixed, well, atop of a car. Another car drove around with a “woofasaurus” on the back seat; a fluid-filled tank encouraged kids to walk on water; a tiger’s litterbox littered the street; and a moving squid eye followed museum visitors. All ads promise Vancouver inhabitants that they will find answers at the museum.

As we mentioned earlier (here and here), many adults visit museums after they are persuaded by their children. This phenomenon, called “the nag effect”, is widely recognized and taken advantage of in the world of advertising. One example of the nag effect in action is described in the article “how do children convince their parents to buy unhealthy food.”  The Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications used the nag effect in their advertising strategy. Their ad campaign, in place since 2004, combined print ads, billboards, bus stop ads, TV and radio spots, and a collection of “unconventional” ad media. Convincing a parent to visit a museum sounds like a better idea than pushing them to buy unhealthy food, but still: we are talking about using the power of advertising and consumerism in favor of a museum.

When is it honorable to use advertising as subterfuge for the cause of science and education?

Continue reading after the jump... 

A little more info on the moa


Artist rendering of giant eagle attacking unsuspecting moas. Art: John Megahan via Bunce et al, 2005.

Like I said over at PLOS blogs, I first saw a moa fossil skeleton in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. I was curious about that tall bird with no semblance of wings. I searched for the label to find out if that skeleton was incomplete, in the hope to find more information on that bird’s perhaps long lost wings. It is not uncommon for partial skeletons to be found and displayed – smaller, more fragile bones decompose faster and are not left behind. Many skeletons seen in museums are a collage of bones from many different specimens, and several parts are artificially built (for example, one rib can be a plaster-made, mirror image of another).  However, the label on the moa skeleton explained that this huge bird did not even have vestigial wings. Without the need to fly, its wings completely disappeared throughout the course of evolution. They would have left no trace, wasn’t for the bird’s unmistakable similarity to an ostrich.

The ostrich is today’s largest bird, and it belongs to the ratite (flightless) group of birds. Many species of ratite bird are extinct, including the moa and the elephant bird of Madagascar, but still living are the ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea, and their tiny relative, the kiwi.

The wiki image above is a great example of the size difference between the kiwi, ostrich, and moa (Dinornis). In fact, the moa was for years believed to be part of the ostrich family, until the little detail of “no wings” came to light. Earlier moa archeologists were surprised after finding one leg bone after the next, but never an arm. One massive bone (which can be seen on the ostrich’s thorax, on the above picture) is missing from the moa and kiwi. That’s a bird’s keel, which is responsible for anchoring a bird’s wings. Many ratites do have wings (like ostriches and emus), even though they are not so helpful. The moa and the kiwi do not.

The moa’s enormous femur bones were first to be found. Twice the circumference of a human femur, those fossils helped recreate the image of this massive bird.  After the discovery of many moa fossil sites and skeleton reconstructions, it is now known that the moa came in 9 species, reached up to 12 ft. tall and could weigh over 500 lbs – heavier than a gorilla. Currently we have an even better understanding of this animal. For example, we can tell its diet consisted of at least 74 different species of plants and that it fought its only predator pre-human settlement (the giant eagle). Researchers have also been able to extract pieces of its DNA from its fossil bones.

Moa long bones (left tibiotarsa) and eggshell, drilled for DNA samples.

Moa long bones (left tibiotarsa) and eggshell, drilled for DNA samples. Alletoft et al, 2011

The moa used to live in New Zealand before extinction, when it disappeared shortly after Maori settlement in the 13th century. This bird was New Zealand’s largest herbivore. There were no land mammals – unless you count the three species of bat. The moa roamed freely, unaware of predators except for giant eagle (Haast’s Eagle). Much like a modern day eagle, it grabbed and killed prey with a strike of its talons – claw marks are preserved in many moa fossils. Moas were easy catch for the settler tribes – having never seen humans before, there was no reason for fearing them. On the course of a few hundred years they were all eaten and only bones were left to tell the story. Imagine the size of those drumsticks: even though moas were eaten, historical reports claim it did not taste so good (and supposedly tasted tough and stringy, and some admit it might have been similar to a kiwi). With no land mammals or other domesticated animals, life in New Zealand must have been difficult. Today however, it serves as an interesting cautionary tale for animal species survival or man-driven extinction.

Now posting on PLoS blogs!

Good news everyone! I’ve been invited by Jean Flanagan and PLoS blogs to join their Sci-Ed team: a blog that focuses on science education. My contribution will be on science education in museums, zoos and aquaria. My first post is up:

It was my third time meandering the halls of the Natural History museum – and first as a volunteer interpreter – when I glimpsed a bird without arms: no wings, no arm bones, no hands, no wrists, and no fingers. Nothing. That skeleton I was seeing had once been a statuesque, NBA player-tall bird. Its neck accounted for nearly half its height; its slender legs, almost the rest, with a globular region in between. That was my first sighting of a moa.

Moa (Smithsonian Natural History Museum). Photo by the author.

The moa is a gigantic extinct flightless bird from New Zealand. Imagine an ostrich, but delete the wings and give it some serious growth hormones. This 12 ft tall, 500 lbs bird was driven to extinction in the early 13th century, when humans hunted and ate them all.

Continue reading after the jump…

For the bio- and anthropologically-curious, I’ll post more info on the moa next week!