MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we are talking about survival. In this next story, we'll talk about what it takes to survive in the animal kingdom, but we're going to do it in a rather unexpected place. Environment reporter Sabri Ben-Achour takes us there.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Past that giant elephant in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum and the hordes of visitors, deep in the bowels of the museum, there are white hallways, long white hallways full of white cabinets. Kris Helgen starts opening them up.
MR. KRIS HELGEN
This is actually, more or less, where our division of mammal collections starts.
Helgen is curator of the mammal division for the Smithsonian. He pulls out a stuffed platypus.
You can see their fur is pretty...
Can I touch it?
Yes, the back of your hand there. It's kind of a waterproof fur, very thick, very oily.
He also has preserved bats.
Big, black shaggy bats.
White-toothed shrews from Africa.
There are 600,000 specimens here, collected over 200 years.
We've got skins, we have skulls and bones. We have a few things in jars.
And hidden among these shelves and in these cabinets are species that nobody even knew existed.
So this is a relative of the raccoon. You can see this pelt. You can feel it if you want to. It's nice and soft.
It's very soft.
Kind of a rich, golden red auburn color and this animal is only found in Andean rainforests, what we call cloud forests, high up in the elevational gradient on the Andes. This is from Columbia and Equator and we’re calling it the mountain alingo.
It doesn't look like a raccoon. It looks more like a little -- like, a cross between a kola and a flying squirrel or something.
This one was collected almost 100 years ago in 1919, but whoever collected it just trapped a bunch of creatures and figured, yes, they look alike, I'm sure they're all the same raccoon, cat, whatever. Turns out there are two mountain alingos that that live in the region.
They're very, very different. The closer you look at the fur color, the size, the skull, the teeth, you can tell them apart easily, but not if you just see one running through the trees.
When Helgen went down to the Andes, he found mountain alingos scampering around through the trees. They’re still there.
Anytime I find something new in a collection, it’s a euphoric moment. I have to explain that. You just -- you pull out a cabinet, and it might be something that's been here 100 years and you sort of feel maybe I’m the first person to really realize what’s going on here.
Helgen has found 25 new species this way, including some that have already gone extinct. Sometimes it takes DNA analysis to figure out whether a creature is really a different species.
You know, and when you have two species that basically look the same, why are they different species if they appear so similar?
I think one of the ways to think about it is, you know, what do they look like to each other. I mean, when I'm here as an observer in the museum, I have to only use my senses, especially my kind of visual powers to try and tell these things apart. But for these rats, their sight is not their most important sense. Hearing is very important, they may make different noises and probably most important of all is the sense of smell. And so, in their world, they probably think they have nothing in common, and look nothing like, you know, like each other.
Helgen's search is all about the basic questions of biology, what is out there? Where is it? What are we losing?
What the world is, what the world around us really is is just the sum total of all the life we see. And, you know, mammals is just a drop in that bucket. All the different kinds of mammals in the world, but that's my drop to look at and until my dying day, I'm going to be investigating these questions. These are the basic questions that make our planet tick and I want to know those answers.
One perk of this work is that when Helgen does come across an organism that’s new to science, he gets to name it, like, whatever he wants.
Do you have, like, 100 best friends who are all coming up to you and, like, trying to lobby for names?
Well, that's the issue with mammal names. You know, some people are desperate to have something named after them, but others come and they look and they say, we've got rats, we've got bats. I'm not sure if I want one of those to bear my name for all time.
Okay. All right. Well, let me know when there's going to be a platypus Sabri.
Yes, I'll let you know.
And with only a tiny, tiny fraction of the species in the Natural History Museum's collection documented so far, there's a really good chance that there are all sorts of other animals, creatures that look like a platypus or a mountain alingo or maybe something even more unusual just waiting to be discovered and named after me. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
To see photos of some of the species found deep down in the bowels of the Natural History Museum, head to our website, metroconnection.org.
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