Local Scientist Finds New Species Without Leaving D.c. (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Local Scientist Finds New Species - Without Leaving D.C.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
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

00:00:26
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

00:00:44
This is actually, more or less, where our division of mammal collections starts.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:49
Helgen is curator of the mammal division for the Smithsonian. He pulls out a stuffed platypus.

HELGEN

00:00:54
You can see their fur is pretty...

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:56
Can I touch it?

HELGEN

00:00:57
Yes, the back of your hand there. It's kind of a waterproof fur, very thick, very oily.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:03
He also has preserved bats.

HELGEN

00:01:05
Big, black shaggy bats.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:06
Mice.

HELGEN

00:01:07
Possums.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:07
Moles.

HELGEN

00:01:08
Rats.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:08
Squirrels.

HELGEN

00:01:09
White-toothed shrews from Africa.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:11
There are 600,000 specimens here, collected over 200 years.

HELGEN

00:01:17
We've got skins, we have skulls and bones. We have a few things in jars.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:21
And hidden among these shelves and in these cabinets are species that nobody even knew existed.

HELGEN

00:01:27
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:33
It's very soft.

HELGEN

00:01:34
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:51
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.

HELGEN

00:01:58
Right.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:58
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.

HELGEN

00:02:12
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:22
When Helgen went down to the Andes, he found mountain alingos scampering around through the trees. They’re still there.

HELGEN

00:02:27
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:43
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:53
You know, and when you have two species that basically look the same, why are they different species if they appear so similar?

HELGEN

00:03:00
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:30
Helgen's search is all about the basic questions of biology, what is out there? Where is it? What are we losing?

HELGEN

00:03:36
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:58
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:05
Do you have, like, 100 best friends who are all coming up to you and, like, trying to lobby for names?

HELGEN

00:04:09
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:22
Okay. All right. Well, let me know when there's going to be a platypus Sabri.

HELGEN

00:04:27
Yes, I'll let you know.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:28
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.

SHEIR

00:04:52
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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