Why Is D.c.'s Feather Id Lab Studying Snakes? (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Why Is D.C.'s Feather ID Lab Studying Snakes?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
The humble seagull is just one kind of bird you'll find at the place we'll visit next, the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The lab has spent the past four decades studying bird strikes. That is, what happens when birds and planes collide. Basically the scientists at the lab help military and civilian airports determine which birds are striking aircraft.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:27
But lately, the lab's scientists have been coming down from the sky, and into the literal bowels of one of our non-feathered friends, the Burmese python. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson has the story.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:40
Carla Dove holds a small package underneath the fluorescent lights inside the Smithsonian's Feather Identification Lab.

MS. CARLA DOVE

00:00:46
And what we have inside is prey remains from the Burmese python. So fortunately now, these are pre-cleaned. Back in the day, when we first started working on this, they'd send us the whole frozen intestinal tract and that could be a little smelly. These are better.

WILSON

00:01:06
The serendipitously named Dove is a forensic ornithologist and manages the Smithsonian's Division of Birds, and thus, the Feather ID Lab. While there is an actual laboratory here, the ID Lab is dominated by a massive accumulation of bird specimens, housed in floor to ceiling wooden cases on the museum's sixth floor.

DOVE

00:01:27
Let's open a case. So here we go.

WILSON

00:01:29
This section of the museum is closed to the public, but in many ways is the most impressive collection in the building.

DOVE

00:01:36
We have somewhere around 620,000 specimens right here on the sixth floor of this building. Most of the public do not even realize that we're here.

WILSON

00:01:44
But when the military or the National Transportation Safety Board is investigation a bird strike, this lab is really the only place that can do the work of identifying exactly what species collided with the aircraft. All Dove and her team need is a fraction of a feather, although sometimes they get more than that, and often, it's messy. So often that decades ago, the prep lab here coined a word for what's left of a bird after a mid-air collision. It's a word that's practically become a technical term.

DOVE

00:02:15
We call that snarge, that's ick, that's a bird ick, okay?

WILSON

00:02:19
Snarge S-N-A-R-G-E.

DOVE

00:02:23
I think it means like snot and garbage.

WILSON

00:02:25
So Dove and her team are not squeamish. But sifting through the digestive tracts of giant snakes, she says that took some getting used to.

DOVE

00:02:33
You know, I didn't think I would ever be -- I love birds. I didn't think I'd ever be working with Burmese Pythons.

WILSON

00:02:39
The opportunity first arose about five years ago, when researchers at Everglades National Park in Florida wanted to find out if the Burmese Python, an invasive species running amok in Florida swamps, was eating native birds. The answer has been a resounding yes. An early study encompassing about 80 pythons found 25 different species of birds in their stomachs.

DOVE

00:03:01
This snake is opportunistic. It's eating everything in its path.

WILSON

00:03:05
If you'd expect anyone to be enthusiastic about washing a feather in a beaker full of soap and water, it's an ornithologist named Dove. And she doesn't disappoint. She's giddy as the feather's coloring becomes clearer.

DOVE

00:03:22
So this will be -- this is exciting. This tells me that we may have a chance at this one.

WILSON

00:03:27
The feathers are about three inches long, round on the tips, and white near the shaft, or rakus of the feather. Of the eight specimens that arrived in the package from Florida, they're the best preserved. Dove uses an air compressor to dry them off.

DOVE

00:03:43
See how nice they look? And look at the color of brown now.

WILSON

00:03:48
You can sense that Dove already has a good idea of what bird ended up as this particular python's meal, but she has to check the molecular structure of the barbules as the base of the feather to be sure. It gives her a chance to gush about her new microscope.

DOVE

00:04:02
So this is like the CSI forensic equipment that we just love, and this is new, and it's got great optics.

WILSON

00:04:10
Those optics lead Dove to an order of birds known as Gruiformes, and a family that contains water birds such as cranes. Dove walks back to the collection room and opens the Gruiforme case, sliding out a tray of specimens known as Limpkins.

DOVE

00:04:26
So here we have this nice little feather with a white diamond shape and a dark tip that matches up perfectly with these feathers on the belly of the Limpkin. That's a beautiful match.

WILSON

00:04:37
Florida is the only place Limpkins can be found in the U.S., and they are on the state's list of protected species. Dove says the pythons pose a real threat to the North American Limpkin population.

DOVE

00:04:50
This is not the first Limpkin we found in the prey remains of this species, and we also know they're eating their eggs.

WILSON

00:04:58
Pythons first appeared in the Everglades in the late '70s. They're popular exotic pets in Florida, and may have been released by their owners, or escaped from backyard enclosures. Some estimates put the current Florida population in the tens of thousands, and Dove says the amount of devastation the snake is inflicting on native species makes it hard for her to see it as anything other than the villain of the story.

DOVE

00:05:22
I love snakes and all animals, but I have to say, I have become -- my dislike for the snake has really intensified over the years.

WILSON

00:05:33
Dove says she hopes her research will push policymakers to dedicate more resources to protecting native birds, before their remains end up in her lab. I'm Jonathan Wilson.

SHEIR

00:05:46
Want to learn more about the Feather ID Lab, and see exactly what a Limpkin looks like? You are in luck. We've got all sorts of information and photos on our website, metroconnection.org.
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