1 Small Step for a Squid, 1 Giant Leap for Biological Specimens

In September, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C. opened the Sant Ocean Hall. The hall, restored during the largest renovation in the museum's history, is home to 12 exhibits featuring to 674 specimens and models.

squid.jpgPerhaps the most important specimens in the hall are two giant squid. The 24-foot, 330-pound female is the most intact giant squid specimen on display anywhere in the world. She, and a smaller male, were caught by a group of deep-sea fishermen off the coast of northern Spain in 1995 and loaned to the NMNH by Coordinadora para el Estudio y la Protección de las Especies Marinas, a Spanish marine preservation organization.

The organization was keeping the squid in 400 gallons of formalin, a preservative fluid that is considered hazardous cargo and can only be transported commercially in quantities of 16 gallons or less. To get the squid stateside, the museum called the Navy, who accepted the task (dubbed "Operation Calamari") and brought the squid home in a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane (pictured).

The Pickle of Pickling

In hindsight, getting the squid to the museum may have been the easy part. Preserving them posed an even bigger challenge.

There are some 1.5 billion biological specimens stored in institutions around the world (NMNH has about 124 million). "Wet" specimens, those that need to be stored in a preservative fluid, are usually (though not always) first fixed in a fixative solution, most commonly formaldehyde, which prevents the breakdown of proteins by forming chemical bonds and coagulating the contents of the specimen's cells into insoluble substances.

After fixing, a specimen is placed in a preservative fluid, which stabilizes it, prevents cell destruction and acts as its permanent home. The most common preservative fluids are alcohol (usually either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol), used since the 17th century, and formalin, a solution of formaldehyde diluted in water with some methyl alcohol added to prevent the formaldehyde from forming a solid mass, which was introduced in the 19th century.

Both of these preservatives present problems. Alcohol dehydrates specimens and leaches color from them, causing them to turn brown and then dirty white. Alcohol is also flammable; when Philadelphia's Mütter Museum was collecting specimens, one of the first donors insisted that his collection of fluid-preserved human organs needed be housed in a fireproof building. Formalin is better suited to preserve some specimens because of its fixative properties; it permeates a specimen's tissue and prevents it from decomposing. It's also less flammable than alcohol, but has a strong, unpleasant odor, is toxic and has been linked to certain types of cancer in animal tests.

Neither alcohol nor formalin retains specimens' true textures, and both preservatives allow specimens to move around in their containers, which can lead to breakages.

If you've seen more than a handful of fluid-preserved biological specimens, you know that some look much better than others. Somewhere, someone was doing something that preserved the specimen in excellent condition. Why don't all museums duplicate that technique for their collections? Unfortunately, in fluid preservation, most technique is the result of trial and error and records are rarely kept.

Where No Squid Has Gone Before

In addition to these challenges, Washington, D.C.'s fire marshal has significantly reduced the amount of flammable fluids that are allowed to be kept in public buildings since 9/11. The museum was authorized to use only 10 gallons of alcohol in the entire Sant Ocean Hall, while the female squid alone needed 1,200 gallons of fluid.

Formalin and alcohol were out, so the museum turned to Novec 7100 engineered fluid, developed by 3M, the diversified technology company. Novec, developed in the mid-1990s for cleaning electronics, isn't a preservative fluid, but a storage medium that forms a protective chemical envelope around specimens that have already been fixed in formalin. Novec is nonflammable, nontoxic and ozone-friendly. Its low water solubility keeps it from getting cloudy over time, and it doesn't drain color from specimens.

Novec has its share of problems, though. It evaporates easily, so specially designed jars with an extra-tight seal need to be used to contain specimens and the containers can't sit under lights that produce a lot of heat. Novec is also about 1.5 times denser than water, which means unrestrained specimens float to the top of their container, get exposed to air and decompose. Museum staff had to be careful to keep the squid submerged while also minimizing damage from any restraints they used. The squid are held down by a restraining bracket and reinforced with a metal screen, while broad transparent straps hold down the tentacles and distribute tension across them.

Novec's use in the squid exhibit is an ongoing experiment. For all their flaws, we know alcohol and formalin preserve specimens for a long time. No one knows how the squid will look in 20 or 30 years. Even while they're on display, the museum is taking samples of the squid's tissue and the storage fluid to see if the tissue is going through changes in cellular structure and if any compounds are leaching from the squid into the fluid. The museum is also breaking with preservation tradition by keeping meticulous records, starting with the squid's initial fixative injection in Spain and keeping pace with the tests they perform. The museum has said that every organization that donated specimens for the Sant Ocean Hall is eager to get plenty of data on Novec; if the squid are as intact a few decades down the line as they are now, Novec may become the fluid of choice for preservation. Here's lookin' at you, squid.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

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2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

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3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

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4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

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5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

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6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

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7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

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8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

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9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

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10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

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11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

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12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

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13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

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14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

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15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

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16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

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17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

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18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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