Happy Thanksgiving! And what’s screams fall more than pumpkin?
This specimen isn’t just any specimen – it is the museum’s first official Anthropocene collection. A 2090.5 pound squash, in fact. The Anthropocene, or Age of Humanity, is the proposed current time period marked by pervasive and long-term human impact on the Earth’s systems. The mark of human influence is now so great, that the effects will be present in the geological record millions of years from now. The Anthropocene is a core focus for the museum, drawing together many areas of research, education, and scholarship. These Anthropocene initiatives were launched, in part, through the 2017-2018 exhibition We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene. At the time of the exhibition’s opening, a gigantic squash was on display in the museum’s courtyard. This 2,090.5 pound pumpkin is a striking visual of the influence of humans on plant evolution in the Anthropocene.
But these huge pumpkins are not easy to grow. This specimen was from a plant grown in Ellwood City, PA by Dave and Carol Stelts. When they came to the museum to harvest seeds for next year, Bonnie Isaac, Collection Manager of Botany, collected a specimen for the herbarium. As you might guess, even the pieces don’t fit nicely on a typical herbarium sheet, but instead are stored in the 3D fruit collection.
Species in the genus Cucurbita (including pumpkins, gourds, and squashes) were domesticated by humans in North America about 10,000 years ago. That is, they were cultivated in gardens, likely first selected for the use of their durable rinds (anthropological evidence for gourds used as containers for drinking) and later as a food source. Most Cucurbita species went extinct around this time, coinciding with the extinction of large mammals that these species relied upon to spread their seeds. Their fruits were unpalatable to the smaller herbivores that did not go extinct. Ironically, it is human hunters, paired with climate change, that led to the extinction of large herbivores in North America. Modern day pumpkins have adapted to the Anthropocene.
This Anthropocene specimen isn’t your Halloween jack-o-lantern or pie pumpkin, which is Cucurbita pepo, but the related Cucurbita maxima, which can be grown to enormous sizes with skill and effort.
Check back for more! Botanists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History share digital specimens from the herbarium on dates they were collected. They are in the midst of a three-year project to digitize nearly 190,000 plant specimens collected in the region, making images and other data publicly available online. This effort is part of the Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis Project (mamdigitization.org), a network of thirteen herbaria spanning the densely populated urban corridor from Washington, D.C. to New York City to achieve a greater understanding of our urban areas, including the unique industrial and environmental history of the greater Pittsburgh region. This project is made possible by the National Science Foundation under grant no. 1801022.
Mason Heberling is Assistant Curator of Botany at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.