About the Podcast
Stories about natural histories and livable futures presented by Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Season One centers climate action, and how humans are working together towards a just and joyous future for all life. Hear interviews from the frontlines of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and justice with people who grow our food, protect our greenspaces, and fight polluting industries. Researchers at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and host Michael Pisano connect these community climate action stories to natural history, ecology, and environmental science.
Get more info about our collaborators and interview subjects with these videos.
Meet the Hosts
Host Michael Pisano’s first career aspiration was to be a dinosaur. 35-ish years later, he makes films about sustainability and solidarity. He also makes fantasy games about collaboration in the face of doom. Together, he thinks, we can fight for a joyous future.
Producer & Co-host Taiji Nelson studies Learning Sciences and Human Development at the University of Washington (Seattle), but lived in Pittsburgh from 2006-2022 and grew up in the Allegheny National Forest. He is passionate about developing ways to promote solidarity between the environmental movement and other justice movements, and facilitating learning environments that help people answer big questions about taking action toward climate justice.
Field Reporter Di-ay Battad tells stories about people who are working toward a safe, just, and inspiring world. With their background in teaching in alternative and after-school settings, Di-ay is especially motivated to show the value and power of education, and of youth voices, in our movement toward climate justice.
Field Reporter Jamen Thurmond started his career shooting on his phone three years ago. He takes inspiration from anime and his everyday life to make ordinary things seem greater than they are. He aspires to elevate the voices of the unknown and document his life in the process.
Field Reporter David Kelley is a local curmudgeon armed with a camera and a passion for storytelling.
Watch out for poison ivy! It is a fascinatingly cool plant but can also be dangerous. This flowering specimen of poison ivy was collected on May 31, 1903 by John Shafer (the first curator of botany at Carnegie Museum) and O.P. Medsger in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern PA.
What is Poison Ivy?
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a woody vine found in forest understories, but does especially well on forest edges. It is very common in urban and suburban areas. It takes many forms, climbing high up a tree, along the ground, or even a short shrubby thing. The leaves take a range of shapes, but as the adage goes (“leaves of 3, let it be”), it has three leaflets.
Poison Ivy Chemistry – What Causes the Rash?
Poison ivy is known for its chemistry, producing a class of organic compounds call urushiol. These are found in the plant’s sap and on leaves/stems/roots. Urushiol causes a nasty rash to those who touch it. Not all people have a reaction (but most are sensitive). Don’t be too confident if you haven’t had a rash before – it can develop with repeated exposure. Incredibly itchy, the rash can become a serious health issue if infected, especially if its oils get in contact with your eyes, face, or throat. The rash can appear days after exposure and can last for weeks.
Research indicates poison ivy will get more poisonous with climate change, both in terms of growth and producing higher quantities of forms of urushiol particularly toxic to humans.
Is Poison Ivy a Weed?
Some people call Poison ivy because of its fear-causing rash, but it is native to eastern North America. The species has a wide distribution across our region, and across the world (native subspecies in China). Although native, the species seems to be getting more common as we create more forest edge habitat. The colorful foliage can be quite beautiful in the fall, and the berries are a food source for birds and other animals. Humans seem to be the only ones allergic to it.
Plants Similar to Poison Ivy
Poison ivy is often confused with other non-poisonous and poisonous plants.
Some common confusions:
- Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), a vine in the grape but different leaves, and not with leaves of three
- Box elder maple (Acer negundo), a tree that has compound leaves unlike most stereotypical maples, but with samaras (aka “helicopter” seeds)
Poison ivy and some other rash-causing plants are in the cashew family (Anacardiaceae) – which also includes poison oak (not found in Pennsylvania, but in western USA), staghorn sumac (not rash causing), poison sumac (rash causing, but you likely won’t come across it unless in very wet habitats)….and even a few familiar species like pistachio, cashew, and mango (some people are allergic).
What an amazing plant.
This specimen image is now publicly available online: http://midatlanticherbaria.org/portal/collections/individual/index.php?occid=12232529&clid=0
Check back for more! Botanists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History share digital specimens from the herbarium on their collection dates. They have embarked on a three-year project to digitize nearly 190,000 plant specimens collected in the region (like Poison ivy!) 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.
By Jennifer Sheridan
As some of you know, my main field research takes place in Malaysian Borneo, in the state of Sabah. I travel there frequently for work (ecological fieldwork), and I was lucky enough to be asked to serve as an instructor for a graduate field course held at one of my main field sites in October of this year. This particular site, Danum Valley Conservation Area, is one of the largest expanses of lowland primary forest remaining in Borneo, and because I have been going there regularly since 2010, it holds special meaning for me. Thus, I was very eager to share my enthusiasm for and knowledge of this place and its herpetological inhabitants with students.
This particular field course is run by the Tropical Biology Association, based out of Cambridge (UK). TBA courses are wonderful for many reasons, but one of my favorite features is that they are an even mix of students from Europe and, in the case of the Danum course, Southeast Asia. Because students in SE Asia don’t always have the same opportunities for continued graduate education as do students in Europe and the US, this course provides much-needed capacity building in a region that suffers from the highest rate of deforestation (and thus biodiversity loss) in the world. This year’s course featured students from 12 countries, and was nearly 2/3 female—another important capacity-building measure, given that women remain underrepresented in the sciences.
The structure of the course is also one that I think works well: two weeks of detailed field instruction and exercises, introducing students to methods of surveying and studying multiple taxonomic groups, followed by two weeks of students working in small groups to design, execute, and present original research projects. For me, as a scientist working at the site long-term, this structure also allows me to test new methods or gather pilot data for potential future projects. This year I supervised two groups who chose to work on frogs: one group who radiotracked a species of frog that had never been tracked before, and one group who measured the biomass of frogs on three different streams. The former project was intended to serve as pilot data for future radiotracking studies in primary and disturbed forest areas, to determine whether movement patterns and dispersal of amphibians are impacted by fragmentation. The latter project was partly because I had never measured this before and was curious what the biomass of frogs on these streams was, and partly because knowing biomass, in addition to abundance and diversity, can help ecologists like me better understand how loss of species or communities (multiple species of frogs, for example) impacts ecosystem function. Both of these projects, though small, will be written up by myself and the students who conducted them, and submitted to regional peer-reviewed journals for publication. In science, publications such as this are important both for me as curator, as well as for students just beginning their careers.
In addition to the wonderful educational and research opportunities this course afforded all of us, I happen to just love being in the field. I wake up to the sound of gibbons or birds calling. I get to hike through the jungle to get to my pristine streams (most frogs in Borneo are stream-breeders), which are so beautiful. I can talk shop with other researchers, like the fellow instructor I met who studies carbon stocks of Sabah forests, and who will now collaborate with me on my long-term research project. I look for frogs along streams at night, and in doing so I get to see loads of other wildlife, like snakes, sleeping lizards and birds, fluorescent caterpillars, glow-in-the-dark fungi, mouse deer, civets, slow loris, tarsier, and clouded leopard, just to name a few. The dual nature of my job—sitting at my desk analyzing data, managing the section of amphibians & reptiles, and writing papers, then going out and living and working in the jungle—is one of the greatest things about being a scientist, and one of the reasons I love being a curator. This was one of the greatest field months of my life thanks to the amazing students, my fellow instructors, and the luck of seeing so much great wildlife, and now I get the pleasure of sharing the results of that trip with the public as well as the scientific community, while exploring other projects with our expansive museum collections. I really can’t imagine doing anything else.
Jennifer A. Sheridan is the Assistant Curator in the Section of Herpetology 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.
by John Wenzel
A particular point of pride of our bird research is the BirdSafe Pittsburgh program. A consortium of environmental groups and concerned citizens is working to create a more bird-friendly city, from restoring urban habitat to advising builders and architects on designing structures that will be less dangerous to birds. One of our prime collaborators has been Ashley Cecil, who was Artist in Residence at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Ashley’s art is bird-themed, including one work that was reproduced on adhesive film that reflects UV light and is highly visible to birds. This film can be applied to windows so that birds will see Ashley’s pattern and avoid collision rather than see a reflection of a distant tree they would approach, striking the window. The film is available in color, making the window look like a stained glass, and in transparent form, resembling lace.
But does the film work? If you put the film on the window, does it reduce bird strikes? As the Director of Powdermill Nature Reserve, I thought I should lead by example and test the film on my own house. I have been monitoring bird strikes at my home since August of 2015. From about 6:00 am to 8:00 am, three or four days a week (at total of six to eight hours a week), I listened for strikes and recorded them. They are not random, nor evenly distributed. Certain windows seem to be a repeated problem, while others never seem to get hit. My house has 15 windows of various dimensions, plus a cathedral window that is 11 feet high and 21 feet wide. No bird has ever hit that window as far as I know. Most strikes occur when migrating birds are coming through, usually April and May, or September and October. When there is a flush of migration, it shows: I had seven strikes from August 27 to 31 in 2015, in only 10 hours of observation. Ignoring seasonal variation, and averaging across the entire data set, a rough estimate is that I observed about one strike for every 20 hours of observation. On June 14, 2018, our Urban Bird Conservation Coordinator, Jon Rice, installed the transparent film on the five most dangerous windows, leaving the others bare.
We have had zero bird strikes since the film was installed. To assess the effect of the film, consider that in the same period in 2017 we had seven strikes, in 2016 we had four, and in 2015 we had nine. Years have some random variation, but clearly, there is a reduction from these earlier three years’ average of 6.7 down to 0. More than that, my wife Donna and I became more vigilant since the installation of the film, and we logged about 10 or 12 hours of observation per week rather than six or eight we did for the baseline. If we use the baseline expected frequency of one bird per 20 hours of observation, then with the more thorough observations we would have expected a little more than one bird every two weeks, or about 10 birds in the 18 elapsed weeks, rather than 6.7. Using a simple “chi-square” statistic to estimate the difference between an expectation of 10 birds and an observation of zero, the probability is one in a thousand that we would get zero birds by random variation from an expectation of 10 birds. In other words, if our recent sample differs from our baseline probability purely by chance, we would have to measure 1,000 years to get one year as far from expectation as we got in 2018 following application of Ashley’s film. According to our scientific standards, we reject proposals that have a probability of less than one in 20. Our analysis is less than one in 1,000. We conclude that the film works very well to prevent birds from hitting windows.
You can contact Urban Bird Conservation Coordinator Jon Rice at RiceJ@CarnegieMNH.org.
John Wenzel is the Director at Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s environmental research center. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
by Erin Peters
If you visited our Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt in the last few weeks, you may have seen the windows and doors blocked so you couldn’t see inside. With this dramatic drapery, perhaps we were preparing a haunted Walton Hall for our October 26 After Dark? Alas, this is not the year of the mummy, but something mysterious was happening inside!
We are on the search for something missing from our Dynasty 12 funerary boat buried at the pyramid complex of Senwosret III. Even from this very spooky photo taken when we had the gallery blocked from light, you can see the boat is made of wood – cedar of Lebanon – a luxury good in the ancient world.
We know the boat was also painted because scholars that studied it in the 1980s noted small fragments of paint remaining on the wood surface. From these notes, they theorized it could have looked something like this model on display in the gallery.
We have new technology in the field of conservation that can reveal trace amounts of pigments that are not visible to the naked eye. To capitalize on this new technology, I invited my conservator colleague, Dawn Kriss, to work with CMNH’s conservator, Gretchen Anderson, to carry out Multi-Band Imaging on the boat.
With other sources of light blocked out, Multi-Band Imaging can reveal a number of elements on a surface including pigments, binders, and treatments, even if they aren’t easy to see. I am most excited about the pigment Egyptian blue, which can luminesce through Visible Induced Luminescence Imaging (VIL).
When Dawn found this mysterious blob – we thought we definitely had Egyptian blue!
In her analysis of the boat, Dawn first looked at the blob (with help from Chase Mendenhall, CMNH’s Assistant Curator of Birds, Ecology, and Conservation – moonlighting as an Egyptologist). Dawn carried out the whole range of Multi-Band Imaging on the blob, including VIL. Surprisingly, it did not luminesce like we all thought it would.
We invited our colleague, Michael Belman, CMOA’s Object Conservator, to join our hunt for information about pigments, binders, and treatments on the boat. My ultimate priority was the blob! When Michael tested it with XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) technology, he found what seemed to be trace amounts of copper, which is what we would expect with Egyptian blue. Yet, there didn’t seem to be enough to suggest it was the primary element in the pigment…
This initial analysis has prompted us to continue our study of it, and search for other pigments, binding material, and treatments. Keep tuned for updates on the Carnegie Boat and the mystery of the blob!
Erin Peters is an assistant curator of science and research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.