“How wonderful to uncover the reasons you like a place,” Annie Leibovitz said while signing copies of Pilgrimage, a new book of photographs that’s the basis of a traveling exhibition opening January 20 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Among the 300 or so fans jammed into the bookstore, those who expected Leibovitz to play the haughty diva—it was she who photographed nude, pregnant Demi Moore for Vanity Fair—were disappointed. Leibovitz chatted with fans, she posed for cellphone snapshots, she cried when she read aloud from Pilgrimage about Marian Anderson, the celebrated African-American singer who performed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution banned her from their hall. There are 122 images in the fastidiously printed book, most made at historic U.S. sites. Emerson’s library. Lincoln’s top hat (in the Smithsonian). Niagara Falls. Some are landscapes, but all are, in spirit, still lifes—unpeopled, rather solemn, considered. Leibovitz’s trips to those places over two years served as a welcome change of focus in a hectic life beset by financial troubles, an “exercise in renewal,” she calls it. “Looking at history provided a way of going forward.”

Alamosaurus Gets Pumped Up

Alamosaurus was an unusual sauropod. What makes it so remarkable is not so much its appearance—the dinosaur seems to be a fairly typical member of a group called titanosaurs—but when and where it lived. Even though North America once hosted multiple, coexisting genera of sauropods during the Late Jurassic, that diversity was eventually lost until, about 100 million years ago, there were none left on the continent. By this time the horned dinosaurs and hadrosaurs were the primary herbivores on the landscape. Then, after a 30 million year absence , sauropods returned to what is now the southwestern United States in the form of Alamosaurus . A new study suggests this dinosaur may have been one of the biggest ever.

Among the various dinosaur superlatives, the title of “biggesoks like one of those planets sketched by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince .

But move a little and its appearance changes. From any other angle, it’s an irregular crazy-quilt of shapes—a weirdly configured, Alice-In-Wonderland world. Abelanet has brought together two seemingly divergent artistic traditions—the French garden and Anamorphosis.

Gardens are one of the most notable accomplishments of French culture and reached their height in the work of André Le Notre (1613-1700), chief gardener for King Louis XIV (1638-1715), most notably at the Palace of Versailles. The distinguishing trait of French gardens is their geometric logic and mastery of vistas. From a vantage point at the center of the great terrace at Versailles, the eye is directed down grand avenues in which lines of trees, and strategically placed lakes, fountains and statues, lead the eye seemingly to infinity. Happiest when working on a grand scale, Le Notre sometimes moved entire villages to create the strictly regulated vistas that he wanted.

Notably, Le Notre was also interested in the dramatic impact of surprising effects which can be discerned from only one place. There’s an effect of this sort at th Ahref="http://www.vaux-le-vicomteom/en/chateau_jardin_francaise.php">garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte, for example, created just before Versailles for the Minister of Finance, Nicholas Fouquet. Stand before the statue of the Gallic Hercules, which marks the end of the Grand Avenue, and look back at the Chateau: The reflection of the distant building floats, seemingly miraculously, on the surface of a body of water that’s very close to you. Visually, it seems impossible, although in fact it’s simply a careful application of an optical principle that had recently been enunciated by Descartes—“the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.” In other words, if we carefully choose the right vantage point, we can see the world in a way possible nowhere else.

This concept of a unique, privileged vantage point provides the basis for Abelanet’s garden. But unlike Le Notre’s work, it discloses a world which is not predictable and logical, or under our control, but topsy-turvy and unpredictable. In essence, he has combined the techniques of Le Notre with an approach to representation normally found only in painting.

Anamorphosis. The word, which is Greek, refers to an image that needs to be seen from a special angle to be seen without distortion. It’s a kind of zany extrapolation of the principles of perspective, and it developed early in the Renaissance, very soon after vanishing-point perspective was developed. The masterpiece of the genre is arguably a large and imposing painting by Hans Holbein in the National Gallery in London, The Ambassadors .

An ingenious visual puzzle, executed around 1533, The Ambassadors shows two nearly life-size figures who have been identified as Jean de Dintevile, the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII and George de Sleve, Bishop of Lavaur. Behind them are a two-tiered table on which are piled a selection of books, globes (one terrestrial, one celestial) and scientific instruments, including a quadrant, an astrolabe and a sundial. There’s also a lute with a broken string, next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther’s a further confirmation that Alamosaurus shared its habitat with Tyrannosaurus rex . The two dinosaurs have been found in the same deposits before , such as Utah’s North Horn Formation, and the occurrence of the two dinosaurs in New Mexico makes me wonder exactly how a large tyrannosaur would go about hunting an enormous sauropod. Clashes of titanic dinosaurs were not restricted to the Late Jurassic of North America or the Cretaceous of South America . At the close of the Cretaceous, prehistoric New Mexico may have been the setting for confrontations between the largest herbivore and carnivore ever to live in North America.


Fowler, D., & Sullivan, R. (2011). The first giant titanosaurian sauropod from the Upper Cretaceous of North America Acta Palaeontologica Polonica DOI: 10.4202/app.2010.0105

A Call to Save the Whooping Crane

“You see how his nose is up in the air and he is walking a little more stiff-legged,” Megan Brown is saying while watching a video on her laptop. “That’s called marching.” On her screen, the larger of two whooping cranes flaunts his outstretched wings, showing that he’s ready to breed. Typically, the female reciprocates the gesture. Instead, she ignores him. “She is not in the mood, I guess,” says Brown, sounding dejected.

Getting whooping cranes to make whoopee has been Brown’s focus for three years. A graduate student in animal and avian sciences at the University of Maryland, she is helping to conduct research at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), a Front Royal, Virginia-based facility associated with the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The institute is participating in a project to increase the whooping crane population, which plummeted to less than two dozen animals in the 1940s.

Seen up close, the whooping crane leaves little doubt that birds are descendants of dinosaurs. Standing five feet tall, they have intense gold eyes, long spear-like beaks, pure white plumage, red caps and black facial markings. Historically, the leggy birds summered in areas stretching from Alberta, Canada, to southern Wisconsin and wintered in Texas, northern New Mexico and spots along the Atlantic Coast. In 1870, there were thought to be between 500 and 1,400 whooping cranes living in the wild. But as people drained the birds’ wetland habitat for agriculture and hunted them for their feathers, their numbers dwindled.

In 1967, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service began collecting viable crane eggs and brought them to a captive-breeding facility at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. Other breeding programs followed, but Patuxent remains home to the largest captive flock, with 72 adult cranes. Between the eggs the center’s flock produces and those sent by other facilities, Patuxent hatches and rears, on average, 20 to 30 chicks each year.

Patuxent has also developed methods to ensure that most of the chicks survive, migrate and find mates once they are released into the wild. From the moment the cranes hatch, handlers wear white gowns and masks so that the birds imprint on something resembling an adult crane. Using crane puppets and MP3 devices that play recordings of whooping crane calls, the handlers teach the chicks to eat, and lead them on walks for exercise.

Yet for all the program’s successes, Patuxent’s handlers and scientists are concerned that only about 55 percent of the eggs are fertile.“It would be great if we could have it much closer to 90 percent,” says Sarah Converse, a research ecologist.

That goal led Patuxent to contact SCBI, which has made major advances in understanding the reproduction of such endangered species as giant pandas and cheetahs.

“Our Smithsonian colleagues will hopefully help us identify problems with particular pairs,” says the flock manager, Jane Chandler. These can include low sperm quality, genetic incompatibilities or nutritional deficiencies.

One promising line of research is the birds’ hormone levels. For about five months this spring, SCBI’s Brown and her adviser, reproductive physiologist Nucharin Songsasen, set up cameras and recorded the behavior of six breeding pairs around sunrise each day (when they tend to be particularly randy). Meanwhile, handlers put capsules filled with dye—one color for males and another for females—in fish, which they fed to the cranes. Three times a week, Brown collected color-coded feces from the pens, and late this summer she measured hormone byproducts in the samples. She is now reviewing more than 1,000 hours of video to see how the cranes’ behavior correlates with the hormone data.

In particular, Brown and Songsasen are looking for hormone levels that would indicate whether the birds are stressed—a condition that could be caused by environmental factors, such as too-small holding pens. “The energy that they are using being stressed, they can’t use toward reproduction,” Brown explains.

Even if researchers manage to increase fertility rates, the whooping crane is likely to remain endangered for “many years to come,” says Marshall Jones, a senior conservation adviser at SCBI. In the meantime, though, 437 whooping cranes are reportedly living in the wild. “It’s certainly been a success,” says Jones. “But it’s taken a concentrated international effort, with people from lots of institutions, spending almost their whole careers just working on whooping cranes.”

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