September 23, 2015

Duwamish meanders: A river ran through it

For millennia, the Duwamish River sustained a diverse ecosystem of fertile floodplain forests, marshes and tideflats in what is now South Seattle. The geologic record shows that the Duwamish valley was created by glaciers, then repeatedly transformed by catastrophic volcanic mudflows, earthquakes and floods.

This 1922 photo shows the Duwamish River transforming into the Duwamish Waterway.
The Smith Tower is in the distant upper right and a young Harbor Island can be seen at the end of the channel.
File photo / The Seattle Times.

Arguably the greatest transformation the river experienced in recent history was wrought by human engineering. In the early 20th century, a series of major civil engineering projects diverted the comingled flows of three rivers out of the valley, lowered Lake Washington nine feet, shortened the river by four miles, dredged the river into a navigable waterway, filled in the old meanders, and built Harbor Island—the largest manmade island in the world at the time—by washing hillsides into the tide flats. This was largely undertaken for flood control efforts, navigation and commercial interests.

While the pace and scale of the industrialization of the Duwamish valley rivals that of any major city, it also came at a cost. To Coast Salish people, the expansive tidal mud flats and the wetlands adjoining the meandering river were a valuable resource. The channels, islands and shorelines were all populated with names that recorded sacred landscapes, uses, historical memories and meanings.

The engineered changes to Seattle’s shoreline disrupted ecosystems, eliminated traditional food sources (including a productive salmon fishery) and completely reconfigured Coast Salish people's relationship with this place. The land became Seattle’s industrial and commercial heartland and an engine of economic growth for the city. The factories built on top of the old meanders sustained a vibrant economy through two world wars, helping grow Seattle and the Pacific Northwest into what it is today.

The transformed valley continues to provide thousands of jobs. Major efforts are also underway to clean up the river to make the river safe for fish and people alike. The Duwamish Tribe, which plied these waters for millennia, once again have a longhouse along its banks.

August 18, 2015

10 of the weirdest fishes at the Burke

By Katherine P. Maslenikov

As Collections Manager of the Burke Museum’s Ichthyology Collection, I spend my days surrounded by millions of preserved fish specimens. We have plenty of the local species that are familiar to most people, like salmon, cod, and flounder, but I find myself more interested in the unusual species with strange adaptations to harsh environments.

Fishes display a fascinating array of specialized anatomy that has evolved over millions of years, leading to the amazing biodiversity we see today. I’ve picked 10 of my favorites to show just a taste of the variety of species represented in the Burke collections. Enjoy!

1) A shark with two heads

This Spotted Spiny Dogfish (Squalus suckleyi) specimen has been in our collection for decades, but no one knows where it came from. If I had to guess, I would say it was found inside the mother during a dogfish dissection in a biology lab. Dogfish females give birth to live young, so they are commonly used in biology labs to show the developing embryos. These ‘conjoined twins’ would not have made it far in the wild, since they would be easy prey. We’re just glad someone thought to preserve it (them)!

A Spotted Spiny Dogfish (Squalus suckleyi) specimen with two heads. Photo: Burke Museum

August 03, 2015

For the love of "grotesque" deep-sea fishes

Imagine a creature in the ocean with huge, gnarly teeth, a protruding dorsal fin spine and the ability to expand its mouth and stomach to consume creatures larger than itself.

While this may sound like a terrifying deep-sea monster, Dr. Theodore (Ted) Pietsch, Burke Museum curator of fishes and University of Washington (UW) professor, has grown to love them, having spent a lifetime of study on a group of fishes known as the deep-sea anglerfishes.

Stewart's Footballfish, Himantolophus stewarti, about 6 inches long, described by Ted as new to science in 2011.

“I would have missed out on a lot”
I recently sat down with Ted in his office at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Science building to discuss his history with these fascinating creatures.

Like many researchers, Ted started down his particular path thanks to a serendipitous moment and a push from a mentor.

July 16, 2015

Preparing for 'The Really Big One'

By Stan Chernicoff

In the past four days, some of you may have spent a thoroughly unnerving twenty minutes reading Kathryn Schulz's "The Really Big One"—a terrifying portrait of the likely effects and aftermath of the next great Cascadia earthquake published in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker.

Few if any seismologists in our region would contest or deny that a catastrophic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest is inevitable. It will happen. There is no doubt. Of course the critical question is... When? Will this disaster strike tonight? On Sunday? Or sixty years from this morning?

The answer to this critical question, despite our considerable efforts, continues to elude us. So what would the wisest among us do in light of this horrifying tectonic reality? Prepare.

Do you have an earthquake kit assembled and accessible near an exit door of your home or apartment? Does your kit contain all or most of the following items?

July 14, 2015

Conversations with collections: Native artists inspired

The Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired
exhibit at the Burke Museum
(November 22, 2014 – July 27, 2015).
Pictured: PochaHaida, 2009, by Lisa Telford. 
The vitality of the Native art scene in the Northwest continues to grow in creative and unexpected ways, but connections to older artworks often provide the spark that keeps Native artists inspired.

Over the past ten years, the Burke Museum’s Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Native Art has awarded grants to more than 90 artists and scholars so they can visit the Burke Museum and interact with the cultural collections.

We wanted to gauge the real-world effects that our grants had on recipients, so we contacted each of our grantees and invited them to share how their artistic practice was affected by their visit to the Burke.

Many told us about new pieces they made that were inspired or informed by the historical artworks at the museum, so we created an exhibit, Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired, in November 2014 to showcase their art alongside the pieces from the Burke that they identified as being key to their learning.

Before the exhibit closes on July 27, 2015, (here’s how you can plan your visit) we want to share some of the pieces in the exhibit, along with the artists’ thoughts on this process—the conversations between the old and the new—in their own words.

July 08, 2015

Spider photographer and collector’s legacy lives on

By Rod Crawford

Many people try to avoid spiders, but spider enthusiast Bob Thomson sought them out and collected them for the Burke Museum—contributing more than 9,000 specimens and hundreds of photographs! So when I heard that my old friend and colleague had died, I thought his story should be shared, and put together the following from my recollections and with some help from his son Jonathan.

Bob's son, Jonathan Thomson, captured this photo of his father in Sumatra. 

June 04, 2015

Birds that bury their eggs: How megapodes’ nesting behavior evolved

Australian Brush-turkey chick shortly after hatching and emerging
from incubation mound and showing well-developed flight feathers.
Photo: Burke Museum.
By Sharon Birks

Did you know that not all birds sit on their eggs to incubate them? Megapodes (family Megapodiidae)—a fascinating group of birds named for their large feet—cleverly harness environmental heat sources to incubate their eggs.

Depending on the species and location, megapodes may lay their eggs in burrows dug in sun-warmed beaches or geothermally active areas, or they may build large incubation mounds that function like compost piles and generate heat through decomposition.

Although most megapodes look like distant chicken relatives (they are), their unique incubation behavior has driven a suite of unusual adaptations, including:
  • large feet to help them dig burrows or build mounds; 
  • thin, porous egg shells to help eggs “breathe” underground; and
  • the ability for chicks to dig themselves out from under several feet of soil after hatching and emerge ready to fly and fend for themselves.

How did this odd incubation behavior evolve?