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Science Never Stops

Explore highlights from The Academy's scientific research. Make sure to check out the Academy Blog for more stories.

Academy Town Square: Water Futures  
Wednesday, January 25, 6:30 – 8:00 p.m.  
The Academy of Natural Sciences Auditorium

Academy Town Square: Water Futures, Wednesday, January 25

Join the Academy of Natural Sciences as we look toward the future of water — considering community resilience in relation to this fundamental element of human and ecological health. What are the key issues that we need to remain focused upon? What challenges do we see on the horizon? How do we keep the water flowing? 

This program marks the Academy’s transition from Water Year 2022 to Biodiversity Year 2023.   

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Moderator: Sharon Walker, PhD, Dean, College of Engineering; Distinguished Professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering; Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, Drexel University 


  • Jerald Fagliano, PhD, Clinical Professor and Chair, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University 
  • Mira Olson, PhD, Associate Professor, Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering;Co-founder and Director of Technical Extension of the newly established Peace Engineering program, Drexel University 
  • Christopher Sales, Associate Professor, Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering Department, Drexel University 

Highlighting Biodiversity: Spectacular Birds and the Amazon River

two tropical birds with red and orange plumage photo by Lukas Musher
Amazon Royal Flycatchers (Onychorhynchus coronata) are a common species that occur across the Amazon Rainforest. When alarmed they display a large red (males) or orange (females) crest like the ones seen here. Lukas Musher/ANS

Few places are as evocative of biodiversity as the Amazon Rainforest, a region of South America that occupies just 0.5% of Earth’s terrestrial area yet harbors a disproportionately astounding 10% of known species diversity. Roughly 1,300 bird species call the Amazon Rainforest their home, as do more than 3,000 species of fishes and countless primates, butterflies, orchids, frogs and more.   

In some locations, the Amazon Rainforest is one of the last remaining truly wild places, with only minimal signs of the industrialized world — though this is rapidly changing. How the Amazon accumulated this impressive list of organisms remains one of the great mysteries of modern biology, one that continues to be debated by scientists who work across many disciplines. 

The region also has a major impact on the rest of the planet. By some estimates, the Amazon Rainforest contains as many as 13% of all the individual trees on the planet — making it one of Earth’s most crucial carbon sinks. Its vegetation stores a mind-boggling 120 billion metric tons of carbon in its stems, leaves, trunks and branches — a reduction, however, from what it has historically stored — but still a truly impressive number. Moreover, studies have shown that the Amazon Rainforest creates its own climate, which can then affect those of other regions as far away as the North American Pacific Northwest.  

Continue reading Highlighting Biodiversity: Spectacular Birds and the Amazon River on the Academy Blog. 

Microsculpture: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss 

microsculpture red bug on black background 

Microsculpture: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss is a groundbreaking project that presents insect specimens from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History like never before. British photographer Levon Biss’ images reveal an unexpected and often breathtaking beauty that brings to life the many intricate adaptations of an insect’s form — what entomologists call their microsculpture. 

Displayed as large-scale photographic prints up to 9 feet high, the Microsculpture project reveals the hidden structure and beauty of insects. Each beautifully lit image was created from around 8,000 individual photographs taken under strobe lights, capturing the microscopic forms of insects in striking, high-resolution detail. Examine extremely fine pigmented scales, velvet-like surface textures, saw-sharp mandibles, swirling patterns and some of the most vibrant, iridescent colors seen in nature. 

Learn more about Microsculpture and Leon Biss' process on the Academy Blog. 

A Day in the Life at the Academy’s Ornithology Department

female college student looks through microscope 

We love learning more about the daily tasks and perspectives of the students, scientists and staff that work within the walls of the Academy. So, we reached out to Drexel’s Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) student co-op Abigail Del Grosso to learn more about her wonder-filled work here in Ornithology. 

Continue reading A Day in the Life at the Academy’s Ornithology Department on the Academy Blog.

Leave the Leaves for Understory Habitats

brown and yellow fallen leaves close up

Red, orange, yellow, gold, brown – every autumn, the canopies of the Northeast transform into a picturesque glory of color. Once they fall though, our opinions of these very same leaves may quickly change. Are they yard waste, an annoying nuisance to be cleaned up or something quite different and much more important? 

Leaves are actually critically important to the health of your yard. The simplest thing you can do to help support sustainable natural ecosystems in your area is to leave the fallen leaves on the ground during autumn.

Continue reading Leave the Leaves for Understory Habitats on the Academy Blog.

Orchids: The Royal Family of Plants

illustration of white orchids with green pedals  

Orchids are one of the most well-documented flowering plants in history. The earliest recorded European attempt at growing orchids was when Dutch botanist Paul Herma began documenting his cultivation of a North American orchid in 1698. While his attempt was not successful, it opened the door for many European botanists to try their hand at natural and artificial orchid reproduction.   

The first successful artificial orchid reproduction occurred in 1856 with the Calanthe Dominyi. The Calanthe genus has since welcomed many additions to the group such as Calanthe Triplicata and Calanthe Sylvatica. These orchids are best known for being a winter sprouting flower with deep roots. 

Continue reading Orchids: The Royal Family of Plants on the Academy Blog

Confronting the Effects of Coastal Climate Change

water flowing through wetlands with beach in background

Environmental science major Kris Freyland sees the effects of climate change up close. Throughout their co-op this spring and summer, Freyland worked with Beth Watson, PhD, associate professor of biodiversity, earth and environmental science and senior scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Patrick Center for Environmental Research, to study the impact of saltwater intrusion into coastal forests.

“The forest is dying off, giving rise to ghost forests, and salinity and soil flooding is leading to more bare ground, wetlands or open water,” Watson explained. Ecohydrology, the study of the interactions between water and ecosystems, allows the research team to analyze the way the landscape has changed and predict how it might continue to erode in the future. 

Continue reading Confronting the Effects of Coastal Climate Change on the Academy Blog.

Bird Migrations: Timeless and Threatened 

flock of birds flying over pond at sunset with pink sky
Purple martin, Progne subis © Doug Wechsler/VIREO

Across the setting sun, migrating birds fly high in the sky toward a distant destination. It’s an iconic image we’re all familiar with, heralding the arrival of autumn. Many well-known species of birds migrate night and day between August and November, including hawks, geese, thrushes, warblers and sparrows. As these birds journey through the darkness, however, they often face unexpected, dangerous and unseen challenges — distracting bright lights, invisible glass windows and human-made buildings.  

Click here to continue reading Bird Migrations: Timeless and Threatened on the Academy Blog.

Community Science to the Rescue, One Flipped Horseshoe Crab at a Time

horseshoe crab on sandy beach with houses in background

On a beautiful sunny day in early summer, a group of community scientists led by Ron Smith — a Drexel University BEES instructor and high school environmental science teacher — was making the most of the beachy breeze on the Delaware Bay.  Fixing their hats and covering themselves in sunscreen and bug spray, these volunteers were setting off to do some very important conservation work: rescuing horseshoe crabs. 

Click here to continue reading Community Science to the Rescue, One Flipped Horseshoe Crab at a Time on the Academy Blog.

A Globally Comprehensive Dataset of Butterfly Traits

A grey butterfly with red dots on its wings. 

Credit: Isabelle Betancourt/ANS Entomology Collection

“Butterflies are often a first point of introduction for many into nature,” writes Vaughn Shirey, first author of an astounding paper published in a very prestigious Nature journal, Scientific Data, that presents the largest and most comprehensive global compilation of butterfly trait data to date.

Shirey, who is also an alum of Drexel University’s Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) Department and a previous co-op at the Academy, spoke with us about their life-changing student experiences that led to this research success, as well as the importance of studying butterflies to better understand climate change’s ecological impact on insects. Read more about Shirey’s work.

Trapping Lanternflies with Innovation

spotted laternfly - black bug with red wings and black dots

Drexel’s Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) alumna Emma McKee researched the best way to trap spotted lanternflies and came up with a modification for circle traps that allows an exit strategy for other smaller, beneficial insects.

Click here to learn about McKee's innovative trap and how you can build your own.

The Fish With the Fishy Name

preserved assfish yellow in color

“Mark, do we have any assfish?” 

It was not the question I expected when the Academy’s president, Scott Cooper, called upon my department, Ichthyology, for help.  

Ichthyologist Mark Sabaj discusses The Fish with the Fishy Name on the Academy Blog.

The Future Ghost Forests of New Jersey

forest of dead trees with blue sky and puffy white clouds

Jakes Landing is a centuries-old access point to Dennis Creek in Cape May, New Jersey, where the forest landscape abruptly drops into a tidal saltwater marsh. Close to the marsh, row after row of dead Atlantic white cedars jut out of the ground like spikes. Just beyond those are swaths of statuesque loblolly pines.

The forest is healthy now, but these trees are in danger. Most trees in the Delaware Estuary region that stand close to salt marshes are at risk of death due to sea-level rise.

Click here to read The Future Ghost Forests of New Jersey on the Academy Blog.

Coyote and Fox Populations on the Rise?

coyote in parking lot ben-mater via unsplash

You may have noticed a common theme at the dinner table: Grandpa has spotted the fox in the yard again or perhaps your aunt has heard of a coyote in the local nature preserve. These discussions usually lead to a general wonder of whether wild canine populations are on the rise, if they are a positive or negative influence on the local environment and what their presence might mean for the neighborhood. 

The Academy wanted to know these answers, too. So, we reached out to Dane Ward, PhD, assistant teaching professor in Drexel’s Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) department who specializes in urban wildlife ecology, to learn more. 

Click here to read Coyote and Fox Populations on the Rise? on the Academy Blog. 

Floodplains and Redlines

locked gates in front of flooded street after hurricane ida 

Three of Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) students wanted to make an environmental justice impact right in here in Philadelphia. So, they set out to better understand how historical housing policies and flood hazard zones have unequally effected various communities within our city. The Academy reached out to learn more.

Click here to read Floodplains and Redlines, our Q & A with BEES students Erin Wright, Ivy Steinberg-McElroy, and Sally Harpster.

plastic free philly in black text with turquoise circle

Plastic-free Philly, Philly’s solution to plastic pollution, is a volunteer effort aimed at reducing single-use plastic water bottles and replacing them with environmentally healthier options, such as drinking tap water and using refillable bottles. By eliminating plastic water bottles, you help keep our waterways clean and beautiful, preserving the health of our environment and our communities for future generations.

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University launched Plastic-free Philly in 2022 — our Water Year — to raise awareness of plastic pollution and clean water. The institution conducts actionable water science that seeks to illuminate the interactions between humans and the environment, especially in aquatic systems. The Academy is a science leader for the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, which protects and restores the rivers and streams that supply drinking water to 15 million people.

Click here to learn more about Plastic Free Philly. 

New Species of Ancient Fish Discovered Along PA Roadside

illustration of grey fish with white spots 


During the late part of the Devonian Period (380-to-360 million years old ago), the world was a very different place than today — the climate, physical location and features of the continents have slowly changed with time. Over the past 30 years, paleontologists from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University have studied Devonian-age rock strata, mostly exposed along highway roadcuts, and collected large numbers of fossil fish across what is now Pennsylvania.

Read about the new species of Langlieria on the Academy Blog.

Academy Leads Effort to Map Philly’s Heat and Air Quality

two women with a child next to a car with a heat watch sticker

This summer the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University will lead a campaign to map heat and air quality in Philadelphia, working with community scientists so that residents have a stronger voice in the planning and implementation of climate change-preparedness strategies. 

Philadelphia was approved as one of just 16 communities across the U.S. and abroad to lead an Urban Heat Island Mapping Campaign, a joint initiative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Integrated Heat Health Information System and CAPA Strategies, LLC. 

Click here to read the full Academy Leads Effort to Map Philly’s Heat and Air Quality story on the Academy Blog.

Little Organism, Big Impact

microscopic photo of a diatom a grey circular molecule surrounded by black background 

Our natural world is made up of incredibly diverse lifeforms that range in all different sizes, from the humongous blue whale and the giant sequoia to the tiny ant and minuscule plankton. So, it should be no surprise that some of Earth’s smallest creatures — such as diatoms — can actually have some of the biggest impacts on our planet.  

Click here to read our blogpost about the small, but significant diatom.

New Species Named and Described

owl with yellow eyes sitting on branch in front of green leaves photo by gustavo malacco
Alagoas Screech Owl, photo by Gustavo Malacco

Accelerated climate change and biodiversity loss, both driven by human activities, are threatening nature and people’s lives and livelihoods around the world. According to the International Union for Conservation’s Red List of Threatened Species — a major indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity — least 10,967 species are currently affected, increasing their likelihood of extinction. 

That makes the Academy of Natural Sciences’ description of five new species in 2021 all the more critical to understanding the natural world and inspiring everyone to care for it. The newly named birds, insect, fish and fossil fish add to the Academy’s world-renowned scientific research and research collection of more than 19 million animal and plant specimens dating back to the institution’s founding in 1812. 

Click here to read about the new species named and described by Academy scientists in 2021.

The Name’s Bondi, Synodus bondi

syondus bondi fish specimen

Scientists at the Academy have a long history of contributing specimens not only to the collections of their primary field of study, but also to other collections throughout the museum. For example, Edward Drinker Cope is best known for his contributions to paleontology, but he was also an early driving force behind the creation of the Academy’s Ichthyology and Herpetology collections.

It remains common today for our researchers to bring back specimens from collecting expeditions for their colleagues in other departments. They may collect some mollusks while gathering fish or pick up some interesting specimens for sale in a market. Every so often their efforts may be rewarded with a new species named in their honor.

This is what happened in 1939 when Ichthyology Curator Henry Weed Fowler described a new species of lizardfish from Jamaica and named it Synodus bondi. The specimens used in the description were collected by an ornithologist from the Academy by the name of James Bond, a name made famous by Ian Flemming when he borrowed the moniker for his spy novels.

Read more on the Academy Blog.

Reading the Leaves

pressed plant leaf on white background 

The veins in a leaf do more than store water for the plant; even plant leaves preserved as fossils. They can reveal what environmental conditions were like when and where the plant was growing.

Leaf veins are a passion for Zack Quirk, a National Science Foundation fellow and University of Michigan paleobotany PhD candidate, who’s been using the Academy’s Botany Collection to measure the length of veins in plants. He chose the Academy herbarium because of it wide range of specimens collected from around the world. To collect these plants on his own would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

Click here to continue reading Reading the Leaves on the Academy Blog.

A Real Shocking Discovery


Academy Ichthyologist Mark Sabaj is one of the co-authors on the descriptions of two new species of electric eel.  

Scientists have discovered a new species of eel that can discharge up to 860 volts of electricity – significantly more than the 650 volts previously recorded by what had been believed to be the only type of eel in existence… until now.

Mark Sabaj, PhD, interim curator of fishes at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is well-versed in techniques for catching electric eels both with and without getting shocked. He contributed to a large study of electric eels as a member of a multinational team led by Carlos David de Santana, an ichthyologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Sabaj is a co-author on the descriptions of two new species, Electrophorus voltai and Electrophorus varii, published in Nature Communications.

Click here to read the full Q & A with Mark Sabaj on the Academy Blog.

Color Our Collections


Coloring can have many benefits for people of all ages. It can help enhance motor skills and vision, reduce stress and anxiety and improve focus. 

Click here to download a PDF coloring book made of images from the Academy's Library and Archives.

Mussel Survey

scientists look for mussels in river

In late September, Academy staff scientists and collaborators conducted a mussel survey on the Schuylkill River upstream from Boathouse Row. Their goal was to document the presence or absence of mussels and, in particular, whether there were any Tidewater Mucket (Leptodea ochracea) in this stretch of the river. This survey was the last in a series that was conducted throughout the lower Delaware River watershed.

Click here for details and to see more photos.

Four Ways to Cut Your Carbon

scientists on boat

Looking to reduce your personal carbon emissions? There are some big steps you can take. For example, if you need to travel a long distance, you can choose rail or even sailboat — to follow in Greta Thunberg’s wake — rather than flying. The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist last week completed a transatlantic journey by racing yacht to attend the United Nations summit meeting on global warming this month. Few of us fly every day, and fewer sail. So how can we do our part to reduce CO2 emissions (which contribute to harmful greenhouse gases largely blamed for driving global warming) in our daily life?

Click here for four ways you can reduce your carbon.

A Relic of Botany History

wildflower illustrations

Dr. Carl Ludwig Willdenow’s Anleitung zum Selbststudium der Botanik: ein Handbuch zu öffentlichen Vorlesungen (Dr. Carl Ludwig Willdenow’s Guide to Self-Study of Botany: A Handbook for Public Lectures) has been added to the Academy's library. Willdenow is a major figure in the field of botany. The book was not previously contained in our vast collection and contains several brilliantly colored plates. 

Learn more about the title's addition to the Academy:

Time Outdoors: It’s Healthy

academy scientists in creek

Doctors and psychologists have long recognized that spending time in nature leads to a healthier well-being, and a growing field of research aims to better understand and quantify the benefits of spending time in nature. Time spent outdoors is related to lower stress levels, decreased blood pressure, and a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as asthma, allergies, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

So, if the prescription is to spend more time in nature, what’s the dosage? A recent The New York Times article highlights some new findings, namely that researchers have zeroed in on the ideal amount of outdoor time for reaping nature’s maximum health benefits: 120 minutes per week. Two hours in a week doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but it can sometimes be difficult to fit that time into our already hectic schedules.

Click here for some easy suggestions for adding 120 minutes of outdoor time to your week. 

Where Does Your Water Come From?

scientists on boat

The Wissahickon Creek watershed is 64 square miles and covers portions of Montgomery and Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. The Wissahickon is a small but important part of a larger system. It is a tributary of the Schuylkill River, which in turn is the largest tributary of the Delaware River. The whole Delaware River Basin covers 13,500 square miles and provides water for more than 15 million people, including half of New York City’s potable water supply. Do you know the source of your drinking water?

Read more:

Keeping Tabs on the Environment

scientists in stream

Summertime means the height of field work season for many Academy scientists. They can be found up and down the Delaware River watershed measuring fish, collecting algae samples, measuring sea level rise due to climate change, testing water for the presence of harmful chemicals and more. Wading in cool streams, hiking bucolic trails, walking through wetlands, and boating to find the fish are all involved. But so are smacking mosquitoes, sweating in waders, battling sun burn, and lugging equipment in heat and humidity. But all in all our scientists agree: it beats sitting in the office! 

Learn where our scientists are this summer.

Five Things You Can Do Now to Help the Environment

pristine mountain stream

Did you know that a recycling shipment with as little as 0.5% non-recyclables can be considered unusable and trashed? Are you aware that livestock is a major source of greenhouse gasses and that eating less could reduce your environmental impact? Have you tried adjusting your thermostat one degree to save 10% on your energy use? Learn five things you can do to reduce your footprint on our earth.

Read more:

Support Science

scientist with entomology specimens

Make a difference today with your gift to the Academy’s Annual Fund. The Annual Fund provides vital support for the Academy’s most critical needs, including research, collections care, education and exhibits. Your support of the Annual Fund will protect the Academy’s irreplaceable collections, including the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s botany collection and John James Audubon’s birds; support world-class research addressing today’s most significant questions in environmental science, biodiversity and evolution; help support science education for more than 80,000 schoolchildren each year; and fund outstanding exhibitions, educational programs and environmental forums for learners of all ages.

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