During the early development of the DeClassified! exhibition we had a lot of conversations with Te Papa scientists about potential objects and narratives that would do the job of explaining that Te Papa does, in fact, do science. It’s sort of my job during this phase to think like a person without much science knowledge, which is something I have a natural ability in. During these conversations it soon became apparent that Te Papa Science isn’t all about the glitz and glamour of our superstar Colossal Squid. Small scale findings are happening all the time at Te Papa and these incremental discoveries are the bread and butter outcomes of scientific research. These literally come in all shapes and sizes, often with unique tales attached. So off we went on a science feast. Animated scientists told exciting tales of vividly coloured self-scaling fish, “independently”-travelling-fresh-water bivalves and birds colliding with planes, adding a welcome cartoonish dimension to my understanding of Te Papa Science. Needless to say, I was impressed with the quirky nature of these stories and wondered how this might translate into an exhibition.
One weird story was intriguing; the tale of Snarge. Initially it was the word “snarge” that hooked me. This is not a word you hear every day and as a person who likes words, this was good stuff. Snarge, I was told by a scientist, is the word used to describe what remains of a bird when it strikes a plane. So there is indeed a word for everything, but I found out that some could benefit from a bit more consideration in their development. Hmmm – Snarge? What kind of word is that? What are you? I wondered. So my 4S and I set off on a well-honed search of The Google. I discovered it is not, like I initially thought – onomatopoeic, as in – describing the sound a bird might make when striking a plane propeller or jet engine. Instead – snarge very ignominiously combines the words “snot” and “garbage”, to form the strange sounding “snarge”. (Actually doesn’t, but never mind.) This, to be honest, was a bit of a let-down and even a bit disrespectful. But a word is a word and it’s on The Google now, so that’s the hand that these unfortunate assemblages of feathers, bones and beaks have been dealt. I’m holding onto the idea that it’s onomatopoeic, which at least decreases the demeaning vibe of snot and garbage.
The imagery of birds striking planes rang a bell of sorts; I’ve dwelled on bird-strike before. The story of US Airways Flight 1549 lit up the media for a brief time in 2009. You might remember it. Taking off from La Guardia Airport, Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada Geese, and an unknown quantity of these large birds became processed into snarge and destroyed the plane’s engines, simultaneously redefining the A320 as a glider. Fortunately for the steely knuckled on board, the brilliantly named Captain Sully Sullenberger piloted the aircraft into the Hudson river and everyone survived, except of course the birds and presumably the aircraft. This is a pretty extraordinary (and rare!) case of birds actually destroying a plane’s engines. (There’s an excellent article about it, in which challengingly named author William Langewiesche goes into great detail about bird strike and the wonders just keep coming. It’s the go-to resource for bird-strike enthusiasts. You can read it here. .)
Anyway, back to the tale of Te Papa’s Snarge. As the story goes -this guy/gal was flying along, presumably alone, four kilometres high when she/he met an early demise when he/she was struck by the only jetliner in the vicinity and became entombed in the nose cone of the plane. I’ve thought long and hard and can’t imagine worse luck; this is a major needle/haystack scenario, especially given the size of the bird and the size of the sky. Meanwhile, back at the airport, Snarge was discovered in the nose cone, having had the last laugh by damaging the plane’s radar equipment. The good people at Auckland Airport extracted Snarge from the plane and sent her/him to Te Papa for testing and identification. Te Papa bird people Alan Tennyson and Lara Shepherd used a combination of DNA testing and looking to identify Snarge as a Long-Tailed Skua. The crucial finding and probable climax of the story is that Long-Tailed Skua were not previously known to fly very high in this part of the world, so Snarge selflessly contributed to a whole new level of understanding of the behaviour of his/her species.
So there it is, a strange tail of scientific discovery. Bird selects wrong flight path, bird vs plane, plane wins, bird becomes re-defined as snarge, snarge becomes trapped in nose-cone of plane, snarge has last laugh, snarge is extracted, snarge is sent to Te Papa and identified, scientific information about Skua is advanced by four kilometres, which is a giant leap but a small step. The Snarge and other bits and pieces are on display in the DeClassified! exhibition, Level 3 at Te Papa.