Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Avoiding snarge

Have you ever come across the word “snarge”? If you have not and you have a delicate stomach, then STOP READING RIGHT NOW. 
Snarge is the remains of birds that have collided with aircraft — the bits of flesh and feather, blood and beak that are left smeared across a plane after a bird-strike. No one is sure where the term originated, but it is certainly an evocative expression.
The study of snarge is important in ensuring air safety, since collisions with birds can lead to planes crashing. A well-known incident occurred in January 2009 when a plane taking off from New York’s La Guardia airport hit a flock of Canada Geese at an altitude of about 3,000ft. The pilots saw their windscreen turn dark brown and heard several loud thuds. Then the engines died and the cockpit was filled with the aroma of barbecued wildfowl. The plane ditched in the Hudson River — luckily without loss of human life. However,  worldwide more than 150 people have died as a result of bird strikes over the past 20 years or so.
When a bird strike occurs, air accident investigators need to determine the species involved so that they can work out ways of keeping the birds and the planes apart, in the interest of both air safety and the survival of the species involved. They therefore sample the snarge so that the birds can be identified. The standard collection technique involves spraying the besnarged area with water and wiping it with a clean rag or paper towel, which is then sent away for analysis. 
In the US, some 4,000 snarge samples a year are sent to the Feather Identification Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. When whole feathers can be retrieved, they are matched against the specimens in the museum's collections. When feather remains are too severely damaged for naked-eye identification, microscopes are brought out and the snarge is compared with thousands of slides of feather barbs. And if there is not enough feather even for microscopic comparison, DNA is extracted from the snarge and matched to a database of DNA records from tens of thousands of species.

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