Science Art Wonder Project- Part 3

And the final piece is ready! Our art narrative and a few upcoming display dates are listed below, with more to come. Thanks so much to Science.Art.Wonder for offering this fun collaborative opportunity, and to my partner for sharing your important research with me. 

Title: Plague on the Prairie 
Artist: Jenn Fletcher 
Scientist: Ian Buller, MA, Environmental Health Sciences, Emory University 
Medium: Photography
Printed Size: 18” x 24” 

Most of the general public living in the southeastern United States (US) thinks the bubonic plague, aka the Black Death, is something that occurred a long time ago and is completely in our past. Those living in the western half of the country realize, however, that it actually still exists, and to many conservationists it is a very distressing disease. While it can affect humans, cases are rare (average 5 per year in US) and modern medicine makes it much less scary and more easily treatable than during the Medieval Ages. Rodents and felines, however, are not so lucky. 

The bacterium Yersinia pestis causes the plague and is transmitted between small mammals via fleabites, primarily in rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits). Some rodent species such as prairie dogs are highly susceptible to the disease and can perish in large numbers, often wiping out entire colonies. Prairie dogs are essential for the maintenance of the prairie ecosystem by promoting plant growth and being prey for numerous predators. Humans and their pets, especially cats, can get plague from a sick mammal or flea, but rarely from a prairie dog. Ian Buller, a graduate student at Emory University, is using climate data and coyotes sampled across the country by the US Department of Agriculture to identify where plague is cycling in the environment that are areas of high risk of infection. Coyotes are a perfect detector of plague activity because they are abundant across the US, eat small mammals, often survive plague if infected, and create antibodies that can be easily detected in their blood. 

The imagery in our piece comes from some important key players. The three main animals represented are the coyote (coyote skull), small mammals (rabbit pelt), and the heavily impacted keystone species for the prairie ecosystem (prairie dog figurine). To represent the landscape, rocks and juniper berries were collected on a trip out West, and the underground burrow was created with handmade earth pigments. “The Plague” in the top half of the image was created with handmade charcoal, presented in a way in which the disease may look under a microscope, and adding to the dark overtones of the topic and image. The “blood” element in which the plague is both transmitted and tested for in, is incorporated through red wax droplets and lighting effects. The piece builds layer upon layer, starting with a hand-drawn background with homemade art supplies, layered with real 3-dimensional objects, lit in a studio setting, and then photographed.

Want to see this on display? Check the following events to see this and more art/science pieces from other area artist and scientist teams.
- 3/14-15 ComSciCon Science Communication Conference, at Emory in Atwood Hall.
- 3/20 Science on Stage: The Forgotten Organ (Gallery in collaboration with Emory Chemistry Department)
- 3/23 Atlanta Science Festival Exploration Expo (Science.Art.Wonder booth)