Thursday, October 7, 2010

A New Species — Myrmedonota heliantha


Myrmedonota heliantha

Taro Eldredge, a graduate student studying entomology at the Biodiversity Institute, was on a routine collecting trip within view of the University of Kansas campus when he came across an insect he’d never seen before. The insect turned out to be a new species.  The article was published in ZooKeys.

Named in honor of the Sunflower State (helio ~ sun, anothos ~ flower), Myrmedonota heliantha is a 2 millimeter long carnivore that inhabits the Baker Wetlands, a small preserve at the southern edge of Lawrence.  The wetlands are the subject of an ongoing debate about the future of expansion of the nearby Kansas Highway 10.

The wetlands are also the only place where the insect is currently known to exist.  The discovery of Myrmedonota heliantha shows just how much there is to know about the plant and animal diversity of places close to home.  We still find new species in our own back yards.

Myrmedonota heliantha's insect relatives can detect ant or termite colonies using smell.  They then set up shop in their host's burrows and eat their hosts.  Eldredge is curious if this species lives the same way.

In battles over land use, conservationists often cite the existence of rare animals and plants, or the potential to find new species. The finding of a new species of insect, however, is unlikely to steer the conversation about wetlands preservation. Eldredge said, "If we discovered an elusive population of giant panda in Baker Wetlands, no one would think twice to conserve the land and the beasts."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Roads and Research

Last week's NYTimes article about roadkill ( got us thinking about how roads change the way scientists do research.  Roads are in part a great research tool because they provide easy access to every region of the country but, as well as creating other issues, they can also skew data.

Craig Freeman, a botanist at the Biodiversity Institute, studies the flora of the Great Plains.  His research often requires him to drive a lot:

"Not surprisingly, when we plot the collect locations of our specimens on a map showing the network of highways in the state, many occur at sites along or near roads, urban areas, and public lands," Freeman said. "Why? Botanists are more likely to see plants (or habitats) of interest from the roads that they travel and in areas where access is not limited. Consequently, there is a collection bias in our data."

This is particularly evident in the western quarter of Kansas, where there is very little public land and few urban areas. Many records documenting the flora of western Kansas come from roadside or near-roadside habitats. So, Freeman said, it's necessary to access lands away from roads to get a more accurate estimate of the diversity and abundance of plants.

Not only do roads change how we investigate the environment, but they also provide habitats for plants that wouldn't normally grow in the plains.  Freeman continues:

"The use of salt to melt snow and ice on paved roads in eastern Kansas has permitted both alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster to spread eastward in Kansas, taking advantage of shoulders of highways where regular mowing elevated salinity limits competition from most other species. Alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster can be found along I-70, KS Hwy 10, and other major highways through eastern Kansas into the Kansas City metropolitan area, places where they did not occur as recently as 40 years ago."

Next time you're driving to KC via I-70, keep an eye out for the salty intruders.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Known and the Obscure

water buffalo

Last week, The New York Times put out an article (  on animal ugliness — how it affects which animals we like, which we have as pets, and ultimately which animals we spend most of our time studying.

Though the article does a good job of pointing out that cute animals get more than their fair share of study, the article itself only mentions conspicuous organisms.  As Biodiversity Institute research assistant Kendra Koch points out:

"From my point of view the inconspicuous and less 'palatable' organisms are often simply ignored or at least shied away from. Parasites of course seem to have a special cringe factor. Even this article on ugly creatures focuses on mammals and vertebrates with no mention of the bulk of animal diversity, let alone any of the other kingdoms."

Animals are far outnumbered by other kingdoms in regard to number of individuals, and if the under-studied insects weren't included (insects are animals!), they would be dwarfed in species count, as well.  An in-the-flesh example of this diversity is shown in our museum's BugTown exhibit. 


Koch is a Research Assistant for Parasitology, a field of study still making sense of a huge diversity, the extent to which is unknown.  New parasites are found every year, and it is estimated that there may be twice as many undiscovered species as known species. 

"Nearly every time I explain what I do to someone who asks, the response is similar," says Koch. "A surprised and sometimes disgusted look accompanied by the question, 'why does studying elasmobranch tapeworms matter?' All living things (even parasites) are part of a greater system that has evolved toward some balance and ideally have an equal right to be conserved."

The natural world is always more complex than we think.  Ugly critters have something going for them, as well — they're ugly.  While we're worrying about the cute ones, or even the ugly ones, the worst off are the unnoticed.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Biodiversity Observing Network

Daphne Fautin, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, recently helped generate a paper that plans a Biodiversity Observing Network or BON — a system that may be a key factor in encouraging sustained marine ecosystem health. The effort would create a standardized, coordinated system for measuring marine biodiversity.

"I think a major message is that we don't know what we don't know," she said. "Not only do we not know what we might be losing, we do not know the roles even known organisms play in the ecosystem.  Thus the BON.  An Ocean Observing System is being developed to monitor the state of the oceans — to detect rises in temperature and drops in pH, for example.  But why should those parameters interest us?  One reason only — because they affect the ability of the ocean to sustain life, and we depend, indirectly and directly, on life in the ocean."

Serving on a steering committee, Fautin helped identify key methods for observing biodiversity. The paper listed many recommendations, including:

1. Coordinate biodiversity sampling across taxa, habitats, hierarchical levels, and methods from microbes to mammals;
2. Maximize compatibility of BON with legacy data;
3. Establish one or more Biodiversity Observation Center(s) to coordinate sample processing, including taxonomic identifications, data management, and training and invest in the computational expertise to handle large datasets in an open access environment;
4. Synthesize and make accessible marine taxonomic resources;
5. Invest in developing new approaches for automated sample processing;
6. Modernize and enhance the nation’s physical infrastructure for marine exploration; and
7. Initiate an integrated marine BON demonstration project soon.

Friday, August 17, 2012

KU herpetology at the World Congress!

The Biodiversity Institute was well represented at the 7th World Congress of Herpetology held on August 8–13 in Vancouver, Canada. Among the 1700+ delegates from 41 countries were Rafe Brown, Bill Duellman, Linda Trueb, KU undergraduates, our new curator, Dr. Rich Glor, and 19 former herpetology students who had received PhDs at KU between 1974 and 2012. Among them was Dr. Joseph R. Mendelson III (PhD, 1997), now president of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Engaging College Students to Support Science Learning

summer camp

Aquatic Biology summer camp

A recent Science article reported by the New York Times ( presented the findings of a study that compared the impact of a traditional lecture format to a more interactive approach to teaching in a large college physics class. The latter approach included soliciting students’ ideas and providing feedback, small group work, and in-class activities — and resulted in improved student learning, attendance and engagement.

The foundation of the ‘deliberate practice’ model and related ideas in educational research is that learners have their own ideas about how the world works, and that we can support learning by actively exploring and connecting with these existing ideas through meaningful, engaging experiences. In short, students are active participants in their learning.

On a small scale, our Aquatic Biology summer camp could be viewed through the lens of ‘deliberate practice.’ It involves small group activities and provides opportunities for participants to practice their knowledge and skills. Youth are introduced to basic ideas about water quality and assessment techniques, exploring these techniques through a series of simple experiments, and then collecting and recording data in the field. We then discuss our findings.

The hitch with a more interactive and engaged approach is that it takes a lot of time. Consciously and deliberately designing your teaching around such strategies at any level is time-consuming, although it gets easier with experience. For example, creating field journals that are accessible and usable by 8 to 11 years olds takes thought and planning.

Many years ago as a graduate student in Canada I was involved with a Women in Science organization which conducted a study on the impact of a ‘female-friendly’ introductory college chemistry curriculum which included in-class activities and problem-solving with real-world connections. The result — test performance was on par with other sections, but student interest and motivation were significantly higher in the study group. It turned out that such strategies were not only ‘female-friendly’, but were in fact ‘student-friendly.’

An important finding from the Science study and others is that more engaging teaching strategies not only improve traditionally tested outcomes but also enhance student confidence, interest and motivation — critical factors in thinking about life-long learning and career choices. They can also support informed decision making about science/technology issues.

Museums and other informal science institutions are familiar with this approach as they seek to connect with visitors through their exhibits and programming. Such experiences support factual and conceptual understanding, but perhaps most powerfully influence affective elements related to learning such as engagement and motivation about science. Enhancing content knowledge and understanding as well as supporting an interest in science without the incentive (or disincentive) of a test is a powerful impact!

In a time with mounting pressures and decreasing resources, it can seem daunting to attempt such a course. But there are resources to help. KU’s Center for Teaching Excellence provides resources and workshops to support and enhance faculty teaching. A surprising success story comes from Quarked! Adventures in the Subatomic Universe, a collaborative KU physics education project that includes a website with videos and games. Originally targeted at youth 7 to 12, teachers and the general public, several physics faculty have found it useful for their classes to provide an overall conceptual framework for particle physics and the mechanisms involved.

Thoughtfully planned and informed learning experiences are time-consuming, but well worth it and become easier with time and practice. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Oarfish Omen


A week before the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, an omen washed up on its beaches. The appearance of the oarfish, a ribbon-like, deep sea fish has long been perceived as a warning that seismic activity is on the way. This fish has become a feature of speculation as to whether they can be used to predict an incoming earthquake.

There are many news reports that speculate on the issue, as well as impressive photos of this critter, which can reach lengths in excess of 50 feet.

The important message here is that so little is known about the habits, breeding, biology, and ecology of these fishes – and deep water species in general. It is difficult to say what they are reacting to – small tremors signaling a larger quake to come, poisonous gases released by shifting tectonic plates or perhaps water temperatures affected by subtle movements in these plates. So little is known about deep water fish species due to the difficulty involved in studying them in their natural environment. They do not survive long (or act erratically/unusually) in shallow water, making it difficult to glean anything about their behavior based on these shallow water sightings. Their natural environment, depths below 1000 feet, is the place to study them, only possibly by using submersible or Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) but these tools are very expensive and not very numerous.

It is estimated that we have only described about a quarter to half of the species in the deep oceans. Who knows what lives down there and what sort of interactions they have with their deep water environment, as well as what sort of future events they may be able to sense before we know anything about them?

It is also interesting that local folklore (dismissed or ignored by many in the scientific community) says that these fish appearing in shallow water signal not only an earthquake, but also a good catch! These two are likely related in that tremors or earthquakes will scare or force deep water fish into the shallows.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Communicating Evolution

collecting insects

A recent New York Times article summarized a national survey of high school biology teachers published in Science. Its findings include that only 28 percent of teachers follow recommendations from the National Research Council on teaching evolution, 13 percent advocate creationism in their classrooms, the remaining 60 percent of teachers neither endorse evolution nor any alternate non-scientific explanations.

As the Director of Education at a natural history museum in Kansas, I was forwarded this article many times by friends and colleagues. Sadly, the results of this study are also not surprising; they closely parallel previous studies and my own professional experience. There is no question that evolutionary thinking is a fundamental concept that forms the foundation of modern biological understanding and current research, a point that has been emphasized by evolutionary scientists and educators. Nonetheless, the situation remains relatively static.

The story also illustrates a couple of important points. Firstly, it is not a Kansas thing — the absence of adequate of evolution teaching in schools (and even advocating non-scientific explanations) is a pervasive problem in the United States — and while some regions may seem more obvious or extreme on this issue, this is a national problem. Secondly, it highlights the crucial role that natural history museums and other informal science institutions play in communicating science to the public.

Museums play an important role in teaching evolution. Reports indicate that one in every five adults in the US has visited a museum or science center at some point in their life, which means that informal science institutions have a critical role in communicating evolution to the public. For some visitors, a museum will be their only opportunity to learn about evolution. In addition to teaching about evolution through exhibits and programming (like in many of our exhibits), many museums participate in research to explore a visitor’s understanding in an effort to communicate more effectively. See the special issue of Museum and Social Issues on evolution in museums as an example. My own "Understanding the Tree of Life" project explored how people interpret ‘tree of life’ diagrams in an effort to help design more effective graphics to support visitor understanding.

Would I love to see more and better evolution education in schools? Absolutely! Most museums offer field trip experiences for school groups, and many are involved in providing professional development opportunities about evolution for educators. I take pride in the efforts of museums, science centers, zoos & aquaria, nature centers and others in providing and an opportunity for students and teachers to explore evolutionary ideas through museum visits.  And as this study suggests, such experiences are more important than ever.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Taxonomy Trouble

Worm recently published an article about the decline of taxonomists over recent years.  In the mid-1990s, in response to concerns about disappearing taxonomic expertise, the US National Science Foundation established the PEET program — Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy.  It was designed for taxonomic experts to train their successors before those experts retired or died.  But it is not taxonomists of all organisms that PEET trains: the program announcement specifies “poorly known organisms,” which is generally meant to exclude vertebrates, “higher plants,” and commercially valuable taxa.  KU has been successful in training taxonomists with PEET grants — three of the first 20 such grants awarded came to KU people, and two of the first renewals made in the PEET program were to KU scientists.

The biodiversity that is eligible for PEET funding represents the vast majority of life on earth.  The number of people who can identify such organisms and describe new species of them continues to decline.  This is a world-wide problem, which is ironic because ostensible interest in biodiversity has never been higher.  People are concerned about conservation and extinction.  But if nobody is capable of accurately identifying the sea spiders of coral reefs, for example, how can we know if any are endangered?A look at the natural history museums of the world illustrates the imbalance between the world’s biodiversity and the taxonomists employed to deal with it.  In the animal realm, all major museums employ taxonomists of fishes, birds, mammals, reptiles and/or amphibians, and insects; commonly the vertebrates and insects are in separate departments, and in many museums there are three or four departments for the vertebrates.  All the other kinds of animals that exist, excluding single-celled organisms — something around 30 major groups (phyla) – are typically dealt with by taxonomists in one department.  So at any time, there may be a few taxonomists in the entire world employed to study animals of any major group that might have thousands of species, not to mention crucial ecological importance.

Ideas continually arise for remedying the shortage, and making sure that knowledge of a particular group does not die out entirely.  Just this month a “Recovery plan for the endangered taxonomy profession” was published in BioScience by David L. Pearson, Andrew L. Hamilton, and Terry L. Erwin.  We taxonomists continue to inventory organisms, train our successors, and try to remind people that the poorly studied organisms on earth include those we admire (such as the corals that make coral reefs), those we eat (such as cockles and mussels), those that aerate our soil (such as earthworms), and those that supply us with decoration (such as pearls) and other materials (such as sponges and our birds’ cuttle bones).