Blogs

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Documenting Biodiversity in Suriname, One Stream at a Time

sunrise

The sun rises over the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, as seen from the summit of Voltzberg. Photo by Andrew Short.

Andrew Short is a National Geographic Grantee and assistant professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. An entomologist by training and at heart, Short is currently in Suriname, South America searching for aquatic insects to study patterns of freshwater biodiversity that will inform both science and conservation. 

Having climbed up through a layer of misting clouds, we reached the summit of Voltzberg just in time to see the day break over the surrounding rainforest. Sitting at the northern edge of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve (CSNR), Voltzberg is one of many imposing granite domes that pepper this ancient South American landscape. A massive swath of tropical wilderness twice the size of my home state of Delaware, the CSNR is almost entirely unpopulated and only accessible by canoe and bushplane.

While taking in the vastness of the landscape was a welcome break from our fieldwork routine that morning last July, my students and I had work to do: documenting the aquatic insects that live in the streams, waterfalls, and forest pools that surrounded us. Our research here, done in collaboration with the National Zoological Collection of Suriname, has uncovered dozens of new species and we’re only just gotten started. These inventories help us approach a number of bigger questions: How similar is this patch of forest to one 50 miles away? What are the ecological limits of these species, and what would happen if the environment changed? Can these insects help us monitor water quality?

We’re making final preparations for our return to Suriname (and CSNR) next week. This time, our target is more ambitious: Tafelberg — an isolated table mountain in the center of the reserve. Stay tuned for updates as our expedition gets underway!

Friday, October 5, 2012

New Event at the KU Natural History Museum

From small towns in Kansas to Chicago to New York, Lewis Lindsay Dyche thrilled audiences with his skill in natural history displays and later with lectures about his adventures. Many of the glass slides that he displayed in these "magic lantern" talks have not been seen by the public in more than 100 years and will be featured in an exhibition opening and major public event on Nov. 4 at the University of Kansas. For more information about these and other events, visit  http://naturalhistory.ku.edu/events

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Searching for a Solution to White-Nose Syndrome

bats

In the five years since the fungal disease white-nose syndrome was discovered in New York, the disease has spread to more than 190 sites in 16 eastern states and two four Canadian provinces. At one Canadian site alone, 5,000 bats died.

In this week's ScienceNews, the bats -- and the scientists working to study the disease -- are the subject of the cover article. 

Named for its devastating impact, the fungus,  Geomyces destructans latches onto living bats in the dead of winter. The fungus takes root during the winter hibernation period for bats such as the little brown bat, which suffers a 90 percent mortality rate from the fungus. At one New York location, the number of bats hibernating there went from 200,000 to only 2,000 in just three years. 

Scientists aren't just documenting the disease's spread and its potential devastation to ecosystems. They are also looking for antifungal solutions to halt the spread of the disease or help the bats resist it. 

You can read more this research in the latest issue of ScienceNews (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/helping-bats-hold)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Every Specimen is a Snapshot of Time and Place

Specimen jarsJonathan Coddington is the head of research and collections at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. He recently told (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129212121)  National Public Radio's Guy Raz that the  thousands of jars of specimens held by the museum — including marine specimens from the Gulf — are an invaluable resource for scientists. In the case of the Gulf oil spill disaster, they provide a comparison point: if a scientist needs to know how oil have affected crab larve after the spill, it helps to know the characteristics of crab larve before the spill, for example. Each specimen is a recording of the animal, its characteristics, its environment and other details at a particular moment in time. At the KU Biodiversity Institute, we have more than 8 million such research specimens and tissue samples preserved in jars, freezers and cabinets.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Small Bits of Evidence Lead to Big Find

Some mysteries can be solved if you just know what you're looking for — and where to find it.

The July 2 edition of the journal Science features a profile on reseacher Dolores Piperno, who perfected microscopic methods to trace the earliest evidence of corn among early peoples of in southern Mexico. Rather than focusing on the plant evidence of corn cobs, which put the date of the earliest domestication of corn at about 6,200 years ago, Piperno and her team looked for tiny bits of evidence among tools that might have used with corn.

Piperno, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and its Tropical Research Institute, and her team found grinding stones with traces of corn that dated to 8,700 years ago in the Balsas River Valley. This helped end a long debate about whether maize had been domesticated in the highlands or the lowlands, Science reported. Her techniques, while greeted with skepticism at first, were accepted  by others in the field of archaeobiology.

Quoted the publication:

"That's exactly how you're supposed to do science," says archaeobotanist Deborah Pearsall of the University of Missouri, Columbia. "If you look at the corpus of Dolores's work, you see the power of a scientist who chooses her research topics on the basis of hypotheses she wants to test."

Read more about Piperno's work at Science (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/329/5987/28.full)

Monday, July 25, 2011

In the Field — In the City

Summertime means summer fieldwork for many academic scientists, but some researchers skip the far-flung places in favor of urban habitats close to home.

There are plenty of places to look at adaptation and evolution in cities, notes a recent article in the New York Times. Reporter Carl Zimmer talked with biologists who study urban populations such as mice, ants and fish inside the city's borders. The scientists included Dr. Jason Munshi-South, who is tracking changes in urban populations of animals. Munshi-South is studying white-footed mice, which inhabited the forests that became New York City, and over generations have adapted to city life.

Munshi-South studies mice he finds by visiting parks around New York such as the 130-acre Highbridge Park. Using DNA analysis, he and his colleagues have found that the populations of mice in each park are genetically distinct from the mice found in other parks.

There are many examples of urban adaptation, the article notes: "White-footed mice, stranded on isolated urban islands, are evolving to adapt to urban stress. Fish in the Hudson have evolved to cope with poisons in the water. Native ants find refuge in the median strips on Broadway. And more familiar urban organisms, like rats, bedbugs and bacteria, also mutate and change in response to the pressures of the metropolis. In short, the process of evolution is responding to New York and other cities the way it has responded to countless environmental changes over the past few billion years."

Other scientists interviewed study populations of ants within the medians of New York City street, and the affect of PCBs on Hudson River fish.

Closer to home, Biodiversity Institute scientists have looked at populations at parks and wildlife areas surrounding Lawrence, and once even documented a giant resin bee in a Lawrence backyard. The bee turned out to be the first one (http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2009/jan/12/beekeeper-elective-course-piques-interest-insect/) authoritatively identified west of the Mississippi River.

Check out the full article about New York biologists and their urban research here (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/26/science/26evolve.html?_r=2&hp&)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Coral Reefs and the Gulf Oil Spill

What a joy it was last fall when NOAA Ocean Explorer announced that researchers had discovered new coral reefs (http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/09lophelia/logs/summary/summary.html) in the Gulf. These are not tropical reefs; they are in the cold, dark depths of the sea. They are comprised of Lophelia pertusa, a stony coral found in deep, dark near-freezing waters. 

Sadly, as the New York Times reported today (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/us/02coral.html?ref=science), the reefs are a mere 20 miles northeast of the failed oil well that is spewing oil into the gulf. It's one of three deepwater reefs under the oil slick.

The oil is not so much the issue. It's the plumes of partly dissolved oil spreading through the water. A mixture of oil, dispersants and natural gas, it could prove toxic to these slow-growing reefs. "Both oil and dispersants, which chemically resemble dishwashing detergent, hamper the ability of corals to colonize and reproduce. And these effects are amplified when the two are mixed," the newspaper noted.

More research will be needed to determine how the spill will affect the reefs and other ocean organisms over the years to come. 

—Jen

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Smilodon Fossil Adopted

A skull of a Smilodon californicus exhibited at the KU Natural History Museum, one of largest such skulls ever found, caught the eye of Lawrence residents George and Mary Ann Brenner. The Brenners adopted the specimen as part of the museum's Adopt-a-Specimen program.

smilodon

In August, George and his grandson, Ciaran, toured the vertebrate paleontology collections and had their photo taken with the fossil.

S. californicus had shorter legs than a living lion and a bobbed tail. It probably did not move as quickly as other big cats and relied on ambush hunting techniques. The animal could open its jaws as much as 120 degrees.

Most skulls found in the tar pits are missing their sabre, or canine, teeth; the teeth were cast and later placed with the skulls. This fossil is about 12,000 years old and was found in the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A New Species — Myrmedonota heliantha

insect

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 (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/13/technology/13roadkill.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=roadkill&st=cse) 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.