Usually, your close relatives resemble you. Or at least they have the same number of limbs.
Not true, however, for Brachymeles lukbani, a species recently discovered by Cameron Siler, one of the museum's graduate students in herpetology. This critter (which has lost its limbs through evolution) looks like a snake but is actually a skink — a type of lizard. The genus Brachymeles has a diverse membership.
"They have the full suite from limbed to limbless, from working limbs with five fingers to no limbs at all," says Siler.
But this makes the lizards an excellent group for studying how and why limb loss occurs. Brachymeles lukbani "swims" through rotten logs and undergrowth, looking for food. In that situation, possessing limbs might not be very useful, or even counter-productive.
Siler's research has increased the museum's holdings of skinks, making it a leader in skink research
Caiman latirostris — a crocodile
Some of our specimens, recently discussed in our post about specimens as snapshots in time, take on a unique role after entering the museum's collections. Certain reptiles, amphibians and fishes undergo a process called clearing and staining, which helps scientists look into the critters.
After being turned translucent by a digestive enzyme called Trypsin (found in the bellies of many vertebrates including us), dyes are added. Bones and hard tissue are stained red with a chemical called Alizarin, and soft tissues are highlighted by adding Alcian blue.
The contrasting colors help scientists study the morphology - the skeletal and skin structures - of an animal. As an example, they prove especially useful for studying frog skulls, which undergo a peculiar dance of morphological change as frogs mature.
Fieldwork and lab work are at the heart of what we do at the Biodiversity Institute.
Mark Robbins, ornithology collection manager, bridges fieldwork (collecting specimens, recording data, investigating habitats) and lab work (DNA analysis, taxonomic classification, morphological comparisons). All specimens caught in the field spend time in the lab; all of the analyses and data obtained in the lab help to answer research questions about the life in the field.
Robbins' research questions pertain to the migration patterns of small birds called marsh and sedge wrens. To do his work, he collects specimens from the field in Northwestern Missouri and elsewhere. He is one of many Biodiversity Institute scientists who spend time in both the field and the lab - collecting and then analyzing data. To learn more about Robbins' work, investigate the gallery below or learn about his research methods.
The word “fossil” often conjures images of Tyrannosaurus rex skulls, mammoth femurs, or other large bones. But those aren’t the only ones that survive through the millennia, and certainly aren’t the only ones that have importance.
KU Biodiversity Institute graduate students Sarah Spears and Kathryn Mickle study prehistoric fishes. Their fossils are so small that, in order to get them ready for study, Sarah and Kathryn have to use tiny tools to remove excess rock. Sometimes, even metal tools are too rough and inexact, so they switch over to porcupine quills — just sharp and flexible enough to clean tiny fish bones.
Inside the herpetology collection
A jar of snake specimens
Most of the museum's reptile, amphibian and fish specimens are kept in jars, along with ethanol to preserve them. These collections contain nearly one million specimens that provide vital information to biologists doing research in areas ranging from evolutionary patterns to locomotion to conservation. Here are some interesting facts about our collections:
1.We try to keep the fluid collections in relative stasis in regard to temperature and humidity. The goal is 65 degrees F and 50% relative humidity. In practice, however, the temperature is fairly steady but the relative humidity varies quite a bit.
2.The oldest specimen in the herpetology collection is Ceratophrys aurita, KU 98129, collected in Brazil in 1863. It, however, is an exchange specimen. The oldest specimen collected by a museum affiliate is a Thamnophis elegans from New Mexico, KU 2408, collected in 1880. The oldest specimens collected in Kansas are two copperheads and a massasauga from Franklin county in 1888. The history of specimen collecting for these collections has been steady ever since. There are 60 specimens collected prior to 1900.
3.The specimen with catalogue number 'KU 001' is Alligator mississippiensis. The specimen is on display in the panorama at present for the Adopt-A-Specimen exhibit.
4.The sheer volume of ethanol used in the collection is impressive. We have a 1795 gallons for amphibians, and about 1875 gallons in large specimen tanks. The reptiles utilize about 1500 gallons. That's a 5,170 gallon capacity for reptiles and amphibians. Double that in fishes, and add a touch for the others. For everything together, 12,000 gallons total is a reasonable estimate. Of that, a substantial amount of space in the jars is taken by specimens and air, so we would actually have about 8,000 gallons of 70% EtOH (ethanol) in the wing. That's about 5,600 gallons of Ethanol (about 102 drums), significantly less than a typical residential swimming pool.
Two M.Sc. students in the Chaboo lab presented posters on their research at the annual meeting of the the Entomological Society of America, Knoxville, TN, 11-14 November 2012. The ESA is the largest professional entomological organization in the world, and the annual meeting is a great place to contact other entomologists. Mabel and Sofia were able to get feedback and ideas to improve their research, while catching up many interesting talks in beetle systematics, genomics, climate change, and fieldwork.
Sofia Muñoz (MA student, mentor Chaboo), is one of 20 students in the U.S. selected to participate (fully funded) in a NSF-funded Thematic Collections Network Short Course on Biological Specimen Informatics, at the Richard Gilder Graduate School, American Museum of Natural History, New York, in May 2013.
Sofia, Marianna Simões, and Mabel Alvarado presented their research at last weekend's annual meeting of the Kansas Entomological Society, Pittsburg, KS. Caroline and Matt Gimmel also presented a poster, "Beetle families of Peru."
Mabel (co-mentored by Michael Engel) and Victor Baruch Arroyo-Peña (mentor Jorge Soberón ) won third place for their poster, "Problems in the usage of historical data: experiences based on modeling data of the genus Alophophion Cushman, 1947 (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Ophioninae)."
After a fast paced semester, Stop Day is an exclamation point between formal classes and exams. In spring, exam week is followed by another exclamation point: Graduation weekend. This is a particularly special one as five undergraduates in my lab are graduating. KT and Joe have been here the longest, over two years. Now they fledge, going off to the Peace Corps and to graduate school respectively. Tom, Reed, and Riley are also heading off to graduate school or research labs. So very special to see them at this great junction in life. And particularly poignant to meet their parents for the first time. We, parents and teachers, have helped them thus far on their journey and now we must take our positions in the back.
The end of the semester is approaching fast, with finals just around the corner. Everyone in the lab has made significant strides this semester. Choru passed his comprehensive exams and is now ABD. Mabel presented her paper, ‘Ten new species of Triclistus’, at the Central States Entomological meeting, in Jonesboro, AK; this is her 3rd manuscript this year. Sofia has worked out the protocols and is accumulating PCRs for the first plate of sequences for her project. After submitting grant submissions throughout the semester, then waiting and waiting, Sofia, Mabel and Choru were excited to receive today's successful award news; these grants are critical to carrying out fieldwork in Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, and U.S.A. this year.
Undergrad researchers Reed, Tom, Joe and Riley are getting acquainted with the process of manuscripts – responding to reviews. Dan accepted a tenure track position at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas, to start Aug 1. Matt’s monograph from his dissertation research passed review. He continues identifying new families in the Peru beetle samples — a new discovery today, Lutrochidae (travertine beetles), likely a new species.
In contrast to these guys, the lab PI has been such an underachiever!
Our exhibition, ‘39 Trails: research in Amazon Peru’ (http://www.spencerart.ku.edu/exhibitions/39-trails.shtml) in the KU Spencer Museum of Art, opened Mar 22. It is so gratifying and wonderful to see the student-produced sculpture, biological prints, photos, insect displays, the creative writing essays, the blog, and the brilliant insect-themed comic book.
It is the day before classes begin, and I start teaching Intro Systematics (with Dr. Mark Holder and TA Taro Eldredge). Quite exciting to see the 45+ names of enrolled students, review my lecture, and refine the syllabus and lecture notes before we circulate to students.
A new student, Ms. Sofia Munoz from Quito, Ecuador, has joined my lab this semester to pursue M.Sc. research in chrysomelid systematics. The first semester of graduate school is always stressful, and everyone in the division will try to make this an easy transition for Sofia. Welcome to Lawrence, to KU, and to KU-Entomology!