When a chief of police contacts you about insects and dead bodies, a good entomologist hopes that her skills are badly needed to solve the crime of the century…that the insects found on the body are clues to the time and place of death. One of the critical roles of insects in any ecosystem is to break down dead bodies, and this is what they naturally do with any carcass. The first handbook for coroners was written by Song Ci in 13th century China; since then, this field has become professionalized and there is even a North American Forensic Entomology Association. One CSI team member is a forensic entomologist and a real life expert is a consultant for the series (us bug people are hyper-alert to these parts the show!). But back to my police chief. He sent me some photos and sure enough, a carcass….of a dead bird in western Pennsylvania. Riddled with lovely beetles doing their thing: eating it up!
These were Nicrophorus of the family Silphidae, but the species identification would require close examination of the the orange pattern on the elytra (hind wings). They were not Nicrophorus americanus, which is commonly called the endangered burying beetle as it is found in less than 10% of its historic range of distribution. Nicrophorus beetles show an unusual behavior of elaborate parental care: the carcass becomes the site of courtship, and the male and female bury the carcass so they and their offspring can feed. Aren’t insects bizarre and wonderful?
Fieldwork may be completed for this season in Peru, but now we must shift our focus to processing the thousands of specimens we have brought back with us. Since the specimen bags (whirlpaks) travelled back without preservative Ethanol,we spend a week adding EtOH to this large volume of samples. It is a smelly job: if the samples were left untreated, these precious specimens would rot. Finally, we store the collection (in a fridge) to sort each bag. It is a long road before we can have a beautiful identified pinned collection sitting in a drawer in our entomology collections.
Our Perú 2011 expedition and field course was very rewarding, with the research and creative products, and the lovely exhibition in the KU Spencer Art Museum, http://www.spencerart.ku.edu/exhibitions/39-trails.shtml. We are still experiencing wonderful outcomes one year later. Today, some of us participated in a panel discussion as part of an outreach program with 32 high school and community college teachers from around the U.S.A. The ‘Peru and Amazon Educator Workshop’ was organized by KU’s Center of Latin American Studies and the Spencer Art Museum. After each of the Perú team members spoke about the experience and answered audience questions, we met with these enthusiastic teachers in our exhibition. We touch so many students through their teachers being made aware about insects, biodiversity science, interdisciplinary education, Amazon conservation issues, museums, and the amazing country that is Perú.
Timo Förster, an undergraduate from the University of Greiswald, Germany, is conducting a research internship with me, funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). We developed a project to study the insect communities that develop in small pools of water that plants retain (phytotelmata). Pitcher plants may be the most familiar and best studied phytotelmata communities. These pools may form in flowers, seeds, leaves, and damaged stems. Their communities tend to be dominated by insects, especially beetles. In 2010, KU undergraduates Joe, Riley and Tom studied such communities in two Zingiberales plants at the Los Amigos Biological Station, Peru; our manuscript is going through the review process for publication. Zingiberales are gorgeous plants and make our fieldwork more special.
I conducted fieldwork with Timo in Peru during Oct 2012 and he has stayed in the field collecting data and specimens on these unusual insect-plant interactions. Such a lengthy field stay and enormous specimen collections will require years of study and will yield many manuscripts. I am still immersed in the fieldwork because of Timo’s weekly emails reporting on our traps, which plants are flowering, and what surprises he uncovers. His most recent post does not concern insects, but it is quite thrilling:
“We were walking on trail 8 today (Adrian, Nicole, another researcher, and me). Suddenly Adrian, who was walking in the front, made signs to hide behind a tree. Suddenly a big group (perhaps 20-30 animals) of white-lipped peccaries came across and we were directly in the middle of their group, as we were hiding behind a tree. About 10 seconds later, we saw a huge yellow cat walking silently only about 5 meters behind the peccaries. The Jaguar was stalking them and was walking so close to us that we could almost touch it (less than 2 meters distance). We saw the cat for about 15 seconds, until it saw us and got scared and fled. All of the time, I was absolutely stunned. After that encounter we made a big party on the mountain. That was my first jaguar and it was one of the most impressive things I saw in the wild so far.”
After many months in the field, I can’t imagine a more precious birthday gift for Timo, turning 23 today! We are fortunate to access such high quality habitat at Villa Carmen. I hope my June 2013 field course with KU students will return with equally precious sightings and memories.
Luis Figueroa in our visitor’s cubicle
In my academic calendar, January is usually preoccupied with completing annual evaluations and submitting reports, and grant applications to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). Our Entomology Division was uncommonly busy with several scientists travelling here to study parts of our Hymenoptera, Hemiptera, and Coleoptera collections.
Mr. Luis Figueroa, a colleague from San Marcos University Museum, Lima, Peru spent a month here studying the scarab beetles that I and my team have collected over several years from Peru. Luis identified many specimens and even found a potentially new species that he and collaborators will study further and perhaps describe as new to science. It is exciting when collections for my own research can benefit other colleagues’ work!
Dr. Paul Tinerella of the University of Minnesota-St. Paul (http://www.nepomorpha.org/), his doctoral student Gretchen Wilbrandt, and one undergraduate REU-supported researcher, Ms. Jamee Snyder (Fig. 1) visited us to examine our famous Hemiptera (true bugs) collection. Even though we have no active Hemiptera researcher on staff now and this part of the collection is not growing as fast as other taxa, our collection remains a valuable resource to the international community. We are one of 34 museums collaborating in the NSF-supported project http://tcn.amnh.org/, led by Dr. Toby Schuh at the American Museum of Natural History, to digitize and recurate North American Hemiptera specimens and make data available online.
Specify is now the database management of choice for over 375 biological collections worldwide. The Project is sustaining a 20% annual growth in the number of supported biological collections. In addition to offering research community software helpdesk support, the Project has produced 11 software updates in 2011, many of them extending and enhancing features researchers have requested for more effective management and analysis of specimen information. Recent research funding awards by the U.S. National Science Foundation's 'ADBC' initiative for accelerating the computerization of information associated with biodiversity specimens have stimulated additional research repository adoption of Specify for their project data management.
The Specify Project has a number of new capabilities and releases planned for 2011 and 2012 including: (1) a Specify web client for remote access (editing, querying, reporting, etc.) over the internet to remote Specify databases (being developed in collaboration with the Swedish Natural History Museum), (2) release of the new Scatter-Gather-Reconcile or "SGR" capabilities which allow researchers to look for specimens which are related or duplicative to their own (in collaboration with the University Autonoma de Barcelona), and (3) innovative data entry software for acquiring specimen images for digital archives and specimen label data computerization.
The ultimate goal of mobilizing the locality, species identity, and collection date information associated with biological specimens into databases and onto the web is to provide easy open access to the information for biodiversity documentation and analysis, and for forecasting the impacts of climate change on species ranges.
This past month I co-chaired a technical session at the national Geological Society of America conference in Denver. The session was entitled "Paleontology, Paleobiogeography, and Stratigraphy of the Late Cretaceous North America Seas: A Tribute to Bill Cobban." Dr. Cobban is a scientist at the US Geological Survey who has over 60 years of experience working on the statigraphy and paleontology of the Late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. The Western Interior Seaway (WIS) ran through the middle of the U.S. during the Cretaceous (about 65-100 million years ago) and was home to some amazing seafaring creatures, including the mosasaur that hangs over the doorway to the KU Natural History Museum.
I gave a talk entitled "Using GIS to investigate bias in the fossil record: a case study of the Late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway of North America." In that talk I presented some tests that I performed to assess how good the fossil record in the WIS is. I was curious if the fossil record is biased in any way that would prevent us from mapping out the ranges of prehistoric species. The factors that I'm particularly interested in are competition, environmental change, and whether biological interactions between species are more or less important than environmental changes in determining which species go extinct and which do not.
I relate my research to the current biodiversity crisis: when you are trying to understand how invasive species, habitat fragmentation, and climate change are going to affect species in the future, there is a WEALTH of information (~544 million years in fact) in the fossil record that provides exactly that. The fossil record tells stories of how critters responded to species invasions and habitat loss and it teaches us about the effects of climate change and sea level fluctuations. These are the very factors that conservationists consider when attempting to save habitats and species.
One of the symposium's invited talks was by Neil Landman, a renowned cephalopod paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History. He spoke eloquently on the life history of scaphite ammonites. Scaphites are shelled cephalopods (similar looking to modern Nautilus, also related to squid and octopi), but instead of having a properly coiled shell (like the Nautilus, their shell straightens out a bit at the end. Neil is probably one of the world's expert on scaphites. His talk described his latest interpretation of how these animals caught prey, what kind of prey, how they swam, at what orientation they held their body in the water column, how they reproduced, etc. Late Cretaceous cephalopds got SUPER weird, so this sort of talk is *really* exciting for folks like me who are into cephalopods and life in general in the WIS.
Overall, we had a very nice day talking about the current status of Late Cretaceous WIS research from a variety of geologically related fields: geochronology (age-dating the rocks), biology (mostly cephalopods, but also foraminifera, mosasaurs, sharks, etc.), biogeography, mapping, stratigraphy, and biostratigraphy. We are still working to better understand a number of the animal groups and how they might be used to date rocks. The great news is that it looks like the fossil and rock records are good enough to test many of our questions!
When the cold winds of November tug the last leaves from the maples, basswoods, and elms, orchids probably are the farthest thing from most Kansans’ minds. However, fall, winter, and early spring are the best seasons to search for one of the state’s more secretive plants – the puttyroot orchid or Adam-and-Eve [Aplectrum hyemale (Muhl. ex Willd.) Nutt.]. The plant’s specific epithet “hyemale”, referring to winter, alludes to the plant’s habit of producing a winter leaf. The name puttyroot is a reference to sticky substance released from the crushed tubers, which usually occur in pairs (hence the name Adam-and-Eve).
Puttyroot has evolved a fascinating strategy to survive in the low-light environments of rich, deciduous forests. As forest canopies develop in the spring, light limits the ability of understory plants to photosynthesize. Consequently, many herbaceous species flower and fruit in the spring, before the canopy fills in, or in the fall, when the canopy begins to thin. Puttyroot takes this strategy to an extreme. Each plant produces a single, elliptic, dark green, pleated, 3-6 inch-long leaf in the fall. The ground-hugging leaf remains green and photosythetic from fall through winter and into spring, producing sugars needed by the plant to grow. From late May into mid June, some plants will produce a single, 10-20 inch-tall flowering, each bearing a dozen whitish purple or brownish white flowers near the tip. Ribbed, pendent fruits – each about 1 inch long – mature through the summer and persist into the fall, leaving another clue to the plant’s presence.
Populations of puttyroot are documented in 10 eastern Kansas counties (Anderson, Coffey, Crawford, Douglas, Franklin, Johnson, Leavenworth, Linn, Miami, and Wyandotte). Most occur in moist, maple-basswood forests or cottonwood-dominated floodplain forests along rivers and streams. Populations generally comprise a few, closely-spaced individuals, but large populations can contain several hundred plants.
The next time you head out to your favorite forest trail for a fall or winter walk, keep an eye to the ground. If you are lucky, you may spy the distinctive leaves of this forest gem. If you do find this rare Kansas orchid, plan a return visit to marvel at its amazing flowers and fruits in the dim light of the forest floor.
Like any good ichthyologist, I keep saltwater fish. When I lost a Banggai cardinalfish recently, how did I deal with this tragedy? Not by flushing it or starting a pet cemetery, but by turning that loss into a gain for the Biodiversity Institute's Ichthyology collection.
It is true that aquarium fish make less than ideal specimens. It is impossible to get accurate, reliable information on the natural habitat, behavior, distribution, and population structure of such a specimen. However, for large-scale genetic studies, a specimen without such data can still provide valuable insight into the evolutionary relationships among fish species. Likewise, we can gain important morphological information to further inform our ideas on the evolution of structures like jaws and tails.
So how does a fish reach scientific immortality after passing on to the great aquarium in the sky? First, and not surprisingly, it's important to get the fish into the freezer as soon as possible to keep it from decomposing (genetic material starts to break down quickly as the fish decomposes). When we are ready to process the fish, we first take photos of it, since preservation often causes bright colors and patterns to fade. Then a small piece of muscle is taken from one side and added to our tissue collection--this leaves the other side of the fish intact for morphological studies. We then inject the fish with formalin and store it in alcohol, or clear and stain it.
While at first blush this may seem perverse, my cardinalfish now lives on as frozen tissue and fluid specimens, where it will provide valuable genetic and morphological information for researchers and students. I know I would much prefer that to being flushed.
While a recent discovery may change textbooks and the way that many scientists think about bird and dinosaur evolution, it comes as no surprise us.
This week, Xing Xu, H. You, K. Du and F. Han published in the journal Nature a reanalysis of early bird evolution. The analysis knocks Archaeopteryx off its perch as a grandfather to later birds.
KU has been the central hub for the discovery of the fossil bird beds in the Early Cretaceous of China with the description of the primitive bird, Confuciusornis, and has continued to be involved with all the new discoveries coming out of this region in part through an alumnus of the KU vertebrate paleontology program.
The alumnus, Zhonghe Zhou, presently leads Chinese studies in that region and was recently elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Zhou and one of the paper’s authors, Xing Xu, had already precipitated a revolution in our understanding of bird evolution with the discovery of the four-winged gliding bird/dinosaur, Microraptor. With Microraptor, they showed that bird flight began with gliding.
Zhou has a long-term collaboration with KU vertebrate paleontology researchers at the Biodiversity Institute. Preparator David Burnham, collection manager Desui Miao and I regularly visit China to work on early birds. Our research also has suggested that Archaeopteryx along with other archaic birds represents a side branch that split off much earlier than the new bird, Xiaotingia, and its sister Anchiornis, another four-winged gliding animal.
While the recent paper in Nature calls these animals “feathered dinosaurs,” we think that they and their common ancestor with modern birds can be best considered true birds. Rather than removing Archaeopteryx from Aves because its avian features were shared with birdlike dinosaurs, we place a stronger emphasis on these features thereby pulling the dinosaur-like birds into Aves. This limits these flying, feathered animals to the Class Aves and pushes the origin of birds into the Early Jurassic or Late Triassic at about the same time as the dinosaurs themselves.