Thursday, March 1, 2012
Jennifer Humphrey

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.

Saturday, January 28, 2012
Andrew Short

Greetings from San Carlos del Zulia, Venezuela. I'm a bit over a week into my first expedition of the year — this one to continue our aquatic insect survey efforts in Venezuela. We've spent he last 8 days driving around the country and splashing around in various rivers and lagoons. It is hard for me to believe, but this is my 10th trip to Venezuela since my first in 2006. And, in terms of general volume of material and 'good stuff', this might be the best. We hit the dry season perfectly — when it is well underway and rivers and low and lagoons are reduced, but before things really get dry. A number of great sites on this trip, and it will take months get through these dense samples when I return. One highlight was getting up high in the Andes and collected at some lagoons over 12,000 feet — the highest we've gotten samples to date. More soon.

Monday, January 16, 2012
Caroline Chaboo

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!

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Leonard Krishtalka

2011 featured pernicious political posturing over what we know and how we discover it. Florida Gov. Rick Scott told the state’s universities that they should be educating students in areas “where people can get a job in this state.” Accordingly, he intends to invest higher education dollars in physical science, math, engineering and technology departments, and let the humanities, arts and social sciences go fallow. Scott singled out anthropology as an example of a job-less education, saying, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

Well, think again. Anthropology sits at the busy intersection of nature and culture, one that has seen explosive accelerations, enormous traffic jams and massive pile-ups in the human condition for at least the past 2 million years. Its lessons are instructive for Florida, the nation and global communities: how peoples have exploited their environments for food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals, how they fashioned their cultures, economies, industries, technologies and jobs, and why they went boom and bust.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, graduates in career-oriented majors, such as science, math and technology, do indeed have a higher probability of landing a job — at least initially. But, a few years down the career path, liberal arts graduates “frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation.” Why? Because of their knowledge of ethics, communication and social dynamics, which is adaptive to rapidly changing global economic, political and cultural environments.

Scott might be interested in the career paths of people who majored in job-less disciplines: Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, medieval history and philosophy; George W. Bush, 43rd U.S. president, history; Dick Cheney, former U.S. vice president, political science; Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court justice, English; Michael Crichton and Ursula K. LeGuin, best-selling authors, anthropology; Sally Ride, astronaut and first woman in space, English; Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. president, 33rd governor of California, economics and sociology.

Earlier in the year, three Republican presidential candidates went AWOL from modern science. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry opined on talk shows and stump speeches that 20 years of research on climate change involving thousands of investigators was “junk science.”

Apparently, they choose to be deaf/dumb/blind to evidence. They didn’t issue a retraction when a leading skeptic of global warming, physicist Richard Muller and his Berkeley Earth group, confirmed the findings of the “junk” scientists: Global temperatures have risen sharply since the mid-1800s because of a jump in greenhouse gases, notably CO2. “Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other [scientific] teams,” said Muller’s Berkeley Earth study, which has solid conservative credentials: It was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and foundations established by Bill Gates and the Koch brothers.

While on the stump, Bachmann and Santorum proudly flashed their pre-Enlightenment credentials, espousing their belief in intelligent design as the best biology curriculum for the nation’s students. One can’t be polite about this. What’s next? Scrap Pasteur and teach the Bad Air Theory of disease in medical school? Dump Aristotle for the Flat Earth Theory in geography class? Bachmann and Santorum are entitled to their private discomfort with the established knowledge of Darwinian evolution. But, hubris aside, their personal discomfort is not a rationale for national policy on science education.

The prize for sanctimonious social science goes to Cal Thomas’ editorial piece on the Sandusky-Penn State affair (Journal-World, Nov. 15, “Penn State’s shame — and America’s too”). The blame, he writes, extends beyond the individuals involved to all society, to the “free-loving ’60s, (when) we seem to have taken a wrecking ball to social mores.” Really? No song at Woodstock advocated rape or pedophilia.

Thomas also blames human nature, “but society — buttressed by religion — once did a better job of keeping human nature in check,“ specifically, keeping “lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations” in check as “sinful.” Hmmm. You’d think being buttressed by religion against sin would naturally have kept the Catholic clergy in check. Yet, as we now know, its systematic sexual abuse and pedophilia were rampant, with the crimes abetted and covered up by repeatedly moving the abusers from diocese to diocese. It started long before the free-loving ’60s,” and went beyond one locker room at Penn State to parishes worldwide. Its innocent victims are countless.

The complex challenges of the world in 2012 and beyond demand more from our self-declared leaders and sages than wishful, simplistic nostrums as our default solutions or salvation.

Originally published in the Lawrence Journal-World on January 2, 2012.

Monday, December 19, 2011
Jennifer Humphrey

Snowy owls — known to Harry Potter fans and birders alike - are making an appearance in Kansas and Missouri this fall and winter.

The owls, which reside most of the year in Canadian tundra and arctic environments, periodically move south in search of food. Their main food source, lemmings, is more scarce this year. At least 8 of the two-foot-tall iconic birds have been spotted in Kansas so far.

The public is encouraged to let the KU Natural History Museum know if a snowy owl is noticed in their area. The museum has provided a gallery of images of snowy owls for reference.

Typically, adult male snowy owls are all white, and adult females have feathers that are "barred" with brown tips. Immature males and females both start out with the barred feathers, but the males become more white as they age. Another way to tell determine sex is to look for white feathers at the back of the head, which can indicate that the bird is male.

If you spot such a bird and have the opportunity to take photos of it, please fill in this contact form to let ornithologists know about the sighting. Thank you!

Friday, December 9, 2011
Caroline Chaboo

Dr. Patrician AlvarezDr. Patricia Alvarez, plant ecologist and post-doc at Duke University, visited the Chaboo lab Nov 24-29. Patricia and Caroline participated in a 2008 NSF-funded PASI workshop "Interdisciplinary Studies in Tropical Chemical Biology", Lima and Tambopata, Peru. Since then, we have been trying to combine our research disciplines to examine questions of insect-plant interactions on the south-eastern Andean slopes of Peru. During her visit, we planned our 2012 fieldwork in Peru!

Monday, October 10, 2011
James Beach

Specify logo

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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Hannah Owens

fish

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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Jennifer Humphrey

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)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Caroline Chaboo

processing samplesFieldwork 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.