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The banana family, scientifically called Musaceae, comprises two genera and about 80 species from Africa and Asia. Edible bananas and plantains both belong to the genus Musa. The bananas we eat do not grow on a banana "tree". Rather, the plant is an herb, with an underground rhizome, a "stem" made of tightly-packed stems of the large showy leaves, and the inflorescence where each flower produces one edible banana. Bananas are thought to have been domesticated about 8000 BC in southeast Asia; those soft tiny black specks at the center of the banana fruit are sterile - they cannot be planted for new plants. The plant forms suckers (root sprouts) that help create a clump of banana plants or that are separable for new plants. While bananas are eaten raw, plantains must be cooked. Both are delicious and of immense value in the tropical larder. Scientists believe that these edible bananas are actually hybrids from two wild species, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Costa Rica is a major exporter of bananas; forests have been cut to grow large monocultures and high pesticide use is implicated as a threat to caiman populations.
Banana plants are beautiful! It is not surprising that we see ornamental bananas commonly planted along roads and in gardens - those big showy leaves and big colorful infloresences bring that lush "tropical" touch. One spectacular introduced ornamental banana is Musa velutina. I noted this beauty commonly grown on our route and I am wondering if native arthropods on native Zingiberales can expand their host range to this exotic. I also wonder if the viable seeds of M. velutina can grow - perhaps spread in bird droppings. It is not uncommon for beautiful garden plants to break free, run rampant, and become scourges, no matter how "pretty" they appear.
Anyone wanting to participate in a field expedition must have a spirit for adventure, adaptability, and curiosity. Any travel takes one out of the familiar comfort zone; but if a participant is not happy, it negatively affects the entire group. My task in selecting participants is tough, trying to determine the above qualities and the fit with the group (both for travel and in teams collecting data). The biggest test comes usually with the first day of hiking —are you physically fit to hike for several hours? Or, with the first rainfall—will you complain when we get caught in the rain? Some students daydream of doing international fieldwork, but only when we try it out can we be sure that long hours with wet clothes and a soggy lunch are trivial compared to the exhilaration of being in the field, doing field research. Fieldwork is not for every biologist; it is okay.....and okay to learn this sooner than later.
I am Caroline Chaboo, Director of this 2015 program to Costa Rica. Normally, I head to Peru every June with students. However, this year Costa Rica is on the menu due to several factors and opportunities. The University of Costa Rica and the University of Kansas have a long established relationship of collaboration in research, education and visits. This program is supported by KU's Office of International Programs.
In 2014, I expanded one aspect of my Peru research, arthropod communities on Zingiberales plants, and sought a second site for comparative study. Two UCR colleagues, one I met more than 10 years ago, developed a grant proposal which was funded. One UCR collaborator visited KU recently (his first visit to the USA). Our plan is to develop a Central American site and study the diversity (taxonomic and food web relations) of the arthropods that are associated with these distinctive Zingiberales plants (familiar ones are bananas and ginger, but flowers are also sold in shops).
The field course program developed as a way to initiate a joint education program alongside the larger research so we could bring KU and UCR students together, conducting research towards their first scientific publication as they gained exposure to rich tropical habitats and acquired several field skills.
Some KU participants opted to pursue grants for research, which they were awarded. We have met several times to discuss everything, from travel medicine to hiking shoes. I am excited to renew collaborations with the excellent UCR biology faculty and to expose KU students to Costa Rica = "rich coast" = rich biodiversity.
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Nearly four months after the KU Antarctica team returned to campus, the 5,000 pounds of fossil material they collected in Antarctica will arrive at KU on Monday, April 13.
Staff and students will start unloading 50-60 wooden crates of material that is 260 to 180 million years old, from the Permian and Jurassic periods.
Although most people think of Antarctica as a barren, cold environment, 200 million years ago it was a land of lush forest – a forest that now permineralized can yield clues to the climate change of the past, and how plants today may react to climate change as well.
The fossil material will help scientists study floral changes during the Jurassic in the Transantarctic Mountains of Antarctica.
“This research is important in understanding what climate and environment was like at the poles during one of Earth’s past greenhouse climates and how plants responded to both climate changes and instantaneous disruptions through the rise of volcanoes,” said Rudy Serbet, collection manager of paleobotany at KU Biodiversity Institute and a team leader for the trip. “These sorts of times and environmental stresses are key to understanding how current climate change may effect high latitude plants.”
During the seven weeks they were in Antarctica, the group took several camping field trips “out to the ice,” including the Odell Glacier area and the Allan Hills.
No staff or students have seen the material in the intervening months as it made its way from Antarctica to California to Kansas.
"Today is like Christmas in April,” said Paleobotany Curator Edith Taylor, lead PI on the National Science Foundation grant that funded the research.
Archived posts from the group are available here.
PhD student Scott Travers recently shared an article from the Solomon Star featuring a 2 week biodiversity research expedition he took part in while leading his own expedition to the island nation. This two week trip was organized by Ecological Solutions Solomon Islands and along with Travers was composed of a multinational team representing a number of fields in the biosciences.
Our driver, Leroy, slammed on the brakes. The large Bedford truck behind us carrying our gear and most of our crew ran into a patch of thick mud and was now sunk up to its axel and listing to one side. Up to now, our three-truck caravan had snaked its way towards to our first base camp without any problems.
The Panorama was full of families today creating their own diorama. And what better place to do it than the biggest diorama any of them had ever seen? Everyone created a scene in their museum boxes — favorite scenes from books, nature, their family.
One of the challenges has been to figure out how to plug in the special vacuum units that the conservation team is using. Unlike a home, these can’t be plugged in and then drag a cord across the floor. A cord could damage the plants, or even snag an animal mount.
To solve this puzzle, exhibits director Bruce Scherting went up into the attic above the Panorama. Using outlets near the Panorama’s upper lights, he plugged in extension cords and fed them thirty feet to the floor. But that led to another issue: the cords might chip the paint at the top of the exhibit if staff pulled them along the surface. Pieces of hose, cut into two-foot lengths and eased over the cords turned out to be the perfect solution. The hoses hooked on the lip of the exhibit and dangled the cords to the floor, where sandbags held them in place.
One of the most challenging aspects of working inside the museum’s Panorama exhibit is its fragility. In fact, Ron Harvey has described it as “working inside a painting.” But instead of straddling the brushstrokes of Van Gogh, the assessment team is carefully maneuvering across plaster “rocks,” along narrow foot paths, and between animal mounts.
Nancy Bixler described the work as physically demanding and requiring a three-dimensional consciousness.
“It looks easy from the outside, but it is a huge challenge,” she said. “You can’t lean on anything and you must keep your balance as you move around the animals and plants.”
The team wears Tyvek suits, booties, and respirators over their street clothes to protect against particles in the air that may include arsenic or lead. With every step, they must assess where their feet will fall, and make sure that they don’t step on the dried grasses — one misstep and the grasses turn to dust.
The contorted positions would make anyone sore at the end of the day. Perhaps we should consider yoga sessions in the Panorama to stretch out at the end of the day?