Jonathan 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.
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)
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&)
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Last week, The New York Times put out an article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/science/10ugly.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&adxnnl=1&ref=science&adxnnlx=1282248042-5tCVNTotvLF8XDJwZMbr1g&) on animal ugliness — how it affects which animals we like, which we have as pets, and ultimately which animals we spend most of our time studying.
Though the article does a good job of pointing out that cute animals get more than their fair share of study, the article itself only mentions conspicuous organisms. As Biodiversity Institute research assistant Kendra Koch points out:
"From my point of view the inconspicuous and less 'palatable' organisms are often simply ignored or at least shied away from. Parasites of course seem to have a special cringe factor. Even this article on ugly creatures focuses on mammals and vertebrates with no mention of the bulk of animal diversity, let alone any of the other kingdoms."
Animals are far outnumbered by other kingdoms in regard to number of individuals, and if the under-studied insects weren't included (insects are animals!), they would be dwarfed in species count, as well. An in-the-flesh example of this diversity is shown in our museum's BugTown exhibit.
Koch is a Research Assistant for Parasitology, a field of study still making sense of a huge diversity, the extent to which is unknown. New parasites are found every year, and it is estimated that there may be twice as many undiscovered species as known species.
"Nearly every time I explain what I do to someone who asks, the response is similar," says Koch. "A surprised and sometimes disgusted look accompanied by the question, 'why does studying elasmobranch tapeworms matter?' All living things (even parasites) are part of a greater system that has evolved toward some balance and ideally have an equal right to be conserved."
The natural world is always more complex than we think. Ugly critters have something going for them, as well — they're ugly. While we're worrying about the cute ones, or even the ugly ones, the worst off are the unnoticed.
Daphne Fautin, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, recently helped generate a paper that plans a Biodiversity Observing Network or BON — a system that may be a key factor in encouraging sustained marine ecosystem health. The effort would create a standardized, coordinated system for measuring marine biodiversity.
"I think a major message is that we don't know what we don't know," she said. "Not only do we not know what we might be losing, we do not know the roles even known organisms play in the ecosystem. Thus the BON. An Ocean Observing System is being developed to monitor the state of the oceans — to detect rises in temperature and drops in pH, for example. But why should those parameters interest us? One reason only — because they affect the ability of the ocean to sustain life, and we depend, indirectly and directly, on life in the ocean."
Serving on a steering committee, Fautin helped identify key methods for observing biodiversity. The paper listed many recommendations, including:
1. Coordinate biodiversity sampling across taxa, habitats, hierarchical levels, and methods from microbes to mammals;
2. Maximize compatibility of BON with legacy data;
3. Establish one or more Biodiversity Observation Center(s) to coordinate sample processing, including taxonomic identifications, data management, and training and invest in the computational expertise to handle large datasets in an open access environment;
4. Synthesize and make accessible marine taxonomic resources;
5. Invest in developing new approaches for automated sample processing;
6. Modernize and enhance the nation’s physical infrastructure for marine exploration; and
7. Initiate an integrated marine BON demonstration project soon.
The Biodiversity Institute was well represented at the 7th World Congress of Herpetology held on August 8–13 in Vancouver, Canada. Among the 1700+ delegates from 41 countries were Rafe Brown, Bill Duellman, Linda Trueb, KU undergraduates, our new curator, Dr. Rich Glor, and 19 former herpetology students who had received PhDs at KU between 1974 and 2012. Among them was Dr. Joseph R. Mendelson III (PhD, 1997), now president of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles.