Blogs

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Molecular Analysis Confirms Morphological Analysis

The Aug. 6 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  included a large-scale analysis of bony fishes using DNA sequencing. One of the major conclusions is that tarpons, eels and their relatives (Elopomorpha) is the sister group (branched first) of all living teleosts.

Gloria Arratia, research associate in ichthyology, first published this idea in 1997 (see reference 11 in the PNAS paper). Her conclusion was based on morphology. In short, molecular analysis  confirms a careful morphological analysis conducted about 15 years ago. More interesting is the fact that Gloria’s results were not widely accepted because the dominant figures in the field had championed the idea that the Osteoglossomorpha (mooneyes and bonytongues) were below the tarpons and eels on the tree. This inhibited some other ichthyologists from accepting Gloria's findings, in spite of the fact that she had the evidence and presented it clearly. 

—Ed

Friday, February 25, 2011

Pete Hosner NSF Proposal Recommended for Funding

Pete Hosner, EEB doctoral candidate and Ornithology student mentored by Rob Moyle, received notification that his NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant proposal has been recommended for funding. The grant, entitled TESTING THE PLEISTOCENE AGGREGATE ISLAND COMPLEX (PAIC) MODEL OF DIVERSIFICATION IN CO-DISTRIBUTED AVIAN LINEAGES, has been recommended for funding for $14,866 over 24 months. The project will use multilocus DNA sequence data to discover whether there is a link between climate and sea level changes and diversification in eight "polytypic" bird species endemic to the Philippines.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Fiji Expedition Broadens Genetic Research

In December 2010, KU Biodiversity Institute graduate student Mike Andersen, and curator of birds, Rob Moyle, completed a three-week expedition to Fiji. This effort marked Ornithology’s third expedition to Fiji, work that began in November 2009.

They collected specimens of 23 species from two locations: the isolated Nakauvadra Range in the extreme northeastern part of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu; and the southern island of Kadavu. The Kadavu specimens were the world’s first from this island with associated genetic tissue samples, and the collection included three endemic bird species: Whistling Dove (Ptilinopus layardi), Kadavu Honeyeater (Xanthotis provocator), and Kadavu Fantail (Rhipidura personata), plus numerous morphologically unique island forms such as Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis) and Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris).

The Nakauvadra Range is the third locality on Viti Levu where Biodiversity Institute researchers have worked, making it possible to analyze genetic differentiation among avian populations across this oceanic island. Andersen and Moyle are developing the Fiji project in close collaboration with students and researchers in the Institute of Applied Science at the University of the South Pacific. The collections-based research effort forms the foundation for Andersen’s dissertation research on the origins and diversification of the Fijian avifauna, as well as future dissertation projects by Fijian students at the University of the South Pacific. 

—Town Peterson

 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Knowledge Punched by Pundits in 2011

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.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Limbless Lizards

Usually, your close relatives resemble you.  Or at least they have the same number of limbs.

Cameron Siler

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

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cleared and Stained

cleared and stined

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. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

From the Field to the Lab

specimens

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.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On Cleaning an Ancient Fish

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.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Fun Facts About our Ethanol Collections

jars of specimens

Inside the herpetology collection

Specimens

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.