We are about to embark on our second week of fieldwork. Students have had the weekend at home to do laundry and regroup before we head off to Barber County and the Alexander Ranch. I’m told that this will be the first KU party to visit the ranch in 40 years.
Our hope is that with a little rain we might also be among the few to ever hear a chorus of the Red-spotted toad in Kansas. Our second stop will be Baxter Springs in Cherokee County, home to a number of salamanders found nowhere else in the state.
Last week was a great success. I’m so proud of the students! Many are pre-health care students headed for careers as nurses, doctors, and physical therapists. Perhaps unlikely participants in a field biology course, but here they are catching lizards, snakes and frogs. While handing a prairie king snake at the end of last week, one student remarked “If you’d told me a week ago that I’d be wrangling snakes for a photo session, I’d have told you that you were nuts!” Yet, here she was, pillowcase held over the snake on a picturesque rock set against a landscape of sandstone, mixed grasses, and desert plants at Wilson State Lake.
Our most exciting finds last week were the abundance of Collared lizards in central Kansas, the grass-swimming Glass lizard (which has no legs), some “horned toads” (really lizards), and two 5’ long Coachwhip snakes. Who knows what this week will hold.
-David McLeod, instructor
Most of our frogs have come from the permanent pond on the Konza property. We have found four species here: northern cricket frogs, Cope’s gray tree frog, leopard frogs, and bullfrogs. We’ve also found a red-sided garter snake and one particularly unhappy common snapping turtle, shown above.
-Matt Jones, graduate student in geology/vertebrate paleontology.
I don’t know when the last time was that KU offered a field Herpetology course. Months ago it was decided that this would be a good year to correct for this absence. Our goal: to collect local amphibians and reptiles from different regions of the state to bolster our genetic resources at the BI.
On May 19th, 12 would-be herpetologists set off on a grand expedition across the state. First stop—Konza Prairie Biological Research Station in the heart of the Flint Hills. This unique tall grass prairie ecosystem reserve boasts a diverse community of amphibians and reptiles, amazing views, and is home to a herd of about 300 bison.
Our first two days at Konza have been outstanding! Next stop—Wilson State Lake in the Smokey Hills region of Kansas (Russel Co.)
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.
Usually, your close relatives resemble you. Or at least they have the same number of limbs.
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
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.
Inside the herpetology collection
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.
A major Midwest snowstorm during the Christmas holiday delayed the 36-hour journey for our intrepid herpetology team, but we eventually made our way from snowy Lawrence to the Kansas City airport. The very long plane trip to Manila included a layover in Minneapolis and a layover in Japan.
Over winter break, Herpetology curator Rafe Brown is leading a team of KU students to the Philippines. The group's research will help scientists better understand the biodiversity of the Philippines, an archipelago of some 7,000 islands.