Thursday, May 5, 2016
Ron Seidel

Six new fossil species form 'snapshot' of Asian primates stressed by ancient climate change

 


LAWRENCE — In a study to be published this week in the journal Science, researchers describe unearthing a “mother lode” of a half-dozen fossil primate species in southern China.

These primates eked out an existence just after the Eocene-Oligocene transition, some 34 million years ago. It was a time when drastic cooling made much of Asia inhospitable to primates, slashing their populations and rendering discoveries of such fossils especially rare.

“At the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, because of the rearrangement of Earth’s major tectonic plates, you had a rapid drop in temperature and humidity,” said K. Christopher Beard, senior curator at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute and co-author of the report. “Primates like it warm and wet, so they faced hard times around the world — to the extent that they went extinct in North America and Europe. Of course, primates somehow survived in Africa and Southern Asia, because we’re still around to talk about it.”

Because anthropoid primates — the forerunners of living monkeys, apes and humans— first appeared in Asia, understanding their fate on that continent is key to grasping the arc of early primate and human evolution.

“This has always been an enigma,” Beard said. “We had a lot of evidence previously that the earliest anthropoids originated in Asia. At some point, later in the Eocene, these Asian anthropoids got to Africa and started to diversify there. At some point, the geographic focal point of anthropoid evolution — monkeys, apes and humans — shifted from Asia to Africa. But we never understood when and why. Now, we know. The Eocene-Oligocene climate crisis virtually wiped out Asian anthropoids, so the only place they could evolve to become later monkeys, apes and humans was Africa.”

The paper is the product of a decade’s worth of fieldwork at a site in southern China, where the primates likely sought warmer temperatures. Beard and his colleagues Xijun Ni, Qiang Li and Lüzhou Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology describe the six new species from jaw and tooth fragments, which survived the ages due to their tough enamel surfaces and serve as “fingerprints” to identify ancient animals.

“The fossil record usually gives you a snapshot here or there of what ancient life was like. You typically don’t get a movie,” Beard said. “We have so many primates from the Oligocene at this particular site because it was located far enough to the south that it remained warm enough during that cold, dry time that primates could still survive there. They crowded in to the limited space that remained available to them.”

Like most of today’s primates, the KU researcher said the ancient Chinese primates were tropical tree-dwellers. One of the species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, was “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands.

“If you look back at the fossil record, we know that tarsiers once lived on mainland Asia, as far north as central China,” Beard said. “The fossil teeth described in this paper are nearly identical to those of modern tarsiers. Research shows that modern tarsiers are pretty much living fossils — those things have been doing what they do ever since time immemorial, as far as we can tell.”

Beard said that if not for the intense global cooling of the Eocene-Oligocene transition, the main stage of primate evolution may have continued to be in Asia, rather than transitioning to Africa where Homo sapiens eventually emerged.

Indeed, the team’s findings underscore a vulnerability to climate change shared by all primates. 

“This is the flip side of what people are worried about now,” he said. “The Eocene-Oligocene transition was the opposite of global warming — the whole world was already warm, then it cooled off. It’s kind of a mirror image. The point is that primates then, just like primates today, are more sensitive to a changing climate than other mammals.” 

Top Image: One of the fossil species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, is “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands. (Courtesy Andrew Cunningham)

Left: Researchers identified the six fossil species from fragments of jaws and teeth.” (Courtesy IVPP, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

By Brendan Lynch
Vertebrate Paleontology
Thursday, May 5, 2016
Ron Seidel

Six new fossil species form 'snapshot' of Asian primates stressed by ancient climate change

 


LAWRENCE — In a study to be published this week in the journal Science, researchers describe unearthing a “mother lode” of a half-dozen fossil primate species in southern China.

These primates eked out an existence just after the Eocene-Oligocene transition, some 34 million years ago. It was a time when drastic cooling made much of Asia inhospitable to primates, slashing their populations and rendering discoveries of such fossils especially rare.

“At the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, because of the rearrangement of Earth’s major tectonic plates, you had a rapid drop in temperature and humidity,” said K. Christopher Beard, senior curator at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute and co-author of the report. “Primates like it warm and wet, so they faced hard times around the world — to the extent that they went extinct in North America and Europe. Of course, primates somehow survived in Africa and Southern Asia, because we’re still around to talk about it.”

Because anthropoid primates — the forerunners of living monkeys, apes and humans— first appeared in Asia, understanding their fate on that continent is key to grasping the arc of early primate and human evolution.

“This has always been an enigma,” Beard said. “We had a lot of evidence previously that the earliest anthropoids originated in Asia. At some point, later in the Eocene, these Asian anthropoids got to Africa and started to diversify there. At some point, the geographic focal point of anthropoid evolution — monkeys, apes and humans — shifted from Asia to Africa. But we never understood when and why. Now, we know. The Eocene-Oligocene climate crisis virtually wiped out Asian anthropoids, so the only place they could evolve to become later monkeys, apes and humans was Africa.”

The paper is the product of a decade’s worth of fieldwork at a site in southern China, where the primates likely sought warmer temperatures. Beard and his colleagues Xijun Ni, Qiang Li and Lüzhou Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology describe the six new species from jaw and tooth fragments, which survived the ages due to their tough enamel surfaces and serve as “fingerprints” to identify ancient animals.

“The fossil record usually gives you a snapshot here or there of what ancient life was like. You typically don’t get a movie,” Beard said. “We have so many primates from the Oligocene at this particular site because it was located far enough to the south that it remained warm enough during that cold, dry time that primates could still survive there. They crowded in to the limited space that remained available to them.”

Like most of today’s primates, the KU researcher said the ancient Chinese primates were tropical tree-dwellers. One of the species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, was “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands.

“If you look back at the fossil record, we know that tarsiers once lived on mainland Asia, as far north as central China,” Beard said. “The fossil teeth described in this paper are nearly identical to those of modern tarsiers. Research shows that modern tarsiers are pretty much living fossils — those things have been doing what they do ever since time immemorial, as far as we can tell.”

Beard said that if not for the intense global cooling of the Eocene-Oligocene transition, the main stage of primate evolution may have continued to be in Asia, rather than transitioning to Africa where Homo sapiens eventually emerged.

Indeed, the team’s findings underscore a vulnerability to climate change shared by all primates. 

“This is the flip side of what people are worried about now,” he said. “The Eocene-Oligocene transition was the opposite of global warming — the whole world was already warm, then it cooled off. It’s kind of a mirror image. The point is that primates then, just like primates today, are more sensitive to a changing climate than other mammals.” 

Top Image: One of the fossil species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, is “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands. (Courtesy Andrew Cunningham)

Left: Researchers identified the six fossil species from fragments of jaws and teeth.” (Courtesy IVPP, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

By Brendan Lynch
Vertebrate Paleontology
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Ron Seidel

‘Eve’ and descendants shape global sperm whale population structure, researchers say

 

NEWPORT, OREGON — Although sperm whales have not been driven to the brink of extinction as have some other whales, a new study has found a remarkable lack of diversity in the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA within the species.

In fact, the mitochondrial DNA from more than a thousand sperm whales examined during the past 15 years came from a single “Eve” sperm whale tens of thousands of years ago, the researchers say.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Molecular Ecology.

While the exact origins of this sperm whale “Eve” remain uncertain, the study shows the importance of her female descendants in shaping global population structure, according to Alana Alexander, a University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute researcher who conducted the study while a doctoral student at Oregon State University.

“Although the male sperm whale is more famous in literature and cinema through ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘In the Heart of the Sea,’ the patterns in mitochondrial DNA show that female sperm whales are shaping genetic differentiation by sticking close to home,” Alexander said.

Working in the genetic lab of Scott Baker, associate director of Oregon State’s Marine Mammal Institute, Alexander combined DNA information from 1,091 previously studied samples with 542 newly obtained DNA profiles from sperm whales. The new samples were part of a global sampling of sperm whale populations made possible by the Ocean Alliance’s “Voyage of the Odyssey,” a five-and-a-half year circumnavigation of the globe, including some of the most remote regions of the world.

The new sampling, including sperm whales from the previously unsampled Indian Ocean, revealed global patterns of genetic differentiation and diversity.

“Sperm whales have been in the fossil record for some 20 million years,” said Baker, a co-author on the study, “so the obvious question is how one maternal lineage could be so successful that it sweeps through the global population and no other lineages survive? At this point, we can only speculate about the reasons for this success, but evolutionary advances in feeding preferences and social strategies are plausible explanations.”

The researchers say female sperm whales demonstrate strong fidelity to local areas, and both feeding habits and social structure are important to determine to better manage the species.

“There is a real risk of long-term declines in response to current anthropogenic threats, despite the sperm whale’s large worldwide population,” the authors wrote.

“One concern is that this very strong local fidelity may slow expansion of the species following whaling,” said Baker, who works at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. “The Sri Lanka sperm whales, for example, don’t seem to mix with the Maldives whales, thus local anthropogenic threats could have a negative impact on local populations.”

The researchers note that while males are important for describing patterns in the nuclear DNA of sperm whales, ultimately the females shape the patterns within the species’ mitochondrial DNA.

“Although there is low mitochondrial DNA diversity there are strong patterns of differentiation, which implies that the global population structure in the sperm whale is shaped by females being ‘home-bodies’ – at the social group, regional and oceanic level,” Alexander said.

The study was funded by a Mamie Markham Award and a Lylian Brucefield Reynolds Award from the Hatfield Marine Science Center; a 2008-11 International Fulbright Science & Technology award to Alexander; and co-funded by the ASSURE program of the Department of Defense in partnership with the National Science Foundation REU Site program. Publication of the paper was supported in part by the Thomas G. Scott Publication Fund.

Other authors include Debbie Steel of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute; Kendra Hoekzema, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; Sarah Mesnick, NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center; Daniel Engelhaupt, HDR Inc., and Iain Kerr and Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance.

Photo courtesy Oregon State University, via Flickr.

 

By Alana Alexander

 

Monday, April 4, 2016
Ron Seidel

Biodiversity Informatics Training on Demand and no Fee-per-View 

 

National Biodiversity Diagnoses Instructor Team in Uganda: (L to R) Kate Ingenloff, Town Peterson, Lindsay Campell, and Arturo Ariño.

Over the past four years, the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute (JRS grant page), lead by Dr. Town Peterson and Co-Director Dr. Kate Ingenloff, has had the ambitious goal to build a comprehensive package of biodiversity informatics educational materials that would be accessible for free to anyone – literally anyone – who wanted to learn about how to gather, manage, and use biodiversity data. Now, they have announced that they have done just that. The JRS Biodiversity Foundation aims to increase the capacity for biodiveristy informatics in sub-Saharan Africa by investing in the institutions and people that create and share biodiversity data and information. By providing formal and experiential training, road tested in Africa, and making it widely and freely available, the University of Kansas team has demonstrated a fresh and a notably dedicated approach to biodiversity informatics capacity building.

In a paper in the journal Biodiversity Informatics, Peterson and Ingenloff introduce the Biodiversity Informatics Training Curriculum (BITC), version 1.2, the first complete training curriculum in biodiversity informatics – the discipline is so new that there are no degree programs or existing textbooks synthesizing and translating the field. Major advancements in data availability and computing power have, over the past decade, enabled the development of new and powerful approaches to answering questions about the earth’s biodiversity, from basic questions such as, “what plants and animals live where?”, and extending to more complex scenarios, envisioning the effects of future climate or land use change on habitat connectivity. This knowledge base, and the techniques to implement informatics, are often learned one at a time, drawn from disparate sources. The new curriculum steps logically through the informatics approach, from data collection and management, to analyses, and applications in conservation and public health.

Students and instructors from the Biodiversity Indices and Species Descriptions course workshops, held in Cameroon, March 2015.

This training curriculum is noteworthy, not only for meeting the need of a growing discipline, but also because it trains young scientists through online resources and experiential training. Rather than presenting the curriculum as a standard textbook, inert and destined to become outdated, the BITC is constructed as an online course series and academic community. Each topic in the series, such as Biodiversity Data Analysis, is a modular course, originally implemented as a series of training workshops for scientists in Africa. It can be taken as 12 stand-alone components or as part of the entire series. Online resources include a webinar series and an active Facebook community to take advantage of widely-available web platforms, such as YouTube, and together create a resource that is responsive to new ideas and technologies, and an interactive opportunity to support educational goals of young scientists and managers worldwide.

The BITC team is committed to accelerating the transfer and dissemination of new and more powerful tools in biodiversity informatics and conservation with particular emphasis on the developing world. The goal of the BITC is to make this information as accessible as possible. The team offers to mail the compiled information in a USB memory drive to anyone who cannot access it via YouTube and is developing a semi-automated workflow to translate lectures subtitles into as many languages as possible. Future plans include creating a certification or degree program built around the curriculum.

Capacity Building in biodiversity informatics is one of JRS’ three core grantmaking Programs, and underpins nearly all JRS-funded projects. Training courses like the BITC enhance the technical capacity of African countries to manage biodiversity for sustainable growth and promote communities of learning that will sustain the demand for biodiversity data.

Check out the BITC YouTube channel and Facebook group. The entire curriculum is available on the BITC site.

By Emily Grason

Informatics
Wednesday, March 30, 2016

anoleHerpetologist Rich Glor was on KCUR to discuss how anoles branch into various species and his research on what defines a species. Listen to the broadcast here.

Herpetology
Wednesday, March 30, 2016

proto spider

A team of researchers have discovered the fossil of a 305 million-year-old arachnid, which will help scientists to understand more about the early origins of modern-day spiders. 

The new species, named Idmonarachne brasieri in honor of Professor Martin Brasier, University of Oxford, who passed away in December 2014, was found in Montceau-les-Mines, France, and researchers from The University of Manchester, Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde, the University of Kansas and Imperial College London have worked with the Natural History Museum and the UK’s Diamond Light Source to scan and examine the fossil in detail.

Details of the origins of spiders remain limited, with little knowledge of their predecessors and no insights into character acquisition early in their evolution. This fossil was preserved in 3D, which enabled the researchers to investigate its minute anatomical details. 

Scientists have known since 2008 that a group called the uraraneids were a sister group to true spiders - they could make silk, but probably laid it down in sheets, rather than spinning it as modern spiders do. They also had a tail-like structure at the end called a flagellum. 

Analysis of Idmonarachne brasieri suggests that as the spider lineage evolved, the animals lost their tail-like structure, and developed spider-like fangs and limbs. Whilst they could likely make silk, the ancestors lacked the ability to spin it using specialised appendages called spinnerets. These are the features that define true spiders, and give them more control over the use and distribution of silk. 

The work was published by Paul Selden of the University of Kansas, together with colleagues from Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia and the University of London, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Author Paul Selden, of KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Department of Geology, said “the new fossil occupies a key position in the evolution of spiders. It isn’t a true spider, but has provided new information regarding the evolution of the various features we associate with spiders, such as silk and venom, appeared through geological time.”

This is part of an ongoing effort to look at early arachnids, and see what this can tell us about the early evolution of the group, how they came onto land and what their evolutionary tree looks like. Arachnids as a whole are a very diverse group, but working out how they are all related to each other has proved a challenge. The authors hope that by better understanding these fossils, they can help fill in some of the blanks.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

LAWRENCE — For about 60 million years during the Eocene epoch, the Indian subcontinent was a huge island. Having broken off from the ancient continent of Gondwanaland, the Indian Tectonic Plate drifted toward Eurasia.

During that gradual voyage, the subcontinent saw a blossoming of exceptional wildlife, and when the trove of unique biodiversity finally made contact with bigger Eurasia, the exchange of animals and plants between these areas laid the foundations for countless modern species.

“Today, mainland Asia and India have all this unique biodiversity — but did the mainland Asian biodiversity come from India, or did the Indian biodiversity come from other regions of Asia?” asked Jesse Grismer, doctoral candidate with the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas.

Grismer claims the answer depends on the organism in question.

“If you picked Asian freshwater crabs, you’d see they started in India and made their way to Asia, but if you picked dragon lizards you’d get the opposite answer,” he said. “The opposing distribution patterns created a lot of conflict for a while. You’d see papers saying, ‘Everything came from India,’ and others saying, ‘No, everything came from Indochina and Southeast Asia.’ But they were looking at opposite ends of the same pattern, just with different animals.”

Now, Grismer has authored research appearing in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology showing that before the final collision of Eurasia and the Indian subcontinent, land bridges between the landmasses may have served as “freeways” of biodiversity exchange that flowed in both directions.

“Our paper shows that as India was approaching Eurasia, it was connecting by ephemeral land bridges,” Grismer said. “It was these land bridges that allowed for dispersal and exchange of all these species. There were two areas of suitable habitat separated by unsuitable oceans. But once that new area was exposed, species were allowed to disperse into mainland Asia or India, respectively, areas that these species had not been able to previously exploit.”

To arrive at their conclusion, Grismer and his co-authors performed a phylogenomic analysis of Indian Dragon Lizards, revealing multiple origins in Southeast Asia. The researchers included Alana Alexander, Phillip Wagner, Scott L. Travers, Matt D. Buehler, Luke J. Welton and Rafe M. Brown from KU and James A. Schulte II from Clarkson University. Grismer also credits his KU lab mates Chan Kin Onn, Robin Abraham and Carl Hutter with help on the research via “a lot of fruitful discussion.”

Importantly, the team showed that two land bridges connected the Indian subcontinent to Eurasia at two different times during the early to middle Eocene, some 35 to 40 million years ago.

“This hypothesis is based on evolutionary relationships between the species used in this study,” he said. Grismer added that his team blended new genomic data with previous studies and combined that analysis with new geologic studies about Eocene geology.

The KU researcher said Indian Dragon Lizards, or the Draconinae subfamily of the lizard family Agamidae, are an ideal species to study in order to piece together a picture of the exchange of biodiversity that took place due to the land bridges.

“Dragon lizards added new light because of the previous work that has been done on them, plus our new samples,” Grismer said. “They’re quite diverse as a group, distributed equally, and so they’re great study system for testing a new hypotheses.”

He added that conservation of certain species of Dragon Lizards and keeping them out of the international pet trade would help make possible more opportunities for understanding the history of this unique group of family of lizards.

“We were only able to do this because we had all these species to work with, and a future study with more data and new species could find a new result to this question ” he said. “Animals in general tell us a lot about our world and how we fit into it. I think protecting them is just as important as anything else we do.”

Top photo: Jesse Grismer, doctoral candidate with the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas, recently published research in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. Photo by Meg Kumin, KU Marketing Communications.

Top right image: A map shows the distribution of Draconinae and the four biogeographic area (differently colored borders) used in ancestral range reconstructions. Image courtesy Jesse Grismer.

Bottom right image: b Hypothesized position of the ISC and an early Eocene land bridge allowing for the first inferred dispersal event (D#1 in a) from Eurasia into India, 50–55 MYA. c. Hypothesized position of the ISC and a middle-late Eocene land bridge allowing for the second first inferred dispersal event (D#2 in a) from Eurasia into India between 35–50 MYA (paleomaps modified from Klaus et al.) Image courtesy Jesse Grismer.

-Brendan M. Lynch

- See more at: http://news.ku.edu/2016/03/14/land-bridges-linking-ancient-india-and-eur...

Herpetology
Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Beetles are everywhere.

Of the roughly 1.5 million species described so far, beetles account for around 400,000 species, making them the most species-rich group known in the world. In contrast, birds account for only around 10,000 of all described species, while only 5,600 of all known species are mammals.

Beetles are incredibly adaptable and diverse. They have learned to use a wide variety of habitats, and have become very specialized in the process, playing crucial roles in the ecosystem. They are important pollinators, recyclers, scavengers and decomposers. Much of beetle diversity, however, is yet to be uncovered.

In Peru, Caroline Chaboo, an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas, is doing just that. Since 2008, she has been meticulously collecting beetles in the Peruvian forests, hoping to build an accurate picture of the rich beetle diversity there.

“We know now that there are around 10,000 species of beetles in Peru, and there are many, many new species awaiting discovery and description,” Chaboo told Mongabay. “My work in Peru is analogous to documenting all the bird species in the world.”

Chaboo — fondly called a “bug doctor” by her seven year-old daughter — focuses on leaf beetles, one of the most common groups of beetles. Her love for beetles has taken her to Africa, where she lived with the San indigenous peoples to see how they use toxins from leaf beetles to make poison-tipped arrows.

In Peru, Chaboo works in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world — around Manu National Park and Kosnipata Valley. This region has a tremendous diversity of birds, mammals and insects, and is home to a number of indigenous groups. This place is also threatened by mining, oil and gas explorationlogging and agricultural plantations. Chaboo hopes that her beetle surveys will showcase the value of the Peruvian forests, which can then help protect them.

Mongabay spoke with Chaboo about her love for beetles, and her work in Peru.

Pseudocalaspidea: Very little is known about this spectacular leaf beetle from ACA Villa Carmen Biological station. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.
Pseudocalaspidea: Very little is known about this spectacular leaf beetle from ACA Villa Carmen
Biological station. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.

INTERVIEW WITH CAROLINE CHABOO

Mongabay: What got you interested in beetles?

Caroline Chaboo: My family’s from India. But I grew up in the Caribbean, in Trinidad, and I was lucky to have good teachers. I’ve always been a systematist at heart because I collect things. I liked insects, and I built my own museum at home. When I moved to New York, I worked at the Natural History Museum there. I saw American researchers collecting insects, and they would use all kinds of strange contraptions to collect the insects, which got me fascinated.

I got a scholarship one summer from my university to spend a month at a field station. There were many visiting researchers there and I got to see what they were doing. I fell in love with insects there. The Natural History Museum at New York has the fourth largest insect collection in the world and I had all the free time in the world to go through the specimen drawers. In parallel to that I started learning about the insects and what kinds of questions I would want to ask.

I liked the really colorful insects, and for various reasons I ended up choosing leaf beetles, which are very colorful. I did a master’s degree with a well-known beetle expert, then my Ph.D. So once you pick a group and pick some questions, you kind of keep specializing in that area, and I’ve been doing that for a long time.

Mongabay: What do you find most fascinating about leaf beetles?

Caroline Chaboo: The diversity. Why are there around 40,000 species of leaf beetles? Why are there 10,000 bird species in the world, or 5,500 mammals? Why was evolution so uneven that some groups became huge and some groups are small. We rank leaf beetles at the top five in insect diversity. The world outside looks the way it does largely due to beetles. Flowers evolved because of beetles. So my attraction to them is this extraordinary diversity and what are the factors that lead to this diversity.

In Peru's Madre de Dios, the forest stretches to the horizon in every direction. But this view is threatened by increased gold-mining (legal and illegal), oil palm and cocoa cultivations, logging and habitat conversion. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.
In Peru’s Madre de Dios, the forest stretches to the horizon in every direction. But this view is threatened by increased gold-mining (legal and illegal), oil palm and cocaine cultivations, logging and habitat conversion. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.


Mongabay: What drew you to Peru?

Caroline Chaboo: Again, the diversity question. At some point as a biologist you have to commit to places. You can’t just keep flying to every place, although I would love to do that. But it takes a lot of time to cultivate the right people, the permits, to learn how to work in a place. I also had a child, she’s seven now. So that brings up a different set of considerations — how long does it take to get to a place, how effective and efficient will my work there be, how fast can I come home.

I first went to Peru on a scholarship from the Amazon Conservation Association. I stayed at their field station, and there I realized how much there is and how much is unknown. And the unknown can be extremely attractive as a research problem.

I already knew that Peru was one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world. Peru has the highest number of birds, the highest number of plants, the highest number of ferns. Because of leaf beetles’ relationships with plants you can predict that if a place has high plant diversity, it will have high diversity of herbivores. So I kept going back, and realized that there’s a lot to do there.

Mongabay: Which region in Peru are you focusing on?

Caroline Chaboo: I am highly focused on Manu National Park and buffer zones in Kosnipata Valley within my broader lens of Peru biodiversity. On the edge of Manu National Park, Amazon Conservation Association has three main field stations. We had access to these field stations and could build a long-term research project.

The three field stations are at different elevations, and I could access very different kinds of forests at these stations. There are two regions of hotspots here: one where the lowland forests meet the high elevation forests, and a second band of hotspot where the high elevation grasslands meet the forests. So just based on the landscape I could predict that this was a zone of high diversity.

Horizontally too, a rainforest is not the same throughout. Depending on the nature of the drainage basin, the river flow, or soil type, you can get variations within a rainforest. So you can get big patches of bamboo forests, palm forests, swamps where these rivers form oxbow lakes, and all this adds to diversity, besides the internal dynamics of the forests.

Typical cloud forest at Amazon Conservation Association's Wayqecha Biological station. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.
Typical cloud forest at Amazon Conservation Association’s Wayqecha Biological station. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.

Mongabay: What are you working on currently?

Caroline Chaboo: At this point now, I’ve been collecting beetles in Peru since 2008. We have just finished a massive project, kind of the first wave of the analysis of my data. We’ve worked with more than 50 beetle experts from around the world, all over Central and South America, and Europe. There are about 200 families of beetles in the world, and we have now documented 100 families of beetles in Peru.

Now, we are on a species-describing spree for beetles of Peru. I think this is going to be a lot of fun because the foundation has been built very solidly. We know what’s in the museums. I have all these great collections, and we have assembled all the literature. We have figured out the correct names, and I have the best people in the world to put laser attention on this. So it is very exciting.

Student setting out a colored pan trap line. Insects are attracted to different colors so we sample different flying insects in soapy water. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.
Student setting out a colored pan trap line. Insects are attracted to different colors so we sample different flying insects in soapy water. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.
 
 

Mongabay: Could you talk about your field work?

Caroline Chaboo: As an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas, I’ve been free to develop certain courses to teach, and one of the courses I developed is a Field Biology Program with a research component. So I take between 6 to 14 undergraduate students with me on a field expedition.

Once we’ve arrived at the field stations, we take on a whole lot of different kinds of collecting equipment and head out. For example, if you want to collect insects that are flying at a low level in the forest, just above the forest floor, you will use certain kinds of traps. If you want beetles living in the mid canopy, you will need another set of traps. Similarly, leaf litter has its own beetle fauna, trees that have fallen over have a different set of insects.

So I set up a trap, and then everyday teams of students go and clean out the traps of the specimens. They make sure we have enough ethanol in the traps to kill the insects when we catch them. Other students walk trails and look at certain plants to collect beetles from. We might see fungus growing, we collect those and rear the insects out of the fungus.

Beetles are amazing that way. They partition a habitat in thousands of ways. So you can use broad collecting methods but you have to combine them with specialized collecting methods. I am hoping that now that we have these 50 plus experts, each expert will have their own little toys and gizmos and ways of looking at the forest that will give us a truly accurate species list.

There is one group of insects, for instance, that only flies at dusk and dawn (think of fireflies). Now, I’m doing all these trapping methods, so I’m exhausted at dusk and dawn. To get a truly accurate species list of that group, I need someone just focused on collecting beetles only at that time of the day. Then there are some insects that only come to carrion or rotting meat. So someone will have to be focused on just that group of beetles. For my group, I need to know the species of the plants.

Using my broad collecting methods we have a baseline of what beetles are there in Peru. To this, we need to add a layer of additional specialized collecting methods, and sample many different habitats. We need to go to the top of the Andes, to the coasts and deserts.

A total accurate species inventory for Peru for insects will require manpower, complicated set of trapping methods, and sampling of the diversity of habitats in Peru.

 

Chaboo with University of Kansas students ready for field work, ACA's Villa Carmen Biological Station. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.
Chaboo [second from left] with University of Kansas students ready for field work, ACA’s Villa Carmen Biological Station. Photo by Caroline Chaboo.

Mongabay: How will an accurate species inventory of beetles help?

Caroline Chaboo: I want Peruvians, especially, to know about this extraordinary treasure that they have. Most of the population of Peru lives on the coastal side of Peru, on the desert, and when you have a desert ecosystem, how do you comprehend a rainforest? And when you are making political decisions about the Amazon side of Peru, do you have the same values? But if they knew about their own biodiversity, we could perhaps influence their decision about which habitats are more important than others and which ones must be absolutely protected.

In general beetles are so diverse that they inhabit every niche — they are recyclers, decomposers, scavengers, and pollinators. So their roles must be understood to value and protect forests.

Mongabay: Does your daughter accompany you to the field?

Caroline Chaboo: She’s seen me collecting in Kansas, and other places. But she’s not been to a major expedition in Peru yet. She knows how to collect though, and she can hike. And because I collect insects, she calls me a bug doctor.

Article published by Shreya Dasgupta on March 1, 2016.

Entomology
Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Hispaniolan trunk anole photographed at La Palma, Dominican Republic. Photo credit: Rich Glor

 

With a recent four-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a University of Kansas researcher is undertaking the most-detailed analysis ever carried out of how reptiles branch into various species.

In doing so, Richard Glor, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU and associate curator of herpetology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, is questioning some of the very methods scientists use to define species.

Further, by combining laboratory studies with fieldwork and genomic sequence data, Glor and his team hope to determine the genetic basis for species differences and why these species diverged in the first place.

Glor said biologists traditionally employ the idea of “reproductive isolation,” or the inability of one kind of animal to fruitfully breed with another, to determine boundaries defining individual species.

“Every student in biology has learned the philosophy of what a species is — something that can’t reproduce with other species,” Glor said. “So when someone describes a new species, you’d think they’ve done a bunch of crossing experiments [to see if a species can reproduce with another], but the answer is that nobody ever does that.”

He said more laboratory studies should be conducted to verify assumptions about boundaries between species and less reliance should rest on how animals look to the eye. His new grant is based on the idea that conventional methods have overlooked recent and ongoing speciation events.

“Traditional taxonomists say that if species exhibit differences in their appearance — this one is green, and this one is red — they likely aren't reproducing with one another,” Glor said. “I saw that as an understudied area in speciation research. We always talk about reproductive isolation, but we never test it.”

Glor has revealed this shortcoming in part by conducting crossing experiments on a group of lizards called bark anoles found on Hispaniola, the Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These lizards are notable for the remarkable variation of their “dewlap,” or flap of skin along the throat, that can be found in different colors and patterns.

“The dewlap is colorful, kind of like a fancy car or jewelry in the human population,” Glor said. “It shows the female you’re attractive and helps her recognize her own species, so it’s critical to sexual selection. The group that I study is particularly noteworthy because a single species exhibits very different dewlap colors and patterns (i.e., some populations are yellow, while others are red). Most anole species exhibit only a single color.”

Previous biologists have relied on variation in dewlaps to separate bark anoles into different subspecies.

“When herpetologists drove across Haiti's mountainous Tiburon Peninsula more than 50 years ago, they saw bark anoles with pale yellow dewlaps at the beginning of their journey, bark anoles with orange and then wine red dewlaps further along, and then started seeing bark anoles with pale yellow dewlaps again by the time they reached the far tip of the peninsula,” Glor said. “As a result, they described these populations with different dewlap colors as distinct subspecies.”

But as Glor and his colleagues obtained genomic data from the lizards, they found dewlap colors weren’t a trustworthy sign of the underlying genetic differences scientists expect to find in distinct species.
“These populations don’t seem to be genomically differentiated,” he said. “Some of those taxa that traditional methods show to be different species probably aren’t different species. Natural selection is driving them to have different dewlap color and appearance for reasons not related to them being different species.”

In other cases, Glor said traditional methods missed species that appear to be strongly differentiated genetically because they are nearly impossible to distinguish externally.

Glor’s work represents the most detailed and integrated analysis ever performed on squamate reptiles — a group of almost 10,000 species, including all lizards and snakes. The research will result in the establishment of a new laboratory model organism, the first squamate genome assembled through linkage mapping and the first “estimates of heritability and the genomic basis for phenotypic traits” vital to systematically studying reptiles in general.

Further, the research has resulted in a public exhibit now on display at the KU Museum of Natural History.

Ultimately, however, Glor said that evolution in species is an unending and fluid process that biologists might always struggle to catalogue and measure.
“All of these ideas like reproductive isolation or morphological divergence are all just benchmarks that occur as new species are forming,” he said. “It could be that some species exhibit all these benchmarks, and some display only one or two. The problem identifying species is that we're trying to put discrete start and stop points on a process we know is continuous.”

- Brendan Lynch, KU News

Herpetology
Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Hispaniolan trunk anole photographed at La Palma, Dominican Republic. Photo credit: Rich Glor

 

With a recent four-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a University of Kansas researcher is undertaking the most-detailed analysis ever carried out of how reptiles branch into various species.

In doing so, Richard Glor, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU and associate curator of herpetology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, is questioning some of the very methods scientists use to define species.

Further, by combining laboratory studies with fieldwork and genomic sequence data, Glor and his team hope to determine the genetic basis for species differences and why these species diverged in the first place.

Glor said biologists traditionally employ the idea of “reproductive isolation,” or the inability of one kind of animal to fruitfully breed with another, to determine boundaries defining individual species.

“Every student in biology has learned the philosophy of what a species is — something that can’t reproduce with other species,” Glor said. “So when someone describes a new species, you’d think they’ve done a bunch of crossing experiments [to see if a species can reproduce with another], but the answer is that nobody ever does that.”

He said more laboratory studies should be conducted to verify assumptions about boundaries between species and less reliance should rest on how animals look to the eye. His new grant is based on the idea that conventional methods have overlooked recent and ongoing speciation events.

“Traditional taxonomists say that if species exhibit differences in their appearance — this one is green, and this one is red — they likely aren't reproducing with one another,” Glor said. “I saw that as an understudied area in speciation research. We always talk about reproductive isolation, but we never test it.”

Glor has revealed this shortcoming in part by conducting crossing experiments on a group of lizards called bark anoles found on Hispaniola, the Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These lizards are notable for the remarkable variation of their “dewlap,” or flap of skin along the throat, that can be found in different colors and patterns.

“The dewlap is colorful, kind of like a fancy car or jewelry in the human population,” Glor said. “It shows the female you’re attractive and helps her recognize her own species, so it’s critical to sexual selection. The group that I study is particularly noteworthy because a single species exhibits very different dewlap colors and patterns (i.e., some populations are yellow, while others are red). Most anole species exhibit only a single color.”

Previous biologists have relied on variation in dewlaps to separate bark anoles into different subspecies.

“When herpetologists drove across Haiti's mountainous Tiburon Peninsula more than 50 years ago, they saw bark anoles with pale yellow dewlaps at the beginning of their journey, bark anoles with orange and then wine red dewlaps further along, and then started seeing bark anoles with pale yellow dewlaps again by the time they reached the far tip of the peninsula,” Glor said. “As a result, they described these populations with different dewlap colors as distinct subspecies.”

But as Glor and his colleagues obtained genomic data from the lizards, they found dewlap colors weren’t a trustworthy sign of the underlying genetic differences scientists expect to find in distinct species.
“These populations don’t seem to be genomically differentiated,” he said. “Some of those taxa that traditional methods show to be different species probably aren’t different species. Natural selection is driving them to have different dewlap color and appearance for reasons not related to them being different species.”

In other cases, Glor said traditional methods missed species that appear to be strongly differentiated genetically because they are nearly impossible to distinguish externally.

Glor’s work represents the most detailed and integrated analysis ever performed on squamate reptiles — a group of almost 10,000 species, including all lizards and snakes. The research will result in the establishment of a new laboratory model organism, the first squamate genome assembled through linkage mapping and the first “estimates of heritability and the genomic basis for phenotypic traits” vital to systematically studying reptiles in general.

Further, the research has resulted in a public exhibit now on display at the KU Museum of Natural History.

Ultimately, however, Glor said that evolution in species is an unending and fluid process that biologists might always struggle to catalogue and measure.
“All of these ideas like reproductive isolation or morphological divergence are all just benchmarks that occur as new species are forming,” he said. “It could be that some species exhibit all these benchmarks, and some display only one or two. The problem identifying species is that we're trying to put discrete start and stop points on a process we know is continuous.”

- Brendan Lynch, KU News

Herpetology