Wednesday, September 4, 2019
Matthew F. Jones

University of Kansas Vertebrate Paleontology group in the fieldOur team from the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum Vertebrate Paleontology division recently traveled to southwest Wyoming to collect mammals from the first ten million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, an interval of time known as the Paleocene epoch. Colleagues from the University of Washington were also along on the journey, collecting geological information on the Bison Basin. As mammal paleontologists, most of what we collect are isolated teeth and jaw fragments, such as in the image below of two teeth from a primitive hoofed animal (a group commonly called “archaic ungulates”).

Unlike the teeth of most other animals, mammal teeth possess a number of cusps and crests that evolve rapidly. This means mammal teeth are usually diagnostic to species, so even a single tooth provides a great deal of information.

Most of the specimens we find are visible on the surface of the ground, eroding out of the surrounding mudstone. The mudstone is incredibly soft, so most of the time we can collect specimens using only a pocket knife or multi-tool.

Occasionally we find larger specimens that need to be glued or jacketed for protection and stabilization before we can take them out of the ground. Vertebrate Paleotology Collection Manager Megan Sims found the upper arm bone of an unusually large mammal from the middle Paleocene.

Some sites are only accessible by foot. Relocating the Little Muddy Creek locality required a hike of several miles. All of the work was worth it so we could bring back important paleontological specimens to study at KU. Colleagues from the University of Washington were also on the trip, collecting valuable geological information to help us better understand the Bison Basin.

All photos, Matthew F. Jones. Top: The group, including colleagues from the University of Washington, in Wyoming with Matthew Jones on the far right. Middle: isolated teeth and jaw fragment. Bottom row left: using glue before removing a fossil. Bottom row middle: single tooth. Bottom row right: The team walking to the site in Wyoming.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Leonard Krishtalka

Not a week passes without one of our scientists or students making an outstanding discovery about the life of the planet.  They mount expeditions to the most remote areas of oceans and continents to assay and document the animals and plants, living and fossil.  In our anatomical, DNA, and computational laboratories they decipher the evolutionary history, behavior, and the state and fate of species, habitats and ecosystems threatened with environmental change.  Here are just a few highlights.

In August, Luke Strotz, a postdoctoral researcher in Invertebrate Paleontology, garnered international headlines with his research findings that the “laziest” organisms—“couch potatoes” with the lowest metabolic rate—might be best at avoiding extinction.  At least judging from the survival record of fossil and living mollusks.

In September, entomologist Michael Engel and colleagues described a beetle that pollinated cycad plants in Myanmar 99 million years ago before it was trapped in amber and preserved.  The discovery indicates that beetles might have begun pollinating these ancient plants, commonly known as sagos, in the Jurassic world.

In October, Kate Ingenloff, a doctoral student in Ornithology, won the prestigious Young Researchers Award from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Copenhagen.  She developed a breakthrough analytical method that combines the geographic records of species with time-specific environmental and behavioral data to produce highly accurate forecasts of how these species will move and disperse across the landscape.  In turn, these forecasts can inform conservation and other policies affecting species and their habitats.

Also in October, the Coleopterists Society recognized aquatic beetle specialist Andrew Short’s research, research training and mentoring.  His doctoral student Steven Baca won the Edwards Prize for best publication based on a Master’s thesis, and Grey Gustafson, his postdoctoral associate, won the Lacordaire Prize for best publication based on a PhD dissertation.  Andrew’s work was recognized with the Golden Net award by the Entomological Collections Network.

In November, Chris Beard, in Vertebrate Paleontology, and his international team announced the discovery of fossil mammals from an isolated geologic “island” in Turkey that, literally, time forgot when it became separated from the rest of Eurasia. Although dating to about 43 million years ago, the extinct marsupials, rhino-like animals, and primitive tarsier-like primates represent relict animal groups that had long disappeared elsewhere. 

And in December, the New York Times featured the research of Johana Goyes, a postdoctoral researcher in Herpetology—she had documented exceptional “paternal devotion” in the caring for eggs by male Smooth Guarding frogs in the rain forest of Borneo.  These “devoted dads” will “scarcely move or eat for days while tending one clutch of eggs, and … once hatched, tadpoles clamber on the males’ backs to be ferried to pools of water.”

Now more than ever, when powerful institutions deliberately distain and dismiss our environmental knowledge and responsibility, we stand up for smart science and smart solutions in sustaining the life support systems of the planet and human well-being.  Join us.


Monday, July 16, 2018
Leonard Krishtalka

The KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum stand with our partners in the Spencer Museum of Art, The Commons and the Hall Center for the Humanities in their support of freedom of expression in academia and the contributions it brings to our society. Like them, we remain committed to engaged and inclusive dialogue with our communities. The following statement was distributed on July 13 by the Spencer Museum and The Commons:

We respect and welcome continued discussion of the artwork “Untitled (Flag 2)” by Josephine Meckseper, now on display inside the Spencer Museum of Art. Exhibition of the artwork, part of the Pledges of Allegiance project hosted by the Spencer Museum of Art and The Commons, will continue to fulfill our commitment to supporting art, ideas, and dialogue.

The Pledges of Allegiance series is organized by the nonprofit Creative Time, which asked 16 artists to create works, representing current issues of importance, to be exhibited and discussed at public and private institutions nationwide. Eleven of the 16 works have been displayed in front of The Commons on a new flag pole that was erected specifically for the exhibit. Support for this project and the associated events has come from private funds.

Themes of the artworks in the series include: peace, community, fear, cooperation, friendship, surveillance, government representation, and, among others, what it means to be an active citizen. The final work in the Pledges of Allegiance series is Meckseper’s abstract representation of the United States divided into two parts and a printed graphic of the American flag. Citing the diverse histories and perspectives of people in this nation, Meckseper uses the work to call attention to the nation’s divisions at a time when unity is needed.

Working with the Office of the Provost and other partners across campus, the Spencer Museum of Art, The Commons, the KU Natural History Museum, and the Hall Center for the Humanities will offer programs in the coming weeks and months that explore the issues and the responses raised by the artworks.

Saralyn Reece Hardy
Director of the Spencer Museum of Art

Leonard Krishtalka
Professor, Director of the KU Biodiversity Institute

Marta Caminero-Santangelo
Professor of English, Interim Director of the Hall Center for the Humanities

Emily Ryan
Director of The Commons

Thursday, August 10, 2017
Rebecca Johnson

Paleontologists don’t necessarily find what they are looking for – even when they know where to look. But as a crew of KU paleontologists, students and volunteers discovered this summer, a disappointment in one location can yield surprising results somewhere else. 

In June, a group led by Biodiversity Institute paleontologist David Burnham intended to return to the site where for two years they had excavated a Tyrannosaurus rex piece by piece. They hoped to build on the large femur they discovered last year, which belonged to a subadult female T. rex now on display at the KU Natural History Museum.

The formidable rock above the layer of fossils, or overburden, was difficult to remove, however. While the crew waited out several delays getting heavy equipment to the area, David directed the group to another site. They began to call it the “mystery theropod” site, home to what David said may be another, even younger, T. rex, or a dinosaur entirely new to science.

“The second site was discovered in our permit area during our last field season in 2016,” David said. “At that time, we found a fragmentary bone that looked interesting and made plans to return later to see if the site would yield more fossils.”

Digging for dinosaursThe mystery theropod site, near Jordan, Montana, proved to be much easier to dig than the first site. During the four weeks that crew members were there, they discovered more than 20 fossils along with dozens of bone fragments. These included three pedal unguals, or claws. The crew also unearthed a foot bones, and skull bones such as jaws with teeth, isolated teeth with roots, backbones and possible pectoral bones, ribs and parts of the pelvis. 

“We don’t know what dinosaur it is yet, but we do know it’s a theropod—a carnivorous dinosaur,” David said. “The skull is over a half meter long.”  

But in addition to all the fossil material from that site, plus clearing the original site of immense overburden, the crew also excavated the partial skeleton of a fossil bird. They found most of a leg, which had an articulated claw, and mixed in with the bird was a fossil crocodile skeleton. The crocodile had a partial skull, back bones and limb bones.

Bird fossils from this long ago are rare and therefore useful for unraveling bird evolution, Burnham said. The site was probably the remains of an ancient lake where the birds and crocodiles had lived.

Thanks to more than $15,000 in donations to the project -- including a lead contribution from John Weltman and Cliff Atkins of Boston, MA., the crew was able to obtain digging equipment, supplies such as plaster and glue, rent vehicles to transport workers to and from the sites, book hotel rooms, purchase food, and even hire a backhoe operator for removing overburden off the original T. rex site. 

Donors also provided support for students to work in the laboratory for the coming months to clean, prepare and examine the fossils they brought back to KU, as well as pay for a series of scientific tests on the bones and rocks from the T. rex. The preliminary tests have shown that KU’s T. rex is probably the geologically oldest ever discovered and that the long bones contained calcium—a preliminary indicator it was a female capable of laying eggs.

Donors to the project and the public are invited to learn more about the work at “Tooth & Claw,” 6:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 14. The event will include a talk by David Burnham, food, and drinks available for purchase. Attendees will also have the chance to see not only the new mystery theropod fossils but also a new young T. rex on loan to the museum through December, and see new paleontology exhibits such as the recently completed paleogarden. The event is free but tickets are required and can be reserved here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Rebecca Johnson

The research interests of KU Biodiversity Institute herpetology curators Rich Glor and Rafe Brown focus on far-flung countries such as the Philippines and Cuba, but this summer they led a team of students enrolled in a herpetology field course much closer to home, across several counties in Kansas. For two weeks, the students learned how to find frogs, salamanders and snakes, and how to catch them safely, prepare them, and bring them back to add to Biodiversity Institute research collections. Along the way, they pitched tents and camped, and learned more about the ecology and geography of Kansas. 

The course was created as a way to supplement what the students learn in the classroom and allow them to get that hands-on experience that really helps solidify understanding of the concepts, Glor said. The course is open to students of any level -- undergraduate and graduate -- and not just KU students either; the course welcomes students from any college to apply. The course also gives students a chance to see if they enjoy biodiversity field work and can endure the two weeks of camping. 

Photographers from KU Marketing and Communications joined the group for part of the trip and documented the students' experiences. 

"We are in a field where we love doing what we're doing," Glor said. "It's a lot of fun for us and it's a lot of fun for the students." The group surveyed, or looked for and documented specimens, in Barber, Cherokee, Douglas, Ellsworth, and Riley counties.

Collections manager Luke Welton said the group collected 127 specimens - 38 amphibians, 87 snakes and lizards, and two turtles. Many of these samples represent valuable county records for genetic samples, and a potential size record for Thamnophis sirtalis (red-sided garter snake).


Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Chan Kin Onn

From 30th May to 10th June 2016, the herpetology division held a field herpetology summer class designed to introduce students to the local herpetofauna and methods for conducting field surveys. We led 12 inspired students on a two-week long fieldtrip across six different counties in Kansas and managed to collect 44 different species of amphibians and reptiles. Here are some highlights from our trip:

Our journey began at the Konza Prairie Biological Station (KPBS) where the director of the station Dr. Eva Horne gave us a very informative tour about the research that was going on at the station. The KPBS is located in the Flint Hills on a 3,487 hectare native tallgrass prairie preserve jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University. This was the students first introduction to herping and what better place to start than The Flint Hills! 

From Konza, we headed to Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands for a day before proceeding to Wilson Lake State Park in the Smokey Hills region of Kansas. Here, students got to try their hands at noosing lizards under the watchful eye of the noose master himself, Rich Glor. 

To cap off the first week of fieldwork, we visited the Sternberg Museum of Natural History and was given a behind-the-scenes tour by the collections manager Curtis Schmidt. 

For the second week, we headed southwards to Alexander Ranch in Barber County, led by  guest instructor Eric Rundquist. This was by far the most productive site where we managed to rack up 26 species in two days. 

Our next stop was Elk City State Park in Montgomery County where the highlight was three Rough Green Snakes! (Opheodrys aestivus). 

Our last stop for the trip was Shermerhorn Park in Cherokee County where we found our first salamanders and newt!

12 fantastic students -- two weeks in the field -- 6 counties -- 44 species, sums up an immensely successful class. Can't wait to do it again next summer!

For more photos, please visit the KU Herpetology flickr page




Monday, June 6, 2016
Rich Glor

KU Herpetology PhD candidate Jesse Grismer  will soon be defending his thesis work on "The Fragmentation of Gondwanaland: Influence on the Historical Biogeography and Morphological Evolution within Dragon Lizards (Squamata: Agamidae)". Jesse's defense is scheduled for June 8th at 1pm in Malott 2049. See you there.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016
A. Townsend Peterson

Doctoral student Lindsay Campbell is in Peru, attending the Latinamerican meeting of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, where she will present a talk on landscape influences on rodent communities in the western Amazon. She will also attend a working meeting of a project team for this work with landscape ecology of rodent-borne diseases in the Amazon, which is funded by the Inter-American Institute.

Thursday, February 18, 2016
Ron Seidel
Andy Bentley removes specimens from a cryogenic dewar.


If you think you are cold this winter, remember others always have it worse. For instance, consider the tissue samples at the KU Biodiversity Institute.

The KU Biodiversity Institute stores thousands of tissue samples from species found around the globe at a frosty -175 degrees Celsius. The specimens are stored in dewars, which are large, vacuum-sealed containers with a pool of liquid nitrogen at the bottom. While -175 degrees is hard to imagine, the newest dewar at KU dips even lower.

“The latest one we’ve acquired runs at -190 degrees Celsius, but otherwise functions much in the same way,” said KU Ichthyology Collections Manager Andy Bentley.


To put that in perspective, NASA satellites found locations in east Antarctica reaching temperatures of -135.8 degrees Celsius, or -93.2 degrees Fahrenheit, still almost 60 degrees shy of the dewar’s temperatures. These antarctic locations boast the lowest temperatures found naturally on earth to date. Humans are expected to survive only three minutes in these frozen conditions--not nearly enough time to build a snowman.
East Antarctica, warmer than a cryogenic dewar.
The extreme temperatures in dewars preserve usable DNA in tissue samples taken from whole specimens. The voucher specimens are often stored in structure-preserving formaldehyde solutions. However, formaldehyde destroys a specimen’s DNA, rendering them useless for further genetic study. Researchers need a way to keep both the DNA and the whole specimen preserved.


“We need a way to preserve DNA before the specimens are fixed in formaldehyde,” Bentley said. “So now in the field we take fresh specimens and extract samples of either internal organs or muscle tissue, place them in a tube, and freeze them before sending the rest of the specimen to be preserved.”


Tissues preserved in the dewars are in constant demand. Researchers from all over the world review online catalogs of stored specimens and send requests for tissues that could further their research. Upon receiving a request, the specimen is carefully extracted from the dewar and thawed on ice. Once thawed, a tiny piece of tissue is sliced from the sample and shipped in ninety-five percent ethanol.


The number and variety of specimens available for research is growing rapidly. The two dewars currently used are quickly filling with tissue samples. Bentley expects the newest dewar to see use before 2017.


“There’s new material coming in from the field at a rate of ten percent a year,” Bentley said. “In ichthyology we expect another 1,100 tissues a year, so with that kind of growth across all departments we expect to fill the two current dewars in six to eight months.”


When the first two dewars near capacity, the third will be filled with eight-to-ten inches of liquid nitrogen. This level is monitored 24 hours a day to maintain the crucially cold temperatures. Once filled, the third dewar stands ready to support the growing collection.


“There is a fairly large portion of material that is unique to our collection,” Bentley said. “The ichthyology collection, we think, is probably one of the largest ichthyology tissue collections in the world, based on taxonomic and geographic scope.”




Tuesday, February 16, 2016
A. Townsend Peterson

Town Peterson is spending 5 weeks at the Wildlife Institute of India, where he is teaching on disease transmission risk mapping and biodiversity informatics. The WII is in Dehrahun, located at the foot of the Himalayas, so the environment is beautiful. Good colleagues working on very diverse questions.