Leonard Krishtalka

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Smart Science

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

Art, Expression, and Community

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

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.