One of the challenges has been to figure out how to plug in the special vacuum units that the conservation team is using. Unlike a home, these can’t be plugged in and then drag a cord across the floor. A cord could damage the plants, or even snag an animal mount.
To solve this puzzle, exhibits director Bruce Scherting went up into the attic above the Panorama. Using outlets near the Panorama’s upper lights, he plugged in extension cords and fed them thirty feet to the floor. But that led to another issue: the cords might chip the paint at the top of the exhibit if staff pulled them along the surface. Pieces of hose, cut into two-foot lengths and eased over the cords turned out to be the perfect solution. The hoses hooked on the lip of the exhibit and dangled the cords to the floor, where sandbags held them in place.
Conservation assessment team member Tara Hornung hails from Colorado, so rocky surfaces and mountains are familiar terrain. Today we could see her scaling the surface of the Panorama’s “mountain,” the plaster, wood and wire form on which several mountain goats, bears and birds are displayed.
“It’s not like rock climbing,” she said. Instead of granite, she moved across plaster edges that threatened to crumble if she went too close to the edge. What might look solid to museum visitors peering in is often a loosely supported structure underneath.
But while working on the mountain goats, she had a good view of the Panorama from up high. Visitors waved from the Panorama overlook on the 6th floor. “It looked like I was king of the mountain for a while today.” If the king of the mountain wore a protective suit and held a vacuum cleaner, anyway.
One of the most challenging aspects of working inside the museum’s Panorama exhibit is its fragility. In fact, Ron Harvey has described it as “working inside a painting.” But instead of straddling the brushstrokes of Van Gogh, the assessment team is carefully maneuvering across plaster “rocks,” along narrow foot paths, and between animal mounts.
Nancy Bixler described the work as physically demanding and requiring a three-dimensional consciousness.
“It looks easy from the outside, but it is a huge challenge,” she said. “You can’t lean on anything and you must keep your balance as you move around the animals and plants.”
The team wears Tyvek suits, booties, and respirators over their street clothes to protect against particles in the air that may include arsenic or lead. With every step, they must assess where their feet will fall, and make sure that they don’t step on the dried grasses — one misstep and the grasses turn to dust.
The contorted positions would make anyone sore at the end of the day. Perhaps we should consider yoga sessions in the Panorama to stretch out at the end of the day?
Today we welcomed the first members of the our conservation assessment team to the museum. There have been meetings about safety, protocols and troubleshooting. The team will be led by Ronald Harvey, owner of Tuckerbrook Conservation of Lincolnville, Maine. He and his associates, together with KU museum studies students and volunteers, will survey the state of each of the Panorama’s animal mounts, plants and backgrounds. They will lightly clean the animals, which have endured years of exposure to fluctuating temperature, humidity and light. The onsite assessment is scheduled to be completed Friday, April 4, and will result in a report about the exhibit’s condition by July.
Nancy Bixler concentrated on cleaning the impressive 6-foot moose today. She’s from Maine, so while she has seen these animals in the wild, it’s certainly a unique experience to walk carefully under and around one to clean the mount.
While carefully documenting the condition of the moose in the Panorama, the team discovered something strange in a moose’s ear: a tail. A tail of a moose, stuffed into its ear! Ron Harvey surmised that the moose lost its tail, and an employee decades ago thought it might get lost. So they stuffed it into the ear, and then years passed.
Other not so strange finds have included two dead bats. Once every few years, a bat sometimes crawls into the exhibit from the attic of Dyche Hall. These bats, which have probably always lived in the museum’s attic, are small brown bats about the size of an adult’s hand. At some point years ago, these two became stuck in the exhibit, and no one knew.
We signaled to the pilots it was a go. The helicopter descended into a small mountaintop clearing no bigger than a backyard swimming pool. The four of us strapped on our machetes, grabbed our duffel bags and hopped out of the chopper. One of the pilots gave me a stern look and held up four fingers–we had four hours.
With a turbulent swirl of leaves and branches, they were gone, and we were left standing in the middle of one of the world’s largest unspoiled jungles. On our right, the unbroken Surinamese forest undulated over low mountain ridges as far as we could see. On our left, over a deep valley, lay the same view, but those mountains belonged to Brazil- our position was literally on the frontier between the two countries.
We were on a recon mission for Conservational International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), which inserts teams of scientists into some of the world’s most remote and unspoiled places. These teams, typically composed of field and conservation biologists as well as local collaborators, are tasked with providing a snapshot in time of the biological diversity and integrity of these amazing sites.
That particular day last March, we were standing atop a peak in the Grensgebergte, a mountain range so remote and rugged that it had never before been entered by explorers or scientists. Gathering the most basic data on the biodiversity and ecosystem services here allows us to contextualize the importance of these areas as well as detect potential threats.
Sometimes the results are alarming: despite this area’s remoteness, some water samples contained unsafe levels of mercury–possibly the result of air deposition from mining in neighboring regions.
With our short time ticking down, we got to the task at hand: could we establish a basecamp on the summit, and if so, where and how? And just in case we couldn’t make it back, we had to collect as much data on plants and animals surrounding us as we could.
The narrow, kilometer-long mountain ridge had nearly vertical granite walls, with clumps of forest sprouting from both ends. Ornithologist Brian O’Shea and I headed east, while botanist Olaf Banke and Johan, leader of a group of Wayana Amerindians that were assisting our expedition disappeared into the forest on the western flank.
A couple hours later we reconvened: we would establish a camp near the helicopter clearing in a stand of trees. Water was going to be a problem, we would have to plan on lifting it in via helicopter unless in rained.
After grabbing some plant and insect samples and deciphering some birdcalls, the helicopter returned and plucked us off the summit. We returned to a freshly-cut jungle helipad near our RAP team’s basecamp about 30 kilometers away and reported back to the dozen other scientists—with specialties ranging from mammals, ants, fishes, to primates and snakes— who were waiting for word of what we found.
The Amerindians huddled around my laptop to watch the video clips of an area even they had never seen. For the next week, we flew daily helicopter flights to our mountaintop camp where we found species no one had ever seen.
These RAP trips are special in that they bring authorities from so many different taxonomic groups together on one expedition. Field biologists are frequently only in the field with others in our respective disciplines—herpetologists with other herpetologists and botanists with other botanists for example.
On any one RAP, there might be specialists from a dozen different groups. No matter what you find in the forest, someone will be able to tell you about it. Our “science tent” (the tarp under which we sort and process our samples) is a constant hum of activity from 4am when the ornithologists rise to record birdcalls, to 1am when the mammologists close their bat nets.
And therein lies the power of a RAP: the biological snapshot we take is not just of this group of beetles or that group of fish, but captures a broad spectrum data that tells a much richer, holistic story about the diversity and health of the area.
This week, our team’s report on this first ever expedition to this region of Suriname was released by Conservation International. It was more than a year in the making (it takes a lot more time to prepare and identify specimens than it does to collect them!), and our team was able to document more than 1300 species in less than three weeks.
Dozens of those species are new to science—among them a new snake, 11 new fish, 6 frogs, and dozens of bizarre new insects. It’s trip like these that make one realize just how little we really know about the life around us.
Peering out over the jungles from the summit of Kasikasima, an isolated granite mountain in extreme southern Suriname. Photo by Andrew Short.
As we wait for the helicopter to return, we assist botanist Olaf Banke to press some plants specimens he collected during the recon. Photo by Andrew Short.
Ornithologist Brian O’Shea gets a first look at the bird life in the boarder mountains of southeastern Suriname during the recon. Photo by Andrew Short.
Exploring the Grensgebergte mountains, looking for a suitable site for landing site to establish a basecamp. Photo by Andrew Short.
A helicopter arrives as our freshly cut jungle helipad to ferry us into the Grensgebergte, a mountain range that has never been explored. Photo by Brian O’Shea.
From small towns in Kansas to Chicago to New York, Lewis Lindsay Dyche thrilled audiences with his skill in natural history displays and later with lectures about his adventures. Many of the glass slides that he displayed in these "magic lantern" talks have not been seen by the public in more than 100 years and will be featured in an exhibition opening and major public event on Nov. 4 at the University of Kansas. For more information about these and other events, visit http://naturalhistory.ku.edu/events
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.
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.
We woke up at 4 o’clock this morning and we’re on the trail shortly before 5 a.m. We were planning to reach the summit of Voltzberg to watch the sunrise. Of course, this meant we had to hike there in the dark and there is really only one way to describe pre-dawn jungle: pitch black. If you get stuck in the jungle at night, without a light source, you better just hunker down and pray for morning because you are in for one terrifying ordeal.
After about a thirty minute hike, we arrived at the base of Voltzberg. For the next twenty-five minutes, we scrambled over slick boulders, dodged a column of army ants (which zigzagged over our path no less than four times), tried our best to avoid prickly and spiny plants (which is difficult because it seems like every tree, bush, fern, and flower is armed and ready for battle), and silently hoped that no snakes would decide to fall on our heads. Once we had cleared the tree line, the real fun began. The next stage of our ascent involved scrambling up several hundred feet of algae-coated, dew-slicked granite (which rates about a 9.413/10 on the International Standardized Slipperiness Scale). However, that wasn’t all. The slope of the mountain was steep to say the least and I swear there were times when we were going almost straight up. The combination of the terrain and the exacerbating conditions made for a climb that was mildly nerve-wracking at times.
However, we did all make it to the top and almost right as the sun was breaking through the clouds. It was a truly magnificent and spectacular thing to witness with the clouds rising over the jungle and the fiery, orange sun rising next to the adjacent inselberg.