Thursday, October 5, 2017

LAWRENCE — There are precious few species today in the biodiversity hotspot of Madagascar that scientists can trace directly back to when all of Earth’s continents were joined together as part of the primeval supercontinent Pangea.

But a new study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests the Malagasy striped whirligig beetle Heterogyrus milloti is an ultra-rare survivor among contemporary species on Madagascar, boasting a genetic pedigree stretching back at least 206 million years to the late Triassic period. 

“This is unheard of for anything in Madagascar,” said lead author Grey Gustafson, a postdoctoral research fellow in ecology & evolutionary biology and affiliate of the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. “It’s the oldest lineage of any animal or plant known from Madagascar.”

Gustafson and his co-authors’ research compared the living striped whirligig found in Madagascar with extinct whirligig beetles from the fossil record. They then used a method called “tip dating” to reconstruct and date the family tree of whirligig beetles.

“You examine and code the morphology of extinct species the same as you would living species, and where that fossil occurs in time is where that tip of the tree ends,” he said. “That’s how you time their evolutionary relationships. We really wanted the fossils’ placement in the tree to be backed by analysis, so we could say these are the relatives of the striped whirligig as supported by analysis, not just that they looked similar.”

Gustafson noted one major hurdle for the team was the “painful” incompleteness of the fossil record for establishing all the places where relatives of the striped whirligig beetle once lived. 

“All of the fossils come from what is today Europe and Asia — we don’t have any deposits from Madagascar or Africa for this group of insects,” he said. “But they likely were very widespread.”

Today, whirligig beetles are a family of carnivorous aquatic beetles with about 1,000 known species dominated by members of a subfamily called the Gyrininae. But the Gyrininae are young upstarts compared with the striped whirligig beetle, the last remaining species of a group dominant during the time of the dinosaurs. This group according to Gustafson was decimated by the same asteroid impact that cut down the dinosaurs and caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.

“The remoteness of Madagascar is what may have saved this beetle,” Gustafson said. “It’s the only place that still has the striped whirligig beetle because it was already isolated at the time of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event — so the lineage was able to persist, and now it’s surviving in a marginal environment.”

Even today, the ageless striped whirligig beetle keeps its own company, preferring to skitter atop the surface of out-of-the-way forest streams in southeastern Madagascar — not mixing with latecomers of the subfamily Gyrininae who have become the dominant whirligig beetles on Madagascar and abroad. 

Indeed, Gustafson is one of the few researchers to locate them during a 2014 fieldwork excursion in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park.

“This one is pretty hard to find,” he said. “They like these really strange habitats that other whirligigs aren’t found in. We have video of them in a gulch in a mountain range clogged with branches and debris — there are striped whirligigs all over it.”

Unfortunately, the KU researcher said the remote habitats of the striped whirligig beetle in Malagasy national parks were threatened today by human activity on Madagascar.

“It’s a socioeconomic issue,” Gustafson said. “In the national park where first specimens of the striped whirligig beetle were discovered, there are local people who use the forest as a refuge for zebu cattle because they’re concerned about zebu being robbed. Their defecation can disturb the nutrient lode in aquatic ecosystems. Part of the problem is finding a way for local people to be able to make their livelihood while preserving natural ecosystems. But it’s a hard balance to strike. A lot of original forest cover also has been slashed and burned for rice-field patties to feed people.”

Gustafson hopes the primal origins of the striped whirligig beetle can draw attention to the need for protecting aquatic habitats while conceding that conservation efforts usually are aimed at bigger and more cuddly species, like Madagascar’s famous lemurs, tenrecs and other unique carnivorans.

“One of the things that invertebrate species suffer from is a lack of specific conservation efforts,” he said. “It’s usually trickle-down conservation where you find a charismatic vertebrate species to get protected areas started. But certain invertebrates will have different requirements, and right now invertebrate-specific conservation efforts are lacking. We propose the striped whirligig beetle would make for an excellent flagship species for conservation.”

- by Brendan M. Lynch, KU News

Photos, from the top: Gray Gustafson working in Madagascar; the striped whirligig beetle body and head; an illustration of a reconstruction of one of the Mesozoic whirligig beetles related to the striped whirligig examined in the study. All images courtesy Gray Gustafson.

News Type:
In the News
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Michael Engel has been recognized twice by the Entomological Society of America in the past month. He is among 10 new fellows,  the highest honor awarded by ESA, (link) and the ESA recognized Michael with the Thomas Say award, which acknowledges significant and outstanding work in the fields of insect systematics, morphology, or evolution (link). 

News Type:
Award Grant News
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Research by Grey Gustafson, Ph.D., a postdoc studying with Andrew Short, coauthored by Alexander A. Prokin, Rasa Bukontaite, Johannes Bergsten & Kelly B. Miller, entitled "Tip-dated phylogeny of whirligig beetles reveals ancient lineage surviving on Madagascar” has been published in Scientific Reports. 

The study reveals the oldest endemic lineage of animal or plant currently known from Madagascar, the Malagasy striped whirligig beetle, which lives on the surface of water, and has many interesting adaptations for life on the surface of water including four eyes and paddle-like legs. On Madagascar, the striped whirligig beetle is only known from small mountain streams in a few areas in the mountainous region of the southeastern part of the island. The study shows the striped whirligig beetle is not only a relict, but the last surviving member of a group of whirligig beetles that were dominant during the Mesozoic Era. Similar to the Tuatara lizard of New Zealand, the Malagasy striped whirligig beetles survive solely on an isolated island while its other continental relatives went extinct. These findings are especially exciting because there are no other such examples known from Madagascar, despite its lengthy isolation following the breakup of Gondwana over 90 million years ago. [Link]

News Type:
Research News
Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Stephen Baca

Stephen Baca’s path to earning a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and becoming a world “authority of consequence” on the aquatic beetle family Noteridae was anything but a straight line.

He grew up the son of a Hispanic-American restaurant owner in small-town New Mexico, where his family has dwelled continuously since the early 1800s, long before the region was annexed by the United States. As a boy, Baca was hardly exposed to the idea of a science career — yet found himself drawn more to the natural world than ordinary childhood pursuits, like sports.

“My parents would tell you I loved things like catching lizards, snakes and bugs and went to the library and got all the books about them,” he said. “My dad used to coach our little-league team, and it got boring in the outfield. When the ball would finally get hit to me, I’d be on my hands and knees looking for a spider. ‘Get your head in the game,!’ my dad would yell. But, sorry, baseball is boring — this spider is cool.”

Baca’s family was a source of support for his growing fascination with biology.

“Mom was the one who would take me to the library when I was a kid,” he said. “And even though my dad would be frustrated by me playing with bugs in the outfield, he and my mom had my back at every step and without condition. They never asked that I do anything with my life that I didn't want to — except as a kid when they made me go to school. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, the same. They taught me all about hard work and dedication but encouraged me in all my endeavors.”

After high school and a bit of college as a business major, Baca dropped out and “bummed around” for a few years. “Actually, I hated school,” he said. “It was boring.”

For a few years, Baca drifted through occupations and places.

“I worked a lot of different jobs,” he said. “Roofing, landscaping, bartending or waiting tables. I worked on a ranch in Montana for a while. Having been raised in the restaurant business, food service was always my go-to.”

He cobbled together enough credits for associate’s degree through coursework at a community college and transferred to the University of New Mexico, where he started to feel a pull toward the study of biology. But it was during a trip to visit Kenya where his boyhood love of entomology came rushing back.
“I saw these crazy insects up close —  it was my first out-of-country trip, and it had a profound impact on how I wanted to take my career,” he said. “I said, ‘I think I want to do entomology.’ Eventually, my professor at UNM offered me a volunteer position in his lab, a chance to help out with research — and then he and other students encouraged me to apply to grad school.”

In the lab of UNM biologist Kelly Miller, Baca befriended a graduate student who had previously studied at KU in the lab of Andrew Short, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Within a few years, Baca found himself in Lawrence, pursuing a doctoral degree in Short’s KU lab, where he focuses his research on Noteridae aquatic beetles.

“You can find my family of beetles distributed worldwide except for Antarctica,” he said. “They like tropical areas like Africa, South America and Asia. Their diversity in Florida isn’t that bad if you dig around. There are even some really interesting species that live underground. If you go to Japan, you could tap a well into an aquifer, filter the water coming up and find these blind little beetles living in the subterranean aquifer.”

Stephen BacaRecently, Baca was lead author of a definitive parsing of the evolutionary history of Noteridae, appearing in the peer-reviewed journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 

Along with co-authors Short and Emmanuel Toussaint of KU and Miller of UNM, Baca determined the relationships of 53 species of Noteridae representing all subfamilies, tribes and 16 of 17 genera within the family. By sequencing and comparing DNA sequences, the team’s work has led to a “comprehensive phylogenetic reconstruction” of the evolutionary history of the aquatic beetles.

“Basically we had to completely redo most of the classification within my family because my study, in terms of looking at the evolutionary history of these beetles, it kind of destroyed the previous classification,” he said. “In systematics the nomenclature should follow the phylogeny or evolutionary relationships. So the names we give to groups reflect the relatedness of them. In that way, we had to sync up the classification with the phylogeny, which required some synonymies.”

In the process, Baca and his co-authors uncovered faults in a computational method for partitioning genetic data for subsequent analysis and reconstruction of evolutionary histories using said genetic information. The method was only just gaining traction.   

“My research pointed out a flaw in a partitioning method that could have led to inaccurate results down the road,” he said. “Comparing partitioning strategies isn’t a common practice when reconstructing evolutionary histories. This method had been getting credibility among scientists. It basically saved people who aren’t doing comparative analysis from using a flawed method.”

After Baca and his team sent their findings to the creator of the partitioning method, he decided the model was to be discontinued.

“Our paper was kind of a final nail in its coffin,” Baca said. “We opened a can of worms, but it shows that science is very self-correcting.”

If all goes according to plan, Baca will earn his doctorate from KU in 2019 or 2020. In the meantime, he’ll be in the field and in the lab, further investigating Noteridae. So far, he’s described a new genus with two species previously unknown to science. Further, he said he has “at least a dozen” that he plans to name and describe by the time he earns his doctoral degree.

It’s a long way from the sandlots of New Mexico’s little-league baseball. But Baca is doing his utmost to stay true to his roots and pave the way for other researchers from under-represented communities in science.

He’s the current president of KU’s chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). It’s a commitment that stems from his time tending bar back in New Mexico, when his own scientific future was less than certain.

“I got involved through Maggie Werner-Washburne at UNM, who was the president of the whole national society,” he said. “I knew her through a restaurant in Albuquerque. I was working, and she’d come in to eat and have a beer. One day we were talking and I said, ‘I’m a biology student.’ She answered, 'I’m a professor of biology.’ Eventually, I asked her to write me letters of recommendation when I was applying to KU and the NSF.”

The professor agreed, but with one condition, Baca said.

“She said, ‘Fine, but I want you to attend a SACNAS meeting,’” he said. “I didn’t know why, but after I headed here, I joined to help with this outreach-to-minority work. We advocate for Chicanos and Native Americans in STEM fields, and that’s pretty much the demographic of my hometown.”

By Brendan Lynch 

Photos courtesy of Stephen Baca

News Type:
Research News
Friday, March 3, 2017

Suriname river

This year for spring break, students in Andrew Short’s KU entomology course won’t be headed to the beaches of Cancun or South Padre Island. Instead, they’ll head to the jungles of Suriname, a country many people would struggle to find on a map.

Located on the northeastern coast of South America, Suriname is home to dense tropical forests. It is crisscrossed by rocky rivers, roads that grow narrow until they dead-end, gold mining, and animal and plant species that are still new to science. 

Research expeditions to document species of insects, birds, reptiles, fish and mammals in Suriname have caught the interest of writers such as Richard Conniff, who recently joined Short and a full team of scientists in Suriname for an article published this month in Smithsonian magazine.

For several years, KU students have been participating in Suriname entomology field expeditions with Short, who is curator of entomology at the KU Biodiversity Institute and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. In 2015, Short received a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the research into understanding more about the evolution, distribution and habitats of aquatic insects, and to bring undergraduate and graduate students into the program. 

Students participating in the course and expeditions learn various methods of trapping and collecting insects, whether they are in aquatic habitats, terrestrial, flying through the air, or even inhabiting the pools of water trapped by plants at the base of their leaves. 

Not all students who go on Biodiversity Institute expeditions are studying biology. Alumni Tom and Jann Rudkin of Los Gatos, CA, have provided funds for students pursing degrees such as journalism, illustration, photography and textile arts to experience research expeditions alongside scientific staff and students who are pursing degrees in biology. 

In 2016, Gabriel O’Connor, a KU junior majoring in film studies, went on the Biodiversity Institute expedition to Suriname. He created two film projects from the experience: one focuses on the research conducted by Andrew Short and the team of students in Suriname. The other, a longer film, distilled Gabriel’s personal experience with the Suriname trip. 

This year, as Andrew prepares to head back to Suriname, he is hoping to track down a few species that are known, but little has been studied about the habitats they occupy.  

“The surrounding region of this year’s field site has been impacted by gold mining, so I’m also interested to see how that has affected the local fauna,” Short said. 

Suriname isn’t the only country on Short’s research list. He was recently selected as a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar to Brazil, where he will work extensively with colleagues at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus to expand the geographic scope of his research over the next two years.

Five undergraduate entomology students will go on the expedition to Suriname: Miranda Blanchard of Lawrence; Ben Johnson of Wichita, KS; Shannon Pelkey of De Soto, KS; and Alex Kohlenberg and Tanner Myers, both of Louisburg, KS.  They will be joined by Stephen Baca, a KU graduate student studying entomology, as well as several students and faculty from the National University of Suriname.

The group departs for Paramaribo on March 15.

Top photo: collecting insects in Suriname aquatic environments.
Bottom photo: The 2016 team of KU and Suriname students. 

News Type:
Research News
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Andrew Short, associate curator of entomology, has been selected as a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar in Brazil. He will be hosted by the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus, and will spend approximately 5 months over the next two years there to conduct regional fieldwork, collaborate with their aquatic bioassessment team, and teach graduate student workshops on entomology and biodiversity.

News Type:
Award Grant News
Friday, September 2, 2016

Michael Engel, senior curator of entomology, was interviewed for the National Science Foundation’s Science360 radio, which features podcasts and radio programs related to NSF funded research. You can listen on your phone via the 360 app, or go to the link below and scroll down slightly to the “Big Picture Science” icon and listen. The interview is about research Michael has authored on how insects construct camouflage out of sand, plant material and even other insects. To find it, search for Michael Engel at Science360

News Type:
In the News
Friday, June 24, 2016

Little is known about the early evolution of debris-carrying behavior as only a single Mesozoic example from Spanish amber has ever been recorded. In the article, "Debris-carrying camouflage among diverse lineages of Cretaceous insects," published in the journal of Science Advances, Michael Engel, senior curator of entomology, and his colleagues report on diverse insect specimen they have identified as debri-carriers. These various insects they have identified came from Cretaceous Burmese, French, and Lebanese ambers and include the earliest known chrysopoid larvae (green lacewings), myrmeleontoid larvae (split-footed lacewings and owlflies), and reduviids (assassin bugs). To read more on these reports, click here

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, May 26, 2016

Michael Engel's article "Extreme Morphogenesis and Ecological Specialization among Cretaceous Basal Ants" in Current Biology focuses on the ecological specializations of various ant lineages. Major highlights from the article include a "unicorn" ant with oversized mandibles discovered from Cretaceous Myanmar amber, exaggerated head structures composed highly specialized trap for large prey, Haidomyrmecine ants were found to be solitary specialist predators rather than social ants as most species tend to live, and lastly, some basal lineages were found to have a refined ecology shortly following the advent of ants. You can read more about these findings here.

Drawing of the unicorn ant by YANG Dinghua and Vincent Perrichot 

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, May 19, 2016

Michael Engel, senior curator of entomology, and Laura Breitkreuz, a graduate student in the entomology division, have recently been published in the journal of Current Biology regarding their work on Cretaceous mesochrysopids. In their article titled "Early Morphological Specialization for Insect-Spider Associations in Mesozoic Lacewings" Engel and Breitkreuz report on the discovery of a unique mode of life among mid-Cretaceous mesochrysopids, an early stem group to modern green lacewings exhibiting a combination of morphiological modifications in both adults and larvae unkown among living and fossil Neuroptera (lacewings, antlions, and their relatives) even across winged insects. For more on this topic and the implications of such a discovery, click through to the full article here

News Type:
Research News