Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A new exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art features creative projects made by University of Kansas researchers who traveled to the Peruvian Amazon last summer.

Co-sponsored by KU's Biodiversity Institute, 39 Trails is on view through July 22 in the Museum's Gallery 318 South, and shares the work of a research team that included seven undergraduate students and two graduate students under the direction of KU curator/professors Caroline Chaboo, entomology, and Steve Goddard, Spencer Museum of Art. "Everyone involved relied heavily on a small map of the base of their activity, the Los Amigos Biological Research Station," Goddard says. "The map detailed 39 trails, underscoring the human presence in the rain forest, as well as the difficulty of navigating it."

A full description of the exhibition is available on the Spencer's exhibition page.

Three of the undergraduate students were part of a pilot program: the Rudkin Undergraduate Scholarships for International Interdisciplinary Research Experiences. This new scholarship strives to give the students an arena for integrating disciplines and synthesizing knowledge across the sciences, arts and humanities in a global setting.

In addition to sharing the creative work by the three Rudkin Scholars, Goddard says the goal of the exhibition is to include contributions from all members of the cohesive research team to give a fuller account of the different ways the rain forest experience touched everyone involved.

The installation consists of small acrylic cases — one for each team member — that the researchers have individually curated to summarize their experiences.  In addition to the items in these cases and the written and pictorial creative work of the Rudkin Scholars, the exhibition includes printed leaves, photographs, insect specimens and audio recordings made at the Los Amigos Biological Research Station where the group spent 10 days in focused work.

News Type:
Research News
Monday, March 5, 2012

Andrew Short, curator of entomology, will receive a $7,300 REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) supplement for his  National Science Foundation Venezuela survey grant. The new grant will support the research of an undergraduate student working with Andrew over the next year.

News Type:
Award Grant News
Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Giant flea

A giant flea from the Middle Jurassic

Writing in the journal Nature this week, KU entomologist Michael Engel and an international research team have described the oldest definitive fleas to date: giant fleas from the Middle Jurassic and Early Cretaceous of China.

The findings by Engel, André Nel and colleagues show that these ancient fleas were wingless and distinctly larger than recent fleas with body lengths of 14–20.6 mm (.5 to almost an inch) in females and 8–14.7 mm (about .25-.5 inch) in males. They also had many defining features of fleas while they retained primitive traits, such as non-jumping hind legs.

Their most impressive feature, however, was their long and serrated suctorial siphon, which was used for piercing the hides of their hosts. These were longer in females than in males. The authors note that an apparent difference between these and modern fleas is the size of the mouthpart, which are relatively shorter in today’s examples. However, they are proportionally about the same length relative to overall body size in both the ancient and modern flea.

The discovery also provides a clue as to the development of chosen hosts for fleas. The fleas’ special morphology suggests that they had hairy or feathered ‘reptilian’ hosts before moving on to mammals and birds later on.

News Type:
Research News
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A University of Kansas researcher and scientists from China and the United Kingdom have again played what may be the world’s oldest love song.

Using an exquisitely preserved mid-Jurassic katydid fossil found in China, the researchers have recreated the insect’s mating call produced by “stridulation” — the rubbing together of musical wing parts. Their findings appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We were actually able to recreate that sound,” said Michael Engel, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior curator of entomology at KU. “The structures used to produce sounds generally aren’t preserved in katydid fossils. There’s a scraper and file on their wings that they run together. We found a specimen where you could see these structures in great detail. You can look and tease out what these two structures will produce in terms of sound.”

The team completed a paleobioacoustical analysis of the katydid fossil and using computers recreated the mating call created by the nocturnal katydid some 165 million years ago. It turns out that the song of Archaboilus musicus, the ancient species, could sound familiar to anyone who’s heard a modern cricket or katydid on a summer’s evening.

“During that time period it would have been a warm evening and, just like in the modern-day forest, it would have been teeming with life,” Engel said. “These were nocturnal insects, and at night there were probably a lot of activity in terms of insects and their predators. The katydids want to be able to call out to the mate, to sing their love song — but at the same time they don’t want to attract a predator like a frog or lizard.”

The KU researcher collaborated with Jun-Jie Gu, Ge-Xia Qiao, and Dong Ren from the Capital Normal University and Institute of Zoology in Beijing, along with Fernando Montealegre-Zapata and Daniel Robert at the University of Bristol.

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, August 11, 2011



Caroline Chaboo regularly fields phone calls and emails from homeowners, gardeners and even U.S. customs officials who ask her to help identify bugs. The University of Kansas entomologist is a leading expert on beetles and performs research around the world, including in Kansas.

And Chaboo takes the time to help people with their insect-related curiosities and concerns. 

“I ask them questions, and they send me pictures,” she said. 

But now, a new grant from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program will enable Chaboo to put photos, data and maps relating to thousands of insects such as such as aphids, hoppers and cicadas (collectively known to scientists as Hemiptera) onto the Internet. Also, information about their host plants and parasites will be digitized and put on the Web. Anybody will be able to access the information with a few keystrokes. 

“In the course of human evolution, we’ve asked these questions from the beginning,” said Chaboo. “We’ve always wanted to know what was around us, what things were useful to us, what was edible and what was poisonous. It’s a pretty fundamental part of the human experience. It’s probably part of our genetic code that we’re all taxonomists — we all want to know the names of things.” 

Indeed, generations of scientists have collected specimens of plants and animals in the field and stored them in institutions around the world. For instance, the KU Insect Collection has one of the preeminent university assemblages of Hemiptera, Coleoptera (beetles) and Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps), amassed through the efforts of curators and students since it was established in 1870. 

At all institutions, examples of biodiversity are labeled, and then preserved in boxes and drawers within climate-controlled, fireproof steel cabinets. Usually, new species are described and named in academic journals.

The problem is that much of the biological information is “dark data.” It hasn’t been made straightforwardly accessible to non-scholars, and is at times unavailable even for experts. 

“If you know of a specialist working in an area, you would write to them — if they were still alive — and ask what have you gotten from Peru or South Africa of this particular group?” Chaboo said. “Or you would write to a collection and ask what they have of a certain species. But it’s skewed toward systematic and evolutionary biology and museum work.”

As an entomologist and curator at the KU Museum of Natural History and Biodiversity Institute, Chaboo herself has found difficulty hunting down information about insects in her field that were described by anthropologists, for instance, instead of evolutionary biologists. 

“I’m unable to access certain kinds of literature — not because I’m not searching, but because I’m unaware that it exists,” she said.

The grant to KU is a subcontract of a larger  $1.5 million NSF effort involving 15 botanical and 19 entomological collections around the nation. It is titled “Plants, Herbivores and Parasitoids: A Model System for the Study of Tri-Trophic Associations.” The effort will create online information and images for about 4 million specimens.



Chaboo will oversee specialists and undergraduate student workers as they verify species information in the KU Insect Collection and convert it into digital data and images. In the meantime, her colleague Craig Freeman, botany curator at KU’s MacGregor Herbarium, will lead a team digitizing information about the plants that are hosts of the insects. 

The results will be made available online in an easy-to-use format, making publically available the collection’s implications for genetics, the ecology and biological diversity, as well as quenching people’s thirst for a better understanding of nature.    

“For any end-user — for example you’re an amateur or farmer who just wants to know what bugs are in your garden or greenhouse — this will help you identify insects through photographs and also map where those things are,” Chaboo said.

Due to the strength of its insect collections, KU is involved in two of four NSF grants relating to digitization of biological records. A second KU entomologist, Andrew Short, is leading a separate effort funded by the same umbrella program called “InvertNet — An Integrative Platform for Research on Environmental Change, Species Discovery and Identification.”

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, June 16, 2011

The National Science Foundation has announced a $5 million grant for "Digitization TCN: InvertNet—An Integrative Platform for Research on Environmental Change, Species Discovery and Identification." The project will develop new ways to digitize, collate, and serve specimen and collections data for 56 million specimens across 22 midwest arthropod collections. KU's portion of the grant will be $210,000. Andrew Short, curator of entomology, is one of 14 primary investigators involved in the grant.

News Type:
Award Grant News
Tuesday, April 19, 2011

At the annual spring meeting of the Kansas (Central States) Entomological Society, several Biodiversity Institute and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology students received awards for their research.

There were two oral student presentation winners:
Graduate Student Choru Shin (mentored by Curator Caroline Chaboo). Title: "Phylogenetic revision of Stoiba Spaeth 1909 with description of a new species, Elytrogona rileyi n. sp. Shin & Chaboo (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Cassidinae: Mesophaliini)"

Graduate Student Taro Eldredge (mentored by Curator Andrew Short). Title: "The Mrymecophiles of Kansas"

In the student poster category, undergraduate student Joseph Jalinsky (mentored by Chaboo), won for his presentation, "Natural history and immature stages of Chrysochus auratus Fabricius 1775 (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Eumolpinae)"

News Type:
Award Grant News
Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jurrasic Spider

With a leg span of more than five inches, a recently named Jurassic period spider from China is the largest fossil specimen discovered, and one that has modern relatives in tropical climates today.

A research team of KU and Capital Normal University (Beijing) researchers said the spider belongs to the living genus Nephila, or golden orb-weavers. An extremely long range for any animal genus, the nephilids are example of living fossils. Nephilids are the largest web-weaving spiders alive today (body length up to 5 cm, leg span 15 cm) and are common to the tropical and subtropical regions today. This suggests that the paleoclimate of Daohugou, China, where the specimen was found, was probably similarly warm and humid during the Jurassic.

Nephila females weave some of the largest orb webs known (up to 1.5 m in diameter) with distinctive gold-colored silk to catch a wide variety of medium-sized to large insects, but occasionally bats and birds as by-catch. Typically, an orb-weaver spider first weaves a non-sticky spiral with space for sticky spirals in between. Unlike most other orb-weaving spiders, Nephila do not remove the non-sticky spirals after weaving the sticky spirals. This results in a ‘manuscript paper’ effect when the orb is seen in the sunlight, because the sticky spirals reflect the light while the non-sticky spirals do not, thus resembling musical staves.

This fossil finding provides evidence that golden orb-webs were being woven and capturing medium to large insects in Jurassic times, and predation by these spiders would have played an important role in the natural selection of contemporaneous insects. 

The research was published in the online edition of Biology Letters as “A golden orb-weaver spider (Araneae: Nephilidae: Nephila) from the Middle Jurassic of China.” Paul A. Selden, Gulf-Hedberg Distinguished Professor at KU and director of the Paleontological Institute, as well as ChungKun Shih and Dong Ren, professors from Capital Normal University, Beijing, China, authored the research.

In the image above, the figure on the left is of a fossil female golden orb-weaver spider (Nephila jurassica) from the Middle Jurassic of China. The body length about 1 inch, front legs about 2.5 inches (= leg span more than 5 inches). Next to it is an image of a living female golden orb-weaver spider (Nephila pilipes), in Queensland, Australia, on her golden orb web. It is about the same size as the fossil specimen.

News Type:
Research News
Monday, August 30, 2010


Fossil lacewings

A research team including Biodiversity Institute Entomology Curator Michael S. Engel has concluded that well-preserved lacewing fossils from northeastern China represent the earliest evidence of leaf mimicry among insects.

Many extant insects, including some mantises, treehoppers and butterflies mimic the leaves of flowering plants to hide from predators. The historical origin of this adaptive mimicry has remained unclear because of a dearth of fossil finds. The researchers found the remains of two lacewings whose features are strikingly similar to the leaves of certain Mesozoic gymnosperms thought to predate the evolution of flowering plants. These characteristics include elongated forewings that bear undulating margins, coloration resembling leaflets, complex venation and branches resembling leaf shafts.

In a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers suggest that the lacewings likely rested and fed on the feather-like leaves, remaining still or swaying in the breeze to fool predators such as insectivorous dinosaurs, primitive birds, and mammals. When these gymnosperms gave way to flowering plants, the lacewings likely became prone to predation, suggesting that leaf mimicry evolved before the rise of flowering plants, according to the researchers.

Authors of the paper, “Ancient pinnate leaf mimesis among lacewings,” were Engel, who is professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at KU, and Professor Dong Ren, Post-doc Yongjie Wang, Visiting Professor Chungkun Shih, and Associate Professor Yunyun Zhao, all of the Capital Normal University;  Professor Zhiqi Liu of the China Agricultural University; and Dr. Xin Wang of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology.

News Type:
Research News
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ethiopian amber

Ethiopian Amber

A scientific team including students and faculty from the University of Kansas has discovered the first amber fossils from Africa. The tree resin entombed tiny parasites, predators and decomposers at a time when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

The amber fossil is about 95 million years old and was found in Ethiopia. It dates to a time of great change and diversification for the first flowering plants, or angiosperms. Remains of early flowering plants and ferns are preserved, as are parasitic fungi that lived on the resin-bearing trees and served as a food source for insects.

Thirteen families of insects have been found in the amber, including hymenopterans, thrips, barklice, zorapterans and remains of moths and beetles. All of them are among the earliest fossil records of these groups from Africa. Particularly intriguing are the oldest African ant and a sheet-web-weaving spider.

Twenty researchers from Germany, France, Austria, Ethiopia, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States investigated the amber, its contents and the geological setting. Team members from KU were graduate student Erin Saupe, former postdoctoral student Vincent Perrichot and Paul Selden, the Gulf-Hedberg Distinguished Professor of Geology. The research was published in the April 5 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The KU team investigated the ant and spider specimens in the amber. The fossils will be extremely important in understanding the evolutionary history and biological distribution of these lineages. One specimen, a spider, is the second-oldest sheet-web weaving spider (Linyphiidae) discovered to date and only the third fossil spider species to be described from the African continent. Similarly, the ant is one of the oldest representatives of this now diverse and ecologically dominant group and the earliest from Gondwana.

Ethiopian amber is unusually clear and colorful. The largest pieces reach a size of 25 cm.

Most ambers are found in North America and Eurasia. In contrast, few ambers have been found on the southern continents that formerly formed Gondwana, making the Ethiopian deposit particularly scientifically valuable. Researchers will now study the amber fossils in detail, revealing new insights into the evolution of various groups of organisms.

News Type:
Research News