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
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

AmberKU Biodiversity Institute scientists Michael Engel and Jennifer Thomas co-authored a recently-released publication that sheds new light on the prehistoric life of India.

The study, also authored by 13 scientists among other institutions, examined amber in Gujurat state (western) India.  The group studied insects trapped in fossil amber, which is believed to be 50-52 million years old.  PNAS published the study this week.

The region was previously thought to have high numbers of endemic (native to only that area) species, but the new study found more than 100 species from other areas.  These findings suggest that the region was perhaps not quite as isolated as previously thought.

News Type:
In the 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
Friday, February 12, 2010


Fossil spider

Scientists have discovered new, detailed fossil spider specimens that date to the Jurassic period 165 million years ago and reveal a connection to modern spiders.

The remarkably well-preserved specimens are about 120 million years older than known spiders in the same family.

The research findings by Paul Selden, the Gulf-Hedberg Distinguished Professor of Invertebrate Paleontology in the Department of Geology at the University of Kansas, and his colleague Diying Huang at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology were published in the Feb. 6 edition of the journal Naturwissenschaften.

The specimens, which were discovered in Inner Mongolia, China, are exceptionally detailed. The males show all the features of the modern members of the family Plectreuridae.

“What is interesting about their identification in the family Plectreuridae is that the family is known today only from California, Arizona, Mexico and Cuba,” Selden said. “Yet these were on a small continent called the North China Block in the Jurassic.”

That means that much of the family’s distribution has contracted considerably, while the family has changed little over that time.
Selden is director of the Paleontological Institute at the Biodiversity Institut

News Type:
Research News