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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.
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
Professor, Director of the KU Biodiversity Institute
Professor of English, Interim Director of the Hall Center for the Humanities
Director of The Commons
Paleontologists don’t necessarily find what they are looking for – even when they know where to look. But as a crew of KU paleontologists, students and volunteers discovered this summer, a disappointment in one location can yield surprising results somewhere else.
In June, a group led by Biodiversity Institute paleontologist David Burnham intended to return to the site where for two years they had excavated a Tyrannosaurus rex piece by piece. They hoped to build on the large femur they discovered last year, which belonged to a subadult female T. rex now on display at the KU Natural History Museum.
The formidable rock above the layer of fossils, or overburden, was difficult to remove, however. While the crew waited out several delays getting heavy equipment to the area, David directed the group to another site. They began to call it the “mystery theropod” site, home to what David said may be another, even younger, T. rex, or a dinosaur entirely new to science.
“The second site was discovered in our permit area during our last field season in 2016,” David said. “At that time, we found a fragmentary bone that looked interesting and made plans to return later to see if the site would yield more fossils.”
The mystery theropod site, near Jordan, Montana, proved to be much easier to dig than the first site. During the four weeks that crew members were there, they discovered more than 20 fossils along with dozens of bone fragments. These included three pedal unguals, or claws. The crew also unearthed a foot bones, and skull bones such as jaws with teeth, isolated teeth with roots, backbones and possible pectoral bones, ribs and parts of the pelvis.
“We don’t know what dinosaur it is yet, but we do know it’s a theropod—a carnivorous dinosaur,” David said. “The skull is over a half meter long.”
But in addition to all the fossil material from that site, plus clearing the original site of immense overburden, the crew also excavated the partial skeleton of a fossil bird. They found most of a leg, which had an articulated claw, and mixed in with the bird was a fossil crocodile skeleton. The crocodile had a partial skull, back bones and limb bones.
Bird fossils from this long ago are rare and therefore useful for unraveling bird evolution, Burnham said. The site was probably the remains of an ancient lake where the birds and crocodiles had lived.
Thanks to more than $15,000 in donations to the project -- including a lead contribution from John Weltman and Cliff Atkins of Boston, MA., the crew was able to obtain digging equipment, supplies such as plaster and glue, rent vehicles to transport workers to and from the sites, book hotel rooms, purchase food, and even hire a backhoe operator for removing overburden off the original T. rex site.
Donors also provided support for students to work in the laboratory for the coming months to clean, prepare and examine the fossils they brought back to KU, as well as pay for a series of scientific tests on the bones and rocks from the T. rex. The preliminary tests have shown that KU’s T. rex is probably the geologically oldest ever discovered and that the long bones contained calcium—a preliminary indicator it was a female capable of laying eggs.
Donors to the project and the public are invited to learn more about the work at “Tooth & Claw,” 6:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 14. The event will include a talk by David Burnham, food, and drinks available for purchase. Attendees will also have the chance to see not only the new mystery theropod fossils but also a new young T. rex on loan to the museum through December, and see new paleontology exhibits such as the recently completed paleogarden. The event is free but tickets are required and can be reserved here.
Andy Bentley removes specimens from a cryogenic dewar.
The KU Biodiversity Institute stores thousands of tissue samples from species found around the globe at a frosty -175 degrees Celsius. The specimens are stored in dewars, which are large, vacuum-sealed containers with a pool of liquid nitrogen at the bottom. While -175 degrees is hard to imagine, the newest dewar at KU dips even lower.
“The latest one we’ve acquired runs at -190 degrees Celsius, but otherwise functions much in the same way,” said KU Ichthyology Collections Manager Andy Bentley.
East Antarctica, warmer than a cryogenic dewar.
Tissues preserved in the dewars are in constant demand. Researchers from all over the world review online catalogs of stored specimens and send requests for tissues that could further their research. Upon receiving a request, the specimen is carefully extracted from the dewar and thawed on ice. Once thawed, a tiny piece of tissue is sliced from the sample and shipped in ninety-five percent ethanol.
The number and variety of specimens available for research is growing rapidly. The two dewars currently used are quickly filling with tissue samples. Bentley expects the newest dewar to see use before 2017.
“There’s new material coming in from the field at a rate of ten percent a year,” Bentley said. “In ichthyology we expect another 1,100 tissues a year, so with that kind of growth across all departments we expect to fill the two current dewars in six to eight months.”
When the first two dewars near capacity, the third will be filled with eight-to-ten inches of liquid nitrogen. This level is monitored 24 hours a day to maintain the crucially cold temperatures. Once filled, the third dewar stands ready to support the growing collection.
“There is a fairly large portion of material that is unique to our collection,” Bentley said. “The ichthyology collection, we think, is probably one of the largest ichthyology tissue collections in the world, based on taxonomic and geographic scope.”
A fisherman in southwest China stumbled upon a 200-year-old Chinese giant salamander weighing over 100 pounds. The four-and-a-half foot long specimen greatly surpasses the average lifespan of the critically endangered species. Giant salamanders are thought to live 80 years in the wild. The salamander found in China has been transferred to a research facility for study.
An adult Japanese Giant Salamander(Andrias japonicas).
Species of the giant salamander are found in both China (Andrias davidianus) and Japan (Andrias japonicas). Oddly enough, the closest relative to these living fossils is the Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) found in eastern North America. The hellbender, on average, grows to half the size of the giant species. KU Herpetology Collections Manager Luke Welton says giant salamanders diverged from the hellbender 65 million years ago.
Despite the distance between their homes, all three species have similar habitats and lifestyles. Welton says the three species spend little time on land due to poorly developed lungs, and instead absorb most of their oxygen through folds of skin on their sides. As a result of this preference, all three prefer cold, fast-running streams and lakes. Salamanders often seek refuge beneath large submerged rocks and boulders.
Several specimens of the hellbender and both species of giant salamander are part of the KU Biodiversity Institute Herpetology Collections.
A KU Herpetology lab snaps a selfie before releasing a hellbender found in the Niangua river near Bennet Springs, Missouri.
Salamander, Luke Welton, China, Herpetology
This Thanksgiving, don’t think of the yearly tradition as just carving up a turkey. In reality, you’re dissecting your very own dinosaur.
KU Paleontologist David Burnham studies ancient raptors of all sizes. Studying these ancient relatives fills the gaps between raptors of the past and the turkeys we eat today. Upon studying this lineage, one can see that turkeys and raptors have much more in common than you may think, despite differences in how we traditionally picture a “bird.”
“The public’s perception of what a bird may be might not be the definition a scientist would use,” said Burnham.
The public largely defines birds by their feathers and flight capabilities. By comparison to their ancestors, not only do both prehistoric raptors and modern birds share feathers, but many living birds also either rarely or never use flight including ostriches, emus, cassowaries and turkeys.
“The loss of flight has evolved several times throughout that lineage,” said Burnham. “If we want to draw a line when theropod dinosaurs became strictly avian, well, we’re still refining that even today due to the enormous amount of new discoveries.”
What’s important to remember is that dinosaurs never fully became extinct. The ones that survived mass extinction merely changed. Birds such as turkeys and chickens share their lineage with theropods, or two-legged meat-eating dinosaurs. The skeletal structures of turkeys and extinct theropods such as Velociraptor, Bambiraptor and Microraptor retain several similarities in particular.
Here are some points to look for while dissecting your “dinosaur” this Thanksgiving:
- Wishbone - The furcula, or wishbone, is a major connection between the turkey and its ancient theropod ancestors. The furcula is made up of two formerly separate collarbones, fused together. This evolutionary change aided in flight capabilities of ancient raptors such as Microraptor, and continues to help modern birds, such as turkeys, reach liftoff.
- Wings - The turkey wing deserves careful inspection. The fleshed-over tip is where claws protruded from theropod arms such as those of Velociraptor, Bambiraptor, and even the massive Dakotaraptor. Imagine those on your dinner plate! As theropod dinosaurs evolved, their arms became longer and those claws were covered by flesh forming wings suitable for extended flight – an easily recognizable feature of avian species we see today.
- Thighs and drumsticks - These are often the most sought after pieces of the feast, and still quite similar to the legs of theropods. This leg structure allowed raptors to reach impressive ground speeds; Velociraptor is thought to have been able to run as fast as 40 miles per hour! The turkey on your table is no slowpoke either thanks to this ancient design, with a top running speed of 25 miles per hour.
While the turkey still possesses many remarkable features harkening back to its raptor relatives, there are some things we can be thankful were lost during evolution.
“Of course, turkeys don’t have teeth,” said Burnham, “and that’s probably a good thing.”
vertebrate-paleontology, David Burnham, turkey, museum
Nearly four months after the KU Antarctica team returned to campus, the 5,000 pounds of fossil material they collected in Antarctica will arrive at KU on Monday, April 13.
Staff and students will start unloading 50-60 wooden crates of material that is 260 to 180 million years old, from the Permian and Jurassic periods.
Although most people think of Antarctica as a barren, cold environment, 200 million years ago it was a land of lush forest – a forest that now permineralized can yield clues to the climate change of the past, and how plants today may react to climate change as well.
The fossil material will help scientists study floral changes during the Jurassic in the Transantarctic Mountains of Antarctica.
“This research is important in understanding what climate and environment was like at the poles during one of Earth’s past greenhouse climates and how plants responded to both climate changes and instantaneous disruptions through the rise of volcanoes,” said Rudy Serbet, collection manager of paleobotany at KU Biodiversity Institute and a team leader for the trip. “These sorts of times and environmental stresses are key to understanding how current climate change may effect high latitude plants.”
During the seven weeks they were in Antarctica, the group took several camping field trips “out to the ice,” including the Odell Glacier area and the Allan Hills.
No staff or students have seen the material in the intervening months as it made its way from Antarctica to California to Kansas.
"Today is like Christmas in April,” said Paleobotany Curator Edith Taylor, lead PI on the National Science Foundation grant that funded the research.
Archived posts from the group are available here.
PhD student Scott Travers recently shared an article from the Solomon Star featuring a 2 week biodiversity research expedition he took part in while leading his own expedition to the island nation. This two week trip was organized by Ecological Solutions Solomon Islands and along with Travers was composed of a multinational team representing a number of fields in the biosciences.
The Panorama was full of families today creating their own diorama. And what better place to do it than the biggest diorama any of them had ever seen? Everyone created a scene in their museum boxes — favorite scenes from books, nature, their family.
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.