Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Hispaniolan trunk anole photographed at La Palma, Dominican Republic. Photo credit: Rich Glor


With a recent four-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a University of Kansas researcher is undertaking the most-detailed analysis ever carried out of how reptiles branch into various species.

In doing so, Richard Glor, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU and associate curator of herpetology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, is questioning some of the very methods scientists use to define species.

Further, by combining laboratory studies with fieldwork and genomic sequence data, Glor and his team hope to determine the genetic basis for species differences and why these species diverged in the first place.

Glor said biologists traditionally employ the idea of “reproductive isolation,” or the inability of one kind of animal to fruitfully breed with another, to determine boundaries defining individual species.

“Every student in biology has learned the philosophy of what a species is — something that can’t reproduce with other species,” Glor said. “So when someone describes a new species, you’d think they’ve done a bunch of crossing experiments [to see if a species can reproduce with another], but the answer is that nobody ever does that.”

He said more laboratory studies should be conducted to verify assumptions about boundaries between species and less reliance should rest on how animals look to the eye. His new grant is based on the idea that conventional methods have overlooked recent and ongoing speciation events.

“Traditional taxonomists say that if species exhibit differences in their appearance — this one is green, and this one is red — they likely aren't reproducing with one another,” Glor said. “I saw that as an understudied area in speciation research. We always talk about reproductive isolation, but we never test it.”

Glor has revealed this shortcoming in part by conducting crossing experiments on a group of lizards called bark anoles found on Hispaniola, the Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These lizards are notable for the remarkable variation of their “dewlap,” or flap of skin along the throat, that can be found in different colors and patterns.

“The dewlap is colorful, kind of like a fancy car or jewelry in the human population,” Glor said. “It shows the female you’re attractive and helps her recognize her own species, so it’s critical to sexual selection. The group that I study is particularly noteworthy because a single species exhibits very different dewlap colors and patterns (i.e., some populations are yellow, while others are red). Most anole species exhibit only a single color.”

Previous biologists have relied on variation in dewlaps to separate bark anoles into different subspecies.

“When herpetologists drove across Haiti's mountainous Tiburon Peninsula more than 50 years ago, they saw bark anoles with pale yellow dewlaps at the beginning of their journey, bark anoles with orange and then wine red dewlaps further along, and then started seeing bark anoles with pale yellow dewlaps again by the time they reached the far tip of the peninsula,” Glor said. “As a result, they described these populations with different dewlap colors as distinct subspecies.”

But as Glor and his colleagues obtained genomic data from the lizards, they found dewlap colors weren’t a trustworthy sign of the underlying genetic differences scientists expect to find in distinct species.
“These populations don’t seem to be genomically differentiated,” he said. “Some of those taxa that traditional methods show to be different species probably aren’t different species. Natural selection is driving them to have different dewlap color and appearance for reasons not related to them being different species.”

In other cases, Glor said traditional methods missed species that appear to be strongly differentiated genetically because they are nearly impossible to distinguish externally.

Glor’s work represents the most detailed and integrated analysis ever performed on squamate reptiles — a group of almost 10,000 species, including all lizards and snakes. The research will result in the establishment of a new laboratory model organism, the first squamate genome assembled through linkage mapping and the first “estimates of heritability and the genomic basis for phenotypic traits” vital to systematically studying reptiles in general.

Further, the research has resulted in a public exhibit now on display at the KU Museum of Natural History.

Ultimately, however, Glor said that evolution in species is an unending and fluid process that biologists might always struggle to catalogue and measure.
“All of these ideas like reproductive isolation or morphological divergence are all just benchmarks that occur as new species are forming,” he said. “It could be that some species exhibit all these benchmarks, and some display only one or two. The problem identifying species is that we're trying to put discrete start and stop points on a process we know is continuous.”

- Brendan Lynch, KU News

News Type:
Research News
Saturday, July 18, 2015

Note: Live animal display hours at the Oread have changed to be 8:30am-6 pm daily during the confernce, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The KU Biodiversity Institute will celebrate 100 years of amphibian and reptile research this month with an international herpetology conference, exhibitions and a variety of educational public events.

KU will host more than 425 scientists and students for the 58th annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles from July 30–Aug. 2. Single-day and full-conference registration and program information are available on the Biodiversity Institute’s SSAR 2015 meeting website.

Conference highlights include talks by world-famous biologists, including KU alumnus and National Academy of Sciences member David Hillis of the University of Texas at Austin, renowned snake expert Harry Greene of Cornell University, Madagascar explorer Miguel Vences of Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany, and amphibian conservation advocate Tyrone Hayes of the University of California, Berkeley. There are academic sessions and symposia, a reception honoring distinguished senior herpetologists, a live auction of historical herpetological memorabilia, and tours of the Fitch Reservation at the KU Biological Field Station and herpetological collections of the Natural History Museum.

The conference also offers two events for the community to explore herpetology. One is a live animal exhibition at the Oread Hotel that includes the majority of Kansas’ non-venomous reptile and amphibian species. The exhibit is a Sternberg and Kansas Herpetological Society event presented in conjunction with the SSAR meeting. It will be open to the public daily in Gathering Room 1 during the conference.

Another event consists of two multimedia presentations featuring spectacular wildlife photography and music. The presentations will be offered 9:30-11 p.m. July 31 and 8-9:30 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union. Both presentations will feature the renowned herpetological imagery of David Dennis and Eric Juterbock. In one show, viewers will explore the “Amphibians of the Appalachians” through stunning photographs of the region’s spectacular frogs and salamanders. The second show, “Herpetologists Past and Present,” will take readers on a colorful and informative journey through the lives of herpetologists. Both shows are free and open to the public.

Beyond the conference, the Biodiversity Institute will encourage local residents to learn more about and celebrate the ecological role of amphibians and reptiles in Kansas. In that spirit, the Lawrence City Commission’s agenda for July 28 includes a proclamation declaring the week of July 27–Aug. 2 International Amphibian and Reptile Week.

This month the Society for the Study of Reptiles and Amphibians will publish “Herpetology at Kansas: A Centennial History,” by William Duellman, professor emeritus and a former curator of herpetology at KU.

Two new herpetology-focused exhibitions are now on view at the KU Natural History Museum. One is a new live animal display of lizards focused on anole lizards and their ecology. Another recently completed exhibition features student wildlife photography, field journals and maps describing a 2014 Kansas herpetology field course.

Scientists at KU have been studying amphibians and reptiles for more than 100 years. Alumnus Edward Taylor, who first published his research in 1915, helped begin what is now the fifth-largest amphibian and reptile collection in the world at KU. Today the collection includes 340,000 specimens representing 5,000 species from 156 countries, and it includes the largest collection of Kansas specimens in the state. KU herpetology curators and graduate students conduct collections-based research throughout the world, from across Southeast Asia to Africa to Latin America to Kansas. 

News Type:
In the News
Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Philippine site published the news of a species discovered through an unconventional approach. "Searching the globe for undiscovered species takes biologists to far and remote locations, trekking through exotic locales that may yield a new discovery. However, exploring the black market can also produce results. And this is just the case for Rafe Brown, curator of the University Of Kansas (KU) Biodiversity Institute, during a recent visit to the Philippines. In a black market in Manila, Brown and his colleagues discovered two new species of water monitor lizard for sale..." 

Link published on

News Type:
In the News
Tuesday, August 19, 2014

LAWRENCE — It’s not a monkey. It’s not a lemur. It’s not an African Bush Baby or even a Madagascan Mouse. Meet the Philippine tarsier: a tiny, adorable and downright “cool” primate from Southeast Asia.

“It’s really not like any animals that Americans are familiar with,” said Rafe Brown, curator-in-charge at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute. “A tarsier has giant eyes and ears; an extremely cute, furry body; a long tail with a furry tuft at the end; and interesting expanded fingers and toe tips that look a bit like the disks on the digits of tree frogs.”

Brown said the tarsier (tar-SEER) has become the “flagship” iconic species for promoting environmental stewardship and ecotourism in the Philippines, a nation suffering from large-scale destruction of natural habitat.

“They’re threatened with habitat loss due to development, mining and deforestation from the timber industry,” Brown said. “On Bohol, where they are a big part of the tourist economy, literally thousands of animals are taken out of the wild, essentially harassed by tourists, and die in captivity due to the stress and inability of their captors to feed them an appropriate diet of live small animals. Tarsiers must eat an enormous amount every night to fuel their high metabolism.”

Because of threats to the tarsier, conservation efforts are mounting for the charismatic animal. But these have been thwarted by a lack of research: Too little has been known about the tarsier’s taxonomic diversity; there have been too few field studies; and a scarcity of genetic samples and voucher specimens in biodiversity repositories has left advocates of the tarsier in the dark. In short, to save the tarsier, experts have needed to know much more about the species.

“Basically, we can not legally protect something if we do not know that it exists,” Brown said.

Today, research by Brown and colleagues published by the journal PLOS ONE will shed new light on the animal’s genetic diversity and distribution. Additionally, the KU researchers have verified the presence of a new variety of tarsier, one heretofore only suspected to exist — the Dinagat-Caraga tarsier.

“Previously tarsiers were one species, divided into three named subspecies,” Brown said. “Our data disagree with that subspecies arrangement and instead demonstrate that the Philippine tarsiers are divided into three genetic units — but these units are from different localities than the named taxa. So our data provide an objective way to restructure conservation efforts and point the resources where they need to go, in order to really have an effective impact on preserving genetic diversity in the group.”

Brown’s student Anthony Barley performed genetic sequencing of the tarsiers’ mitochondrial DNA at KU, while fellow student Karen Olsen characterized the nuclear microsatellite loci variation of the animals.

According to Brown, the results “tell us that we need a protected area — such as a national park — in the ranges of each of the genetic units if our goal is to maximally preserve the genetic underpinnings of that biodiversity. Currently, the newly discovered entity, the Dinagat-Caraga tarsier, has no protection. It is known from a small island that is being extremely heavily mined. Thus, it emerges as a new lineage — and a new major conservation urgency.”

They question of just how many Philippine tarsiers exist has been “left sort of hanging” for 25 years until now, according to the researcher. The newly discovered Dinagat Island and Caraga Region tarsier was first recognized as possibly distinct by the Filipino biologist Dioscoro Rabor in the 1970s, and now is confirmed by the KU genetic analysis.

“The confirmation of Rabor’s early suspicions about the Dinagat Island tarsier population was extremely exciting, and it was very satisfying to affirm his very perceptive early observations,” Brown said. “He commented that it looked larger to him and had different shaped fingers and toes. I’m just glad we were able to bring new, modern tools to this problem and identify the Dinagat-Caraga tarsier as a real conservation priority.”

Brown and Filipino colleagues have called for the establishment of separate tarsier sanctuaries and protection programs within the range of “at least” the three genetic entities established by the research at the Biodiversity Institute. Each, he said, merits unique strategies and programs, along with identification and remediation of conservation threats — for instance “mining in Dinagat versus unregulated tourist industry on Bohol,” he said.

To do less, Brown said, would harm the tarsier’s long-term prospects, potentially depriving the Philippines and the rest of the world of one of nature’s most charming and curious mammals.

“They move very rapidly and jump from tree trunk to tree trunk with ‘ricochet locomotion,'” Brown said. “They bounce from small sapling trunk to trunk, then leap down to pounce on their prey. They’re completely carnivorous. This is relatively unique among primates. The tarsier is famous for not eating any vegetable material of any kind. They eat insects, small snakes, lizards, small mammals and birds. They communicate with ultrasonic calls outside the range of human hearing. The tarsier is so cool!”    

The National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration and the National Science Foundation supported the research. -Brendan Lynch, KU News service

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, August 7, 2014

Hylarana centropeninsularisLAWRENCE — Recently, Malaysian herpetologist Juliana Senawi puzzled over an unfamiliar orange-striped, yellow-speckled frog she’d live-caught in swampland on the Malay Peninsula.

She showed the frog to Chan Kin Onn, a fellow herpetologist pursuing his doctorate at the University of Kansas. They wondered — was this striking frog with an appearance unlike others nearby in the central peninsula an unidentified species?

Poring over records to find out, the researchers saw that a comparable frog had been collected in the area 10 years earlier, but it was written off then as a species from an Indonesian island about 450 miles to the west. The distance and geography between the two habitats made them suspect their frog might have been formerly misidentified.

“The frog was originally confused with the Siberut Island Frog, which is a species that occurs on Siberut Island off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, due to their similar appearance in color-pattern,” Chan said.

They wondered if genetic code from the exact same frog species could have jumped eastward from a remote island across 150 miles of Indian Ocean — then over the whole of Sumatra — then across the Strait of Malacca into the Malaysian interior?

“Despite their similarities, we had a strong suspicion that the frog from Malaysia wasn’t the Siberut Island Frog,” Chan said.

Later, extensive genetic analysis performed in the lab of Rafe Brown, curator of herpetology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, would determine whether the Malaysian frog was indeed new to science — genetically distinct from its doppelgänger on Siberut Island.

“The lab is very high-tech and is able to run a number of different types of genetic analyses,” Chan said. “It’s also able to run the latest in cutting-edge genetic analysis called Next Generation Sequencing, which a lot of researchers are currently utilizing. We also have a very powerful bioinformatics lab that can analyze extremely large and computationally expensive datasets. The great thing about the lab is that we have the equipment and expertise to run everything from initial DNA extractions to the final data analyses without having to rely on any outsourcing.”

When testing was complete, the first hunch of the Malaysian team proved right: “Sure enough, results from Rafe’s genetic analysis showed that the frog from Peninsular Malaysia was genetically too distant from the Siberut Island Frog to be considered the same species, so we decided to describe it as a new species.”

As lead author, Chan published the team’s findings in a recent issue of the journal Herpetologica.

“We decided to call it ‘Hylarana centropeninsularis’ because it’s currently only known from central Peninsular Malaysia,” he said. “The name is constructed from the Latin word ‘centro’ that means center and ‘peninsularis,’ in reference to Peninsular Malaysia.”

To date, Chan has described seven species of frogs and three species of lizards, all from Peninsular Malaysia, that are new to science.

Born and raised in Malaysia, Chan took interest in nature as a child, interacting with jungle plants and animals — then keeping snakes and lizards as pets.

“At one point, I had as many as 25 species of pet snakes in my room,” said the KU researcher.

At the National University of Malaysia, Chan found himself under the tutelage of herpetologist Norhayati Ahmad and Lee Grismer of La Sierra University, California, a world-renowned herpetologist with research interests in Malaysia.

“I knew about Rafe Brown and KU through their research and publications and first met him at a conference in Borneo,” Chan said. “My research interests aligned well with Rafe — we both work on frogs in Southeast Asia and are generally interested in answering the same type of questions.”

For would-be herpetologists looking to follow in Chan's species-finding footsteps, the KU researcher had words of advice: “Do it the old-fashioned way. Wade through the mud and get dirty!” - Brendan Lynch, KU News Service

News Type:
Research News
Saturday, June 21, 2014
Rich Glor

KU Herpetology has launched a new Flickr group that will contain images taken by members of the division and their associates. The group already hosts more than 750 images. Visit the group's page and sign up for Flickr if you want to become a contributor.

News Type:
Saturday, June 21, 2014
Rich Glor

In the Summer of 2015, KU Herpetology will host the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. The meeting will take place in the Kansas Memorial Union, which is located adjacent to KU Herpetology headquarters in the KU Natural History Museum. Some social events will be hosted just down the road at the Oread Hotel. Preliminary details can be found in an announcement published in Herpetological Review. Stay tuned for more details.

News Type:
Research News
Friday, May 23, 2014

Scientists from the University of Kansas and more than 60 other international research institutions spanning six continents have responded to a recent paper in Science, which questioned the practice of collecting and preserving scientific specimens.

KU biologists Rafe Brown and Andrew Short, along with other researchers, argued that the value of scientific collections is vast and their effect on natural populations is minimal. The response also stresses the immense value of scientific collections – such as those held by the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum – across a wide range of disciplines.

In the original paper, "Avoiding (Re)extinction," the authors had argued that the collection of scientific specimens has played a significant role in species extinction, pointing to examples of now-extinct birds, frogs and plants to support this claim.

Today’s response paper, led by Luiz Rocha, a fish biologist from the California Academy of Sciences, emphasizes the minimal effect that research-based specimen collecting actually has on populations. Rocha, Brown and Short, and other scientists, argued that the value of scientific collections is vast and their effect on natural populations is minimal.

“This is a delicate topic because none of us like to think about the death of a beautiful bird or colorful frog,” said Brown, curator of herpetology at the Biodiversity Institute.  “But as conservation scientists, we are primarily concerned with species preservation and the long-term viability of populations.  It’s not the several individual frogs that are sacrificed humanely for the global good that make me sad…I get emotional about the many hundreds of thousands that will die this year en masse as we cut down forests and pave over the last of their habitat; we know that many of those individuals will be the last of their species."

The authors point to several examples that illustrate the role scientific collections have played in understanding such things as the effects of climate change on populations and the spread of disease. In one such analysis, scientists looked at specimens from a wide range of taxa, collected over the past several decades or more, and found a significant correlation between an increase in daily temperatures and a decrease in body size — a response that might limit the ability of some species to tolerate more dramatic swings in future temperature extremes.

Scientists have also analyzed amphibian specimens collected over the past five decades or more, including many hundreds of specimens in KU’s herpetology collections, to track the origin and spread of the frog-killing chytrid fungus in hopes of preventing its further spread.

It is only by investigating information about specimens collected across time that scientists can answer questions about species and the environment in a changing world, said Short, entomology curator at the Biodiversity Institute. Such collections are not the cause of extinctions.

“Responsible collecting of scientific specimens is the only way to identify most of the world’s species,” Short said. “These collections are critical to assessing water quality, habitat degradation and the impact of climate change. It is not a conservation threat and treating it as such distracts from the real drivers that are imperiling our biodiversity, such as habitat loss and invasive species.”

In the original paper, the authors went on to recommend alternatives to standardized collection methods used today, namely photography, audio recordings and non-lethal tissue collection. Although in many cases these methods are employed in species identification, scientists point out that they will often fall far short of the wealth of information that scientific specimens provide. Species identification, they write, is not the only — and is often not the most important — reason to collect voucher specimens.

In other cases, genetic data from decades-old scientific specimens has even been used to identify current species that were thought to be extinct.

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jesse Grismer (mentor: Rafe Brown) has learned that he has been awarded a $20,000 grant from National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration to study population genetics and taxonomic diversity of lizards in differing habitats across the Gobi Desert.  The upcoming Gobi expedition involves an integrative historical component which will include retracing travel routes of famed explorers Nikolai Przhevalsky and Ney Elias using original expedition accounts coupled with modern satellite based imagery and georeferencing tools.

In addition, Scott Travers (also in Rafe Brown’s group) has learned that his National Geographic Young Explorer’s Club proposal has been funded ($5,000) for work on adaptive radiation and community assembly of amphibians and reptiles in the Solomon Islands. This work will include blazing an elevational transect through uninhabited forests of Mt. Austen on Guadalcanal Island, the site of the infamous Guadalcanal Campaign battles between U.S. and Japanese troops in 1943.

News Type:
Student News
Thursday, April 24, 2014

PhilippinesIn November 2013, as Super Typhoon Haiyan produced landfall in the Philippines with the highest-ever recorded wind speed for a Category 5 tropical cyclone, it wreaked near complete devastation for miles. The expense was dear for each humans and wildlife.

Rafe Brown, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, already had spent years researching biodiversity in the country. He said watching the Tv coverage of Haiyan was "one particular of the most profoundly saddest events in my life."

"The death toll was so high, the calculations of loss of life so obviously underestimated—it was like the international disaster relief neighborhood had no notion what they had to deal with," Brown stated. "A important metropolitan location and university town exactly where I had spent several fine days interacting with colleagues and students —Tacloban City—had been reduced completely to rubble. And the devastation in more far-flung regions of the archipelago was totally unknown. I found myself asking yourself: What about all these forests? What happened to the sites we had surveyed in the last 5 years? Had been the locations exactly where we established survey transects flattened absolutely? What species nevertheless remained in the most devastated forests?"

Mainly because Brown, who also serves as curator-in-charge of the Herpetology Division at KU's Biodiversity Institute, had compiled such an in depth record of biodiversity in the Philippines by way of prior investigations, he realized he could be of aid to the nation and the scientific neighborhood if he have been able to characterize the extent of Haiyan's toll on wildlife in the location. Now, he has secured a one particular-year, $125,000 award from the National Science Foundation, a grant designed to address a distinct need of higher urgency in a rapid time frame.

"A number of of the locations we have surveyed prior to the typhoon are viewed as specifically biodiverse, with higher numbers of mammal species, birds, amphibians and reptiles," mentioned Brown. "We now have to have an immediate 'after' glimpse of the diversity ideal after the storm. Our project is aimed at delivering that picture of the aftermath…such that followup research can be conducted at 5, ten and possibly 15 or 20 years from now, to document how recovery transpires in these all-natural systems."

Brown, along with KU colleagues Robert Moyle and A. Townsend Peterson, will train a field group of personnel and graduate students to survey habitat impacted by Haiyan where biodiversity datasets had already been created ahead of landfall of the storm. Comparing the "prior to" and "right after" information will reveal the extent of the super typhoon's destruction, as properly as the capacity of various species to bounce back from catastrophe.

"The solutions we will employ will be the very same techniques we undertook for the earlier surveys, applying the same trails, the same transects and sampling measures, and even the very same individuals who carried out the operate," mentioned Brown. "We'll standardize the work so that statistical comparisons can be made, and then encourage future researchers to use these identical approaches once more over the next decade or two."

Whilst it is impossible to predict all of the aftereffects of Haiyan on the wildlife of the Philippines, the KU researcher said some species truly could be scattered to the winds.

"These typhoons are usually devastating to low-lying regions since storm surge can scour coastal plains and eradicate anything that lives there," Brown said. "They are normally also heavily damaging to mid- and upper-montane locations for the reason that the heavy rainfall causes landslides and flattens forests if winds are powerful enough. There is no doubt that they also transport species from a single region to another—small animals, literally blown from a single island to the next—but these specifics have seldom been quantified to date. This is an ancillary target of our new project, to measure the quantity of storm-associated translocation of populations of land vertebrates from one particular island to yet another."

Brown stated that the Philippines is an desirable nation in which to study biodiversity since of the stark contrasts, such as habitable islands versus inhospitable intervening seaways, along with the recognized geological history of the archipelago, the rich legacy of data compiled by scientists over centuries to draw upon, and the incredibly clear and, at instances, simplified communities of vertebrates that inhabit the 7,one hundred landmasses of the archipelago.

Even so, he stated that his findings could shed light on how species thrive or fail in the aftermath of all-natural disasters anyplace on Earth.

"This award addresses a unique higher-urgency need to have for surveys post-Haiyan but fits into the general framework of our investigation plan in that we seek to fully grasp how such exceptionally high levels of land vertebrate diversity can exist in the island archipelagos and biodiversity hotspots like the Philippines," said Brown. "It may perhaps relate to the frequency of all-natural disturbance. That is, if chronic and periodic natural disturbance is standard of a forest community, it is conceivable that such a forest neighborhood may perhaps stay specifically diverse since it contains a combination of steady, resident neighborhood species and also a cohort of 'edge' species or species that invade an area following the effect of natural disturbance. Our information may present a direct measure of the predictions of this 'intermediate disturbance hypothesis' in a actual-time empirical method. Such an chance is really rare—only coming along as soon as or twice in a lifetime."

News Type:
Research News