A friendship formed over a mutual fascination with fossils led Roy O’Connor, a KU alumnus, to establish a fund in honor of Leonard “Kris” Krishtalka, the former director of the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. Krishtalka, who is also a paleontologist, retired in December 2020 after leading the Biodiversity Institute for 25 years.
The O’Connor Graduate Student Award Fund, established with a $100,000 gift from O’Connor, will provide research support for graduate students studying in the KU Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who are mentored by Biodiversity Institute scientists and curators. These students work on faculty research in labs across the Biodiversity Institute, conduct their own research and often teach. The fund, administered by KU Endowment, will support the students’ own research efforts by covering the cost of supplies, travel and conference fees, food for expeditions and other expenses.
O’Connor was a frequent visitor to the KU Natural History Museum during his time as a student. A few years ago, he connected with Dr. Krishtalka and the two began a friendship which grew to include fossil hunts in O’Connor’s home state of Montana, where KU vertebrate paleontology digs have also taken place.
“I hope this fund will offer support to graduate students with similar interests that Kris has, and will allow them to follow their dreams,” O’Connor said.
We have been preparing to reopen, but a recent event has slightly delayed our plans. On Tuesday, February 16, during the extremely cold weather spell in Kansas, a line in one of the museum’s HVAC humidification units froze and created a leak on the 7th floor of Dyche that quickly ran down the main stairwell and extended across other floors on the east side of the building. We are fortunate that no specimens on display, research collections, labs, or offices were damaged. The flood was mostly contained in the public galleries, and recovery will continue in these areas through March and April. We hope to reopen once interior building repairs have been completed, contingent upon regional COVID infection rates.
At around 6:15am that morning, we received a call from custodians that there was water in the building and that they had found the source and were turning it off. All custodians on campus, professional recovery services and Facilities Services maintenance personnel were dispatched immediately to Dyche Hall. KU Custodial Services was first on site to start the water cleanup and had contractors from ServPro respond shortly thereafter. The initial emphasis was on water extraction with fans and dehumidification following. To drain the water from the ceiling above the mosasaur, holes were drilled in the plaster ceiling, allowing it to dry quickly and preventing structural damage. While this was taking place Museum staff were working to minimize water damage to exhibits – removing fossils from exhibits cases and opening cases to allow them to dry. At this time, everything has dried out and all drying equipment has been removed from the building.
In the next month, a company with experience working with historic plaster will be hired through one of the University’s on-call contractors to repair plaster ceilings and walls. Painting of the impacted areas will follow. The need to repair or replace flooring is yet to be evaluated. KU Facilities Services will assist with ongoing building clean up and other minor repairs.
We are grateful to James Kemerling, our custodian, whose quick action in the early morning hours helped immensely. Many thanks also to the entire KU Custodial Services and Facilities Services personnel. Kudos also go to our indefatigable Collections and Facilities Coordinator, Lori Schlenker, who has been spearheading the assessments and repairs, and to our staff including the exhibits team, Greg Ornay and Laura Mohr.
LAWRENCE — Antarctica, mostly covered in snow and ice, isn’t the first place most people might think to search for vital evidence about the evolution of plants. But Antarctica wasn’t always devoid of greenery. During the late Cretaceous, between 66 to 100 million years ago, parts of Antarctica looked more like a temperate rainforest.
For a paleobotanist like Brian Atkinson, assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and curator at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, Antarctica today is a treasure house of plant fossils offering one-of-a-kind insight into how modern plants evolved and relate to each other on an evolutionary tree.
Recently, Atkinson earned a three-year, $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to lead a team from KU and the University of Michigan to collect and analyze fossilized flowering plants from promising field sites like the James Ross Basin and Vega Islands at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Atkinson’s co-principal investigator is Selena Smith of the University of Michigan.
“My research group and I are interested in understanding the role of Antarctica in the early evolution of flowering plants,” Atkinson said. “The idea that Antarctica was an important area for the diversification or evolution of flowering plants in the Southern Hemisphere dates all the way back to the work of Charles Darwin, the 19th century naturalist.”
Because at one time Antarctica was at the heart of Gondwana, the southern supercontinent comprising Antarctica, South America, Australia, Africa, India and New Zealand, plant fossils from Antarctica can show how plants from these now-separated locales might be related.
“Antarctica seemed to be at the center of it all,” Atkinson said. “My group is interested in going down to Antarctica and collecting exceptionally preserved flowering plant fruits, flowers and seeds — which we know from preliminary data are there — then describing those fossils and putting them into an evolutionary-in-biogeographic context. We’re also interested in understanding links between Antarctica and South America, as well as North America, because there’s some evidence from vertebrates that there was a biotic exchange between those three continents between 66 to 100 million years ago. My colleague Ari Iglesias at the Universidad Nacional del Comahue in Argentina has collected preliminary data.”
Atkinson said filling in gaps in the fossil record of flowering plants — which include everything from grasses to roses, cactuses and magnolia trees — would help scientists better understand a linchpin of our ecology, economy and society.
“Flowering plants comprise about 90% of terrestrial plant diversity that we see today —90% of plant species that we recognize are flowering plants,” he said. “Our livelihoods essentially depend on flowering plants. From what we eat to the clothes we wear to what we make our houses from, the vast majority of our economy can be related to plants. Even our culture is impacted by flowering plants. They’re the most diverse group of land plants that we see today with about 300,000 species, give or take a couple thousand.”
Atkinson’s work in Antarctica also could help paleobotanists better predict how the lion’s share of plant life on Earth will react to runaway climate change now underway all over the planet.
“Of course, the world is warming catastrophically, and these fossils can provide a paleontological forecast system, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron,” he said.
In Antarctica, Atkinson and his team will travel by ship to two islands in the James Ross Basin. There, they’ll set up camp and hunt for Cretaceous plant fossils, which sometimes appear as impressions of leaves and stems in exposed rock.
“Rocks are jutting over the glaciers, ice and snow pack,” he said. “We look for little dark potentially shiny reflective chunks in the rock. Sometimes it takes a few passes — but once you’ve found one plant fossil you find that same layer is more is likely to contain other fossil plants. The preservation is really good there for Southern Hemisphere plants, and overall western Antarctica has the age of fossils and types of fossils that are hard to find in many other places in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Once fossil specimens are collected, the team will bring them back to the U.S., and Atkinson will perform phylogenetic, comparative and biogeographic analyses to determine relationships between fossil species. Much of the analysis is possible because specimens from Antarctica are so well-preserved (down to the cellular level).
“This type of preservation is called permineralization,” Atkinson said. “I specialize in these type of fossil plants because they’re super well-preserved and you can find them throughout the geological record. It’s just that very few people have the expertise to study them. We know that including these fossils into evolutionary analyses can make really important impacts as far as inferring evolutionary patterns and relationships.”
Part of the work also will involve visits to institutions to visit for comparative material such as Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, Missouri Botanical Gardens, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Universidad Nacional de La Plata in Argentina.
Additionally, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduates at both KU and Michigan will gain research training as part of the new award.
“The biggest training component will be for the graduate students,” Atkinson said. “My co-PI and I will recruit Ph.D.s, and it should be a synergistic endeavor in which these students will go down to Antarctica and learn a lot about Antarctic research and how to do fieldwork there. After the fossils are collected and returned to the U.S., they’ll learn how to curate, prepare and manage specimens. A lot of hands-on preparation techniques will be done here at KU, and fossils that are identified as suitable for CT scanning will be sent to Michigan, and the Ph.D.s will learn about CT scans and so forth. We’re hoping the students can learn from one another by visiting each lab and then get really well-rounded traditional preparation techniques and more modern imaging techniques — that combination of skills is relatively uncommon. They’ll hopefully come out of this training as very well-rounded in specimen-based research.”
The researchers expect to begin fieldwork in early 2022.
LAWRENCE — When you imagine a visit to a natural history museum, the first thing that springs to mind could be dinosaur bones or taxidermized animals.
Behind the visitor displays, however, advanced research on specimens collected from around the world is taking place. What’s more, this work forms an essential front line of defense in pandemic preparedness.
According to Jocelyn Colella, research affiliate with the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and incoming assistant curator of mammals with the KU Natural History Museum, museums act as a kind of decentralized pathogen surveillance network. In a recent piece published in Science, Colella and colleagues argue that expanded biodiversity infrastructure will be an essential front line of defense in pandemic preparedness in the wake of COVID-19.
“Museum visitors see specimens on display, but hundreds and thousands of others are safely preserved behind the scenes — museum curators are responsible for making sure that those specimens are preserved and available for research going into the future,” she said. “Fifty years ago, we weren’t sequencing DNA. But now we are — and specimens preserved over decades, or even centuries, can now be used for molecular research. We have a couple of liquid nitrogen dewars here at the Biodiversity Institute that hold frozen tissues from all sorts of animals, from all over the world. Those tissues can be used to sequence whole genomes to identify how animals are adapting or responding to changing conditions.”
Colella said such collections preserve specimens and also capture the community of microorganisms that use the organism as a host.
“You can also sequence viruses, bacteria and fungi from all of those frozen tissues — so you not only get information on the host organism or mammal, but you also get information about their entire community,” she said.
Because more than half of all emerging diseases in humans come from wildlife, such as COVID-19 (which scientists think jumped to humans from horseshoe bats), museum specimens hold the genetic clues needed to determine where they came from and better understand and fight these pathogens — especially in countries at high risk for emerging zoonotic disease, such as those with high species diversity and a high frequency of human-wildlife contact.
“As the human population grows, we continue to come into contact with new, different and more animals. That increases the risk of these disease spillover events,” Colella said. “The cool thing with natural history museum collections is that we have sampling through time. You can survey the same areas over and over, sampling all sorts of different animals, which gives us a sense of how long a virus has been there and where it came from.”
The KU researcher pointed to hantavirus as an example where biodiversity collections collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control to help fight off a disease that had entered the human population from animals.
“Parallel to the current COVID-19 pandemic, there was a spillover event in 1993 of hantavirus in the American Southwest that led to the deaths of many people, and we had no idea where it came from,” Colella said. “The CDC asked the Museum of Southwestern Biology to help find the reservoir host of the virus, and they identified deer mice as the source. Researchers were then able to go back into these historic mammal collections and found that this disease had been in rodent populations for over 10 years before it spilled over into humans. That type of information allows us to have an evolutionary perspective on what happened between when this virus emerged in rodents and when it became harmful to humans — what changed? That allows us to respond and prevent outbreaks in the future.”
While the importance of natural history museums to human health has never been higher, in recent years the number of specimens being deposited in biodiversity collections actually has been declining.
A second paper written by Colella and colleagues, just published in BioScience, outlines ways to reverse this downward trend.
“Another reason scientists are having trouble identifying reservoir hosts and finding novel viruses is because the sampling base in museums just isn’t there, and it’s not because scientists aren’t taking samples,” she said. “It’s because there are no requirements for samples to land at museums or public institutions. There’s an ethical issue with collecting animals and then keeping all those samples in your personal freezer forever until you retire or lose all the IDs and can’t associate the material with XYZ, and it was all for naught. We can do better.”
According to Colella, several studies have tracked the number of deposited specimens across the past few decades and show “dramatic declines” starting in the late 1990s. “There are plenty of permits out there and specimens being sampled. The samples are just not ending up in museums,” she said.
The KU researcher and her co-authors propose treating specimens collected in the field exactly like other types of scientific data and using the open-data model to ensure scientists have access to museum specimens for research today and into the future.
“We propose increased open-data requirements by journals, integration of specimens into existing requirements for data management plans and a cultural shift in biological sciences. That must be collectively propelled by researchers, editors and reviewers as part of the solution,” Colella said.
She differentiates between the ideas of specimen “ownership” and “stewardship.”
“Specimen stewardship promotes the democratization of specimens to maximize access and research potential through the use and re-use of specimens' resources to answer multiple scientific questions, instead of private ownership for use in a single project,” Colella said. “If samples never get archived with a museum, it’s a loss to the entire scientific community. We’re saying if you have private specimen collections, there needs to be a plan to get those samples archived eventually, so that if you’re not around anymore or you need someone else to archive them, they know what to do. There needs to be a plan from the very beginning when the specimens are collected. Stewardship is making sure that the resources you’re collecting are taken care of into the future and museum exist to do just that.”
LAWRENCE — University Distinguished Professor Jorge Soberón has been named interim director of the Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas.
“Dr. Soberón is an internationally recognized leader in biodiversity modeling. He is well known for both his scholarship and his collegiality,” said Simon Atkinson, vice chancellor for research. “I have every confidence that he will lead the Biodiversity Institute well during this time of transition.”
Soberón is a professor in KU’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and a senior scientist in biodiversity modeling at the Biodiversity Institute. He will step into a leadership role held for 25 years by Leonard “Kris” Krishtalka, who is retiring at the end of this year. The search for a permanent director is ongoing.
The Biodiversity Institute is an internationally recognized center for research and graduate education in systematics, evolutionary biology, paleontology and archaeology. The KU Natural History Museum is the iconic public face of the institute and serves public audiences including K-12 schools, families and adults, the university and the informal science education community.
Soberón joined KU in 2005 and was appointed a University Distinguished Professor in fall 2014. He is a world-renowned scholar in interdisciplinary biodiversity science and ecology, and his research focuses on documenting and understanding large-scale spatial patterns in the biodiversity of terrestrial species. Indeed, he has been pivotal in establishing KU as a world leader in the field of biodiversity informatics. His research themes include theoretical and computational modeling of species’ richness across landscapes, and the past, present and future geographic distributions of species under scenarios of environmental change as well as the international policy implications of those changes. Soberón’s research has been funded by major grants from the National Science Foundation and Microsoft Research, and his papers have been published in the highest-ranking journals in his field.
He earned a doctorate from Imperial College, University of London, in 1982 and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the National University of Mexico. In 2018, Soberón was awarded a Silver Medal by the Mexican government as one of 31 “Distinguished Mexicans” who are living outside Mexico.
The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. The university's mission is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that change the world. The KU News Service is the central public relations office for the Lawrence campus.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 1450 Jayhawk Blvd., Suite 37, Lawrence, KS 66045
The successful candidate will provide visionary leadership that will guide the faculty, staff and students of this designated research center and public museum to its next phase of achievement.
Information | Position Profile | Apply
The University of Kansas seeks outstanding applicants for the position of director of its Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum. The director sets the strategic direction for the BI with regard to research, education and outreach and holds a 20% joint appointment as a tenured faculty member in an appropriate academic department. The director has unique opportunities to develop a personal research program synergistically within the BI and collaboratively with a large and diverse KU research community. This is an endowed directorship. Funds from the endowment provide the director with additional resources to advance the BI’s mission. The formal name of the directorship will be announced in 2021. ABOUT THE BI/NHM The KU Biodiversity Institute is an internationally recognized center for research and graduate education in systematics, evolutionary biology, paleontology and archaeology. In addition to the collection and curation of recent and fossil animals and plants, the BI is a world leader in the field of biodiversity informatics, including the development of global data architectures and platforms for the processing and research analysis of species data.
The KU Natural History Museum is the iconic public face of the BI and serves public audiences including K-12 schools, families and adults, the university, and the informal science education community. The Natural History Museum shares, interprets and educates diverse audiences about the natural world through engaging and innovative exhibits, programming and projects. The ideal candidate will contribute to the collective goals of the Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum:
1. To maintain and improve collections to meet the research, educational and service needs of scientists, students, the public and agencies of the public.
2. To enhance research and graduate education programs so they represent the breadth, scientific rigor and promise of systematic and evolutionary biology and archaeology.
3. To increase participation in the relevant academic programs of the university, principally within the departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Geology, and Anthropology, and the Museum Studies Program.
4. To continue developing public education and related services in ways that encourage public understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
5. To increase understanding and support of the museum through public relations, membership, development programs and the activities of the Biodiversity Institute Advisory Board. The Biodiversity Institute consists of the divisions of Archaeology, Biodiversity Modeling, Botany (McGregor Herbarium), Entomology, Herpetology, Ichthyology, Informatics, Invertebrate Paleontology, Invertebrate Zoology, Mammalogy, Ornithology, Paleobotany and Vertebrate Paleontology. These divisions collaborate with the departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Geology, and Anthropology, and the Museum Studies Program in research, education and public service programs. The Biodiversity Institute employs 20 (11.5 FTE) curators and research scientists, many of whom are on joint appointments in related academic departments, along with 19 adjunct, courtesy and emeritus faculty. They collectively provide a rich intellectual resource for the museum’s 4 postdoctoral staff, 44 graduate students and 50 undergraduate students.
The Biodiversity Institute also employs 10 professional collection care and support staff (9.75 FTE); 6 public programs staff (6.0 FTE); and 5 administrative staff (5.0 FTE).
ABOUT THE UNIVERSITY
Founded in 1865, the University of Kansas is an R1-rated public research university with more than 40 graduate programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report. KU enrolls 28,500 students and employs nearly 2,900 faculty members across five campuses (Lawrence, Kansas City, Overland Park, Wichita and Salina).
Including the BI, the Office of Research oversees 10 university research centers, two state surveys and about a dozen core laboratories. Faculty and staff on all KU campuses generated $263.9 million in externally funded research expenditures in FY2019. Collectively, that activity fuels KU’s mission to be an institution “making discoveries that change the world.” It’s also among the reasons KU retains membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities — one of just 36 U.S. public institutions among 65 that are transforming lives through education, research and innovation.
As a premier international research university, KU is committed to an open, diverse, and inclusive learning and working environment that nurtures the growth and development of all. KU holds steadfast in the belief that a variety of values, interests, experiences, and intellectual and cultural viewpoints enrich learning and our workplace. The university actively seeks applications from members of groups underrepresented in higher education.
The director provides leadership in strategic planning and organizational structure while facilitating and executing the mission of the BI. Administrative duties include preparing and evaluating the budget; managing and distributing annual operating funds, endowment income and other funds beyond state allocations; preparing annual reports, mission statements and other documents requested by the Vice Chancellor for Research; recruting and retaining top talent; and conducting performance evaluations of academic and unclassified professional staff, ensuring a community of collegiality and excellence. The director fosters the professional development of collections care; coordinates activities among divisions, presides over meetings of the advisory board; and represents the BI to the university and systematics communities, external agencies, and the public.
Research and education
The director facilitates the education and research mission of the BI and promotes an open, diverse and inclusive learning and working environment that nurtures the growth and development of students, staff, affiliates and visitors. The director fosters the intellectual growth and development of graduate and undergraduate students associated with the BI, cooperates with degree-granting departments and enhances support of students. The director may sponsor graduate students and serve on graduate student committees.
The director furthers the development of the BI as an international center for collections-based research, knowledge dissemination, and information technology by encouraging and advocating for high-quality research in systematic biology and related fields, and obtains a broad understanding of the role of the BI in the university community and natural sciences. The position is expected to assess priorities of current research and the directions of future research for the unit. The director promotes the free interchange of ideas and provides intellectual leadership to the BI community and promotes appropriate use of the BI’s resources and information by governmental and private agencies. The director is encouraged to maintain an independent program of research and scholarly productivity.
Exhibits and public programs
The director supports the museum’s education, outreach, and exhibit programs. The director furthers the contribution of the KU Natural History Museum to the education and service missions of the BI and the broader university, as well as to the field of informal science education. The director advocates on behalf of the museum at the university state and regional levels and promotes collaboration with other KU entities and external organizations.
Collections development and stewardship
The director encourages the advancement of state-ofthe-art practices in the care of the BI’s collections to ensure the collections and their associated data are valued for research, education and service. The director promotes the visibility, engagement and awareness of the value of the BI’s collections to campus state, and international stakeholders. The director advances short- and long-term strategies for collections storage, access and curation. The director promotes responsible collection growth and cultivates BI collections leadership in international cyberinfrastructures.
The director provides strong leadership and active engagement in strengthening the financial resources available, and in building a broad base of support for the BI and KU Natural History Museum within and outside the university. The director should be an effective advocate for the BI to the university administration, KU Endowment, KU Alumni and outside the university. The director should aggressively pursue external funding from federal, state and local government, community and foundation-based sources. The director should encourage maximum use of the resources of the BI Advisory Board and membership, and encourage an innovative, entrepreneurial approach in marketing the museum to the public.
The director serves as a tenured, full professor in the appropriate academic unit with a 20% appointment. Tenured faculty members are expected to meet satisfactory standards of performance in three areas of responsibility — teaching/advising, research and service — and to carry out those responsibilities in accordance with the Faculty Code of Rights, Responsibilities & Conduct. In a given year, contributions to teaching/advising, research and service may be balanced, or added emphasis may be placed on one or more components.
Evaluation of the following requirements will be made through (1) description of work experience and educational experiences in CV and (2) record of accomplishments and productivity addressed in CV:
1. Doctorate degree from an accredited college or university and eligibility for tenured appointment at the rank of full professor in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology or a related academic department.
2. Experience serving as an academic leader and team builder, developing and enhancing research and educational relationships among faculty, staff, alumni and affiliated units/partners.
3. Demonstrated teaching experience at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and a commitment to teaching excellence.
4. Demonstrated record of scholarly achievement in a field related to biodiversity, as demonstrated by refereed publications and/or research grants with the promise of continued activity.
5. Demonstrated experience in the administration of an organization, including the management oversight of finances, personnel and program development.
6. Evidence of obtaining financial support through competition for public or private sources.
7. Excellent communication skills as demonstrated through application materials and interviews.
8. Experience working with multidisciplinary constituencies.
9. Record of promoting diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion.
1. At least five years administrative experience, including budgeting, personnel management and program development.
2. Demonstrated vision for the future of collections-based research and the role of museums.
3. Demonstrated knowledge of museum operations, including collection management, public education, exhibits, and research.
4. Demonstrated professional association with the national and international museum community as evidenced by a record of service in a museum or through museum activities of an appropriate professional organization.
5. Experience in graduate or undergraduate mentoring in a scientific discipline or museum studies program.
6. Administrative experience in a comprehensive doctoral degree-granting university, university museum, or other natural history museum.
7. Administrative-level knowledge of subdisciplines of biodiversity informatics and the international biological museum data community.
8. Record of entrepreneurial leadership.
Application review begins August 31, 2020
Leo Smith, associate curator of ichthyology at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, and associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, recently had two photographs honored as Images of Distinction in the 45th annual 2019 Nikon Small World Photo Competition. The international contest honors the best images that showcase the “beauty and complexity of life as seen through the light microscope.”
In 2018, Smith led a KU team that pioneered new techniques for the imaging of vertebrate skeletons. Building on existing techniques to remove specimen tissue while leaving cartilage and skeletal structures intact for study, Smith's process significantly refined specimen images through the use of gelatin and glycerin to pose specimens and to visualize the skeleton through fluorescence microscopy. The alizarin dye that stains the calcium in bones fluoresces red under the right light wavelengths, highlighting the skeletal structure with dramatic detail. This process was used with both of Smith's winning images which depict a fluorescently- stained Anoplogaster cornuta (deep-sea Fangtooth) skeleton (top image) and the fluorescently stained skull of a Lepisosteus osseous (longnose gar) fish (at left).
View Leo Smith's images on the Nikon website:
Anoplogaster cornuta (deep-sea Fangtooth) skeleton
Lepisosteus osseous (longnose gar) fish
LAWRENCE — Researchers from the University of Kansas have described three genera and 17 new species of water scavenger beetles from the Guiana and Brazilian Shield regions of South America, areas seen as treasure houses of biodiversity. The beetles from the countries of French Guiana, Suriname, Brazil, Guyana and Venezuela were discovered through fieldwork and by combing through entomological collections at the Smithsonian Institution and KU.
The beetles are described in a new paper in ZooKeys, a peer-reviewed journal.
Lead author Jennifer Girón, a KU doctoral student in ecology & evolutionary biology and the Division of Entomology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, said the new species hint at vast biodiversity left to be described in regions where resource-extraction operations today are destroying huge swaths of natural habitat.
“The regions we've been working on, like Venezuela and Brazil, are being degraded by logging and mining,” she said. “Eventually, they’re going to be destroyed, and whatever lives there is not going to be able to survive. At this point, we don't even know what’s there — there are so many different kinds of habitats and so many different resources. The more we go there, and the more we keep finding new species, the more we realize that we know next to nothing about what’s there.”
According to Girón and co-author Andrew Short, associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at KU, fieldwork and taxonomic work on Acidocerinae (a subfamily of the family Hydrophilidae of aquatic beetles) during the past 20 years have exposed “an eye-opening diversity of lineages and forms resulting in the description of seven of the 11 presently recorded genera since 1999.”
The KU researchers said the three new genera they’ve now added to Acidocerinae possibly have remained obscure until now because many of the species inhabit seepages — areas where groundwater rises to the surface through mud or flow over rocks near rivers or streams.
Girón and Short discovered some of the new species during a field trip to Suriname.
“I have only been to one of the expeditions there,” Girón said. “Before that, I had no experience collecting aquatics. But Andrew (Short) has been to those places many times. It’s very remote, in the heart of the jungle. We went four hours in a bus and then four more hours in a boat up the river. There is a field station for researchers to go and stay for a few days there. We looked for the beetles along the river, forest streams and also in seepages.”
During their fieldwork, Girón and Short, along with a group of KU students, sought the seepages that were rich hunting grounds for acidocerine aquatic beetles.
“If you’re along a big river, you're not as likely to find them,” Girón said. “You have to find places where there’s a thin layer of running water or small pools on rocks. They’re more common around places with exposed rock, like a rock outcrop or a cascade. These habitats have been traditionally overlooked because when you think of collecting aquatic beetles or aquatic insects in general, you think of rivers or streams or ponds or things like that — you usually don't think about seepages as places where you would find beetles. So usually you don't go there. It’s not that these aquatic beetles are especially rare or hard to find. It's more like people usually don’t collect in these habitats.”
Girón said the descriptions of the new aquatic beetles also underscore the usefulness of museum collections to ongoing scientific research in biodiversity.
“It's important to highlight the value of collections,” she said. “Without specimens housed in collections, it would be impossible to do this kind of work. Nowadays, there has been some controversy about whether it is necessary to collect specimens and deposit them in collections in order to describe new species. Every person that has ever worked with collections will say, ‘Yes, we definitely need to maintain specimens accessible in collections.’ But there are recent publications where authors essentially just add a picture of one individual to their description without actual specimens deposited in collections, and that can be enough for them to publish a description. The problem with that is there would be no reference specimens for detailed comparisons in the future. For people who do taxonomic work and need to compare many specimens to define the limits of different species, one photo is not going to be enough.”
To differentiate and classify the new species, Girón and Short focused on molecular data as well as a close examination of morphology, or the bodies of the aquatic beetles.
“This particular paper is part of a bigger research effort that aims to explain how these beetles have shifted habitats across the history of the group,” Girón said. “It seems like habitat has caused some morphological differences. Many aquatic beetles that live in the same habitats appear very similar to each other — but they’re not necessarily closely related. We’ve been using molecular techniques to figure out relationships among species and genera in the group.”
Girón, who grew up in Colombia and earned her master’s degree in Puerto Rico, said she hoped to graduate with her KU doctorate in the coming academic year. After that, she will continue her appointments as research associate and acting collections manager at the Natural Science Research Laboratory of the Museum of Texas Tech University.
-- by Brendan Lynch, KU News
Original KU News link
Top image: Jennifer Girón, a KU doctoral student in ecology & evolutionary biology and the Division of Entomology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, collecting aquatic beetles during fieldwork in Suriname. Credit: Andrew Short
LAWRENCE — New research from the University of Kansas shows machine learning is capable of identifying insects that spread the incurable disease called Chagas with high precision, based on ordinary digital photos. The idea is to give public health officials where Chagas is prevalent a new tool to stem the spread of the disease and eventually to offer identification services directly to the general public.
Chagas is particularly nasty because most people who have it don’t know they’ve been infected. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 20 percent to 30 percent of the 8 million people with Chagas worldwide are struck at some later point with heart rhythm abnormalities that can bring on sudden death; dilated hearts that don’t pump blood efficiently; or a dilated esophagus or colon.
The disease is caused most often when triatomine bugs — more commonly known as “kissing bugs” — bite people and transmit the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi into their bloodstreams. Chagas is most prevalent in rural areas of Mexico, Central America and South America.
A recent undertaking at KU, called the Virtual Vector Project, sought to enable public health officials to identify triatomine that carry Chagas with their smartphones, using a kind of portable photo studio for taking pictures of the bugs.
Now, a graduate student at KU has built on that project with proof-of-concept research showing artificial intelligence can recognize 12 Mexican and 39 Brazilian species of kissing bugs with high accuracy by analyzing ordinary photos — an advantage for officials looking to cut the spread of Chagas disease.
Ali Khalighifar, a KU doctoral student at the Biodiversity Institute and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, headed a team that just published findings in the Journal of Medical Entomology. To identify the kissing bugs from regular photos, Khalighfar and his colleagues worked with open-source, deep-learning software from Google, called TensorFlow that is similar to the technology underpinning Google’s reverse image search.
“Because this model is able to understand, based on pixel tones and colors, what is involved in one image, it can take out the information and analyze it in a way the model can understand — and then you give them other images to test and it can identify them with a really good identification rate,” Khalighifar said. “That’s without preprocessing — you just start with raw images, which is awesome. That was the goal. Previously, it was impossible to do the same thing as accurately and certainly not without preprocessing the images.”
Khalighifar and his coauthors — Ed Komp, researcher at KU’s Information and Telecommunication Technology Center, Janine M. Ramsey of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica, Rodrigo Gurgel-Gonçalves of Brazil’s Universidade de Brasília, and A. Townsend Peterson, KU Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and senior curator with the KU Biodiversity Institute — trained their algorithm with 405 images of Mexican triatomine species and 1,584 images of Brazilian triatomine species.
At first, the team was able to achieve, “83.0 and 86.7 percent correct identification rates across all Mexican and Brazilian species, respectively, an improvement over comparable rates from statistical classifiers,” they write. But after adding information about kissing bugs’ geographic distributions into the algorithm, the researchers boosted the accuracy of identification to 95.8 percent for Mexican species and 98.9 percent for Brazilian species.
According to Khalighifar, the algorithm-based technology could allow public health officials and others to identify triatomine species with an unprecedented level of accuracy, to better understand disease vectors on the ground.
“In the future, we’re hoping to develop an application or a web platform of this model that is constantly trained based on the new images, so it’s always being updated, that provides high-quality identifications to any interested user in real time,” he said.
Khalighifar now is applying a similar approach using TensorFlow for instant identification of mosquitoes based on the sounds of their wings and frogs based on their calls.
“I’m working right now on mosquito recordings,” he said. “I’ve shifted from image processing to signal processing of recordings of the wing beats of mosquitoes. We get the recordings of mosquitoes using an ordinary cell phone, and then we convert them from recordings to images of signals. Then we use TensorFlow to identify the mosquito species. The other project that I’m working right now is frogs, with Dr. Rafe Brown at the Biodiversity Institute. And we are designing the same system to identify those species based on the calls given by each species.”
While often artificial intelligence is popularly portrayed as a job-killing threat or even an existential threat to humanity, Khalighifar said his research showed how AI could be a boon to scientists studying biodiversity.
“It’s amazing — AI really is capable of doing everything, for better or for worse,” he said. “There are uses appearing that are scary, like identifying Muslim faces on the street. Imagine, if we can identify frogs or mosquitoes, how easy it might be to identify human voices. So, there are certainly dark sides of AI. But this study shows a positive AI application — we’re trying to use the good side of that technology to promote biodiversity conservation and support public health work.”
-- by Brendan Lynch, KU News Service
Original article link
LAWRENCE — Growing up in Liberia during that country’s brutal 14-year civil war, Benedictus Freeman and his family fled into the rainforest, where they survived for years eating bush meat and foraging. The rainforest provided Freeman sustenance and protection — but more than that, the experience ignited a passion in him for understanding and preserving nature.
“At that time, I really didn’t know how important the forest would become for me — I saw the forest as a source of resources like food and shelter,” said Freeman, who today is a doctoral student in ecology & evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and KU Biodiversity Institute. “But I developed an interest in nature there, and eventually I started studying forestry for my undergraduate degree. That actually influenced my decision to get more interested in nature and conservation.”
The rainforests that once protected Freeman and his family host one of West Africa’s flagship bird species — the White‐breasted Guineafowl (Agelastes meleagrides). Now, Freeman is lead author of a new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Avian Research that projects the geographic distribution of the bird through 2050 as it shifts habitat due to climate change.
“This bird is endemic to West Africa, but it’s not fully understood — it’s poorly studied,” Freeman said. “Because of this poor history, there’s very little understanding about its range. Our study recharacterizes its distribution and helps us to understand to what extent it’s distributed across the region. The bird is threatened, and it’s of conservation concern. So that’s why it was selected for study.”
According to Freeman, the vulnerable White-breasted Guineafowl, which has appeared on Liberian postage stamps, serves as an iconic “flagship species,” conservation of which could preserve habitat of many lesser-known animals at the same time.
The KU researcher said West Africa suffers from extensive deforestation due to increasing populations, urbanization, agriculture expansion (both substance farming and industrial-scale farming of palm oil), logging and mining. Because of its exclusive dependence on the forest for habitat, the White-breasted Guineafowl is particularly susceptible to habitat loss.
“It occurs within rainforest habitats in West Africa where it feeds like regular birds, like chickens feed, and depends on insects and seeds and things,” Freeman said. “The important thing about this bird is that it’s a specialist — it’s more restricted to rainforest habitats. There is a sister species (Black Guineafowl, Agelastes niger) of the same bird that occurs on the other side of the Guinean forest, but this one is range-restricted, and it’s only found in this region. It’s not going to be found anywhere else in the world.”
Freeman hopes his research predicting the distribution of the bird in coming decades can help inform policymakers about which areas of rainforest should be prioritized for conservation.
For the new paper, Freeman and his colleagues — Daniel Jiménez‐García of Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico, Benjamin Barca of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Sierra Leone and Matthew Grainger of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom — used occurrence data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and datasets about occurrences of the White-breasted Guineafowl in Sapo National Park in Liberia and Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone, including data collected by Freeman.
The authors used environmental datasets from NASA and other open sources to perform ecological niche modeling, which the researchers said “integrates known occurrences of species and environmental variables (e.g., temperature, precipitation) to characterize potential future geographic distributions of species in response to global climate change.”
The team created maps showing current and likely future habitats where the White‐breasted Guineafowl could migrate in response to a shifting climate. Unexpectedly, there was good news for the iconic bird in the findings: “The projected impacts of climate change on the geographic distribution of White-breasted Guineafowl were minimal, suggesting stability across the species’ range for the present and in the future, at least as regards climate change effects,” researchers said. “Low sensitivity to climate change in this species does match the general observation for West African birds.”
However, the team found coastal areas where the White‐breasted Guineafowl is found today would be degraded by sea-level rise and resulting coastal erosion, destroying some of the species’ range.
As for Freeman, this summer he’s back in Liberia conducting more fieldwork on birds in some of the same areas his team found to be suitable for the White-breasted Guineafowl.
"We were pleased to document populations at the sites where we worked, and then we were able to collect data on other bird species,” he said. “We have some interesting records that might be species not yet known to science, but we need to do some detailed studies."
Freeman aims to finish his doctorate at KU next year, he said. After that, he’ll look for opportunities for postdoctoral work.
“I don’t know exactly where that’s going to be,” he said. “But I’m hoping that wherever I get a good job, I can have an opportunity to work in West Africa to do more research. There’s a huge capacity gap in that area. There’s a need to have homegrown scientists involved with this kind of research specifically. So, my passion is to work there.”
-- by Brendan Lynch, KU News
Original KU News link
Top photo: White-breasted Guineafowl. Credit: Benedictus Freeman