Monday, October 2, 2017

LAWRENCE — Growing up around Havana, Javier Torres López always was fascinated by reptiles. As the son of a professor who teaches vertebrate zoology at the University of Havana, he focused on studies of literature and science in high school and thought about following in his father’s footsteps.

“In Cuba, everyone has an opportunity to go to university,” he said. “You have to take tests according to your preferred major, and you have the right to pick up to 10 majors. Based on the tests results and your high school score, you get one of the 10 options. I was able to obtain my first choice, biology. So, I started studying at the University of Havana as a biology major — that was in 2004. There, for the first time, I started to become aware of the diversity of Cuban and Caribbean amphibians and reptiles.”

As an undergraduate, Torres started conducting original research, finding himself drawn to Tropidophis, a genus of dwarf boa snakes endemic to the Caribbean and South America.

“I was totally into studying snakes,” Torres said. “I found out about this particular group of Cuban snakes called dwarf boas. Studying the behavior of those snakes got me a ticket to the Latin American Herpetology Congress held in Cuba in 2008.”

There, Torres had his first contact with Rich Glor, KU associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and associate curator at KU’s Biodiversity Institute. The two stayed in contact over the years as Torres completed his undergraduate studies. All the while, Torres continued to investigate species endemic to Cuba, spending time in the field and learning important lessons about research.

“After a while studying the behavior and biology of dwarf boas, I understood it was a difficult system to work with because they are quite rare and hard to find,” Torres said. “So, I started to work on a project to understand the distribution of diversity depending on the landscape. On this project, I started to study anoles, a group of diurnal lizards highly diversified in Cuba. It’s the richest island when we talk about anoles. In contrast to dwarf boas, they’re quite common, and you can find enough individuals to let you answer questions in ecology, evolution and conservation.”

Researching Cuban anoles, Torres earned his master’s degree by studying the consequences of hybridization among different anole species. He also spent several years teaching zoology and herpetology as an instructor at the University of Havana. While he contemplated earning a doctorate, he kept in touch with Glor at KU.

“While working on my master’s, I was reading Rich’s papers, and I really liked that our interests were alike,” Torres said. “So, I wrote to him and we started to exchange information. I came to the U.S., and he came to Cuba. Finally, I applied here and I am following Ph.D. studies in the same vein as my master’s, with a side project on Tropidophis.”

Now at KU, Torres holds his Cuban citizenship and makes return visits to his home island. 

He maintains strong ties with his professional colleagues in Cuba, where he continues to advise students at the University of Havana. He also recently submitted a grant to National Geographic to fund several major field expeditions back to Cuba.

Indeed, Torres is already making vital contributions to herpetological research at KU. He has donated a major collection of tissue samples of reptile species endemic to Cuba to KU’s Biodiversity Institute. The valuable material can be used by current and future researchers interested in Cuban and Caribbean herpetology.

“When I traveled here to start my Ph.D., I brought 400 tissue samples of Cuban reptiles, and last month I went home to Cuba and brought back about 600 more samples — now the Biodiversity Institute has about 1,000 samples of 63 Cuban species, mostly reptiles, and most of them are endemic,” Torres said. “I would say the KU Biodiversity Institute harbors one of the most important tissue collections of Cuban reptiles. A tissue sample is the raw material for conducting genetic studies. There is a lot of things you can do with genetics, but there is a major concern in evolutionary biology which genetics allows us to understand better — how and why new species arise. From that number of samples, you can think of several projects involving the study of the DNA.”

Moreover, Torres and Glor traveled this summer to Cuba, where they worked on preparation of 760 whole specimens for eventual transport to KU. “The plan is to bring those back the next time I travel to Cuba,” Torres said.

“This will be the most important collection of Cuban reptiles brought to the United States in the past 20 years and includes lots of rare Cuban endemics,” Glor said.

Studying in the U.S. has some major advantages over the choices and technologies made available at Cuban universities, according to Torres.

“Here, it is easier to build your preferred curriculum because there are more options of classes — in Cuba, you have more mandatory and less optional classes. But the largest difference is in the area of resources. In Cuba, we have a great theoretical program, but when you have to do labwork, we don’t have all necessary tools and equipment and we have to search for alternatives. So basically, here there’s better availability of textbooks, journals, internet and technology.

“I feel very pleased and very lucky to be here in at the Biodiversity Institute,” he said. “Particularly the herpetology division here at KU is a great group to be with. For me, the first months were tough, but thanks to the help I found in my adviser, fellow students and other researchers at the herpetology division (and the BI in general) I made it through.”

That said, Torres finds himself missing many of the most important aspects of home. Most of all, Torres misses his family and girlfriend. “I don’t have to think about answering that,” he said.  

But he also finds himself craving Cuban home cooking.

“I’m planning to go home in December to spend New Year’s Eve in Cuba,” Torres said. “It is a tradition in there to spend it with family eating roast pork, rice, beans, yucca, fried plantain and salad. I love this town, but Cuban cuisine is different from what you find in Lawrence. I don’t think there’s an authentic Cuban restaurant. I had a Cuban sandwich here — it was very good, but it wasn’t Cuban.”

Photos (courtesy of Javier Torres López):

Top left: Relocating a group of giant tropes (Tropidophis melanurus) found in a risky area.

Bottom right: The largest toad in Cuba, Peltophryne fustiger, is quite common in the west.

- Brendan M. Lynch, KU News

Herpetology
Monday, October 2, 2017

After 114 years of guarding Dyche Hall on the University of Kansas campus, four of the eight statues that decorated the exterior of the building were removed Sept. 1.
 
Referred to as grotesques, the limestone statues are carved fantastical animals, with various animal characteristics merged together and incorporated with KU paraphernalia. Mixtures of lions, goats, dogs, cats, elephants and jackals make up the figures, but some characteristics have eroded due to exposure of the Kansas climate since 1903.

“Each is a work of art created by Joseph Frazee at the turn of last century,” said Leonard Krishtalka, director of the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum in a news release. “They are a unique mythological menagerie created specifically to honor Kansas and KU. They have suffered more than 100 years of Kansas wind, sun, snow and rain, and we are committed to replacing them with new hand-carved replicas.”

The four statues — about 3 feet tall — are now situated in their new home, in the Panorama Gallery of the KU Natural History Museum. Two of the states have been encased in Plexiglas and are visible to the public, while the other two are still encapsulated in plastic wrap to protect them from further damage, explained Jen Humphrey, Director of External Affairs for the history museum.

The museum plans to raise funds to hire an artist to replace each of the grotesques with carved replicas, as the originals can’t be repaired. The removal of the grotesques is part of a $4.2 million renovation funded by the state of Kansas. It will clean and repair the exterior stonework of Dyche Hall, replace the roof, windows and all internal walls, and install a new HVAC system for the seventh floor of the 1903 building. It will also restore the seventh floor to its original splendor, Krishtalka said.

The seventh floor of Dyche is home to thousands of mammal and bird specimens, and it houses the research offices and laboratories of KU Biodiversity Institute graduate students and scientists. Once completed in February 2018, the environment on the seventh floor will conform to established conservation standards that are ideal for study and housing of the research collections.

Bids for carving new grotesques are forthcoming, the news release stated, which will also determine the amount the university is also hoping to fundraise, in addition to the renovation.

Four additional grotesques on the east side of Dyche Hall will be removed later this fall and added to those on display in the museum. Humphrey explained that once the renovation is complete on the west and south side of the building, the scaffolding will be moved to the north and east side where the sculptures will be removed.

To support the fund for recreating the grotesques, visit the Biodiversity Institute website.

- Savanna Maue, The Topeka Capital-Journal 

Natural History Museum
Monday, October 2, 2017

The interplay between range expansion and concomitant diversification is of fundamental interest to evolutionary biologists, particularly when linked to intercontinental dispersal and/or large scale extinctions. The evolutionary history of true frogs has been characterized by circumglobal range expansion. As a lineage that survived the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event (EOEE), the group provides an ideal system to test the prediction that range expansion triggers increased net diversification. We constructed the most densely sampled, time-calibrated phylogeny to date in order to: (i) characterize tempo and patterns of diversification; (ii) assess the impact of the EOEE; and (iii) test the hypothesis that range expansion was followed by increased net diversification. We show that late Eocene colonization of novel biogeographic regions was not affected by the EOEE and surprisingly, global expansion was not followed by increased net diversification. On the contrary, the diversification rate declined or did not shift following geographical expansion. Thus, the diversification history of true frogs contradicts the prevailing expectation that amphibian net diversification accelerated towards the present or increased following range expansion. Rather, our results demonstrate that despite their dynamic biogeographic history, true frogs diversified at a relatively constantly rate, even as they colonized the major land masses of Earth.

Check out the study titled “Did true frogs ‘dispersify’?” here

Herpetology
Monday, October 2, 2017

The interplay between range expansion and concomitant diversification is of fundamental interest to evolutionary biologists, particularly when linked to intercontinental dispersal and/or large scale extinctions. The evolutionary history of true frogs has been characterized by circumglobal range expansion. As a lineage that survived the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event (EOEE), the group provides an ideal system to test the prediction that range expansion triggers increased net diversification. We constructed the most densely sampled, time-calibrated phylogeny to date in order to: (i) characterize tempo and patterns of diversification; (ii) assess the impact of the EOEE; and (iii) test the hypothesis that range expansion was followed by increased net diversification. We show that late Eocene colonization of novel biogeographic regions was not affected by the EOEE and surprisingly, global expansion was not followed by increased net diversification. On the contrary, the diversification rate declined or did not shift following geographical expansion. Thus, the diversification history of true frogs contradicts the prevailing expectation that amphibian net diversification accelerated towards the present or increased following range expansion. Rather, our results demonstrate that despite their dynamic biogeographic history, true frogs diversified at a relatively constantly rate, even as they colonized the major land masses of Earth.

Check out the study titled “Did true frogs ‘dispersify’?” here

Herpetology
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Research by Grey Gustafson, Ph.D., a postdoc studying with Andrew Short, coauthored by Alexander A. Prokin, Rasa Bukontaite, Johannes Bergsten & Kelly B. Miller, entitled "Tip-dated phylogeny of whirligig beetles reveals ancient lineage surviving on Madagascar” has been published in Scientific Reports. 

The study reveals the oldest endemic lineage of animal or plant currently known from Madagascar, the Malagasy striped whirligig beetle, which lives on the surface of water, and has many interesting adaptations for life on the surface of water including four eyes and paddle-like legs. On Madagascar, the striped whirligig beetle is only known from small mountain streams in a few areas in the mountainous region of the southeastern part of the island. The study shows the striped whirligig beetle is not only a relict, but the last surviving member of a group of whirligig beetles that were dominant during the Mesozoic Era. Similar to the Tuatara lizard of New Zealand, the Malagasy striped whirligig beetles survive solely on an isolated island while its other continental relatives went extinct. These findings are especially exciting because there are no other such examples known from Madagascar, despite its lengthy isolation following the breakup of Gondwana over 90 million years ago. [Link]

Entomology
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The National Science Foundation has awarded support for a team that includes Biodiversity Institute researchers in ornithology and herpetology. The project, “Open Exploration of Vertebrate Diversity in 3D,” or informally, the “scan all vertebrates” project, aims to run 20,000 preserved vertebrate specimens from university and museum collections through computerized tomography, or CT scans, over the next 4 years. Scientists from the 16 participating institutions hope the oVert museum digitization effort will form the backbone of future research in fields such as developmental biology, evolution, and biomimetics. The project will cover about 80% of living vertebrate genera.  

KU’s  role is mainly to provide specimens from the collections to scanning facilities. Funds awarded to KU for the project will  be used to pull specimens from the collections and ship them to facilities with CT scanners. Most of the money will go toward summer support for graduate students who will be completing the required work.

 

Herpetology
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The National Science Foundation has awarded support for a team that includes Biodiversity Institute researchers in ornithology and herpetology. The project, “Open Exploration of Vertebrate Diversity in 3D,” or informally, the “scan all vertebrates” project, aims to run 20,000 preserved vertebrate specimens from university and museum collections through computerized tomography, or CT scans, over the next 4 years. Scientists from the 16 participating institutions hope the oVert museum digitization effort will form the backbone of future research in fields such as developmental biology, evolution, and biomimetics. The project will cover about 80% of living vertebrate genera.  

KU’s  role is mainly to provide specimens from the collections to scanning facilities. Funds awarded to KU for the project will  be used to pull specimens from the collections and ship them to facilities with CT scanners. Most of the money will go toward summer support for graduate students who will be completing the required work.

 

Herpetology
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The National Science Foundation has awarded support for a team that includes Biodiversity Institute researchers in ornithology and herpetology. The project, “Open Exploration of Vertebrate Diversity in 3D,” or informally, the “scan all vertebrates” project, aims to run 20,000 preserved vertebrate specimens from university and museum collections through computerized tomography, or CT scans, over the next 4 years. Scientists from the 16 participating institutions hope the oVert museum digitization effort will form the backbone of future research in fields such as developmental biology, evolution, and biomimetics. The project will cover about 80% of living vertebrate genera.  

KU’s  role is mainly to provide specimens from the collections to scanning facilities. Funds awarded to KU for the project will  be used to pull specimens from the collections and ship them to facilities with CT scanners. Most of the money will go toward summer support for graduate students who will be completing the required work.

 

Herpetology
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The National Science Foundation has awarded support for a team that includes Biodiversity Institute researchers in ornithology and herpetology. The project, “Open Exploration of Vertebrate Diversity in 3D,” or informally, the “scan all vertebrates” project, aims to run 20,000 preserved vertebrate specimens from university and museum collections through computerized tomography, or CT scans, over the next 4 years. Scientists from the 16 participating institutions hope the oVert museum digitization effort will form the backbone of future research in fields such as developmental biology, evolution, and biomimetics. The project will cover about 80% of living vertebrate genera.  

KU’s  role is mainly to provide specimens from the collections to scanning facilities. Funds awarded to KU for the project will  be used to pull specimens from the collections and ship them to facilities with CT scanners. Most of the money will go toward summer support for graduate students who will be completing the required work.

 

Herpetology
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Michael Engel has been recognized twice by the Entomological Society of America in the past month. He is among 10 new fellows,  the highest honor awarded by ESA, (link) and the ESA recognized Michael with the Thomas Say award, which acknowledges significant and outstanding work in the fields of insect systematics, morphology, or evolution (link). 

Entomology