Friday, June 2, 2017

LAWRENCE — Most people think of picks, dental tools or small hand-held spades as the tools of the paleontologist’s trade. But today, when University of Kansas paleontologist David Burnham heads back to Montana for an expedition, he’s calling in much larger tools: a jackhammer, a demolition hammer and a backhoe.

These will help clear a new area of a cliffside near Jordan, Montana, where Burnham, students and volunteers are excavating a Tyrannosaurus rex bit by bit and bringing it back to KU. 

Burnham and expedition team members have so far found about 25 percent of the skull, about 60 percent of the hips and 45 percent of the legs of a juvenile, female T. rex. There are teeth and many fragments, too. Much of what has been found so far is on display at the KU Natural History Museum. 

The expeditions wouldn’t be possible without the help of dozens of donors, who have so far given more than $15,000 through a crowdfunding campaign on KU Endowment’s LaunchKU site. The campaign continues until June 5. Although it has already exceeded its goal of $14,500, the more funds that are raised, the more resources Burnham will have for the expedition and to hire students to prepare the fossils and to study and display them. 

The campaign began with a major contribution from Boston residents John Weltman and Cliff Atkins, whose son, Kyle Atkins-Weltman, is a KU student and paleontology enthusiast.

When he first arrives, Burnham will work on setting up the field site, which is on federal land. The crew will set up a new large shade tent; last year’s tent was destroyed by storms and wind. They will concentrate on a small ledge of “bone zone” where a femur was found in the last few days of the 2016 expedition.

“We will be carefully looking for plants and rock samples since we will need these to document the site, which may be the first occurrence of T. rex in the Hell Creek Formation,” Burnham said.

The backhoe operator will then remove more of the cliff, or overburden, to make it easier to access fossils. 

“The weeks that follow bring us into the unknown,” Burnham said. “We certainly expect to find more of the T. rex. Our hope is to get upper skull bones, more backbones, and the icing on the cake would be finding those tiny T. rex arms.”

The volunteers and students help the expedition run smoothly, Burnham said. 

“I really enjoy the revolving cast of characters that we interact with and there is a special camaraderie that develops while we are out there,” he said. “Everyone is so focused on the mission and it thrills me to have such enthusiasm. Each new crew member or volunteer breathes fresh life into the work as we go along.”

Vertebrate Paleontology
Thursday, May 19, 2016

Michael Engel, senior curator of entomology, and Laura Breitkreuz, a graduate student in the entomology division, have recently been published in the journal of Current Biology regarding their work on Cretaceous mesochrysopids. In their article titled "Early Morphological Specialization for Insect-Spider Associations in Mesozoic Lacewings" Engel and Breitkreuz report on the discovery of a unique mode of life among mid-Cretaceous mesochrysopids, an early stem group to modern green lacewings exhibiting a combination of morphiological modifications in both adults and larvae unkown among living and fossil Neuroptera (lacewings, antlions, and their relatives) even across winged insects. For more on this topic and the implications of such a discovery, click through to the full article here

Entomology
Thursday, May 19, 2016

Michael Engel, senior curator of entomology, and Laura Breitkreuz, a graduate student in the entomology division, have recently been published in the journal of Current Biology regarding their work on Cretaceous mesochrysopids. In their article titled "Early Morphological Specialization for Insect-Spider Associations in Mesozoic Lacewings" Engel and Breitkreuz report on the discovery of a unique mode of life among mid-Cretaceous mesochrysopids, an early stem group to modern green lacewings exhibiting a combination of morphiological modifications in both adults and larvae unkown among living and fossil Neuroptera (lacewings, antlions, and their relatives) even across winged insects. For more on this topic and the implications of such a discovery, click through to the full article here

Entomology
Thursday, May 26, 2016

Michael Engel's article "Extreme Morphogenesis and Ecological Specialization among Cretaceous Basal Ants" in Current Biology focuses on the ecological specializations of various ant lineages. Major highlights from the article include a "unicorn" ant with oversized mandibles discovered from Cretaceous Myanmar amber, exaggerated head structures composed highly specialized trap for large prey, Haidomyrmecine ants were found to be solitary specialist predators rather than social ants as most species tend to live, and lastly, some basal lineages were found to have a refined ecology shortly following the advent of ants. You can read more about these findings here.

Drawing of the unicorn ant by YANG Dinghua and Vincent Perrichot 

Entomology
Friday, June 24, 2016

Little is known about the early evolution of debris-carrying behavior as only a single Mesozoic example from Spanish amber has ever been recorded. In the article, "Debris-carrying camouflage among diverse lineages of Cretaceous insects," published in the journal of Science Advances, Michael Engel, senior curator of entomology, and his colleagues report on diverse insect specimen they have identified as debri-carriers. These various insects they have identified came from Cretaceous Burmese, French, and Lebanese ambers and include the earliest known chrysopoid larvae (green lacewings), myrmeleontoid larvae (split-footed lacewings and owlflies), and reduviids (assassin bugs). To read more on these reports, click here

Entomology
Tuesday, June 28, 2016

sperm whaleThere was a recent discovery of the "Eve" of sperm whales -- the female whale from which all sperm whales are descended. The use of such a biblical term has led people to believe that the "Eve" of a species refers to the first female in a species, but this is not the case. In an article titled, "No, a Mitochondrial 'Eve' Is Not the First Female in a Species," by Joshua Rapp Learn, Alana Alexander clarifies what it really means when people refer to the "Eve" of sperm whales. According to Alexander, "Eve" was one of many females, but she happened to be the only one who passed down the mitochondrial DNA in an unbroken, female-to-female way." The "mitochondrial Eve" refers to the mitochondrial DNA, the unique genetic code that is passed down from female to female. To read more about this phenomenon, click here

Photo by Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Other articles featuring Alana Alexander's work can be here and in Hakai magazine (online). 

Mammalogy
Monday, May 2, 2016

Alana Alexander, postdoctoral researcher in the Molecular Genomics Lab, and several colleagues have recently been published in the journal of Molecular Ecology with an article titled "What influences the worldwide genetic structure of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus)?" Alexander and her co-authors started with the question of whether female philopatry -- a social system in which females remain in the groups in which they were born, while males leave at sexual maturity -- is due to geoghrapic regions or social groups, and how this might vary on a global scale. Major findings include that both greographic philopatry and social philopatry influence the genetic structure of the sperm whale, but their relative importance differs by sex and ocean. This phenomenon reflects breeding behavior, geographic features, and possibly a more recent origin of sperm whales in the Pacific. You can find the full article here

Mammalogy
Monday, April 25, 2016

scuba diverBiofluorescence — the ability to absorb light, transform it, and eject it as a different color — has recently been found to be widespread in marine fish, including sharks. Catsharks, such as the Swell Shark from the eastern Pacific and the Chain Catshark from the western Atlantic, are known to exhibit a bright green fluorescence. In their article, “Biofluorescence in Catsharks (Scyliorhinidae): Fundamental Description and Relevance for Elasmobranch Visual Ecology,” Leo Smith, Matthew Davis, and their colleagues examined the spectral sensitivity and visual characteristics of these cat sharks, taking into consideration the fluorescent properties of their skin. Findings include the presence of a single visual pigment in each species. For more on the implications of such a discovery, you can read the full article here

Photo by Kyle McBurnie 

Ichthyology
Monday, April 25, 2016

scuba diverBiofluorescence — the ability to absorb light, transform it, and eject it as a different color — has recently been found to be widespread in marine fish, including sharks. Catsharks, such as the Swell Shark from the eastern Pacific and the Chain Catshark from the western Atlantic, are known to exhibit a bright green fluorescence. In their article, “Biofluorescence in Catsharks (Scyliorhinidae): Fundamental Description and Relevance for Elasmobranch Visual Ecology,” Leo Smith, Matthew Davis, and their colleagues examined the spectral sensitivity and visual characteristics of these cat sharks, taking into consideration the fluorescent properties of their skin. Findings include the presence of a single visual pigment in each species. For more on the implications of such a discovery, you can read the full article here

Photo by Kyle McBurnie 

Ichthyology
Wednesday, November 9, 2016

book cover

The Kansas Notable Book List highlights our lively contemporary writing community and encourages readers to enjoy some of the best writing of the authors among us.

A committee of academics, librarians, and authors of previous Notable Books identifies quality titles from among those published the previous year, and the State Librarian makes the selection for the final List. A medal awards ceremony honors the books and their authors.

A reference and a guidebook for a new generation of plant enthusiasts, this volume includes up-to-date nomenclature, keys, and descriptions, as well as habitat, distribution, and ecological information. Designed for the professional botanist and passionate amateur alike, it expands upon Bare's earlier book's 831 entries with descriptions of 1,163 species—representing about 56 percent of the native and naturalized species currently known in Kansas—as well as 742 color photographs

The Kansas Notable Books List is the annual recognition of 15 outstanding titles either written by Kansans or about a Kansas related topic. The book Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds, by by Michael John Haddock, Craig C. Freeman and Janet E. Bare, made the list this year. More information is below; a full list of awardees can be found here

Botany