Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Andrew Short, associate curator of entomology, has been selected as a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar in Brazil. He will be hosted by the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus, and will spend approximately 5 months over the next two years there to conduct regional fieldwork, collaborate with their aquatic bioassessment team, and teach graduate student workshops on entomology and biodiversity.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Rattus detentus

A newly discovered mammal in the Pacific has earned worldwide attention after scientists named it Rattus detentus to call attention to an Australian detainee center on the animal’s home island. Recently, the new animal was featured as a top scientific discovery of 2016 in Discover magazine’s “Year in Science” issue.

For decades, scientists had suspected an unnamed animal was inhabiting Manus Island, part of the Papua New Guinea Admiralty Group.

“Its bones and teeth were known for quite some time,” said Robert Timm, professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and curator emeritus in the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. “For thousands of years, indigenous people on that island would eat them, and we know that because of middens — discarded trash from people’s kitchens. So we had lots of older fragmentary remains but no modern specimens. We knew of its existence because of skeletal remnants from only one rock shelter."

That all changed recently when biologists working with Conservation International and a graduate student from Finland, conducting research for his dissertation on Manus Island, located the first contemporary example of the rare rodent.

“Local residents on the island continue to set traps to capture these rats and other wildlife for food,” Timm said. “We now have three modern specimens. The first two consist of discarded bones from meals and were salvaged in 2002.”

In 2012, the graduate student obtained a fresh specimen that was captured in a snare by a local boy working with him.

“Now, we have a beautiful specimen to work with and well-preserved DNA,” Timm said. “The DNA is critical in ascertaining where this species belongs in the tree of life.”

Although the rodent’s relationship to other species is now understood, Timm said the habits and abundance of Rattus detentus remain shrouded in mystery.

“We actually know almost nothing about its behavior because it’s so hard to find,” he said. “We believe it specializes on eating big seeds that are hard to chew into, because of the teeth. One of our Australian colleagues worked very hard to find more of this newly recognized species using camera traps and a variety of other techniques, and he didn’t find any evidence of them whatsoever. That suggests there aren’t very many of them left.”

Manus Island is now best known for the Manus Regional Processing Center, an immigration detention facility operated by the government of Australia. The facility has drawn the ire of human rights groups throughout the world.

So Timm, KU research associate Ronald Pine and co-authors named the new rodent Rattus detentus to bring more attention to the refugee center.

The word detentus is Latin for “detained” and is meant to indicate the isolation of this animal on Manus Island and the recent use of the island to detain people seeking political or economic asylum. (Last August, Australia announced its intention to close the center, although a timetable for closure remains unclear.)

Rattus detentus In addition to humanitarian concerns, Timm said the sprawling center contributes to a deteriorating habitat for the newly discovered species. Further threats include other wildlife, along with the introduction of domestic cats on Manus Island and widespread logging.

“There is significant deforestation there and no replanting of these beautiful tropical forests,” said the KU researcher. “Some sections of it are still wonderful, with high trees, thick luxurious growth — lots of habitat for all sorts of plants and animals. The problem is that now there are too many people and not enough care taken of the habitat.”

By Brendan Lynch

Photograph courtesy of the Journal of Mammalogy and Valter Weijola.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Desui Miao, collection manager of vertebrate paleontology, and his colleagues, Feixian Wu, Mee-mann Chang, Gongle Shi, and Ning Wang have been published in Scientific Reports with an article titled, "Fossil Climbing Perch and Associated Plant Megafossils Indicate a Warm and Wet Central Tibet During the Late Oligocene." Their article provides a report on fossil biota with new insight on the Tibetan Plateau’s palaeogeography and palaeoenvironmemt, crucial information for understanding Asia’s climatic history. Miao and his co-authors' findings indicate a warm and humid environment in Tibet's past, which conflicts with previous reports of a “high and dry Tibet.” This research prompts re-evaluation of previous knowledge on this subject. Read the article here.

Vertebrate Paleontology
Saturday, March 11, 2017

Tadpoles stick to the back of a poison dart frogWilliam Duellman, curator emeritus, has been featured in National Geographic news for his herpetology research. Liz Langley referenced Duellman’s book Marsupial Frogs in her article, “5 Animals That Carry Babies On Their Backs,” noting the unique ways some frogs from the South and Central American regions lay their eggs. As explained in Duellman’s book, some frogs, such as the horned marsupial frog, lay their eggs in a pouch located under the skin on the mother’s back as the tissue of the pouch allows for vital nutrients to get through to the eggs. Read more here

Photo by Joel Sartore


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Stephen Baca

Stephen Baca’s path to earning a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and becoming a world “authority of consequence” on the aquatic beetle family Noteridae was anything but a straight line.

He grew up the son of a Hispanic-American restaurant owner in small-town New Mexico, where his family has dwelled continuously since the early 1800s, long before the region was annexed by the United States. As a boy, Baca was hardly exposed to the idea of a science career — yet found himself drawn more to the natural world than ordinary childhood pursuits, like sports.

“My parents would tell you I loved things like catching lizards, snakes and bugs and went to the library and got all the books about them,” he said. “My dad used to coach our little-league team, and it got boring in the outfield. When the ball would finally get hit to me, I’d be on my hands and knees looking for a spider. ‘Get your head in the game,!’ my dad would yell. But, sorry, baseball is boring — this spider is cool.”

Baca’s family was a source of support for his growing fascination with biology.

“Mom was the one who would take me to the library when I was a kid,” he said. “And even though my dad would be frustrated by me playing with bugs in the outfield, he and my mom had my back at every step and without condition. They never asked that I do anything with my life that I didn't want to — except as a kid when they made me go to school. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, the same. They taught me all about hard work and dedication but encouraged me in all my endeavors.”

After high school and a bit of college as a business major, Baca dropped out and “bummed around” for a few years. “Actually, I hated school,” he said. “It was boring.”

For a few years, Baca drifted through occupations and places.

“I worked a lot of different jobs,” he said. “Roofing, landscaping, bartending or waiting tables. I worked on a ranch in Montana for a while. Having been raised in the restaurant business, food service was always my go-to.”

He cobbled together enough credits for associate’s degree through coursework at a community college and transferred to the University of New Mexico, where he started to feel a pull toward the study of biology. But it was during a trip to visit Kenya where his boyhood love of entomology came rushing back.
“I saw these crazy insects up close —  it was my first out-of-country trip, and it had a profound impact on how I wanted to take my career,” he said. “I said, ‘I think I want to do entomology.’ Eventually, my professor at UNM offered me a volunteer position in his lab, a chance to help out with research — and then he and other students encouraged me to apply to grad school.”

In the lab of UNM biologist Kelly Miller, Baca befriended a graduate student who had previously studied at KU in the lab of Andrew Short, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Within a few years, Baca found himself in Lawrence, pursuing a doctoral degree in Short’s KU lab, where he focuses his research on Noteridae aquatic beetles.

“You can find my family of beetles distributed worldwide except for Antarctica,” he said. “They like tropical areas like Africa, South America and Asia. Their diversity in Florida isn’t that bad if you dig around. There are even some really interesting species that live underground. If you go to Japan, you could tap a well into an aquifer, filter the water coming up and find these blind little beetles living in the subterranean aquifer.”

Stephen BacaRecently, Baca was lead author of a definitive parsing of the evolutionary history of Noteridae, appearing in the peer-reviewed journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 

Along with co-authors Short and Emmanuel Toussaint of KU and Miller of UNM, Baca determined the relationships of 53 species of Noteridae representing all subfamilies, tribes and 16 of 17 genera within the family. By sequencing and comparing DNA sequences, the team’s work has led to a “comprehensive phylogenetic reconstruction” of the evolutionary history of the aquatic beetles.

“Basically we had to completely redo most of the classification within my family because my study, in terms of looking at the evolutionary history of these beetles, it kind of destroyed the previous classification,” he said. “In systematics the nomenclature should follow the phylogeny or evolutionary relationships. So the names we give to groups reflect the relatedness of them. In that way, we had to sync up the classification with the phylogeny, which required some synonymies.”

In the process, Baca and his co-authors uncovered faults in a computational method for partitioning genetic data for subsequent analysis and reconstruction of evolutionary histories using said genetic information. The method was only just gaining traction.   

“My research pointed out a flaw in a partitioning method that could have led to inaccurate results down the road,” he said. “Comparing partitioning strategies isn’t a common practice when reconstructing evolutionary histories. This method had been getting credibility among scientists. It basically saved people who aren’t doing comparative analysis from using a flawed method.”

After Baca and his team sent their findings to the creator of the partitioning method, he decided the model was to be discontinued.

“Our paper was kind of a final nail in its coffin,” Baca said. “We opened a can of worms, but it shows that science is very self-correcting.”

If all goes according to plan, Baca will earn his doctorate from KU in 2019 or 2020. In the meantime, he’ll be in the field and in the lab, further investigating Noteridae. So far, he’s described a new genus with two species previously unknown to science. Further, he said he has “at least a dozen” that he plans to name and describe by the time he earns his doctoral degree.

It’s a long way from the sandlots of New Mexico’s little-league baseball. But Baca is doing his utmost to stay true to his roots and pave the way for other researchers from under-represented communities in science.

He’s the current president of KU’s chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). It’s a commitment that stems from his time tending bar back in New Mexico, when his own scientific future was less than certain.

“I got involved through Maggie Werner-Washburne at UNM, who was the president of the whole national society,” he said. “I knew her through a restaurant in Albuquerque. I was working, and she’d come in to eat and have a beer. One day we were talking and I said, ‘I’m a biology student.’ She answered, 'I’m a professor of biology.’ Eventually, I asked her to write me letters of recommendation when I was applying to KU and the NSF.”

The professor agreed, but with one condition, Baca said.

“She said, ‘Fine, but I want you to attend a SACNAS meeting,’” he said. “I didn’t know why, but after I headed here, I joined to help with this outreach-to-minority work. We advocate for Chicanos and Native Americans in STEM fields, and that’s pretty much the demographic of my hometown.”

By Brendan Lynch 

Photos courtesy of Stephen Baca

Monday, May 22, 2017

Laura Russell will join Global Biodiversity Information Facility in June as a Program Officer for Participation and Engagement. Laura has played a key role in the development of the VertNet network and as a data mobilization specialist for iDigBio. She has also been an active contributor to recent GBIF training activities. She will expand the Secretariat’s capacity for supporting GBIF participants in the development of national Nodes and in building skills around biodiversity data mobilization.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Congratulations to Patricia Ryberg, who earned her PhD from the University of Kansas in 2009 (mentor: Edith Taylor, paleobotany curator) as she was recently honored by Park University during the University’s annual Honors Convocation on April 26, 2017. She was honored with the University’s J.L. Zwingle Award, which pays tribute to an outstanding faculty member as voted by the student body. Ryberg is an assistant professor of biology at Park University.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

book by KU authorsThe Mexican National Institute for Anthropology and History (NIAH) has awarded the Antonio Garcia Cubas 2016 prize in the “scientific works” category to a book authored by three KU affiliated ornithologists. KU Ornithology Research Associate Adolfo Navarro, Professor Town Peterson, as well as former KU Ornithology postdoc Luis Sanchez-Gonzalez, contributed significant portions of Volume 13 (Ornithology) of the series of books entitled La Real Expedición Botánica a Nueva España [The Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain]. Their work on the ornithology of the Mociño expeditions in the late 1700s has spanned more than 15 years, documenting a significant early documentation of Mexican avifaunas. When the work was written (but not published), more than half of the species treated in the summary were not yet described scientifically.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Maria Eifler

Maria Eifler, collection manager of mammalogy, is the recipient of the 2017 Undergraduate Research Mentor Award. The Undergraduate Research Mentor Award recognizes the contribution that mentors make to a successful undergraduate research experience. In many disciplines, this mentoring is done by research faculty, staff, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.  The award recipient is recognized at the Undergraduate Research Symposium held at KU every spring and serves as a model to other mentors on campus on how to best support undergraduate research and creative scholarship on campus. The award includes a stipend of $1,000. 

Photo: Maria Eifler 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Snakes from the KU Herpetology collection

Every March 17, lovers of Irish culture around the world commemorate the life and legend of a fifth-century missionary best known for spreading Christianity in Ireland, but also for driving all of the island’s snakes into the sea.

But could the tale of St. Patrick conceivably explain Ireland’s lack of snakes? Is it even possible to herd snakes? Could these long-banished serpents someday make their way back to Ireland?

Between lashings of green beer and plates heaped with corned beef and cabbage, such questions gnaw at every Hibernophile.

The University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute has one of the world’s foremost assemblage of herpetologists — and that's not blarney. These researchers, like St. Patrick himself, show a legendary penchant for chasing snakes. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, a group of scientists in the Division of Herpetology flashed their gift for the gab in pondering both the science and myth behind the Patron Saint of Ireland.

Q: Legend holds that St. Patrick drove all the snakes from Ireland in the fifth century. Would it be possible for one man to drive snakes from an entire island nation? How might one man go about it?

Rich Glor, curator of herpetology: I’m not going to fact-check the legend — after all, the guy was a saint, and who am I to question his accomplishments? Normal humans have had a very difficult time eliminating some island snake populations. The brown tree snake, for example, was accidentally introduced to the island of Guam, which previously had no snakes. Guam’s birds, some of which were found nowhere else in the world, were poorly prepared for this new predator, and many have been driven to extinction or near extinction as a result.

Concentrated efforts to exterminate the tree snakes have included electrified snake containment fences and teams of hunters using trained snake-sniffing dogs, but it seems like the snakes are there to stay. On the other hand, however, humans have done a very good job of driving snakes to the brink of extinction. In the United States, for example, humans have undertaken a more than century-long effort to exterminate rattlesnakes. This effort, which continues to this day in some parts of the country, has resulted in the extinction of rattlesnakes across much of their ancestral range and has led to the classification of many rattlesnake populations as endangered.

Historical records suggest that individual snake hunters were often responsible for wiping out entire populations by capturing and killing all of the individuals as they emerged from communal hibernation dens in the spring. St. Patrick’s task would certainly have been easier if Ireland’s legendary snakes used the same type of communal hibernation strategy as rattlesnakes. Other rattlesnake hunters use even more nefarious strategies: Snake hunters at rattlesnake roundups, for example, often spray gasoline into snake dens and catch the snakes as they exit the den attempting to flee the noxious fumes, but a man of the cloth seems very unlikely to have adopted such a grotesque approach. 

Luke Welton, the Herpetology Division’s collections manager: It’s quite interesting that no native snakes are currently known from Ireland, despite a number of species occurring in more southerly parts of the United Kingdom. One consideration is that the climate of Ireland would likely keep any potential populations of ectotherms fairly small, which would make them much more susceptible to extinction or eradication.

Q: Supposedly, St. Patrick drove the snakes into the sea. Can a person drive snakes in a given direction, and would they perish if you drove them into an ocean?

Jeff Weinell, graduate student: During fieldwork, herpetologists often use drift fences (sheet metal or mesh partially buried along one edge) to direct snakes and other small reptiles toward a particular direction (usually into a bucket). However, this method wouldn't work to direct most snakes into the ocean, and, therefore, St. Patrick probably didn't use drift fences. Some snakes do live in the ocean, but these species are only found in the Pacific and Indian oceans. If St. Patrick found a way to put all of the snakes of Ireland directly into the ocean, most probably would have perished. However, many snakes are good swimmers, and some of them may have been able to find their way back to shore. 

Glor: For anybody who’s not a saint, herding snakes might be even more difficult than herding cats. Herpetologists sometimes use low fences to corral snakes, but even this is only partly effective. Most snakes would perish if forced into the ocean. Ocean-dwelling snakes, which are not found anywhere near Ireland, have numerous specializations that permit them to live in the ocean that other snakes lack. For example, ocean snakes have special physiological mechanisms to cope with saltwater. They also have flattened oar-like tails and specialized scales that allow them to swim in ocean waters.

Q: If it wasn't St. Patrick’s doing, what are the scientific reasons for the lack of snakes in Ireland? Are there other places without snakes? Why?

Katie Allen, graduate student: The scientific reason there are no snakes in Ireland is actually a result of the last Ice Age. As recently as about 19,000 years ago Ireland was buried in 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) of ice and was essentially an arctic wasteland. After the glaciers melted, the Irish Sea formed and created a 50-mile-wide barrier between the island and the mainland. During the Ice Age, snakes were not able to survive in Ireland, and afterward they were not able to cross the large, cold sea to reach it. There are several other islands that naturally do not have any snakes, including Greenland, Iceland, New Zealand and Hawaii. These islands are snake-free for similar reasons; either climate or distance from the mainland prevents colonization. Iceland, New Zealand and Hawaii have also banned pet snakes in order to keep their islands free of scaly invaders.

Q: Are there any reptiles in Ireland?

Glor: Yes, Ireland has one lizard species, which is called the "common lizard" but is actually unusual among lizards because it gives birth to live young rather than laying eggs.

Allen: Only one species of lizard is native to Ireland, the viviparous lizard (Zootoca vivipara). This species is widely distributed across Europe and Asia and is able to live farther north than any other terrestrial reptile. One of its adaptations to this cold lifestyle is to give birth to live young instead of laying eggs. Aside from this lizard, there are several species of sea turtles that inhabit the coastal areas of Ireland.

Q: What would be the most effective way to drive snakes from your yard, garden or house?

Glor: Why would you want to drive snakes from your yard, garden or house?

Brown: That’s the last thing I would do. The real question is, “How can we attract more snakes to our yards, gardens, and yes, even basements of our houses?” If we had more snakes around, we wouldn’t have to buy traps and poisons to handle household pests like rats and mice.

Q: What are the benefit of snakes to an ecosystem like the one in Ireland? Are snakes a benefit to humans in ways that are underappreciated? What are the drawbacks of snakes?

Glor: Nobody knows what effect snakes could have on an ecosystem like Ireland’s. In some ecosystems, snakes are major predators of small animals like mice. I don’t think snakes are a benefit to humans in ways that are underappreciated. Most snakes have no drawbacks outside of causing irrational fear in some humans. Some snakes are venomous and can be dangerous to humans.

Brown: In all seriousness, and particularly with regard to human health issues, snakes are highly beneficial. For example, scientists have documented that the primary reservoir for the explosive spread of Lyme disease in this part of the country are ticks, which are transported by mammals like deer and rodents. Additionally, most people contract Lyme disease doing regular household things like gardening or raking leaves in their own yard because they come in contact with ticks carried by rodents.  I would much rather have a healthy population of harmless black rat snakes in my yard than an infestation of filthy, debilitating disease-carrying rodents. But, you know, that’s just me.

Welton: Snakes are quite beneficial ecologically. They are the controllers of rodent and pest populations and are exactly the kinds of predators that keep vectors of some human diseases at bay. No snakes would likely mean an increase in diseases like hantavirus and plague, which are carried by rodents. Besides just the disease aspect, would you rather have one snake in your garage or basement, or several hundred mice or rats?

Q: Why do people dislike snakes? Why does our culture associate snakes with evil?

Glor: Many people have done research on this topic without firm answers. Some people believe a fear of snakes is hardwired due to our ancestors’ interactions with deadly venomous snakes. One need look no further than the first chapter of the Good Book to get a sense for why our western culture associates snakes with evil; after the snake deceives Eve in the Garden of Eden, God curses snakes over all other animals and tells the snake “on your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life” (which makes one wonder how snakes were getting around prior to the curse).

Brown: Sometimes I think people don’t like snakes because of the way they move. People just get creeped out by “slithering” snakes and almost instinctively recoil when they first see a snake. Unfortunately, humans also react violently when they see a snake move — by what scientists term “lateral undulation” (slithering). However, scientists infer from the existence of many well-preserved transitional fossils of intermediate forms that snakes evolved from ancestors that possessed limbs. Not only does the fossil record tell how the ancestors of today’s snakes lost limbs and evolved elongated body plans over evolutionary timescales, but in today’s “primitive” living snakes, the vestiges of those limbs can be seen — in pythons, for example, that still have tiny claws at the base of their tails. So we can actually view snakes as just one group of very specialized, highly successful lizards. Strangely, in this instance, the biblical account and evolutionary biology’s explanation are curiously aligned. And yet no one ever tries to exterminate lizards on their property or dig up lizard dens with the goal of mass-murdering all inhabitants.

Welton: In my opinion, society is largely the reason most people fear snakes. I don't know that there is a single group of animals that has had so much misinformation disseminated about it. One could argue that this fear stems from the Garden of Eden story and that all snakes are inherently bad. While I believe that definitely plays a part, I think the fear is a symptom of a larger problem associated with a lack of education. Too often, completely harmless (nonvenomous) snakes meet their end because of common defensive strategies (striking with mouth agape, rattling their rattle-less tails in debris or leaf-litter) that are intended to fool a would-be predator. This needless slaughter could almost always be prevented if one cared enough to become educated about the wildlife in their own backyard.

Q: Might snakes return to Ireland, due to changing climate or pet snakes being released into the wild? What would be the most likely species to thrive in Ireland?

Glor: Yes, this is definitely a possibility. Snakes found in nearby England are the most likely colonists.

Q: What are the main threats to snake biodiversity today globally?

Glor: Habitat loss is the greatest threat to biodiversity. In cases, specific populations are overexploited by pet trade.

Brown: And overall persecution by humans. Globally, when snake populations come in contact with human populations, the outcome usually is unfortunate and does not bode well for the long-term viability of the snake population. I agree with Luke, though — education is the key ensuring the conservation and long-term survival of the world’s 3,650 species of snakes.

-By Brendan Lynch

Photo: Snakes from the KU Biodiversity Institute herpetology collections