Thursday, January 19, 2017

Monument Rocks

If you stroll the halls of a natural history museum anywhere in the world and come face-to-face with the prehistoric fossil of a pterodactyl or mosasaur, the odds are good it was unearthed in Kansas.

Indeed, American paleontology came of age in the 19th century largely thanks to Kansas’ chalky earth — made famous by the University of Kansas’ “Rock Chalk Chant.” The fine-grained chalk, especially good at preserving fossils, was ocean floor during the Late Cretaceous, from 65 to 100 million years ago, when much of Kansas was beneath the Western Interior Seaway.

“That ocean ran all the way from present-day Gulf of Mexico to northern Canada, through the middle part of this country,” said Bruce Lieberman, senior curator at the KU Natural History Museum, which houses one of the world’s foremost collections of Late Cretaceous fossils. “The water would have been warm and tropical, no deeper than 200 meters at its deepest point.”

The KU researcher said the seaway and its shoreline abounded with ancient marine life such as diving birds, winged and swimming reptiles, fish, clams, and ancient squid relatives called ammonites.

“It’d have been a great place to swim, except there were giant mosasaurs and sharks that would have loved to eat a human,” Lieberman said.

While many fossil treasures from the Western Interior Seaway adorn museums, today many thousands more are stored in the back rooms of various research institutions, inaccessible to most people.

So Lieberman is heading up a project to change that. He’s the primary investigator on a new $2.1 million National Science Foundation grant to digitize Western Interior Seaway collections from eight leading institutions — KU’s Biodiversity Institute, the American Museum of Natural History, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, the University of New Mexico, the Jackson School Museum of Earth History at the University of Texas and the Yale University Peabody Museum of Natural History.  Scientists from the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York will also be involved.

“We have all kinds of fossils in these museums, but too many are buried away in drawers and cabinets that make them inaccessible to scientists and the public,” said Lieberman. “We think digitization of these fossils has value for answering scientific questions.”

For instance, a warming climate during the Late Cretaceous is similar to conditions climate scientists expected Earth to undergo in coming centuries. So the comprehensive view offered by digitizing Late Cretaceous fossils could forecast how species may react to altered habitats.  

“We’re going to use computer mapping called ‘ecological niche modeling’ to look at how species were competing with one another — when you pack more species in more tightly, theoretically they’re going to be competing more with each other, which could drive more extinctions,” said Lieberman. “We’d like to see how species adjust their range. Do they partition their range to avoid overlapping as much as possible? This has practical applications because people get food from oceans. We’re predicting as climate gets warmer it’ll cause lots of extinctions. But we’re wondering if we should expect increased competition as well.”

Not only will the digitization work make the Western Interior Seaway fossils more useful to scientists, but the grant will open up access to the fossil treasures for the public at large.

“We’re going to be creating images and providing information about where fossils come from,” Lieberman said. “The public can look at the same resources as a museum researcher, to expand science out to the public more.”

The public outreach will center on a new “Digital Encyclopedia of Ancient Life” intended as an open-access textbook of paleontology. The atlas will feature an online Cretaceous Atlas with at least 800 species from the Western Interior Seaway to be added to the existing Digital Atlas of Ancient Life for the web and an iPhone app.

In addition to open-access resources, the researchers will develop K-12 curricular materials from the digitization project as well as providing 3-D scans of the fossils and 3-D models for some classrooms. Additionally, exhibitions based on the grant work are planned at the associated institutions. 

Lieberman said the work would involve at least 13 undergraduates and 4 graduate students with the intention of recruiting students from underrepresented groups.

Along with Lieberman, KU Biodiversity Institute faculty working on the grant include Chris Beard and Jim Beach.

Indeed, KU has been at the forefront of digitizing fossils in the 21st century — in the same way that Kansas, thanks to its chalk, was the hotbed of paleontological fieldwork in the 19th century.

“I’ve always thought it was cool that our KU ‘Rock Chalk Chant’ ultimately goes back to rocks in Kansas where some of these awesome fossils were discovered,” said Lieberman. “When people today are chanting ‘Rock Chalk’ they’re probably not thinking of these fossils — but when I hear the chant, I think of fossils.”

--Brendan Lynch, KU News

Photo credit: Richard T. Bryant

Invertebrate Paleontology
Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Cornufer heffernani

The Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific are best known as a locale for some of the most intense fighting of the Second World War, including the bloody Battle of Guadalcanal. But for nearly a century, the rich biodiversity of the islands has been instrumental to the study of evolution, including research by noted scientists Ernst Mayr and Jared Diamond.

“Leading ideas of how speciation happens and evolution occurs were formed based on birds and frogs in this region,” said Rob Moyle, associate curator at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute, who specializes in the evolution of birds. “The islands are incredibly beautiful places but also at times incredibly inhospitable, very hot with really rough terrain and torrential downpours.”

Today, Moyle is leading a major research effort in the region supported by $1.3 million from the National Science Foundation to conduct fieldwork, collect museum specimens, record bioacoustics and sequence DNA of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.

“We want to go back to test hypotheses, fill in gaps in the data and revisit this with much more modern methods than they were using decades ago,” Moyle said. “Some of the problems doing this work today are permitting issues and national boundaries. In the past, researchers just went island to island and collected what they wanted. It’s difficult to do the same thing today, but that’s what we’re hoping to do.”

The grant includes fieldwork spread across three nations — the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Vanuatu. Many islands in the region are remote and isolated, making travel difficult for the researchers hoping to follow up on work performed by earlier biologists.

“Getting there isn’t simple,” Moyle said. “From the U.S., you have to go through Australia and fly back several hours to get to the Solomons. Very few airlines go there, but the main islands have little airstrips you get to on a little Twin Otter prop plane. To get to most small islands, you take small outboard boats. That can be iffy, because you go across some pretty open ocean crossings. Then, sometimes we take a boat up the river — a year ago we took a helicopter to a site in Guadalcanal.”

Cornufer guentheriMoyle’s colleagues include KU’s Rafe Brown, who is in charge of amphibian and reptile work; Chris Filardi, senior scientist at Conservation International; Michael Andersen of the University of New Mexico; Tyrone Lavery of the University of Queensland, Australia; Jonathan Richmond of the U.S. Geological Survey; and many participants and collaborators in the Solomon Islands, including David Boseto, co-director of Ecological Solutions Solomon Islands, a group dedicated to environmental research and conservation.

In the field, biologists will camp in teams ranging from two to 20 people, performing their work in shifts that depend on the animals of interest.

“If you’re studying birds, you’re up early,” Moyle said. “Our day starts before dawn, getting up, getting ready, getting tape recorders ready for vocalizations, getting nets ready — that goes through mid-morning, then we have work back at camp to preserve and prepare specimens. If you study frogs, you go herping at night. Sometimes we overlap, the herpetologists get back late, and the bird people are getting up.”

The teams will include many graduate and undergraduate students from KU and partner institutions.

“Graduate students will be heavily involved in fieldwork, lab work and publishing papers,” Moyle said. “We’ll also bring undergrads from the U.S. over to the Solomon Islands. They’ll be paired with undergraduates from the Solomons to work on research projects — so there’s both an international cultural experience as well as a scientific project.”

Back at KU’s specialized labs, researchers will conduct genomic sequencing of samples from the field to establish relationships between species and determine when separate species may have branched off from each other.

“Traditionally, scientists would collect bird specimens and their insights into what went on in a region came from looking at plumage color, the size and shape of the animal, and looking at maps of where they occurred on islands, but physical appearance can be very misleading,” Moyle said. “Genomic sequencing opened up new realm of inquiry, not just for figuring out if specimens A and B are related, or if A is more closely related to C, but also figuring out how quickly they diversified or how long ago they arrived in the archipelago.”

Moyle and his colleagues will use a process called “high-throughput sequencing” to trace how gene flow occurs between populations separated on isolated islands.

“Sometimes, we see there are populations on different islands that look or sound very different, and, so far, we actually can’t tell them apart genetically,” Moyle said. “We know there are differences in there, but it shows how little change there has to be in the genome to get something that sounds and looks very different. With some of this work, we’re able to identify the specific genes for differences we’re seeing among the species.”

localMoreover, the scientists are likely to identify species that are unknown to science and describe them for the first time.  

In addition to the scientific value of the research, work performed under the grant will inform policymakers and conservationists looking to protect biodiversity in the region.

“These islands are under great threat from a variety of sources,” Moyle said. “The most prominent threat is logging, but there are also some very aggressive resource extractions like gold, nickel, and bauxite mines and oil drilling. Some of these islands aren’t that large, and there’s not much forest left, so figuring out where species are and what’s left of them can give conservationists and governments some data to work with to make informed decisions.”  - Brendan Lynch, KU News

Photos, from top: 

The Solomon Island Palm Frog (Cornufer heffernani) is uncommon and found only in pristine rainforest. Its chirping call is often heard after heavy rains. Credit: Scott Travers

Mark Robbins, collection manager of birds in the KU Biodiversity Institute, examines bird specimens during a 2014 expedition to Choiseul Island while local guides from the Lauru Land Tribal Community look on. Credit: Scott Travers

The Solomon Island Eyelash Frog (Cornufer guentheri) is widely distributed in the archipelago and is an example of direct development – they skip the tadpole phase and hatch from eggs as tiny but fully developed frogs. Credit: Scott Travers

The field team at Nunubala camp, West Kwaio Region of Malaita Island during a 2015 expedition, including KU graduate students, local guides and Solomon Islands researchers. Credit: Scott Travers

The Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) is ubiquitous in the region. Like most Old World kingfishers, this species is not a fisher but instead inhabits forest and open country, feeding on insects and small vertebrates. Credit: Rob Moyle.

Herpetology
Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Cornufer heffernani

The Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific are best known as a locale for some of the most intense fighting of the Second World War, including the bloody Battle of Guadalcanal. But for nearly a century, the rich biodiversity of the islands has been instrumental to the study of evolution, including research by noted scientists Ernst Mayr and Jared Diamond.

“Leading ideas of how speciation happens and evolution occurs were formed based on birds and frogs in this region,” said Rob Moyle, associate curator at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute, who specializes in the evolution of birds. “The islands are incredibly beautiful places but also at times incredibly inhospitable, very hot with really rough terrain and torrential downpours.”

Today, Moyle is leading a major research effort in the region supported by $1.3 million from the National Science Foundation to conduct fieldwork, collect museum specimens, record bioacoustics and sequence DNA of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.

“We want to go back to test hypotheses, fill in gaps in the data and revisit this with much more modern methods than they were using decades ago,” Moyle said. “Some of the problems doing this work today are permitting issues and national boundaries. In the past, researchers just went island to island and collected what they wanted. It’s difficult to do the same thing today, but that’s what we’re hoping to do.”

The grant includes fieldwork spread across three nations — the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Vanuatu. Many islands in the region are remote and isolated, making travel difficult for the researchers hoping to follow up on work performed by earlier biologists.

“Getting there isn’t simple,” Moyle said. “From the U.S., you have to go through Australia and fly back several hours to get to the Solomons. Very few airlines go there, but the main islands have little airstrips you get to on a little Twin Otter prop plane. To get to most small islands, you take small outboard boats. That can be iffy, because you go across some pretty open ocean crossings. Then, sometimes we take a boat up the river — a year ago we took a helicopter to a site in Guadalcanal.”

Cornufer guentheriMoyle’s colleagues include KU’s Rafe Brown, who is in charge of amphibian and reptile work; Chris Filardi, senior scientist at Conservation International; Michael Andersen of the University of New Mexico; Tyrone Lavery of the University of Queensland, Australia; Jonathan Richmond of the U.S. Geological Survey; and many participants and collaborators in the Solomon Islands, including David Boseto, co-director of Ecological Solutions Solomon Islands, a group dedicated to environmental research and conservation.

In the field, biologists will camp in teams ranging from two to 20 people, performing their work in shifts that depend on the animals of interest.

“If you’re studying birds, you’re up early,” Moyle said. “Our day starts before dawn, getting up, getting ready, getting tape recorders ready for vocalizations, getting nets ready — that goes through mid-morning, then we have work back at camp to preserve and prepare specimens. If you study frogs, you go herping at night. Sometimes we overlap, the herpetologists get back late, and the bird people are getting up.”

The teams will include many graduate and undergraduate students from KU and partner institutions.

“Graduate students will be heavily involved in fieldwork, lab work and publishing papers,” Moyle said. “We’ll also bring undergrads from the U.S. over to the Solomon Islands. They’ll be paired with undergraduates from the Solomons to work on research projects — so there’s both an international cultural experience as well as a scientific project.”

Back at KU’s specialized labs, researchers will conduct genomic sequencing of samples from the field to establish relationships between species and determine when separate species may have branched off from each other.

“Traditionally, scientists would collect bird specimens and their insights into what went on in a region came from looking at plumage color, the size and shape of the animal, and looking at maps of where they occurred on islands, but physical appearance can be very misleading,” Moyle said. “Genomic sequencing opened up new realm of inquiry, not just for figuring out if specimens A and B are related, or if A is more closely related to C, but also figuring out how quickly they diversified or how long ago they arrived in the archipelago.”

Moyle and his colleagues will use a process called “high-throughput sequencing” to trace how gene flow occurs between populations separated on isolated islands.

“Sometimes, we see there are populations on different islands that look or sound very different, and, so far, we actually can’t tell them apart genetically,” Moyle said. “We know there are differences in there, but it shows how little change there has to be in the genome to get something that sounds and looks very different. With some of this work, we’re able to identify the specific genes for differences we’re seeing among the species.”

localMoreover, the scientists are likely to identify species that are unknown to science and describe them for the first time.  

In addition to the scientific value of the research, work performed under the grant will inform policymakers and conservationists looking to protect biodiversity in the region.

“These islands are under great threat from a variety of sources,” Moyle said. “The most prominent threat is logging, but there are also some very aggressive resource extractions like gold, nickel, and bauxite mines and oil drilling. Some of these islands aren’t that large, and there’s not much forest left, so figuring out where species are and what’s left of them can give conservationists and governments some data to work with to make informed decisions.”  - Brendan Lynch, KU News

Photos, from top: 

The Solomon Island Palm Frog (Cornufer heffernani) is uncommon and found only in pristine rainforest. Its chirping call is often heard after heavy rains. Credit: Scott Travers

Mark Robbins, collection manager of birds in the KU Biodiversity Institute, examines bird specimens during a 2014 expedition to Choiseul Island while local guides from the Lauru Land Tribal Community look on. Credit: Scott Travers

The Solomon Island Eyelash Frog (Cornufer guentheri) is widely distributed in the archipelago and is an example of direct development – they skip the tadpole phase and hatch from eggs as tiny but fully developed frogs. Credit: Scott Travers

The field team at Nunubala camp, West Kwaio Region of Malaita Island during a 2015 expedition, including KU graduate students, local guides and Solomon Islands researchers. Credit: Scott Travers

The Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) is ubiquitous in the region. Like most Old World kingfishers, this species is not a fisher but instead inhabits forest and open country, feeding on insects and small vertebrates. Credit: Rob Moyle.

Ornithology
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Eocene Turkey

A $100,000 grant from the David B. Jones Foundation will help to develop a new generation of paleontologists at the University of Kansas, enabling students to pursue fieldwork in locations such as Wyoming and Turkey aimed at solving some of evolution’s deepest mysteries.

“This money can be used flexibly and broadly to support research training and educational outreach relating mainly to graduate and some undergraduate students at KU in vertebrate paleontology,” said K. Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and senior curator at the KU Biodiversity Institute, who is heading up work under the new grant.

Beard’s research focuses on the early evolution of mammals, including primates. He said the first three David B. Jones Fellows in Vertebrate Paleontology — Matt Jones, Spencer Mattingly and Ryan Ridder — would begin training this spring.

“It’s often hard to get federal funding to support participation by graduate and undergraduate researchers, especially in my kind of research, which is field-based,” Beard said. “Costs can escalate, especially with international fieldwork, airfare and procurements beyond lodging and food — it really can skyrocket. But in paleontology, one of the most important components is to get students access to work in the field.”

The researcher said that student work and training would center on two locations: Wyoming and the nation of Turkey.

Eocene outcropsIn Turkey, Beard’s students will have the opportunity to piece together the ancient migration of mammals in the geographically unique Pontide region, which researchers believe 45 million years ago was an island treasure house of biodiversity, something like today’s Madagascar.

“We’re trying to determine if the Pontide terrain played a role in how animals were able to move back and forth between Asia and Africa, close to the appearance of anthropoid primates,” Beard said. “The more fossils we collected there, the weirder they got. This Pontide island had a unique fauna never found anywhere else but a couple of animals that clearly came from Africa. The most common mammals we’ve found there are primitive hoofed mammals, clearly related to animals common in western Europe, but millions of years earlier — and we’ve got a bat that seems related to Asia.”

In terms of migration of these animals, Beard sees the ancient Pontide region less as a stepping stone between Asia and Africa and more of a “cul-de-sac.”

“Animals were getting to the islands, but not leaving so much — they seemed to get stuck there,” he said.

Before undertaking fieldwork in Turkey, the David B. Jones Fellows will travel to Wyoming to conduct research to establish how mammals during the late Paleocene responded to a warming climate.  

“We’re using Wyoming fieldwork as a proving ground to give students experience in somewhat exotic but not crazy-exotic setting before we take them internationally,” Beard said. “In the southwestern part of the state, we’re establishing a record of how mammals evolved in response to climatic change in the Paleocene, right after the dinosaurs have died and mammals are beginning to evolve rapidly, and comparing that to other findings from the Bighorn Basin.”

Beard said his students would be surveying for fossils, excavating sites and screen-washing sediment for minuscule fossils, as well as partnering with geologists to learn to read the landscape.

“They’ll pick up how to interpret sedimentary rocks, to understand what the ancient environment would have been,” he said. “Are you looking at ancient marsh, lake, seashore or river floodplain? Those are basic skills associated with areas like sedimentology and stratigraphy.”

In addition to work in the field domestically and internationally, the David B. Jones Fellows studying with Beard will be trained in the full “assembly line” of paleontological research, including restoration of fossils, and learning how to mold and cast fossil specimens. The training will be carried out under guidance from David Burnham, preparator at KU’s Natural History Museum. Further, with KU’s Oscar Sanisidro, the fellows will learn techniques of scientific illustration.

A key goal of the grant is facilitation of student publishing of findings in peer-reviewed journals.

“We want to stimulate scholarly research on part of the graduate students,” Beard said. “KU paleontology already has a great reputation, but we want to push it to the top of the mountain nationally, and one way is to have graduate students publishing scholarly work and giving presentations at conferences. In this grant, there’s funding to support that as well.”

Additionally, the grant provides funds for KU paleontology students to receive training in pedagogy.

“It’s something I faced as a graduate student,” Beard said. “I wound up learning a lot about research, but nobody taught me anything about how to teach. Skills in basic pedagogy are too often lacking in an overall graduate curriculum.”

Finally, the students will develop and lead outreach programs and events at KU’s Natural History Museum to engage the public and young people. Public outreach is a key goal of the David B. Jones Foundation, with its mission to further “educational, research and charitable activities working in the science of paleontology who primarily promote those activities within the United States of America.”

“David B. Jones was an amateur paleontologist who was involved in using fossils to get kids interested in science in general,” Beard said. “For instance, he was active in the Boy Scouts. I think this lines up so well with the agenda of the foundation.” 

- Brendan Lynch, KU News

Photos: K. Christopher Beard, KU Foundation Distinguished Professor, and a student work at a field site in Turkey. Eocene rock outcrops yield fossils at these sites. Photos by Gregoire Metais.

Vertebrate Paleontology
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Biodiversity case

The public is invited to pet a hissing cockroach, see how body fluids are illuminated by black light, put together a human skeleton, and see some spooky reptile specimens at the KU Natural History Museum’s Party in the Panorama, 7 pm Oct. 29.

The festival of food, drink, jazz, science games and activities – coming shortly before Halloween -- will raise support to help children's programs and to transform exhibits. The event includes Free State Brewing Company beer, wine from Stone Hill Winery, and fine hors d'oeuvres. Casual Dress; no costumes required. Tickets are $50 per individual or two for $85 and available online and at the museum.

What can guests expect? 
•    Zap jewelry to learn what it's made of using X-ray fluorescence
•    See live Madagascar tortoises, some so small they fit in your palm
•    Learn what a dinosaur dig is like with two students who went to the T. rex dig in Montana this summer, and see some of the fossils recently discovered.
•    Try putting together a human skeleton, bone by bone
•    Pet a hissing cockroach
•    Learn how body fluids at a crime scene look when exposed to black light
•    Take a party pic in the photo booth
•    Go on a behind-the-scenes tour to see the fish, reptiles and amphibians scientists study
•    Enjoy roasted vegetable escalivada, many kinds of amuse bouche, quiche, French macaroons, chocolate truffles -- and a taste of our own bee hive honey in a special blue cheese appetizer
•    Listen to live jazz by Floyd the Barber

But in addition, participants have an opportunity to "shop" for their favorite museum causes at the party, said Leonard Krishtalka, director of the KU Biodiversity Institute.

“Your passion might be caring for the museum bees or summer camp scholarships, or adding a fern to our new paleo garden exhibit, or bringing our mobile museum into reality,” Krishtalka said. “Even small gifts for something as simple as a can of paint can help us transform an exhibit to make the featured specimens stand out.”

Previous guests at Party in the Panorama funded exhibit changes throughout the third floor fossil galleries, modernizing many exhibits. They also provided support for busses to bring children to the museum and repairs to the museum’s iconic prairie dog so that it would again pop out of its burrow. 

Tickets are $50 per individual or two for $85 and available online and at the museum. To get the couples discount, use the code COUPLE2 at checkout. For a discount on four tickets, use FOURTX.

Photos: The new biodiversity exhibit on the sixth floor (top), Kaw River fossil exhibit (middle), and the turtle fossil exhibit (bottom) all were made possible in whole or in part by Party in the Panorama participants in 2013 and 2014. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

With Zika sparking anxiety at the Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, and now being transmitted in Florida through contact with mosquitoes, accurately mapping the distribution of the virus is increasingly urgent.

Accounting for a host of often-overlooked drivers of transmission, a team of University of Kansas researchers has mapped Zika risk around the world with unprecedented resolution while considering more factors than previous models.  

The mapping effort uses ecological niche modeling, a technique used to predict distributions of species, to show the virus’ powerful ability to spread in South and Central America.
This study is the first to evaluate the risk of Zika virus transmission in Europe, which appears relatively low.
Research suggests parts of the southern U.S., including parts of Florida, Texas and Louisiana, are vulnerable to transmission of the virus.
“It’s the first detailed map that weighs different drivers of transmission,” said Abdallah Samy, who headed the research at the KU Biodiversity Institute. “We assessed different combinations of variables to see what are the major drivers — such as climate, or socioeconomics or people’s ability to access certain areas — and in the final map we merge all the variables.”

The resulting map predicts the likelihood of Zika exposure in the coming years by segmenting Earth’s landmasses into squares of 5-by-5 kilometers each and crunching the numbers for each of them.

Multiple factors influence risk assessment because the virus can spread through contact with mosquitoes in the genus Aedes, person-to-person via sexual contact, through blood transfusions and mother-to-child during pregnancy. The study focused on mosquito-driven transmission.

“For each area, we asked, ‘Is it mosquito exposure, climate or socioeconomic variables like accessibility for people to travel from areas where Zika is endemic and spread the virus upon their return?’” said Samy, who earned a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at KU in May.

The findings recently were posted to the Zika Fast Track site and published in Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, an international journal of biological and biomedical research based in Brazil, where the current outbreak has been centered since 2015.

“This map can be used by public health officials and international organizations that combat disease,” Samy said. “It’s also intended for the public. If you’re going to travel to a specific area in Brazil, and you know it’s a risk area for Zika, you should consider how to reduce the chances of transmission with clothing or insect repellant.”

Samy’s co-authors were KU’s A. Townsend Peterson, Stephanie Thomas of the University of Bayreuth in Germany, Ahmed Abd El Wahed of Georg-August University in Germany and Kevin Cohoon (a KU graduate) of the Mayo Clinic.

Samy said the course of the outbreak thus far is similar to what his team’s map predicts with a high degree of specificity.

“We have multiple dimensions in our models, and in addition we use accurate algorithms to account for bias,” he said. “So far, the pattern of spread of cases mostly conform with our model.” 

By Brendan Lynch 

This news was also featured in the Huffington Post.

Biodiversity Modeling & Policy
Thursday, July 14, 2016

You can tell when you talk to KU paleontologist David Burnham that he is anxious to return to the dig site of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Rains have made parts of the two-track road that leads to the site impossible to pass for two days. And the clock is running: the KU paleontology expedition in Montana will stop at the end of July.

Still, calling in from the small hotel in Jordan, Montana, where he is waiting out the weather, Burnham beams about what has been found so far: 37 fossil fragments including teeth and part of a lower jaw.

“It’s a matter of following the debris field, bit by bit,” he said.

Burnham is leading an ever-changing roster of volunteers, students and staff for the nearly four-week expedition. The team’s goal is to add to the fossils already previously recovered at the site and displayed at the KU Natural History Museum. To date, 15 percent of the fossil has been found at the Hell Creek Formation site since excavations began there in 2006.

A crowdfunding campaign – the museum’s first for an expedition – and a family with a passion for paleontology made the expedition possible.

The campaign, “Bring the KU T. rex Home,” began in May with a goal of raising $16,700 to fund the expedition. More than 80 donors have pushed the total raised to $24,730. Funds raised in excess of this particular expedition’s needs will support more T. rex research at KU, the exhibition of fossils, and the involvement of students in the project.

A plastic Tyrannosaurus rex has been a mascot for the campaign and the museum has featured it through events and social media such as the museum’s Facebook page. As the fundraising effort draws to a close this week, the tiny T. rex will be packed up and head north to Montana with museum staff, where it will be featured at the excavation it has helped inspire.

Leonard Krishtalka, director of the KU Biodiversity Institute, said the campaign would not have been a success without KU student Kyle Atkins-Weltman and his parents, John Weltman and Cliff Atkins of Boston, Mass. They were the first and lead supporters of the project.

Kyle, a biology student who works in the herpetology department at the Biodiversity Institute, said he has been passionate about dinosaurs all of his life. He is a leading contributor for Dinosaur Battlegrounds.

“Paleontology is the ideal kind of work for me,” Kyle said. “I am comfortable working on the same thing for hours; you get into a zone. So slowly seeing something jutting out of the rock, and seeing it slowly reveal itself, is exciting to me.”

Cliff and John said Kyle fueled their enthusiasm for the project.

“When you have children, you want to invest in the things that excite them,” John said. “We also believe strongly in supporting education. And whatever knowledge one gains from the excavation – we wanted to help that on a broader scale.”

The family plans to volunteer at the dig site in July, he added.

“Kyle has gotten us so interested in dinosaurs,” John said. “I love Jurassic Park. I feel like an 8 year old – I’m excited to volunteer at the site.”

In Montana, Burnham is hoping a forecast for sunny weather next week will hold true. 

“I wake up full of excitement every day knowing that a discovery isn't too far away,” he said. “All the pieces we find are clues leading us closer. The only obstacle is the hard stubborn rock, but I know we must move slowly and carefully, as the next bone could be anywhere.”

Vertebrate Paleontology
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

LAWRENCE — A study appearing in the journal PLOS ONE this week shows that bioluminescence — the production of light from a living organism — is more widespread among marine fishes than previously understood.

Most people are familiar with bioluminescence in fireflies, but the phenomenon is found throughout the ocean, including in fishes. Indeed, the authors show with genetic analysis that bioluminescence has evolved independently 27 times in 14 major fish clades — groups of fish that come from a common ancestor.

“Bioluminescence is a way of signaling between fishes, the same way that people might dance or wear bright colors at a nightclub,” said W. Leo Smith, assistant curator with the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, who co-authored the paper. He added that some fish also are thought to use bioluminescence as camouflage.

Smith said the huge variety in ways bony fish can deploy bioluminescence — such as leveraging bioluminescent bacteria, channeling light though fiber-optic-like systems or using specialized light-producing organs — underlines the importance of bioluminescence to vertebrate fish in a major swath of the world’s deep seas called the “deep scattering layer.”

“When things evolve independently multiples times, we can infer that the feature is useful,” Smith said. “You have this whole habitat where everything that’s not living at the top or bottom of the ocean or along the edges — nearly every vertebrate living in the open water — around 80 percent of those fish species are bioluminescent. So this tells us bioluminescence is almost a requirement for fishes to be successful.”

Indeed, the KU researcher said the most common vertebrate species on the planet lives within this habitat and is bioluminescent. 

“The bristlemouth is the most abundant vertebrate on Earth,” Smith said. “Estimates of the size are thousands of trillions of bristlemouth fish in the world’s oceans.”

Smith and colleagues Matthew P. Davis of St. Cloud State University and John S. Sparks of the American Museum of Natural History found all fish they examined evolved bioluminescence between the Early Cretaceous, some 150 million years ago, and the Cenozoic Era.

Further, the team shows that once an evolutionary line of fish developed the ability to produce light, it tended soon thereafter to branch into many new species.

“Many fish proliferate species when they evolve this trait — they differentiate, but we don’t know why,” Smith said. “In the ocean, there are no physical barriers to separate groups of deep sea fishes, so why are there so many species of anglerfishes, for example? When they start using bioluminescence for species recognition, they diversify into a lot more species.”

To follow this line of inquiry, Smith and his co-authors now are working with a grant from the National Science Foundation to identify specific genes associated with the production of bioluminescence in fish.

In May, Smith and his two colleagues returned after taking a KU-chartered vessel to sea from the West Coast to collect samples of bioluminescent fish for analysis.

“We need fresh specimens for modern genetic approaches,” he said. “We’ll catch fishes and look at their mRNA to see what genes are being expressed. In the groups that produce their own light, we want to get the mRNA from the light organs themselves. With this information we can begin to trace the variation within the system, including the possibility of uncovering how this system evolved.”

- Brendan Lynch, KU News

Photos: A top, a Midshipman (Porichthys) emitting light from ventral photophores. Photo by Matt Davis. Top left, a preserved Black Dragonfish (Idiacanthus) with bioluminescent barbel. Photo by Matt Davis. Bottom left, a recently collected Deep-sea Hatchetfish (Sternoptyx) with bioluminescent ventral organs. Photo by Rene Martin.

Ichthyology
Monday, May 9, 2016
Ron Seidel

By Ron Seidel

 Raintree students examine prints of various beetles during their Art Engagement class-Photo credit Caroline Chaboo.

Students at Raintree Montessori School in Lawrence are turning their research of the natural world into art, and in turn, are helping educate others.
 

Caroline Chaboo, curator of entomology, brought large prints of beetles into Raintree’s art engagement class, which is led by Cindy Sears. The class of 12 students, ranging from seven to 10 years old, were captivated by the beetles’ ornate structures. After viewing the prints, the students decided to work together to research the beetles and curate an exhibit in Raintree.
 

The student-led research branched out to include staff and resources outside of their arts engagement class. For example, Raintree Latin instructor Will Sharp helped students learn to translate the scientific Latin names of beetles. The students were encouraged to pursue their interests as far as they wish, whether it be in arts, science, music, or other endeavors.
 

“When a child finds something they are truly passionate about, they want to return to the feeling again and again,” said Lleanna McReynolds, head of school at Raintree, “this can only happen when students are given time to pursue subjects of interest”
 

The students’ partnership with the Biodiversity Institute helps them to do just that. The students plan a series of bug-related events such as outdoor collecting, and watching and drawing insects and plants. Caroline connected the students with undergraduate entomology researchers who plan to volunteer their time at the events.

 

Students prepare the beetle exhibit, through which they will lead informative tours-Photo credit Cindy Sears.
 

By giving students resources to explore their interests beyond the classroom, McReynolds believes the students experience true development.

“Watching these children in the hallways of Raintree, using a level to adjust the artwork, writing the common names from the Latin and preparing to take visitors on tours and talk about what they have learned, that is when truly learning takes place,” said McReynolds, “there is nothing better.”

 

 

Entomology
Monday, May 9, 2016
Ron Seidel

By Ron Seidel

 Raintree students examine prints of various beetles during their Art Engagement class-Photo credit Caroline Chaboo.

Students at Raintree Montessori School in Lawrence are turning their research of the natural world into art, and in turn, are helping educate others.
 

Caroline Chaboo, curator of entomology, brought large prints of beetles into Raintree’s art engagement class, which is led by Cindy Sears. The class of 12 students, ranging from seven to 10 years old, were captivated by the beetles’ ornate structures. After viewing the prints, the students decided to work together to research the beetles and curate an exhibit in Raintree.
 

The student-led research branched out to include staff and resources outside of their arts engagement class. For example, Raintree Latin instructor Will Sharp helped students learn to translate the scientific Latin names of beetles. The students were encouraged to pursue their interests as far as they wish, whether it be in arts, science, music, or other endeavors.
 

“When a child finds something they are truly passionate about, they want to return to the feeling again and again,” said Lleanna McReynolds, head of school at Raintree, “this can only happen when students are given time to pursue subjects of interest”
 

The students’ partnership with the Biodiversity Institute helps them to do just that. The students plan a series of bug-related events such as outdoor collecting, and watching and drawing insects and plants. Caroline connected the students with undergraduate entomology researchers who plan to volunteer their time at the events.

 

Students prepare the beetle exhibit, through which they will lead informative tours-Photo credit Cindy Sears.
 

By giving students resources to explore their interests beyond the classroom, McReynolds believes the students experience true development.

“Watching these children in the hallways of Raintree, using a level to adjust the artwork, writing the common names from the Latin and preparing to take visitors on tours and talk about what they have learned, that is when truly learning takes place,” said McReynolds, “there is nothing better.”

 

 

Entomology