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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Field Herpetology Summer Class

From 30th May to 10th June 2016, the herpetology division held a field herpetology summer class designed to introduce students to the local herpetofauna and methods for conducting field surveys. We led 12 inspired students on a two-week long fieldtrip across six different counties in Kansas and managed to collect 44 different species of amphibians and reptiles. Here are some highlights from our trip:

Our journey began at the Konza Prairie Biological Station (KPBS) where the director of the station Dr. Eva Horne gave us a very informative tour about the research that was going on at the station. The KPBS is located in the Flint Hills on a 3,487 hectare native tallgrass prairie preserve jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University. This was the students first introduction to herping and what better place to start than The Flint Hills! 

From Konza, we headed to Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands for a day before proceeding to Wilson Lake State Park in the Smokey Hills region of Kansas. Here, students got to try their hands at noosing lizards under the watchful eye of the noose master himself, Rich Glor. 

To cap off the first week of fieldwork, we visited the Sternberg Museum of Natural History and was given a behind-the-scenes tour by the collections manager Curtis Schmidt. 

For the second week, we headed southwards to Alexander Ranch in Barber County, led by  guest instructor Eric Rundquist. This was by far the most productive site where we managed to rack up 26 species in two days. 

Our next stop was Elk City State Park in Montgomery County where the highlight was three Rough Green Snakes! (Opheodrys aestivus). 

Our last stop for the trip was Shermerhorn Park in Cherokee County where we found our first salamanders and newt!

12 fantastic students -- two weeks in the field -- 6 counties -- 44 species, sums up an immensely successful class. Can't wait to do it again next summer!

For more photos, please visit the KU Herpetology flickr page




Thursday, February 18, 2016

KU Cryogenic Storage Expands with Biodiversity Collections

Andy Bentley removes specimens from a cryogenic dewar.


If you think you are cold this winter, remember others always have it worse. For instance, consider the tissue samples at the KU Biodiversity Institute.

The KU Biodiversity Institute stores thousands of tissue samples from species found around the globe at a frosty -175 degrees Celsius. The specimens are stored in dewars, which are large, vacuum-sealed containers with a pool of liquid nitrogen at the bottom. While -175 degrees is hard to imagine, the newest dewar at KU dips even lower.

“The latest one we’ve acquired runs at -190 degrees Celsius, but otherwise functions much in the same way,” said KU Ichthyology Collections Manager Andy Bentley.


To put that in perspective, NASA satellites found locations in east Antarctica reaching temperatures of -135.8 degrees Celsius, or -93.2 degrees Fahrenheit, still almost 60 degrees shy of the dewar’s temperatures. These antarctic locations boast the lowest temperatures found naturally on earth to date. Humans are expected to survive only three minutes in these frozen conditions--not nearly enough time to build a snowman.
East Antarctica, warmer than a cryogenic dewar.
The extreme temperatures in dewars preserve usable DNA in tissue samples taken from whole specimens. The voucher specimens are often stored in structure-preserving formaldehyde solutions. However, formaldehyde destroys a specimen’s DNA, rendering them useless for further genetic study. Researchers need a way to keep both the DNA and the whole specimen preserved.


“We need a way to preserve DNA before the specimens are fixed in formaldehyde,” Bentley said. “So now in the field we take fresh specimens and extract samples of either internal organs or muscle tissue, place them in a tube, and freeze them before sending the rest of the specimen to be preserved.”


Tissues preserved in the dewars are in constant demand. Researchers from all over the world review online catalogs of stored specimens and send requests for tissues that could further their research. Upon receiving a request, the specimen is carefully extracted from the dewar and thawed on ice. Once thawed, a tiny piece of tissue is sliced from the sample and shipped in ninety-five percent ethanol.


The number and variety of specimens available for research is growing rapidly. The two dewars currently used are quickly filling with tissue samples. Bentley expects the newest dewar to see use before 2017.


“There’s new material coming in from the field at a rate of ten percent a year,” Bentley said. “In ichthyology we expect another 1,100 tissues a year, so with that kind of growth across all departments we expect to fill the two current dewars in six to eight months.”


When the first two dewars near capacity, the third will be filled with eight-to-ten inches of liquid nitrogen. This level is monitored 24 hours a day to maintain the crucially cold temperatures. Once filled, the third dewar stands ready to support the growing collection.


“There is a fairly large portion of material that is unique to our collection,” Bentley said. “The ichthyology collection, we think, is probably one of the largest ichthyology tissue collections in the world, based on taxonomic and geographic scope.”




Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fisherman Discovers 200-Year-Old Chinese Giant Salamander

A fisherman in southwest China stumbled upon a 200-year-old Chinese giant salamander weighing over 100 pounds. The four-and-a-half foot long specimen greatly surpasses the average lifespan of the critically endangered species. Giant salamanders are thought to live 80 years in the wild. The salamander found in China has been transferred to a research facility for study.

An adult Japanese Giant Salamander(Andrias japonicas).

Species of the giant salamander are found in both China (Andrias davidianus) and Japan (Andrias japonicas). Oddly enough, the closest relative to these living fossils is the Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) found in eastern North America. The hellbender, on average, grows to half the size of the giant species. KU Herpetology Collections Manager Luke Welton says giant salamanders diverged from the hellbender 65 million years ago.

Despite the distance between their homes, all three species have similar habitats and lifestyles. Welton says the three species spend little time on land due to poorly developed lungs, and instead absorb most of their oxygen through folds of skin on their sides. As a result of this preference, all three prefer cold, fast-running streams and lakes. Salamanders often seek refuge beneath large submerged rocks and boulders.

Several specimens of the hellbender and both species of giant salamander are part of the KU Biodiversity Institute Herpetology Collections.

A KU Herpetology lab snaps a selfie before releasing a hellbender found in the Niangua river near Bennet Springs, Missouri.



Friday, November 20, 2015

Dinner or Dinosaur? Both!


This Thanksgiving, don’t think of the yearly tradition as just carving up a turkey. In reality, you’re dissecting your very own dinosaur.

KU Paleontologist David Burnham studies ancient raptors of all sizes. Studying these ancient relatives fills the gaps between raptors of the past and the turkeys we eat today. Upon studying this lineage, one can see that turkeys and raptors have much more in common than you may think, despite differences in how we traditionally picture a “bird.”

“The public’s perception of what a bird may be might not be the definition a scientist would use,” said Burnham.

The public largely defines birds by their feathers and flight capabilities. By comparison to their ancestors, not only do both prehistoric raptors and modern birds share feathers, but many living birds also either rarely or never use flight including ostriches, emus, cassowaries and turkeys. 

“The loss of flight has evolved several times throughout that lineage,” said Burnham. “If we want to draw a line when theropod dinosaurs became strictly avian, well, we’re still refining that even today due to the enormous amount of new discoveries.”

What’s important to remember is that dinosaurs never fully became extinct. The ones that survived mass extinction merely changed. Birds such as turkeys and chickens share their lineage with theropods, or two-legged meat-eating dinosaurs. The skeletal structures of turkeys and extinct theropods such as Velociraptor, Bambiraptor and Microraptor retain several similarities in particular. 

Here are some points to look for while dissecting your “dinosaur” this Thanksgiving:

  • Wishbone - The furcula, or wishbone, is a major connection between the turkey and its ancient theropod ancestors. The furcula is made up of two formerly separate collarbones, fused together. This evolutionary change aided in flight capabilities of ancient raptors such as Microraptor, and continues to help modern birds, such as turkeys, reach liftoff.
  • Wings - The turkey wing deserves careful inspection. The fleshed-over tip is where claws protruded from theropod arms such as those of Velociraptor, Bambiraptor, and even the massive Dakotaraptor. Imagine those on your dinner plate! As theropod dinosaurs evolved, their arms became longer and those claws were covered by flesh forming wings suitable for extended flight – an easily recognizable feature of avian species we see today.

  • The fleshed-over tip of a turkey wing, where raptor claws once protruded to snatch prey
  • Thighs and drumsticks - These are often the most sought after pieces of the feast, and still quite similar to the legs of theropods. This leg structure allowed raptors to reach impressive ground speeds; Velociraptor is thought to have been able to run as fast as 40 miles per hour! The turkey on your table is no slowpoke either thanks to this ancient design, with a top running speed of 25 miles per hour. 

Turkey hips (left) as compared to  those of a pre-historic raptor (right)

While the turkey still possesses many remarkable features harkening back to its raptor relatives, there are some things we can be thankful were lost during evolution.

“Of course, turkeys don’t have teeth,” said Burnham, “and that’s probably a good thing.”

Friday, June 12, 2015

Bad Banana: Beautiful plant going bad?

The banana family, scientifically called Musaceae, comprises two genera and about 80 species from Africa and Asia.  Edible bananas and plantains both belong to the genus Musa.  The bananas we eat do not grow on a banana "tree".  Rather, the plant is an herb, with an underground rhizome, a "stem" made of tightly-packed stems of the large showy leaves, and the inflorescence where each flower produces one edible banana.  Bananas are thought to have been domesticated about 8000 BC in southeast Asia; those soft tiny black specks at the center of the banana fruit are sterile - they cannot be planted for new plants.  The plant forms suckers (root sprouts) that help create a clump of banana plants or that are separable for new plants.  While bananas are eaten raw, plantains must be cooked.  Both are delicious and of immense value in the tropical larder.  Scientists believe that these edible bananas are actually hybrids from two wild species, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana.  Costa Rica is a major exporter of bananas; forests have been cut to grow large monocultures and high pesticide use is implicated as a threat to caiman populations.

Banana plants are beautiful!  It is not surprising that we see ornamental bananas commonly planted along roads and in gardens -  those big showy leaves and big colorful infloresences bring that lush "tropical" touch.  One spectacular introduced ornamental banana is Musa velutina.  I noted this beauty commonly grown on our route and I am wondering if native arthropods on native Zingiberales can expand their host range to this exotic.  I also wonder if the viable seeds of M. velutina can grow - perhaps spread in bird droppings.  It is not uncommon for beautiful garden plants to break free, run rampant, and become scourges, no matter how "pretty" they appear.

Musa velutina, an introduced ornamental banana growing in Costa Rica
Musa velutina seeds are viable, unlike the bananas we eat
Bird food!

Monday, July 13, 2015


Anyone wanting to participate in a field expedition must have a spirit for adventure, adaptability, and curiosity. Any travel takes one out of the familiar comfort zone; but if a participant is not happy, it negatively affects the entire group.  My task in selecting participants is tough, trying to determine the above qualities and the fit with the group (both for travel and in teams collecting data).  The biggest test comes usually with the first day of hiking —are you physically fit to hike for several hours?  Or, with the first rainfall—will you complain when we get caught in the rain?  Some students daydream of doing international fieldwork, but only when we try it out can we be sure that long hours with wet clothes and a soggy lunch are trivial compared to the exhilaration of being in the field, doing field research.  Fieldwork is not for every biologist; it is okay.....and okay to learn this sooner than later.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
Fieldwork goes on, rain or shine!
Daneil taking a break for lunch, during a shower
KU students in thermal spring pool, Costa Rica

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Costa Rica 2015 blog: Introducing Caroline

I am Caroline Chaboo, Director of this 2015 program to Costa Rica.  Normally, I head to Peru every June with students.  However, this year Costa Rica is on the menu due to several factors and opportunities. The University of Costa Rica and the University of Kansas have a long established relationship of collaboration in research, education and visits.  This program is supported by KU's Office of International Programs.

In 2014, I expanded one aspect of my Peru research, arthropod communities on Zingiberales plants, and sought a  second site for comparative study.  Two UCR colleagues, one I met more than 10 years ago, developed a grant proposal which was funded.  One UCR collaborator visited KU recently (his first visit to the USA). Our plan is to develop a Central American site and study the diversity (taxonomic and food web relations) of the arthropods that are associated with these distinctive Zingiberales plants (familiar ones are bananas and ginger, but flowers are also sold in shops).

The field course program developed as a way to initiate a joint education program alongside the larger research so we could bring KU and UCR students together, conducting research towards their first scientific publication as they gained exposure to rich tropical habitats and acquired several field skills. 

Some KU participants opted to pursue grants for research, which they were awarded. We have met several times to discuss everything, from travel medicine to hiking shoes.  I am excited to renew collaborations with the excellent UCR biology faculty and to expose KU students to Costa Rica = "rich coast" = rich biodiversity. 

Follow all of our posts here

Monday, April 13, 2015

Unpacking Antarctica

Nearly four months after the KU Antarctica team returned to campus, the 5,000 pounds of fossil material they collected in Antarctica will arrive at KU on Monday, April 13. 

Staff and students will start unloading 50-60 wooden crates of  material that is 260 to 180 million years old, from the Permian and Jurassic periods.  

Although most people think of Antarctica as a barren, cold environment, 200 million years ago it was a land of lush forest – a forest that now permineralized can yield clues to the climate change of the past, and how plants today may react to climate change as well.

The fossil material will help scientists study floral changes during the Jurassic in the Transantarctic Mountains of Antarctica. 

“This research is important in understanding what climate and environment was like at the poles during one of Earth’s past greenhouse climates and how plants responded to both climate changes and instantaneous disruptions through the rise of volcanoes,” said Rudy Serbet, collection manager of paleobotany at KU Biodiversity Institute and a team leader for the trip. “These sorts of times and environmental stresses are key to understanding how current climate change may effect high latitude plants.”

During the seven weeks they were in Antarctica, the group took several camping field trips “out to the ice,” including the  Odell Glacier area and the Allan Hills. 

No staff or students have seen the material in the intervening months as it made its way from Antarctica to California to Kansas. 

"Today is like Christmas in April,” said Paleobotany Curator Edith Taylor, lead PI on the National Science Foundation grant that funded the research.

Archived posts from the group are available here

Friday, December 19, 2014

Field Expedition Featured In Local Solomon Island Newspaper

PhD student Scott Travers recently shared an article from the Solomon Star featuring a 2 week biodiversity research expedition he took part in while leading his own expedition to the island nation. This two week trip was organized by Ecological Solutions Solomon Islands and along with Travers was composed of a multinational team representing a number of fields in the biosciences.