Taro Eldredge, a graduate student studying entomology at the Biodiversity Institute, was on a routine collecting trip within view of the University of Kansas campus when he came across an insect he’d never seen before. The insect turned out to be a new species. The article was published in ZooKeys.
Named in honor of the Sunflower State (helio ~ sun, anothos ~ flower), Myrmedonota heliantha is a 2 millimeter long carnivore that inhabits the Baker Wetlands, a small preserve at the southern edge of Lawrence. The wetlands are the subject of an ongoing debate about the future of expansion of the nearby Kansas Highway 10.
The wetlands are also the only place where the insect is currently known to exist. The discovery of Myrmedonota heliantha shows just how much there is to know about the plant and animal diversity of places close to home. We still find new species in our own back yards.
Myrmedonota heliantha's insect relatives can detect ant or termite colonies using smell. They then set up shop in their host's burrows and eat their hosts. Eldredge is curious if this species lives the same way.
In battles over land use, conservationists often cite the existence of rare animals and plants, or the potential to find new species. The finding of a new species of insect, however, is unlikely to steer the conversation about wetlands preservation. Eldredge said, "If we discovered an elusive population of giant panda in Baker Wetlands, no one would think twice to conserve the land and the beasts."
Last week's NYTimes article about roadkill (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/13/technology/13roadkill.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=roadkill&st=cse) got us thinking about how roads change the way scientists do research. Roads are in part a great research tool because they provide easy access to every region of the country but, as well as creating other issues, they can also skew data.
Craig Freeman, a botanist at the Biodiversity Institute, studies the flora of the Great Plains. His research often requires him to drive a lot:
"Not surprisingly, when we plot the collect locations of our specimens on a map showing the network of highways in the state, many occur at sites along or near roads, urban areas, and public lands," Freeman said. "Why? Botanists are more likely to see plants (or habitats) of interest from the roads that they travel and in areas where access is not limited. Consequently, there is a collection bias in our data."
This is particularly evident in the western quarter of Kansas, where there is very little public land and few urban areas. Many records documenting the flora of western Kansas come from roadside or near-roadside habitats. So, Freeman said, it's necessary to access lands away from roads to get a more accurate estimate of the diversity and abundance of plants.
Not only do roads change how we investigate the environment, but they also provide habitats for plants that wouldn't normally grow in the plains. Freeman continues:
"The use of salt to melt snow and ice on paved roads in eastern Kansas has permitted both alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster to spread eastward in Kansas, taking advantage of shoulders of highways where regular mowing elevated salinity limits competition from most other species. Alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster can be found along I-70, KS Hwy 10, and other major highways through eastern Kansas into the Kansas City metropolitan area, places where they did not occur as recently as 40 years ago."
Next time you're driving to KC via I-70, keep an eye out for the salty intruders.
Last week, The New York Times put out an article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/science/10ugly.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&adxnnl=1&ref=science&adxnnlx=1282248042-5tCVNTotvLF8XDJwZMbr1g&) on animal ugliness — how it affects which animals we like, which we have as pets, and ultimately which animals we spend most of our time studying.
Though the article does a good job of pointing out that cute animals get more than their fair share of study, the article itself only mentions conspicuous organisms. As Biodiversity Institute research assistant Kendra Koch points out:
"From my point of view the inconspicuous and less 'palatable' organisms are often simply ignored or at least shied away from. Parasites of course seem to have a special cringe factor. Even this article on ugly creatures focuses on mammals and vertebrates with no mention of the bulk of animal diversity, let alone any of the other kingdoms."
Animals are far outnumbered by other kingdoms in regard to number of individuals, and if the under-studied insects weren't included (insects are animals!), they would be dwarfed in species count, as well. An in-the-flesh example of this diversity is shown in our museum's BugTown exhibit.
Koch is a Research Assistant for Parasitology, a field of study still making sense of a huge diversity, the extent to which is unknown. New parasites are found every year, and it is estimated that there may be twice as many undiscovered species as known species.
"Nearly every time I explain what I do to someone who asks, the response is similar," says Koch. "A surprised and sometimes disgusted look accompanied by the question, 'why does studying elasmobranch tapeworms matter?' All living things (even parasites) are part of a greater system that has evolved toward some balance and ideally have an equal right to be conserved."
The natural world is always more complex than we think. Ugly critters have something going for them, as well — they're ugly. While we're worrying about the cute ones, or even the ugly ones, the worst off are the unnoticed.
Daphne Fautin, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, recently helped generate a paper that plans a Biodiversity Observing Network or BON — a system that may be a key factor in encouraging sustained marine ecosystem health. The effort would create a standardized, coordinated system for measuring marine biodiversity.
"I think a major message is that we don't know what we don't know," she said. "Not only do we not know what we might be losing, we do not know the roles even known organisms play in the ecosystem. Thus the BON. An Ocean Observing System is being developed to monitor the state of the oceans — to detect rises in temperature and drops in pH, for example. But why should those parameters interest us? One reason only — because they affect the ability of the ocean to sustain life, and we depend, indirectly and directly, on life in the ocean."
Serving on a steering committee, Fautin helped identify key methods for observing biodiversity. The paper listed many recommendations, including:
1. Coordinate biodiversity sampling across taxa, habitats, hierarchical levels, and methods from microbes to mammals;
2. Maximize compatibility of BON with legacy data;
3. Establish one or more Biodiversity Observation Center(s) to coordinate sample processing, including taxonomic identifications, data management, and training and invest in the computational expertise to handle large datasets in an open access environment;
4. Synthesize and make accessible marine taxonomic resources;
5. Invest in developing new approaches for automated sample processing;
6. Modernize and enhance the nation’s physical infrastructure for marine exploration; and
7. Initiate an integrated marine BON demonstration project soon.
Usually, your close relatives resemble you. Or at least they have the same number of limbs.
Not true, however, for Brachymeles lukbani, a species recently discovered by Cameron Siler, one of the museum's graduate students in herpetology. This critter (which has lost its limbs through evolution) looks like a snake but is actually a skink — a type of lizard. The genus Brachymeles has a diverse membership.
"They have the full suite from limbed to limbless, from working limbs with five fingers to no limbs at all," says Siler.
But this makes the lizards an excellent group for studying how and why limb loss occurs. Brachymeles lukbani "swims" through rotten logs and undergrowth, looking for food. In that situation, possessing limbs might not be very useful, or even counter-productive.
Siler's research has increased the museum's holdings of skinks, making it a leader in skink research
Caiman latirostris — a crocodile
Some of our specimens, recently discussed in our post about specimens as snapshots in time, take on a unique role after entering the museum's collections. Certain reptiles, amphibians and fishes undergo a process called clearing and staining, which helps scientists look into the critters.
After being turned translucent by a digestive enzyme called Trypsin (found in the bellies of many vertebrates including us), dyes are added. Bones and hard tissue are stained red with a chemical called Alizarin, and soft tissues are highlighted by adding Alcian blue.
The contrasting colors help scientists study the morphology - the skeletal and skin structures - of an animal. As an example, they prove especially useful for studying frog skulls, which undergo a peculiar dance of morphological change as frogs mature.
Fieldwork and lab work are at the heart of what we do at the Biodiversity Institute.
Mark Robbins, ornithology collection manager, bridges fieldwork (collecting specimens, recording data, investigating habitats) and lab work (DNA analysis, taxonomic classification, morphological comparisons). All specimens caught in the field spend time in the lab; all of the analyses and data obtained in the lab help to answer research questions about the life in the field.
Robbins' research questions pertain to the migration patterns of small birds called marsh and sedge wrens. To do his work, he collects specimens from the field in Northwestern Missouri and elsewhere. He is one of many Biodiversity Institute scientists who spend time in both the field and the lab - collecting and then analyzing data. To learn more about Robbins' work, investigate the gallery below or learn about his research methods.
The word “fossil” often conjures images of Tyrannosaurus rex skulls, mammoth femurs, or other large bones. But those aren’t the only ones that survive through the millennia, and certainly aren’t the only ones that have importance.
KU Biodiversity Institute graduate students Sarah Spears and Kathryn Mickle study prehistoric fishes. Their fossils are so small that, in order to get them ready for study, Sarah and Kathryn have to use tiny tools to remove excess rock. Sometimes, even metal tools are too rough and inexact, so they switch over to porcupine quills — just sharp and flexible enough to clean tiny fish bones.
We are all now back home, having arrived on Monday, bleary-eyed. It's been a long few days, full of travel, packing, unpacking, repacking, and airport-sitting.
We woke early to catch the boat from the CICRA field station to Laberinto, then a bus to the airport, followed by a flight back to Lima. We spent a day and a half in Lima as we pleased, and then we prepared the specimens for their flight back to the U.S.
We were at the bad end of United Airlines' computer glitch, suffering a delay and spending an extra night in Lima. Coupled with another night of flight cancellations, the group was ready to be out of the Lima airport, as we'd spent about 20 hours in it in 2 days. But we had better luck on the third night, and the group trickled into Kansas on Monday.
On the second night, United attempted to console us with sandwiches and soda. Not much of a consolation, but we ate them anyway.
But back to the days in the rain forest. As the trip went on, I became more and more interested in capturing (via photos) the life of the rain forest. Themes started to arise, and I explored them.
Light and darkness came to the fore. The sun hits the earth most directly at the equator, and though we were very near the equator, I never needed sunscreen. The canopy gorges itself on sunlight. So little makes it to the forest floor that I nearly always struggled with sufficient lighting. There are many theories as to why there are so many species in the tropics, and Dr. Chaboo mentioned that the sheer amount of energy obtained through sunlight may fuel the rain forest's staggering diversity. When browsing my photos (available via photo galleries on the Peru 2011 main page), keep an eye out for intense darkness next to bright swatches of light.
I also found myself trying to capture the world of the insects, trying to capture the bugs' eye view. They often perch on leaves, their heads over the side, peering into the void. It is fascinating how they navigate a world in which they are dwarves (or we giants, depending on perspective). The world of insects seems at all times an extremely dangerous world to live in, full of predators and other hazards. One day, it rained like we'd never seen it. As water poured down leaves, tree trunks, and palm fronds, it seemed that all the insects must surely drown. But they all came out the next day, alive, sucking the blood out of my ankles and photogenically perching on leaves.
As I sit in my air-conditioned apartment, sipping a soda, it seems impossible that the rain forest still pulses with life. But it surely does; it is one of those places that has such a vivacity to it that the visitor cannot help but wonder what's going on at this or that previously visited spot. It is swollen with activity. It exerts itself over the mind long after the visitor has left. Leaving it feels a bit like missing out on a party with all of your good friends, or forgetting to attend some important cultural event. The intensity of life in the rain forest lends it gravity.
My good fortune finally ran out. Up until Sunday evening I had experienced very little turbulence on this trip: the airplane flights were uneventful, in Lima I ate multiple things I probably shouldn’t have, they but didn’t cause any issues, I experienced maybe one mosquito bite, and I hadn’t suffered any physical injuries. Then Sunday night came, and I caught up on my suffering.
Most of us travelled by boat to Boca Miga, a small mining ‘town’, by ‘town’ I mean about three houses, six bars and a soccer field. We wandered around a bit before stopping in a bar to have some Coke and beer, our first cold drinks since the being home in the U.S. We ended up hanging out there for a while, chatting and dancing a bit. Prior to leaving for Boca Miga my stomach had felt a bit queasy, so I took some Immodium and carried on my merry way, not thinking much of it. After the boat trip back to CICRA and eating dinner my stomach started turning and making some noises, but didn’t cause much of an issue. Later, during Doctor Goddard’s talk, my body decided it was time to throw a fit. I spent much of the rest of the night in the bathroom, making friends with the toilet and the insects normally kept at bay by my mosquito net in the pitch dark (the power goes out every night at 9:30). This was definitely an experience I will not soon forget.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, I have been the only one so far to get the Full Peru experience.