Global ‘tree of life’ study shows insects ruled Earth 400 million years ago

November 6th, 2014
Kawahara

Florida Museum lepidopterist Akito Kawahara displays insects that illustrate the large variety of species used in a new international study appearing in the journal Science this week. Kawahara is one of more than 100 scientists from 10 countries who contributed to the research.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A new study involving more than 100 researchers from 10 countries, including the University of Florida, has reconstructed the insect tree of life and found, among other things, that insects ruled the land 400 million years ago.

The cover story in Friday’s issue of the journal Science answers many long-held questions about the evolution of the world’s largest and most biodiverse group of animals, information essential to understanding the millions of living insect species that shape our terrestrial living space and support and threaten our natural resources.

The new tree of life incorporated many fossils, making it the first dated evolutionary tree of this magnitude, said co-author Akito Kawahara, assistant curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, who leads the butterfly and moth initiative for the ongoing project.

“Until now, we didn’t have a good understanding of how these diverse groups of insects are related to each other,” “Until now, we didn’t have a good understanding of how these diverse groups of insects are related to each other,” said Kawahara, a researcher in the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which holds one of the world’s largest collections of butterflies and moths. “Many insects important to everyday life and scientific research were included in the study, (more…)

Tour the cosmos during Starry Night event Nov. 14

October 30th, 2014
Stargazing

Visitors stargaze using professional-quality telescopes during the 2011 Starry Night event.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s written in the stars that Florida Museum of Natural History visitors will have an opportunity to observe the universe with astronomy experts during the eighth annual Starry Night from 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 14.

Visitors can stargaze during a planetarium show and with professional-quality telescopes provided by area astronomists at this free, family-friendly event. A 3-D “AstroWall” will also allow visitors to view the cosmos in another dimension.

Representatives from the Alachua Astronomy Club, Santa Fe College natural sciences department’s astronomy program, the Kika Silva Pla Planetarium and UF astronomy department will help visitors uncover the mysteries of the night sky.

“I think people love space because it is something we are completely surrounded by but also something most of us have never experienced first-hand,” said Florida Museum educator Amanda Harvey. “We’re really lucky to have an opportunity like Starry Night where people that specialize in the field come together to share what they’ve learned and are learning to help us understand space and to make it more familiar.”

The event features UF astronomy department professor Fred Hamann who will discuss “Quasars and Black Holes: A Journey Toward the Gravitational Abyss.”

Attendees will earn a prize by tracking their activities with a “Passport to the Universe.” They also have an opportunity to dine under the stars by visiting the event’s food vendor, High Springs Orchard and (more…)

New study shows megalodon shark became extinct 2.6 million years ago

October 22nd, 2014
Pimiento in lab

Lead researcher Catalina Pimiento measures a megalodon tooth at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A new University of Florida study dismisses claims that megalodon is still alive by determining a date of extinction for the largest predatory shark to ever live.

Researchers from UF and the University of Zurich hope the study appearing online today in the journal PLOS ONE showing the species became extinct 2.6 million years ago will clarify public confusion. The study may also one day help scientists better understand the potential widespread effects of losing the planet’s top predators, said lead author Catalina Pimiento.

“I was drawn to the study of Carcharocles megalodon’s extinction because it is fundamental to know when species became extinct to then begin to understand the causes and consequences of such an event,” said Pimiento, a doctoral candidate at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “I also think people who are interested in this animal deserve to know what the scientific evidence shows, especially following Discovery Channel specials that implied megalodon may still be alive.”

The study represents the first phase of Pimiento’s ongoing reconstruction of megalodon’s extinction. As modern top predators, especially large sharks, are significantly declining worldwide due to the current biodiversity crisis, Pimiento said this study serves as the basis to better understand the consequences of these changes.

“When you remove large sharks, then small sharks are very abundant and they consume more of the invertebrates that we humans eat,” Pimiento said. “Recent estimations show that large-bodied, shallow-water species of sharks are at greatest risk among marine animals, and (more…)

Answer to restoring lost island biodiversity found in fossils

September 22nd, 2014
Croc skull

A new study shows scientists are only beginning to understand the roles of native species in prehistoric island ecosystems. Researchers discovered this 3,000-year-old fossil skull of a Cuban Crocodile, Crocodylus rhombifer, in the Bahamas.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Many native species have vanished from tropical islands because of human impact, but University of Florida scientists have discovered how fossils can be used to restore lost biodiversity.

The key lies in organic materials found in fossil bones, which contain evidence for how ancient ecosystems functioned, according to a new study available online and in the September issue of the Journal of Herpetology. Pre-human island ecosystems provide vital clues for saving endangered island species and re-establishing native species, said lead author Alex Hastings, who conducted work for the study as graduate student at the Florida Museum of Natural History and UF department of geological sciences.

“Our work is particularly relevant to endangered species that are currently living in marginal environments,” said Hastings, currently a post-doctoral researcher at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. “A better understanding of species’ natural roles in ecosystems untouched by people might improve their prospects for survival.”

Thousands of years ago, the largest carnivore and herbivore on the Bahamian island of Abaco disappeared. The study reconstructs the ancient food web of Abaco where these two mega-reptiles, the endangered Cuban Crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) and (more…)

Celebrate ninth annual ButterflyFest Oct. 4

September 18th, 2014

12694 BFest Digital Material_FB2GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Visitors are invited to flutter, flap and frolic at the Florida Museum of Natural History’s ninth annual ButterflyFest from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 4.

The free event features live butterfly releases, butterfly gardening workshops and one of the museum’s largest plant sales of the year. The three-day sale from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 3-5 includes more than 150 species and 2,500 plants.

“ButterflyFest is one of the museum’s signature events and fun for everyone,” said Florida Museum public programs coordinator Catherine Carey. “There is something for the serious and casual gardener, as well as families, scouts and students.”

The event celebrates the importance of backyard wildlife with an emphasis on pollinators like butterflies, bees and birds by providing family-friendly activities and presentations. This year’s theme is “Wings, Wildlife and Biodiversity.” The festival also features a children’s activity area, entertainment and food and merchandise vendors.

Festival attendees may march in costume at the Pollinator Parade, watch the University of Florida juggling club Objects in Motion and (more…)

Marston Library, museum resurrect science art contest

July 28th, 2014

12790-The-Elegance-of-Science-rotatorGAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida Elegance of Science art competition that stresses the connection between artistic and scientific perceptions of reality is now accepting submissions until Dec. 20.

After a three-year hiatus, the Marston Science Library and Florida Museum of Natural History are re-introducing the contest to UF students, staff and faculty who have created two-dimensional images as part of their research or that feature scientific tools or concepts.

Art is often sacrificed in schools because people emphasize science for students’ (more…)

Buchholz High School student wins prestigious grant to research moth wings

July 24th, 2014
Zhong

High school senior Minjia Zhong holds a Saturniid moth, Citheronia splendens, while conducting fieldwork in Arizona.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Geena Hill

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A high school student working in the Florida Museum of Natural History McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity recently received a $2,000 Mu Alpha Theta grant to research moth wings.

Only about a dozen U.S. high school students receive the grant each summer from the national high school and two-year college mathematics honor society.

The grant will allow Buchholz High School senior Minjia Zhong to complete a paper she wrote and submit it for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“A $2,000 research grant is an incredible accomplishment for someone who has yet to start college,” said Florida Museum assistant curator of Lepidoptera Akito Kawahara, who is supervising Zhong’s research.

Zhong uses her math skills to apply and understand geometric morphometrics, a field of statistics used to quantify complex shapes. Kawahara said Florida Museum researchers think diverse wing shapes evolved as a defense against nocturnal predators, such as bats.

Zhong said she developed an interest in moths as a collections assistant through the Florida Museum’s summer Junior Volunteer Program, and studying wing shapes of the Saturniidae moth family satisfied her desire to combine math and (more…)

Community support sought for butterfly gardens at local schools

July 17th, 2014
Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

A monarch butterfly feeds on a Fragrant Delight Heliotrope plant in the Butterfly Rainforest.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Many young children today are disconnected from the natural world, but a project to plant local butterfly gardens in area schools is closing the gap that exists between urban students and nature.

Florida Museum of Natural History scientists partnered with educators at Duval Elementary School last fall to open children’s eyes to the unique metamorphosis that occurs during butterfly development and the responsibilities involved in caring for a garden. Now, the museum is raising funds and accepting plant donations for gardens at other schools, including a project at Williams Elementary School set to begin this fall.

“We live in an environment where kids do not have enough exposure to nature in order to learn how it operates,” said Duval teacher Anterria Ellerbe. “Thanks to the garden, these students do (more…)

Active military, families receive free admission May 26-Sept. 1

May 6th, 2014

BSM-no-tagGAINESVILLE, Fla. — As part of the Blue Star Museums program, the Florida Museum of Natural History will offer free admission to all fee-based exhibits for active duty military personnel and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day 2014.

This is the third consecutive year the Florida Museum has participated in the Blue Star program, a collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense and more than 2,000 museums across America. The program runs from May 26 through Sept. 1.

“We are honored to be part of the Blue Star Museums program and help provide our nation’s active duty military personnel with a high-quality museum experience,” said associate curator for Lepidoptera Jaret Daniels, who also oversees the museum’s exhibits and (more…)

Museum researcher receives 2013-2014 UF Excellence Award

May 2nd, 2014

Neill Wallis Swift Creek Pottery lowresGAINESVILLE, Fla. — A Florida Museum of Natural History researcher recently received a 2013-2014 UF Excellence Award for his research on social networks and communities in pre-Columbian North America.

Neill Wallis, assistant curator in Florida archaeology, was one of 10 University of Florida assistant professors selected to receive the award. Recognizing excellence in research from junior faculty, the $5,000 award may be used to fund travel, equipment, books, graduate student assistants and other research-related expenses.

Wallis’ research programs focus on the development and change of Native American social networks and communities between 3,000 and 500 years ago. Centered primarily on Florida and the southeastern United States, his research more broadly redefines understandings of political and social life in these societies.

“Dr. Wallis is an exceptional young faculty member whose scholarly productivity is outstanding,” said Florida Museum Director Doug Jones, who nominated Wallis for the award.

Since 2011, in addition to senior authorship on six peer-reviewed articles and five book chapters (more…)