George Washington’s little buttercup

August 11th, 2016

How an extinct ancestor of buttercups and poppies is helping solve Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery’

By Stephenie Livingston

An ancient relative of buttercups, the new genus and species Vernifolium tenuiloba was originally found on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in the late 1800s. Illustration courtesy of UF News

An ancient relative of buttercups, the new genus and species Vernifolium tenuiloba was originally found on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in the late 1800s.
Illustration courtesy of UF News

Two men set out on the Potomac River in 1892 looking for fossil plants from the days when dinosaurs roamed the Atlantic Coast nibbling on conifer leaves and ferns. Their paddling came to a halt when up ahead in a bluff on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, a section of chocolate-colored stone caught the eye of paleobotanist Lester Ward and volunteer Victor Mason. Within minutes of digging, 105-million-year-old branches, leaves and seeds spilled from the mudstone, known for preserving fine details—a plant scientist’s gold mine. Scraps of partial fossils littered their findings. Among them was a tiny, seemingly insignificant leaf, thus beginning the modern history of George Washington’s little buttercup.

Except for a brief mention in Ward’s 1905 book, the leaf sat unstudied in a drawer at the Smithsonian Institution for the next 118 years. Then on a spring day in 2013, University of Florida paleobotanist Nathan Jud stumbled upon it while rifling through a drawer (more…)

How a century of fear turned deadly for sharks

June 26th, 2016
Shark researcher George Burgess displays an original July 1916 issue of the New York Tribune describing the New Jersey attacks. ©Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

Shark researcher George Burgess displays an original July 1916 issue of the New York Tribune describing the New Jersey attacks, known as “The 12 Days of Terror.”
©Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

By Elizabeth Brown

Before the summer of 1916, there was still debate about whether sharks could kill humans.

Most people were not even sure if a shark could bite a human. One of them was New York multimillionaire Hermann Oelrichs, who offered a $500 reward in 1891 for anyone who proved a shark attacked a human. That prize would be worth nearly $13,000 today.

But this July marks the 100th anniversary of events that ended the debate.

From July 1-12, 1916, dubbed the “Twelve Days of Terror,” four people died and another was wounded in five New Jersey shark attacks. The attacks garnered national media attention and sparked a newfound fear (more…)

Relationship advice from a gender-bending fish that mates for life

June 9th, 2016

By Stephenie Livingston

A pair of Chalk Bass pictured on a reef near Bocas Research Station, part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
Photo courtesy of Mary Hart

A 3-inch, monogamous, hermaphrodite proves the saying “there’s plenty more fish in the sea” isn’t always the case.

For the tiny fish found in the coral reefs off Panama, a lifelong relationship with its partner doesn’t come without some give and take. In fact, the faithful pair owe their evolutionary success to trading male and female roles: According to an April 2016 University of Florida study in the journal of Behavioral Ecology, the fish switch genders at least 20 times each day.

This reproductive strategy allows individuals to fertilize about as many eggs as they produce, giving the neon-blue fish a reproductive edge. Its mating habits may, at first, seem complex and (more…)

Bringing hobbits to Gainesville: UF botanist’s new book to detail significance of plant life in Tolkien’s Middle-earth

May 10th, 2016

By Emily Mavrakis

This image of Mallorn-trees in Lothlorien from Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" has been proposed as the cover for Judd's upcoming book. Illustration courtesy of Graham Judd

This image of Mallorn-trees in Lothlorien from Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” has been proposed as the cover for Judd’s upcoming book.
Illustration courtesy of Graham Judd

Whether they are flowering in a field, preserved in the Florida Museum of Natural History Herbarium or used to make the paper pages bound between covers in a book, botanist Walter Judd loves plants.

Not many people know the University of Florida campus quite like Judd, who takes time to stop and notice the many live oaks, southern magnolias, cabbage palms and pines as he walks to Dickinson Hall, which houses most of the Florida Museum’s collections and research activities.

Most people, instead, are what Judd calls “plant blind.”

Plant blindness is similar to the way a movie scene blurs out background settings to focus on what people find most important and compelling: the plot of the characters. This may even be an evolutionary adaptation.

“Typically plants are not a threat to us, but if you’re walking along you might notice some animal, because that could be a threat,” said Judd, UF distinguished professor emeritus of biology and courtesy curator of botany at the Florida Museum on the UF campus.

Whatever the reason, Judd wants to reverse this “blindness” by making plants more accessible to those who do not study botany or other sciences. He was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s books in the fictional universe Middle-earth, which Tolkien developed (more…)

Protecting a sunken ancient world: How the formation of a new national park in the Bahamas was driven by science

April 5th, 2016

By Stephenie Livingston

Two divers explore the ornately decorated Cascade Room in Dan's Cave. Photo courtesy of Brian Kakuk

Two divers explore the ornately decorated Cascade Room in Dan’s Cave.
Photo courtesy of Brian Kakuk

Probing the contours of some of the world’s most dangerous underwater caves: that’s how Brian Kakuk discovered the Bahamas’ oldest crocodile, tortoise and even human remains—remnants of a sunken world.

For four years, the expert diver and scientists, including University of Florida ornithologist David Steadman, have campaigned for a plan to protect these flooded caves known as blue holes— a new national park, almost entirely underwater, which would benefit science as much as tourism and conservation. The proposal for the 34,000-acre South Abaco Blue Holes Park was recently accepted along with 14 other new marine and land parks in the Bahamas, for a total of more than 2 million acres of protected area.

It was Kakuk’s first fossil finds that started the ball rolling on discoveries that changed what scientists thought they knew about the Bahamas.

“There’s nothing like the Bahamas’ blue holes on the rest of the planet,” said Kakuk, a dive instructor and research diver based on Great Abaco Island. “There is no other place where the caves are (more…)

World’s oldest chameleon found trapped in amber fossil

March 8th, 2016

By Stephenie Livingston

These ancient amber fossils from Myanmar in Southeast Asia provide a look at “missing links” in the evolutionary history of lizards. Photo courtesy of David Grimaldi

These ancient amber fossils from Myanmar in Southeast Asia provide a look at “missing links” in the evolutionary history of lizards. The chameleon is located in the far-right lower corner. 
Photo courtesy of David Grimaldi

About 100 million years ago an infant lizard’s life was cut short when it crawled into a sticky situation.

The early chameleon was creeping through the ancient tropics of present-day Myanmar in Southeast Asia when it succumbed to the resin of a coniferous tree. Over time, the resin fossilized into amber, leaving the lizard remarkably preserved. Seventy-eight million years older than the previous oldest specimen on record, the dime-size chameleon along with 11 more ancient fossil lizards were pulled—encased in amber—from a mine decades ago, but it wasn’t until recently that scientists had the opportunity to analyze them.

In “Jurassic Park,” fictional scientists cloned dinosaurs with blood extracted from amber, but these real-life fossils hold snapshots of “missing links” in the evolutionary history of lizards that will allow scientists to gain a better understanding of where they fit on the tree of life, said Edward Stanley, a postdoctoral researcher in herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus. (more…)

What lies within: New micro-CT scanner allows inside view of even the tiniest fossils

February 4th, 2016

By Emily Mavrakis

By infusing a specimen with iodine and using a micro-CT scanner, Florida Museum researcher David Blackburn is able to view the nervous system of the Burundi screeching frog, Arthroleptis schubotzi. Florida Museum of Natural History scan by David Blackburn

Infusing a specimen with iodine allows researchers using a micro-CT scanner to view the nervous system of the Burundi screeching frog, Arthroleptis schubotzi.
Florida Museum of Natural History scan by David Blackburn

Encased in hard rock, the bones of many fossilized mammals are only partially visible for scientists to study. A poor attempt to take apart the rock and view the complete fossil may damage the bone, but micro-CT scanning technology has safeguarded the fate of these specimens, many of which are tens of millions of years old.

“You can essentially cut into the specimens in a non-destructive way with a micro-CT scanner,” said Jonathan Bloch, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “And it allows you to look at the internal anatomy of fossil skulls.”

The new micro-CT scanner at the University of Florida’s Nanoscale Research Facility will allow Bloch and other scientists to closely view and study specimens as small as a micron (one millionth of a meter).

Holding a tiny Notharctus skull in his hand, Bloch explained the scanner (more…)

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