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. (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…)

Researchers discover six new African clawed-frog species, once used as pregnancy tests

January 8th, 2016

By Stephenie Livingston

A new study describes six new species of African clawed frogs, including Xenopus mellotropicalis, pictured here in Gabon, Central Africa. Photo courtesy of Bryan Stuart

A new study describes six new species of African clawed frogs, including Xenopus mellotropicalis,  pictured here in Gabon, Central Africa.
Photo courtesy of Bryan Stuart

Before modern-day pregnancy tests, doctors in the early 20th century resorted to unusual methods. One was to expose a live African clawed frog to a woman’s urine, then wait hours to see if it laid eggs. If it did, the test was positive.

The frogs were used in pregnancy tests until the 1970s when researchers developed easy-to-use, at-home tests. However, the legacy of the African clawed frog lives on, since its widespread use resulted in thousands of frogs being distributed from South Africa to labs and hospitals around the world.

Although African clawed frogs have been widely studied as a model for understanding the early development of eggs after fertilization, at least six species fooled researchers (more…)

A new age for exploring the uncharted deep sea

December 11th, 2015

By Stephenie Livingston

The Okeanos Explorer streams live footage while exploring ocean biodiversity and geography, allowing scientists and citizens to follow its expeditions online. Photo courtesy of NOAA

The Okeanos Explorer streams live footage while exploring ocean biodiversity and geography, allowing scientists and citizens to follow its expeditions online. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Imagine looking down on where you live from 20,000 feet above. Now imagine 95 percent of what’s below has never been seen. That’s what it’s like exploring the deep sea—the planet’s largest and most unknown habitat.

The deep-sea environment is ominous and harsh. There is no light and the pressure at some of the deepest parts of the ocean is equivalent to the weight of an elephant balanced on a postage stamp. The temperature at these icy depths drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Fish had to evolve unique and sometimes strange adaptations to live in these conditions, giving them an unearthly appearance.

This otherworldly habitat is the focus of Okeanos Explorer, the only federally funded U.S. ship (more…)

Beyond the temples, ancient bones reveal the lives of the Mayan working class

November 5th, 2015

By Stephenie Livingston

Museum doctoral student Ashley Sharpe examines a piece of marine shell made into an ornament. The artifact was found near the ruins of houses belonging to working-class Maya people at the ancient site of El Kinel, a small village near the large capital of Yaxchilan. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

Museum doctoral student Ashley Sharpe examines a piece of marine shell made into an ornament. The artifact was found near the ruins of houses belonging to working-class Maya people at the ancient site of El Kinel.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

Most of what we know about Mayan civilization relates to kings, queens and their elaborate temples. To understand what life was like for the 99 percent, one researcher turned to ancient animal bones stored at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Ashley Sharpe, a doctoral student at the museum on the University of Florida campus, says the picture researchers have painted of the Maya people isn’t broad enough.

“When you think about the Romans and the Greeks, we know a lot about all of the different social classes — from the Caesars down to the commoners — but although there were tens of thousands of middle-class and lower-income Maya in big cities, we still don’t know (more…)

Public archaeology: UF excavates state’s oldest stone mission church during St. Augustine 450th celebration

October 17th, 2015
Gifford Waters discusses findings with the public and dignitaries from the Roman Catholic Church at the excavation site. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

Gifford Waters discusses findings with the public and dignitaries from the Roman Catholic Church at the excavation site.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

By Stephenie Livingston

Florida Museum of Natural History archaeologists enlisted the help of the public as they returned to the remains of the oldest stone mission church completed in colonial Spanish Florida during the 450th anniversary of St. Augustine last month.

From Aug. 24 through Sept. 11, 2015, participants searched for clues about daily life at the first and longest-lasting Franciscan mission in the Southeast, said lead researcher Gifford Waters, historical archaeology collection manager for the museum, located on the University of Florida campus.

“This season was both a research project as well as a public archaeology project,” Waters said. “I wanted (more…)

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