Study reveals 180 million years of parasitic infestation in crustaceans

October 8th, 2014
modern isopod-infested decapods

These modern isopod-infested decapods from the Philippines show prominent swellings caused by parasites on the right side.
Photo courtesy of Klompmaker et al. (2014) in PLOS ONE

By Stephenie Livingston

When Darwin suggested the “survival of the fittest” concept, he did not necessarily mean “survival of the biggest.”

The large marine animals of the past, like prehistoric mega-sharks and whales, draw popular attention and the interest of researchers alike. However, the smaller invertebrate animals dominated Earth in the past and still do today.

Florida Museum of Natural History post-doctoral researcher Adiel Klompmaker’s passion lies in studying the small creatures of the deep. It was while collecting specimens of crustaceans at a fossil reef in northern Spain that he noticed a strange swelling on a fossilized crab.

“What is this? Was it sick? Is this a disease of some kind?” wondered Klompmaker. “I had never observed these swellings in the field.”

The culprit was (more…)

Museum researchers advance ‘DNA revolution,’ tell butterflies’ evolutionary history

September 11th, 2014
Kawahara

Assistant curator of Lepidoptera Akito Kawahara led a yearlong study that revealed monumental discoveries about the evolutionary history of butterflies and moths.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

By Stephenie Livingston

The wispy, delicate nature of butterflies and moths is part of their charm, but their soft bodies do not preserve well in the fossil record, posing a problem for scientists since the early history of Lepidoptera research. Now, by tracing nearly 3,000 genes to the earliest common ancestor of butterflies and moths, Florida Museum of Natural History scientists have created an extensive “Tree of Lepidoptera” in the first study to use large-scale, next-generation DNA sequencing.

Among the study’s more surprising findings: Butterflies are more closely related to small moths than to large ones, which completely changes scientists’ understanding of how butterflies evolved. The study also found that some insects once classified as moths are actually butterflies, increasing the number of butterfly species.

“This project advances biodiversity research by providing an evolutionary foundation for a very diverse group of insects, with nearly 160,000 described species,” said Akito Kawahara, lead author and (more…)

9,700 acres tell stories of Florida’s past, give hope for the future

August 14th, 2014
Ordway-Swisher Biological Station

The 9,700-acre Ordway-Swisher Biological Station is a near-pristine snapshot of pre-human Florida, with wetlands and uplands that include sand hills, swamps, marshes, hammocks and lakes.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Zach Guignardi

By Stephenie Livingston

It was home to Native Americans as early as 12,000 B.C., then settlers during the Civil War. Its pine trees contributed to the early 20th century turpentine industry, and for millennia its plants and wildlife have been fueled by an unlikely life source—forest fires.

The 9,700-acre Ordway-Swisher Biological Station, located in Putnam County, Fla., and managed by the University of Florida and its Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences since 1983, is a snapshot of what once was. As the bubbling springs and lush forests noted by naturalist William Bartram in the 19th century have dwindled, so have the wetlands and uplands that include sand hills, swamps, marshes, hammocks and lakes that characterized central Florida.

Four Florida Museum of Natural History botanists, including senior biological scientist Mark Whitten, are drawn to what remains of this chaotic environment. Funded by IFAS, they have been working for the past year to document every plant in the Ordway as part of a larger project to document every plant statewide.

“Florida’s habitats and species distributions are changing as the climate changes, and (more…)

Scientists rewrite evolutionary history of tiny sea cucumbers

July 14th, 2014
Phyrella mookiei

This close-up of the holotype specimen of Phyrella mookiei shows the arrangement of the tentacles and mouth.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by François Michonneau

By Stephenie Livingston

Scientists at the Florida Museum of Natural History have discovered that a group of tiny sea cucumbers has enormous taxonomic problems.

The use of DNA analyses in taxonomic research has increased in recent years, making it possible for scientists to better understand poorly known species and build knowledge of Earth’s more obscure biodiversity. This type of work is exemplified by the research of François Michonneau, a former invertebrate zoology Ph.D. student with the Florida Museum, who studies the oceans’ most diverse order of sea cucumbers, Dendrochirotida, which includes many small species—most only a few centimeters in length. Studying Phyrella, a genus of Dendrochirotida, Michonneau found that several species of sea cucumbers (more…)

Bird calls on demand: Digitized collection now available online

June 13th, 2014
Tom Webber

Museum ornithologist Tom Webber examines a reel-to-reel tape of bird sounds in the collections.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

By Stephenie Livingston

While standing next to a shelf filled with thousands of aging reel-to-reel and other tape recordings of bird sounds collected over the past 40 years, Florida Museum of Natural History ornithologist Tom Webber inspected an especially fragile reel from the 1960s.

“Eventually, even the magnetic plastic tapes will break down,” Webber said. “They’re stored under optimal conditions. But the older ones,” he said as he paused, running his hand across a stack of worn, discolored tapes, “We’re already having that happen to some of them.”

In an effort to preserve the second-largest collection of bird sounds in terms of species in the Western Hemisphere, scientists acquired a $446,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2009 to digitize the Florida Museum’s analog bird-sound field recordings, which represent more than 3,000 species. From the extinct Dusky Seaside Sparrow to vocal Florida Scrub-Jays, the complete online collection will (more…)

Discovery of over 100 new species fuels drive to document biodiversity

May 14th, 2014

By Stephenie Livingston

small-web-from-Canto-1303130031

Vertebrate paleontologist Richard Hulbert Jr. displays the holotype fossil specimen of a lower jaw of a recently named 5-million-year-old saber-toothed cat species, Rhizosmilodon fiteae.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

A saber-toothed cat that roamed the southeastern U.S. 5 million years ago, the world’s oldest grape and a bizarre hermit crab were among more than 100 new species described by Florida Museum of Natural History researchers last year. Still, scientists say there are millions left to discover.

Driven in part by the urgency to document new species as natural habitats and fossil sites decline due to human influences, researchers from the Florida Museum described 16 new genera and 103 new species of plants and animals in 2013, with some research divisions anticipating higher numbers for 2014.

This new knowledge of species-level biodiversity provides a better foundation for conservation (more…)

A butterfly in hiding takes wing on social media

April 17th, 2014
Pink-spot

Before 2011, the Pink-spot Sulphur was unknown from Florida, but with the help of Florida residents, scientists found it to be one of Miami’s most common butterflies.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Baig

By Stephenie Livingston

Thanks to social media and museum collections, a butterfly species was recognized in 2011 after more than 50 years of flying up and down the metro streets of South Florida unnoticed.

With the involvement of the public, scientists at the Florida Museum of Natural History are continuing to learn more about one of Miami’s most common butterflies.

While working in the vast collections of the Museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, lepidopterist and senior collections manager Andy Warren noticed a unique butterfly captured in Dade County in 1959, with bright pink spots near the base of its wings.

“It just kind of jumped out at me,” Warren said, noting he didn’t recall seeing the specimen previously.

Warren identified the specimen as Aphrissa neleis, or (more…)

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