Study reveals evolutionary history of hawkmoths’ sonar jamming defense

May 13th, 2015
hawkmoth

A new study shows hawkmoths, including this species belonging to the subtribe choerocampine, produces ultrasound as a defense mechanism against bats.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Pablo Padron

By Stephenie Livingston

In the 65-million-year-old arms race between bats and moths, some moth species rub their genitals to jam the calls of bats. Radar jamming is commonly used in human warfare, allowing pilots to render themselves invisible. By unraveling the evolution of hawkmoths’ similar defense, authors of the May 2015 study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences aim to better understand nocturnal biodiversity and improve human uses of sonar.

Researchers with the Florida Museum of Natural History and Boise State University tracked sonar jamming throughout the evolutionary history of hawkmoths and found that one of the insect world’s most sophisticated defense mechanisms is more widespread than originally thought, existing for millennia.

Until now, the function and evolution of sonar jamming remained largely a mystery, said lead author Akito Kawahara, assistant curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum on the University of Florida campus.

“Before now people thought ultrasound usage in insects was very restricted to certain groups, but it looks much more complex than that,” Kawahara said.

Kawahara and collaborators scoured jungles and forests from Borneo to the Amazon observing hawkmoths. They collected specimens at 70 sites in 32 countries and conducted field-based echolocation experiments and (more…)

Bella moth keeps potentially dangerous invasive plant at bay in Florida

April 14th, 2015
Bella moth

The bella moth, pictured on the flower of an exotic Crotalaria retusa, is changing the plant’s ecology as it feeds on the seeds of this invasive plant.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Andrei Sourakov

By Stephenie Livingston

Taming a wild plant may not sound too ominous, unless you are a tiny moth and the plant is 8 feet tall and poisonous.

Lepidopterist Andrei Sourakov with the Florida Museum of Natural History has been studying ornate bella moths, Utetheisa ornatrix, since 2010. His March 2015 study appearing in the Journal of Natural History reveals that the moth is changing its ecology, co-evolving as it adjusts to feeding on the seeds of several invasive exotic plant species.

“Once a species is introduced, they may take on a life of their own,” said Sourakov, collections coordinator at the museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity on the University of Florida campus. “Eradicating a foreign species that has established is very difficult if not impossible.”

With his trademark spectacles and safari hat, David Fairchild, known as the Indiana Jones of botany, traveled the world during the early 1900s in search of plants and collected thousands of exotics and new varieties, like pistachios, mangos, dates, cotton and wheat, and introduced them to the United States. Fairchild’s writings suggest a variety of exotic rattlebox plants in the genus Crotalaria were introduced to South Florida about 100 years ago. Among them is Crotalaria spectabilis, showy rattlebox, which particularly stands out with its 6- to 8 feet-tall plants and (more…)

History re-written: Christopher Columbus’ invention of the cannibals

March 9th, 2015
Columbus

This 16th century copper plate engraving by Theodor de Bry depicts Christopher Columbus landing in the Caribbean.
Courtesy of the University of Florida Smathers Library Special Collections

By Stephenie Livingston

Indigenous Bahamians plunged into the Caribbean ocean of the 15th century. As with anything from beyond the horizon, they thought the foreign vessels were from the heavens and swam out to the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria without fear.

Christopher Columbus had missed his Asian destination by more than 8,000 miles, landing in the Caribbean during his search for the city of Grand Khan—a golden city said to have existed on the eastern coast of China. In his misguided journey, Columbus created a myth that has persisted for centuries—warrior cannibals in the Caribbean, said William Keegan, curator of anthropology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“The lesson from conventional and popular history is that there were two different groups living in the Caribbean when the Europeans arrived: the peaceful Arawak’s and the cannibal Caribs,” Keegan said. “This notion of peaceful vs. warlike Indians, and the duality between good and evil, can be traced back to Columbus’ diary of his first voyage.”

Columbus observed wounds on the bodies of islanders and interpreted what he saw as the signs of warfare with the powerful “Caniba” or Carib people of the Grand Khan. Based on Greek and (more…)

Fossils link Caribbean bat extinction to humans, not climate change

February 11th, 2015
Soto-Centeno with bat skull

Study co-author J. Angel Soto-Centeno displays the fossilized skull of a Cuban fruit bat, Brachyphylla nana.
Photo courtesy of J. Angel Soto-Centeno

By Stephenie Livingston

Sharing caves with millions of bats, the Caribbean’s first humans may have driven some species of the winged mammals to extinction.

“Scientists have been studying bat fossils in the Caribbean for years,” said David Steadman, curator of ornithology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “The problem is, no one knew how old the fossils they were studying actually were.”

Bats have dominated the Caribbean for millennia, once sharing the islands with at least 73 species of mammals, such as primates, rodents and sloths. But following an ancient event called the Last Glacial Maximum, sea levels rose enormously, islands became smaller, and it is thought that most of the Caribbean’s land mammals became extinct.

New radiocarbon dates show that bats continued to thrive until (more…)

Island isolation, warming climate shapes Mediterranean Basin evolution

January 14th, 2015
Mediterranean Basin

Taken on the island of Crete, this photograph shows the typical habitat of bellflowers.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Andrew Crowl

By Stephenie Livingston

From the jungles of Southeast Asia to the Greek Islands, Florida Museum of Natural History botanist Nico Cellinese has searched for the answers to how evolution works. But during fieldwork in the Mediterranean Basin—a biodiversity hotspot—she found more questions than answers.

“There are so many islands and so many island endemic species in the basin that it makes you wonder what is going on in this place to make it so highly dynamic,” said Cellinese, associate curator of the Florida Museum Herbarium and Informatics. “It’s a very peculiar place. It’s the kind of place you just have to dive into, and not stop until you figure something out.”

Cellinese received a National Science Foundation $865,000 Early Faculty Development Career Program Award in 2010 to investigate the basin’s rich biodiversity and better understand why certain species only occur there. The grant has supported Cellinese’s research on genetic diversity in the flowering plant group Campanulaceae, also known as the bellflower family—a model group for studying the influences of geological activity, climate change and human pressure on island evolution and endemism.

The five-year award has resulted in the study of nearly 1,000 species of bellflowers worldwide, focusing on those restricted to islands in the Mediterranean Basin. The research adds to the work of Charles Darwin and (more…)

Anatomy of a Burmese python: The story of a monster snake’s rearticulation

December 11th, 2014

By Stephenie Livingston

Volunteer Becky Reichart uses hot glue to connect one of the Burmese python’s 338 vertebrae on tapered wire as part of the rearticulation process.<br /> Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kenneth Krysko

Volunteer Becky Reichart uses hot glue to connect one of the Burmese python’s 338 vertebrae on tapered wire as part of the rearticulation process.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kenneth Krysko

As Becky Reichart pressed against one of the sleek, bleached, white rib bones of the fully rearticulated 17-foot-7-inch Burmese python, one of the largest found in Florida, she commented, “They look delicate, but they’re actually really strong.”

The bones tell the story of the snake’s life in the Everglades of South Florida, where it thrived and survived injury. Florida Museum of Natural History herpetology collections assistant and University of Florida graduate student Leroy Nuñez pointed to healed fractures on the ribs of a snake that he says bounced back from nearly everything life threw at her.

“We literally got to know this animal from the inside out,” Nuñez said. “She was so incredibly resilient. This was an older snake. She’d been around for a while, and she took a beating. We can see that some of ribs have fused together after an injury. It didn’t even appear to phase her.”

Alive, the python’s 165-pound body slithered through the murky swamps of the Everglades, likely its birthplace, for several years; a descendent of exotic pets released into the wild by humans. A September 2011 study by Florida Museum herpetology collection manager Kenneth Krysko found the exotic pet trade to be the No. 1 cause of invasive species introductions. Originating in Southeast Asia and making its way to the Everglades in 1979, the Burmese python resides near the top of the food chain in South Florida, mostly because nothing other than humans and alligators can cause it harm.

Reichart, a Florida Museum volunteer, began the painstaking work of reassembling the snake’s 872 ribs and vertebrae, its skull and (more…)

A living history: Reeves collection tells story of Native American art, culture

November 12th, 2014
Seminole Indian dolls

These traditional Seminole Indian dolls collected by the Reeves were popular among South Florida tourists during the early 20th century.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

By Stephenie Livingston

By his mid-20s, Keith Reeves had traveled the world. When he settled in Florida in the 1960s, however, it was in many ways an alien place: No ancient monuments like the pyramids he climbed in Egypt or mountains like those on South Pacific islands where he lived as a “Navy brat,” but a wet-hot, often harsh, environment, devastated every so often by hurricane force winds howling through palms trees and toppling condos. While adjusting to this ominous landscape, Reeves decided to explore what he calls the “subtleties of Florida,” namely its indigenous people, as catharsis.

“He complained about the flat landscape and he complained about the Florida vegetation,” said Sara Reeves, Keith’s wife, who first encouraged him to (more…)

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