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…)

Extinct deer-like creature from Panama helps scientists better understand tropical biodiversity

September 9th, 2015

By Stephenie Livingston

Florida Museum of Natural History Ph.D. candidate Aldo Rincon examines the jaw of an undescribed species of Paratoceras that lived about 22 million years ago in Panama. Rincon is in the process of describing the species. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

Florida Museum Ph.D. candidate Aldo Rincon examines the jaw of a 22-million-year-old undescribed species of Paratoceras from Panama.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

The expansion of the Panama Canal, a century-old waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, began with a massive explosion bursting through more than 20 million years of rock and sediment. For Aldo Rincon and other Florida Museum of Natural History paleontologists, it was the sound of opportunity.

That same year, 2007, Rincon left a career as an economic geologist in Colombia to intern for former University of Florida doctoral student and paleobotanist Carlos Jaramillo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and immediately began excavating newly exposed layers of earth and collecting fossils.

“When I was a kid, my room was always full of rocks,” Rincon said. “I’d been interested in fossils since I was a little child and it was the right time in my life to make a change.”

It was during those early days of excavations in the canal that Rincon collected his first specimen of Paratoceras—an extinct deer-like herbivore with peculiar head ornaments similar to a giraffe’s horns. He has returned to Panama numerous times

(more…)

The search for Chicaza: A lost tribal village connects present, past

August 13th, 2015

By Stephenie Livingston

University of Florida anthropology student Kristen Hall digs during the summer 2015 excavation of a Chickasaw archaeological site in Mississippi.  Photo courtesy of Kim Wescott

University of Florida anthropology student Kristen Hall digs during the summer 2015 excavation of a Chickasaw archaeological site in Mississippi.
Photo courtesy of Kim Wescott

More than 300 years ago, the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto set out from Spanish Florida on an expedition to explore North America. Archaeologists have long debated the exact path he took and what occurred during his journey along the ‘De Soto Trail,’ but at least one point is undisputed: de Soto encountered Chickasaw Indians in the Mississippi village of Chicaza.

Today, however, the 17th century village is lost.

“No one knows where it is,” said Charles Cobb, the Florida Museum of Natural History Lockwood Chair in historical archeology, whose research includes exploring the multi-faceted, colonial-era interactions between the Chickasaw, English and French.

“Chicaza could have been decimated by urban development, but that seems unlikely since usually there are historical newspaper accounts of Native American settlements being unearthed during construction,” Cobb said. “We haven’t seen anything like that related to Chicaza. So, we think it’s still out there.

The discovery of Chicaza could enhance knowledge about Native American and European relations and (more…)

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