On the defense: Harmful plants have evolved to protect themselves from predators

October 11th, 2016

By Emily Mavrakis

Doug Soltis examines toxic philodendrons in the “Butterfly Rainforest” exhibit. They are listed on the “Wicked Plants” scavenger hunt. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

It’s one of society’s hotly debated questions: ketchup or mustard?

For some, the harsh, acidic flavor of mustard is too much to handle on a hot dog or burger, but Florida Museum of Natural History botanist Doug Soltis is a fan of the yellow condiment and the science behind its flavors.

“Every time you put mustard on your hot dog, you should be thinking of plants and defense,” said Soltis, a University of Florida distinguished professor. “The mustard family has evolved that chemical pathway to produce those mustard oil compounds to make what is essentially a ‘mustard bomb.’”

Mustard plants developed their pungent profile to protect themselves from being consumed by other creatures through years of evolutionary changes, he said.

And they are not alone – many plants are well-known for their smelly, poisonous or dangerous qualities, some of which are highlighted in the Florida Museum’s current featured exhibit, “Wicked Plants,” on display through Jan. 15, 2017.

Based on Amy Stewart’s book, (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…)

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


Study reveals evolutionary history of hawkmoths’ sonar jamming defense

May 13th, 2015

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…)

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…)