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…)

Museum program inspires teachers to seek new horizons in science

February 14th, 2014
California secondary school science teachers Chris Carlson and Laura Beach view marine malacology specimens in Dickinson Hall. Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

California secondary school science teachers Chris Carlson and Laura Beach view marine malacology specimens in Dickinson Hall.
Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

By Stephenie Livingston

From a fossil museum curated by students to a garden used for experimentation, an innovative program that exposes educators to scientific fieldwork is significantly impacting classroom curriculum in California and Florida.

The Florida Museum of Natural History’s Panama Canal Projects’ Partnership for International Research and Education program brings scientists and teachers together to engage in the real world of science through inquiry-based curriculum development during a two-week field trip to Panama. California teachers from Santa Cruz and Watsonville were joined this year by (more…)

New Museum study suggests seashell loss due to tourism may have global impact

January 16th, 2014

By Stephenie Livingston

These Donax trueloides shells from the Florida Museum collections are the same type of seashells found on the Mediterranean coast of Spain where researchers surveyed a small stretch of shoreline. Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

These Donax trueloides shells from the Florida Museum collections are the same type of seashells found on the Mediterranean coast of Spain where researchers surveyed a small stretch of shoreline.
Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

Tourism may be damaging the very destinations treasured by visitors. Global tourism has increased fourfold over the last 30 years, resulting in human-induced shell loss that may harm natural habitats worldwide, according to Florida Museum of Natural History Thompson Chair of Invertebrate Paleontology Michal Kowalewski.

Appearing in the journal PLOS One on Jan. 8, 2014, the new study by researchers from the Florida Museum on the UF campus and the University of Barcelona demonstrates that increased tourism on the Mediterranean coast of Spain correlated with a 70 percent decrease in mollusk shells during the tourist season in July and August and a 60 percent decrease in other months. Kowalewski, lead author on the study, said scientists fear shell removal could cause significant damage to natural ecosystems and (more…)

New Museum study describes world’s oldest known grape fossils found in India

November 15th, 2013

By Stephenie Livingston

This specimen of Indovitis chitaleyae from India contains 66-million-year-old raisin and characteristic grape seeds.   Photo by Steven Machester

This specimen of Indovitis chitaleyae from India contains 66-million-year-old raisin and characteristic grape seeds.
Photo by Steven Machester

Mysterious unidentified fossilized seeds from India, donated to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 2005 and stored among the museum’s botany collections, were recently described by a Florida Museum of Natural History researcher as the world’s oldest-known grape species.

Described in the September 2013 issue of the American Journal of Botany, Indovitis chitaleyae pushes the record of the Vitaceae (grape) family into the Late Cretaceous, about 66 million years ago. Researchers have long believed the grape originated during the Cretaceous, though they lacked fossil evidence, said lead author Steven Manchester, Florida Museum curator of paleobotany.

“Visiting the Cleveland Museum collections while working on an unrelated project, I happened across the specimens and was able to recognize the distinctive grape seed outlines within the preserved fruit fossils,” Manchester said. “This helps to solve a mystery about the missing early fossil record of the grape family. DNA evidence suggests that the grapes diverged from the rest of the Rosid family tree, a major group of flowering plants including (more…)

Study shows different exotic plants affect native moth’s size, life cycle

July 16th, 2013

By Danielle Torrent

IMG_5957-Logan-1600px

Museum volunteer Logan Locascio collects plants from the genus Crotalaria outside the Florida Museum on Hull Road near 34th Street.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Andrei Sourakov

Florida Museum of Natural History researcher Andrei Sourakov has a soft spot for small, winged creatures, and an extraordinary commitment to sharing his passion with younger generations.

His latest study published online in the June 2013 issue of Florida Entomologist is co-authored by Museum volunteer Logan Locascio, a student who graduated from Lincoln Middle School this year. Their experiments show ornate bella moths feeding on some plant species cause the insects to develop faster than those feeding on others. For Locascio, the experiments resulted in a project that earned third place in zoology in the junior division at the state’s science and engineering fair and a special award for the second-best agriculturally oriented project.

“It was a good project for a middle school student,” said Sourakov, collections coordinator at the Florida Museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and (more…)

Jumping spider vs. hairstreak butterfly: Museum scientist puts predator, prey in the ring

April 15th, 2013
The jumping spider, Phidippus pulcherrimus, feeds on prey much larger than itself, including this striped grass looper moth, Mocis latipes.

The jumping spider, Phidippus pulcherrimus, feeds on prey much larger than itself, including this striped grass looper moth, Mocis latipes.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Andrei Sourakov

By Danielle Torrent

Butterflies are among the most vibrant flying insects, with colorful wing patterns sometimes designed to deflect predators. From frogs and lizards to birds and spiders, butterflies have scores of enemies, so thousands of Lepidoptera species have evolved to imitate leaves, eyes, beaks or other insects.

When biologists first started asking questions about butterfly evolution, they looked to the vertebrates for answers. Birds and lizards are known to hunt butterflies, and for the last 150 years, researchers have assumed these vertebrate predators were driving the evolution of wing patterns. New Florida Museum of Natural History research shows that in the case of hairstreak butterflies, evolution may be driven by a much smaller enemy: the jumping spider.

“I think it’s a big step in general and a big leap of faith to realize that a creature as tiny as a jumping spider, whose brain and life span are really small compared to birds, can be partially responsible for the great diversity of patterns that evolved out there among Lepidoptera and other insects,” said Andrei Sourakov, collection manager at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. “These seemingly primitive creatures have a very complex way of hunting, memory, conditioning and problem-solving intelligence.” (more…)

Museum researchers help revise ‘Red Book of Endemic Plants of Ecuador’

November 13th, 2012

By Danielle Torrent

With an area about the size of Arizona, Ecuador seems small when compared to other South American countries, such as Argentina or Brazil. But what it lacks in land, it makes up in biodiversity.

Endara and Whitten with orchid

Florida Museum researchers Lorena Endara and Mark Whitten co-edited the second edition of the “Red Book of Endemic Plants of Ecuador,” which describes about 4,500 plant species.
Photos by Jeff Gage

Deemed one of 17 “megadiverse” countries by Conservation International, Ecuador has the highest concentration of species of any nation, according to the organization’s website. But agricultural expansion, petroleum production and a lack of ecological awareness have hindered conservation efforts.

Hoping to bring attention to plants in danger of extinction, Florida Museum of Natural History researchers helped co-author and revise the second edition of the “Red Book of Endemic Plants of Ecuador” published in March 2012, setting precedents for Ecuador’s vast neighboring countries.

“Ecuador was the first country to have a Red Book devoted to plants,” said co-editor Lorena Endara, a Florida Museum researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida who also helped compose the first edition of the “Red Book of Endemic Plants of Ecuador” published in 2000. “Most of the species we evaluated are vulnerable and some are endangered or critically endangered. This is the first step to estimating their conservation status at a regional level.” (more…)