George Washington’s little buttercup

August 11th, 2016

How an extinct ancestor of buttercups and poppies is helping solve Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery’

By Stephenie Livingston

An ancient relative of buttercups, the new genus and species Vernifolium tenuiloba was originally found on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in the late 1800s. Illustration courtesy of UF News

An ancient relative of buttercups, the new genus and species Vernifolium tenuiloba was originally found on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in the late 1800s.
Illustration courtesy of UF News

Two men set out on the Potomac River in 1892 looking for fossil plants from the days when dinosaurs roamed the Atlantic Coast nibbling on conifer leaves and ferns. Their paddling came to a halt when up ahead in a bluff on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, a section of chocolate-colored stone caught the eye of paleobotanist Lester Ward and volunteer Victor Mason. Within minutes of digging, 105-million-year-old branches, leaves and seeds spilled from the mudstone, known for preserving fine details—a plant scientist’s gold mine. Scraps of partial fossils littered their findings. Among them was a tiny, seemingly insignificant leaf, thus beginning the modern history of George Washington’s little buttercup.

Except for a brief mention in Ward’s 1905 book, the leaf sat unstudied in a drawer at the Smithsonian Institution for the next 118 years. Then on a spring day in 2013, University of Florida paleobotanist Nathan Jud stumbled upon it while rifling through a drawer (more…)

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…)

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

September 11th, 2014

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 may be assigned inaccurately within the order.

“The systematics of sea cucumbers is messy and full of inaccuracies,” Michonneau said. “Our revision is just touching the tip of the iceberg as far as cleaning up the confused state of taxonomy in the order Dendrochirotida. The purpose of our study is to identify the appropriate traits to classify sea cucumbers at the genus and (more…)

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

July 16th, 2013

By Danielle Torrent


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…)

Museum researchers discover earliest use of Mexican turkeys by ancient Maya

September 14th, 2012

By Danielle Torrent

Erin in Lab

Erin Thornton analyzes ancient animal remains in the lab.
Photo by Dan Thornton

As a University of Florida graduate student, one of Erin Thornton’s first assignments was to identify turkey bones from an ancient Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala.

Determined to please her adviser, Thornton thoroughly examined the features of the bones, which dated to the Late Preclassic period from 300 B.C. to A.D. 100. She decided they were remains of a non-local turkey native to central and northern Mexico, Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, commonly known as the Mexican Turkey.

But unbeknownst to Thornton at the time, her conclusion defied previous archaeological evidence – the species did not belong in the Maya area during the Late Preclassic period. According to the archaeological record, the Maya did not use the non-local Mexican Turkey until about 1,000 years later.

“To be honest, I was so focused on getting the morphological identifications correct to impress my doctoral adviser that I wasn’t necessarily thinking about what species should or shouldn’t be there in the Late Preclassic,” said Thornton, a research associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus and Trent University Archaeological Research Centre in Canada.

Thornton then consulted the Museum’s resident bird expert, ornithology curator David Steadman, who confirmed the identifications. But they needed additional evidence. So Steadman, Thornton and her adviser, curator of environmental archaeology Kitty Emery, collaborated with DNA analysts to verify the bones belonged to the Mexican Turkey, representing the earliest evidence of the species in the Maya world.