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 (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…)

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.

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Museum researchers unlock genetic data of recently rediscovered "hidden" native Florida plant

March 1st, 2012

By Danielle Torrent

Matthew Gitzendanner

Florida Museum researcher Matthew Gitzendanner displays the holotype specimen of Ziziphus celata, endemic to central Florida. © Photo by Jeff Gage

In 1947, a small package containing an unknown plant specimen arrived at the Florida Museum of Natural History Herbarium. For 37 years, the thorny stem and leaves sat pressed between pages of a yellowed newspaper, filed in a cabinet among the vast library of Florida plants, until University of Florida botanist Walter Judd encountered the specimen in 1984. Knowing it was from the Lake Wales Ridge in central Florida, Judd and herbarium curator David Hall traveled to the area in search of wild populations, but returned to Gainesville empty-handed. Pronouncing it extinct, they published a paper naming the mysterious plant Ziziphus celata.

“Celata means hidden, because the plant was hiding from us,” Judd said. “We searched every little scrub patch that we found, but we didn’t see it – we were hoping that this would kind of be like the pebble that gets the avalanche rolling, and soon enough, there was an article written about the plant in the local newspaper.”

The media attention attracted amateur botanists and collectors to the field, and three years later, native populations of Ziziphus celata were re-discovered. But the excitement was short-lived, as researchers soon learned the species was self-incompatible, meaning two different plants are needed to produce seeds.

In 2007, the tide turned again when additional populations were found, and recent research on the plants revealed they have some genetic diversity, giving new hope to the 15-year effort to re-establish one of the state’s most rare and endangered plants.

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Museum researcher uses DNA bar coding to improve tropical butterfly classification

November 1st, 2011

By Danielle Torrent

Calisto confusa

Calisto confusa is named for its tendency to be confused with other butterfly species. Florida Museum lepidopterist Andrei Sourakov used DNA bar coding in a recent study to distinguish C. debarriera as a separate species, rather than a subspecies of C. confusa. © Photo by Andrei Sourakov

When Charles Darwin journeyed to the Galapagos Islands in the 1830s, he collected some mysterious birds that later helped shape his theory of evolution by natural selection. Dubbed “Darwin’s finches,” they became famous as an example of adaptive radiation, in which animals evolve from a common ancestor to utilize different ecological niches.

Two centuries later, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, a Florida Museum of Natural History researcher was attracted to a group of insects he calls “Darwin’s butterflies,” because of their similarly high degree of diversity derived from a common ancestor. But it wasn’t until 20 years after beginning his research on the genus Calisto as a University of Florida Ph.D. student that Andrei Sourakov found the missing link for understanding how the group should be classified.

“DNA bar coding was the perfect tool to look at this genus because a lot of these species were separated based on only wing patterns, and it’s difficult to prove whether these differences correspond to species, or just represent variation,” said Sourakov, Florida Museum Lepidoptera collection coordinator. “DNA actually allows us to evaluate if and when the gene exchange occurred.”

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New study pinpoints U.S. as source of worldwide fire ant invasions

April 1st, 2011

By Danielle Torrent

The sweet smells of spring fill the air as more and more people head to parks and playgrounds to enjoy the weather. While the air grows warmer and the promise of summer quickly approaches, picnic-goers and adventure-seekers head outdoors, facing the risks that come with it – from sunburns and allergies to bee stings and ant bites.

Residents of the southeastern U.S. have learned keep a close eye out for soil mounds to avoid the painful stings of the red imported fire ant. Highly aggressive, the ants are often discovered by humans only after stepping on a mound.

Fire ants

The fire ant Solenopsis invicta has plagued the southern U.S. since its unintentional introduction to the area in the 1930s. The fire ants pictured above were photographed outside Dickinson Hall on the UF campus Feb. 16, 2011. © Photo by Jeff Gage

“Fire ants are very annoying pests, and they cause people to suffer,” said Marina Ascunce, a postdoctoral associate with the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus. “People who are allergic can die (from ant stings).”

A study published in Science Feb. 25, 2011, could prove helpful in controlling the prominent red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. Ascunce co-authored the study with Chin-Cheng Yang of National Taiwan University and the results show the southeastern U.S. has been the source of recent red imported fire ant invasions around the world.

The ants have had a foothold in the U.S. for decades since their introduction through a port in Mobile, Ala. in the 1930s. They were contained in the southeastern U.S. for decades until about 10 years ago, when the global traders assisted its spread into faraway places, including Australia, California, China, New Zealand and Taiwan.

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