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

July 16th, 2013

By Danielle Torrent

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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 scientist helps classify sea cucumbers, a threatened gourmet delicacy

June 14th, 2013

By Danielle Torrent

This sea cucumber, Bohadschia argus, was photographed off the coast of Okinawa, Japan. Florida Museum photo by Gustav Paulay

This sea cucumber, Bohadschia argus, was photographed off the coast of Okinawa, Japan.
Florida Museum photo by Gustav Paulay

Sea cucumbers are among the most abundant animals on the planet, occupying waters from the tropical reefs to the Antarctic and dominating the greatest habitat – the deep sea floor. But their diversity and ecological roles are poorly understood.

To make matters worse, these loaf-like, bottom-dwelling echinoderms have been fished for at least 1,000 years. Dried sea cucumber, or bêche-de-mer, is an Asian delicacy, with some species selling for nearly $120 per pound. Those in the genus Bohadschia have been heavily fished for generations, yet the species within the group have been indistinguishable, said Gustav Paulay, invertebrate zoology curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus.

“They’re getting heavily exploited around the world, so knowing who the species are is very important,” Paulay said. “If you can’t tell the species apart, it’s hard to tell if the ones you’re fishing here are the same as the ones they’re fishing there – if you exploit one population, is it a widespread or local one?”

Researchers have traditionally classified sea cucumbers based on differences in their ossicles, tiny bone-like structures within their body wall. But for Bohadschia, it is impossible to differentiate species by their ossicles, Paulay said. In the first comprehensive classification of the group, Paulay and a team of scientists at the University of Guam used a combination of DNA data and field observations to sort the 12 members of the genus, identifying one new species. Their findings were published online in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society April 8 and in the May 2013 print edition. (more…)

Museum researcher describes new 5-million-year-old saber-toothed cat from Florida

May 14th, 2013

By Danielle Torrent

Florida Museum of Natural History paleontologist Richard Hulbert Jr. measures fossil teeth of a saber-toothed cat. In the foreground, the lower jaw of Rhizosmilodon fiteae, is pictured between a modern Florida panther, left, and the famous Smilodon fatalis from about 15,000 years ago. Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

Florida Museum of Natural History paleontologist Richard Hulbert Jr. measures fossil teeth of a saber-toothed cat. In the foreground, the lower jaw of Rhizosmilodon fiteae, is pictured between a modern Florida panther, left, and the famous Smilodon fatalis from about 15,000 years ago.
Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

After being stored in the Florida Museum of Natural History collections for 20 years, researchers have described a new genus and species of extinct saber-toothed cat from Polk County, Fla., based on additional fossil acquisitions.

When the animal was originally named in the 1980s, the study’s authors believed it was the oldest-known specimen in the genus Megantereon. The publication created controversy because analysis was only based on a partial lower jaw missing some critical features, said Florida Museum vertebrate paleontology collection manager Richard Hulbert Jr.

“It sort of raised some eyebrows from people in Europe and Africa because the species is known from the Old World and it’s actually fairly rare here in North America,” Hulbert said. “There were a number of papers back and forth, but things were not very well-settled.”

After Florida Museum paleontologists discovered more complete specimens from a phosphate mine in Polk County in 1990, Hulbert knew the animal had been incorrectly identified, he said.

“It’s a little odd that we’re publishing it now, 20 years later, but that’s sort of the way things go sometimes,” said Hulbert, who co-authored the study published in PLOS One March 14, 2013. “There are a lot of cool projects that just sit around in the museum cabinets waiting for the right person. These days, most people are pretty specialized and tend not to take the lead on something outside their specialty and so you just sort of wait until you find somebody you can collaborate with.”

Hulbert helped uncover fossils of the new genus and species, Rhizosmilodon fiteae, from the mine and later collaborated with the study’s lead author, Steven Wallace, an associate professor in the department of geosciences and member of the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University. (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 scientists conduct first multi-departmental BioBlitz at Seahorse Key

March 15th, 2013

By Danielle Torrent

During the winter holidays every year, hundreds of “snowbirds” travel from the northern U.S. and Canada for the warmth of the South Florida sun.

But there’s always the occasional cold spell.

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Researchers sort contents collected near Cedar Key during a Bioblitz in December. Participants include, from left, Qianju Jia, Kaila Paulay, Akito Kawahara, Jennifer Seavey, Peter Houlihan, Francesca Ponce and Austin Hendy.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Craig Segebarth

As luck would have it, temperatures in December 2012 dropped while Florida Museum of Natural History researchers searched for wildlife in Seahorse Key.

“We had a good time, but it was cold out there,” said Florida Museum malacology curator Gustav Paulay. “This was right after we’d had a really nice hot spell and the low tide was 7 in the morning. Of course, we had to be out there in wet clothing, and it was really cold and blowing.”

Despite the weather, researchers deemed their first multi-departmental BioBlitz a success, and hope to organize similar field trips in the future, Paulay said.

The term BioBlitz is usually reserved for field trips involving public volunteers, but the intent remains the same: collect or record any and every animal seen. Sometimes efforts are focused on a limited group of organisms and the fieldwork involves intense biological surveying, usually during a 24-hour period. The Seahorse Key participants spanned the umbrella of biology, including botany, invertebrate zoology and entomology. (more…)

Museum researchers use DNA evidence to understand diversity in endangered cloud forests

February 19th, 2013
This flat-stemmed cactus, Nopalxochia phyllanthoides, is an endangered species native to a cloud forest in Veracruz, Mexico. Photo by Juan Francisco Ornelas

This flat-stemmed cactus, Nopalxochia phyllanthoides, is an endangered species native to a cloud forest in Veracruz, Mexico. Photo by Juan Francisco Ornelas

By Danielle Torrent

In stark contrast to southern Mexico’s surrounding dry plains, the mountains in Mesoamerica ascend into a secret world, enshrouded in fog. The mesmerizing flora and fauna create a mystical aura and the sounds of birds and Howler monkeys fill the air – picture a scene from “Avatar,” where mysterious creatures are a reality.

Mesoamerican cloud forests are home to some of the most diverse plants and animals in the world. Like sponges, they store water from the clouds and release it slowly, a vital process for replenishing and sustaining water. Palpable moisture and mild temperatures on mountain slopes where they occur support numerous native, endangered communities scientists have only begun to explore.

These biodiversity hotspots historically provided billions of gallons of fresh water, and yet the delicate ecosystems have been devastated for grazing, development, and coffee and coca farming. In northern Mesoamerica, which includes southern Mexico and Guatemala, 50 percent of the original cloud forest habitat has been destroyed and it occupies less than 1 percent of the total geographic area today. Cloud forests are naturally fragmented and among the most threatened habitats in the region. (more…)

Museum study shows river turtle species still suffers from past harvesting

January 17th, 2013

By Danielle Torrent

When it comes to conservation efforts, the biggest, cutest and most recognizable animals are often the first to gain public attention. From cuddly koalas to giant, gentle manatees, the beasts at the top of the food chain usually become symbols for hope in the threatened animal kingdom.

This large female northern map turtle was captured in the North Fork of White River in 2004.
Florida Museum photo by Amber Pitt

But the smaller critters often overlooked are also essential parts of the planet’s ecology.

River turtles, which Floridians may glimpse basking on riverbanks, help ecosystems function by cycling nutrients and maintaining food web dynamics.

“The importance of river turtles is really underplayed,” said Amber Pitt, a Clemson University postdoctoral research fellow who studied with Florida Museum of Natural History herpetology curator Max Nickerson as a University of Florida graduate student. “River turtles are long-lived, rely on the same water resources that we do and can serve as indicators of water quality. People should be concerned if turtles are impacted by poor water quality because we are likely being affected, too.” (more…)

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