Public archaeology: UF excavates state’s oldest stone mission church during St. Augustine 450th celebration

October 17th, 2015
Gifford Waters discusses findings with the public and dignitaries from the Roman Catholic Church at the excavation site. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

Gifford Waters discusses findings with the public and dignitaries from the Roman Catholic Church at the excavation site.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

By Stephenie Livingston

Florida Museum of Natural History archaeologists enlisted the help of the public as they returned to the remains of the oldest stone mission church completed in colonial Spanish Florida during the 450th anniversary of St. Augustine last month.

From Aug. 24 through Sept. 11, 2015, participants searched for clues about daily life at the first and longest-lasting Franciscan mission in the Southeast, said lead researcher Gifford Waters, historical archaeology collection manager for the museum, located on the University of Florida campus.

“This season was both a research project as well as a public archaeology project,” Waters said. “I wanted (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

(more…)

The search for Chicaza: A lost tribal village connects present, past

August 13th, 2015

By Stephenie Livingston

University of Florida anthropology student Kristen Hall digs during the summer 2015 excavation of a Chickasaw archaeological site in Mississippi.  Photo courtesy of Kim Wescott

University of Florida anthropology student Kristen Hall digs during the summer 2015 excavation of a Chickasaw archaeological site in Mississippi.
Photo courtesy of Kim Wescott

More than 300 years ago, the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto set out from Spanish Florida on an expedition to explore North America. Archaeologists have long debated the exact path he took and what occurred during his journey along the ‘De Soto Trail,’ but at least one point is undisputed: de Soto encountered Chickasaw Indians in the Mississippi village of Chicaza.

Today, however, the 17th century village is lost.

“No one knows where it is,” said Charles Cobb, the Florida Museum of Natural History Lockwood Chair in historical archeology, whose research includes exploring the multi-faceted, colonial-era interactions between the Chickasaw, English and French.

“Chicaza could have been decimated by urban development, but that seems unlikely since usually there are historical newspaper accounts of Native American settlements being unearthed during construction,” Cobb said. “We haven’t seen anything like that related to Chicaza. So, we think it’s still out there.

The discovery of Chicaza could enhance knowledge about Native American and European relations and (more…)

Thomas Farm: A prehistoric treasure in small-town Florida

July 14th, 2015

By Stephenie Livingston

Celeste Shitama digs during the 2011 Hummingbird Challenge.  Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

Celeste Shitama digs during the 2011 Hummingbird Challenge.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

Places like the Hell Creek Formation in Montana and the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles echo famous prehistoric discoveries. But at the bottom of a sinkhole near the small Florida town of Bell in Gilchrist County lies the richest Early Miocene vertebrate fossil locality in the world, known as Thomas Farm. Since the 1930s, researchers have pulled 18.5-million-year-old fossilized horses, bear dogs, rhinoceros and other long-extinct animals ranging from tortoises to tiny song birds from the site’s damp clay, resulting in more than 100 new species.

“Everyone thinks it’s tedious, but, you have to think, I’m the first human to ever touch this,” said Sharon Holte, a Florida Museum doctoral student studying fossil carnivores from Thomas Farm, as she slowly dusted off a bone from an extinct carnivorous mammal, possibly a canine, at the site in spring 2015.

Clarence Simpson of the Florida Geological Survey discovered the first fossils at the 40-acre Thomas Farm in 1931. Famed paleontologist George G. Simpson, then of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, recognized the fossils’ significance and (more…)

Making sense of the past for a better future

June 12th, 2015

Visiting archaeologist unearths complexity of her own cultural history

By Stephenie Livingston

Maggie Spivey

Washington University archaeology graduate student Margaret Spivey is researching wood carvings from the Florida Museum Fort Center collection.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

A few miles from Lake Okeechobee, the ancient village site known as Fort Center lies on the shore of Fisheating Creek as it snakes through the area and blends with the wet prairie landscape of South Florida. It is here, deep in muck at the bottom of a man-made pond, that archaeologists in the 1960s recovered dozens of human remains along with the remnants of a wooden structure and carvings of animals. Worn by time, but preserved by the favorable and mild environment of the pond, these intricate carvings offer highly realistic representations of wildlife held so sacredly that natives gave them the same resting place as their dead.

Named for a small fort that existed during the second and third Seminole wars, the archaeological site is what Victor Thompson, an anthropologist with the University of Georgia, calls a “persistent place,” or an ever-evolving, historically important landscape, and was likely used by more than one ethnic group over about 4,000 years. As the place was recycled over centuries, generations also passed down the remarkable skill of capturing animal likenesses—bears, foxes, eagles, otters, a cat in full gallop—in wooden carvings.

The people who lived there were likely related to the Calusa, or the “shell Indians” of Florida’s southwest coast. But researchers are not certain exactly who they were and (more…)

Study reveals evolutionary history of hawkmoths’ sonar jamming defense

May 13th, 2015
hawkmoth

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…)

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