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

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…)

History re-written: Christopher Columbus’ invention of the cannibals

March 9th, 2015

This 16th century copper plate engraving by Theodor de Bry depicts Christopher Columbus landing in the Caribbean.
Courtesy of the University of Florida Smathers Library Special Collections

By Stephenie Livingston

Indigenous Bahamians plunged into the Caribbean ocean of the 15th century. As with anything from beyond the horizon, they thought the foreign vessels were from the heavens and swam out to the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria without fear.

Christopher Columbus had missed his Asian destination by more than 8,000 miles, landing in the Caribbean during his search for the city of Grand Khan—a golden city said to have existed on the eastern coast of China. In his misguided journey, Columbus created a myth that has persisted for centuries—warrior cannibals in the Caribbean, said William Keegan, curator of anthropology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“The lesson from conventional and popular history is that there were two different groups living in the Caribbean when the Europeans arrived: the peaceful Arawak’s and the cannibal Caribs,” Keegan said. “This notion of peaceful vs. warlike Indians, and the duality between good and evil, can be traced back to Columbus’ diary of his first voyage.”

Columbus observed wounds on the bodies of islanders and interpreted what he saw as the signs of warfare with the powerful “Caniba” or Carib people of the Grand Khan. Based on Greek and (more…)

Fossils link Caribbean bat extinction to humans, not climate change

February 11th, 2015
Soto-Centeno with bat skull

Study co-author J. Angel Soto-Centeno displays the fossilized skull of a Cuban fruit bat, Brachyphylla nana.
Photo courtesy of J. Angel Soto-Centeno

By Stephenie Livingston

Sharing caves with millions of bats, the Caribbean’s first humans may have driven some species of the winged mammals to extinction.

“Scientists have been studying bat fossils in the Caribbean for years,” said David Steadman, curator of ornithology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “The problem is, no one knew how old the fossils they were studying actually were.”

Bats have dominated the Caribbean for millennia, once sharing the islands with at least 73 species of mammals, such as primates, rodents and sloths. But following an ancient event called the Last Glacial Maximum, sea levels rose enormously, islands became smaller, and it is thought that most of the Caribbean’s land mammals became extinct.

New radiocarbon dates show that bats continued to thrive until (more…)

Island isolation, warming climate shapes Mediterranean Basin evolution

January 14th, 2015
Mediterranean Basin

Taken on the island of Crete, this photograph shows the typical habitat of bellflowers.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Andrew Crowl

By Stephenie Livingston

From the jungles of Southeast Asia to the Greek Islands, Florida Museum of Natural History botanist Nico Cellinese has searched for the answers to how evolution works. But during fieldwork in the Mediterranean Basin—a biodiversity hotspot—she found more questions than answers.

“There are so many islands and so many island endemic species in the basin that it makes you wonder what is going on in this place to make it so highly dynamic,” said Cellinese, associate curator of the Florida Museum Herbarium and Informatics. “It’s a very peculiar place. It’s the kind of place you just have to dive into, and not stop until you figure something out.”

Cellinese received a National Science Foundation $865,000 Early Faculty Development Career Program Award in 2010 to investigate the basin’s rich biodiversity and better understand why certain species only occur there. The grant has supported Cellinese’s research on genetic diversity in the flowering plant group Campanulaceae, also known as the bellflower family—a model group for studying the influences of geological activity, climate change and human pressure on island evolution and endemism.

The five-year award has resulted in the study of nearly 1,000 species of bellflowers worldwide, focusing on those restricted to islands in the Mediterranean Basin. The research adds to the work of Charles Darwin and (more…)

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