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…)

Anatomy of a Burmese python: The story of a monster snake’s rearticulation

December 11th, 2014

By Stephenie Livingston

Volunteer Becky Reichart uses hot glue to connect one of the Burmese python’s 338 vertebrae on tapered wire as part of the rearticulation process.<br /> Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kenneth Krysko

Volunteer Becky Reichart uses hot glue to connect one of the Burmese python’s 338 vertebrae on tapered wire as part of the rearticulation process.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kenneth Krysko

As Becky Reichart pressed against one of the sleek, bleached, white rib bones of the fully rearticulated 17-foot-7-inch Burmese python, one of the largest found in Florida, she commented, “They look delicate, but they’re actually really strong.”

The bones tell the story of the snake’s life in the Everglades of South Florida, where it thrived and survived injury. Florida Museum of Natural History herpetology collections assistant and University of Florida graduate student Leroy Nuñez pointed to healed fractures on the ribs of a snake that he says bounced back from nearly everything life threw at her.

“We literally got to know this animal from the inside out,” Nuñez said. “She was so incredibly resilient. This was an older snake. She’d been around for a while, and she took a beating. We can see that some of ribs have fused together after an injury. It didn’t even appear to phase her.”

Alive, the python’s 165-pound body slithered through the murky swamps of the Everglades, likely its birthplace, for several years; a descendent of exotic pets released into the wild by humans. A September 2011 study by Florida Museum herpetology collection manager Kenneth Krysko found the exotic pet trade to be the No. 1 cause of invasive species introductions. Originating in Southeast Asia and making its way to the Everglades in 1979, the Burmese python resides near the top of the food chain in South Florida, mostly because nothing other than humans and alligators can cause it harm.

Reichart, a Florida Museum volunteer, began the painstaking work of reassembling the snake’s 872 ribs and vertebrae, its skull and (more…)

A living history: Reeves collection tells story of Native American art, culture

November 12th, 2014
Seminole Indian dolls

These traditional Seminole Indian dolls collected by the Reeves were popular among South Florida tourists during the early 20th century.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace

By Stephenie Livingston

By his mid-20s, Keith Reeves had traveled the world. When he settled in Florida in the 1960s, however, it was in many ways an alien place: No ancient monuments like the pyramids he climbed in Egypt or mountains like those on South Pacific islands where he lived as a “Navy brat,” but a wet-hot, often harsh, environment, devastated every so often by hurricane force winds howling through palms trees and toppling condos. While adjusting to this ominous landscape, Reeves decided to explore what he calls the “subtleties of Florida,” namely its indigenous people, as catharsis.

“He complained about the flat landscape and he complained about the Florida vegetation,” said Sara Reeves, Keith’s wife, who first encouraged him to (more…)

Study reveals 180 million years of parasitic infestation in crustaceans

October 8th, 2014
modern isopod-infested decapods

These modern isopod-infested decapods from the Philippines show prominent swellings caused by parasites on the right side.
Photo courtesy of Klompmaker et al. (2014) in PLOS ONE

By Stephenie Livingston

When Darwin suggested the “survival of the fittest” concept, he did not necessarily mean “survival of the biggest.”

The large marine animals of the past, like prehistoric mega-sharks and whales, draw popular attention and the interest of researchers alike. However, the smaller invertebrate animals dominated Earth in the past and still do today.

Florida Museum of Natural History postdoctoral researcher Adiel Klompmaker’s passion lies in studying the small creatures of the deep. It was while collecting specimens of crustaceans at a fossil reef in northern Spain that he noticed a strange swelling on a fossilized crab.

“What is this? Was it sick? Is this a disease of some kind?” wondered Klompmaker. “I had never observed these swellings in the field.”

The culprit was a parasitic isopod crustacean no more than 16 millimeters in size.

The parasitic isopod causes a swelling (Kanthyloma crusta) so noticeable that it survives in the fossil record, though the traces of these “passengers” have not been thoroughly explored until now, Klompmaker said. The isopod parasites latch onto the inner shell of a crustacean, feeding on it 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…)

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