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…)

Bird calls on demand: Digitized collection now available online

June 13th, 2014
Tom Webber

Museum ornithologist Tom Webber examines a reel-to-reel tape of bird sounds in the collections.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

By Stephenie Livingston

While standing next to a shelf filled with thousands of aging reel-to-reel and other tape recordings of bird sounds collected over the past 40 years, Florida Museum of Natural History ornithologist Tom Webber inspected an especially fragile reel from the 1960s.

“Eventually, even the magnetic plastic tapes will break down,” Webber said. “They’re stored under optimal conditions. But the older ones,” he said as he paused, running his hand across a stack of worn, discolored tapes, “We’re already having that happen to some of them.”

In an effort to preserve the second-largest collection of bird sounds in terms of species in the Western Hemisphere, scientists acquired a $446,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2009 to digitize the Florida Museum’s analog bird-sound field recordings, which represent more than 3,000 species. From the extinct Dusky Seaside Sparrow to vocal Florida Scrub-Jays, the complete online collection will (more…)

Discovery of over 100 new species fuels drive to document biodiversity

May 14th, 2014

By Stephenie Livingston


Vertebrate paleontologist Richard Hulbert Jr. displays the holotype fossil specimen of a lower jaw of a recently named 5-million-year-old saber-toothed cat species, Rhizosmilodon fiteae.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

A saber-toothed cat that roamed the southeastern U.S. 5 million years ago, the world’s oldest grape and a bizarre hermit crab were among more than 100 new species described by Florida Museum of Natural History researchers last year. Still, scientists say there are millions left to discover.

Driven in part by the urgency to document new species as natural habitats and fossil sites decline due to human influences, researchers from the Florida Museum described 16 new genera and 103 new species of plants and animals in 2013, with some research divisions anticipating higher numbers for 2014.

This new knowledge of species-level biodiversity provides a better foundation for conservation (more…)

A butterfly in hiding takes wing on social media

April 17th, 2014

Before 2011, the Pink-spot Sulphur was unknown from Florida, but with the help of Florida residents, scientists found it to be one of Miami’s most common butterflies.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Baig

By Stephenie Livingston

Thanks to social media and museum collections, a butterfly species was recognized in 2011 after more than 50 years of flying up and down the metro streets of South Florida unnoticed.

With the involvement of the public, scientists at the Florida Museum of Natural History are continuing to learn more about one of Miami’s most common butterflies.

While working in the vast collections of the Museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, lepidopterist and senior collections manager Andy Warren noticed a unique butterfly captured in Dade County in 1959, with bright pink spots near the base of its wings.

“It just kind of jumped out at me,” Warren said, noting he didn’t recall seeing the specimen previously.

Warren identified the specimen as Aphrissa neleis, or (more…)

97,000 newly acquired artifacts tell the story of America’s Spanish past

March 13th, 2014

Kathleen Deagan (center) shows the Fraser family a few of the recently discovered maps from the 1950s excavations in the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, St. Augustine, Fla.
From left to right: John W. Fraser, Elaine Fraser, John W. Fraser II, Steven Binninger, and Gene Kirker.
Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

By Stephenie Livingston

Early in the 1930s, a gardener discovered a skull while planting an orange tree at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine. The find precipitated in-depth fieldwork by archaeologists during the ’70s and ’80s’, yielding discoveries that raised the possibility of the site being America’s ephemeral first colony, founded by explorer Pedro Menendez in 1565.

“After finding the kind of artifacts that would have been with Spaniards, we thought, could this be the Menendez settlement?” said Kathleen Deagan, retired distinguished curator of historical archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “We knew very little about the colony and had nothing on which to build a hypothesis. It was like having a giant, thousand-piece puzzle, with lots of pieces missing, and (more…)

Museum program inspires teachers to seek new horizons in science

February 14th, 2014
California secondary school science teachers Chris Carlson and Laura Beach view marine malacology specimens in Dickinson Hall. Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

California secondary school science teachers Chris Carlson and Laura Beach view marine malacology specimens in Dickinson Hall.
Florida Museum photo by Jeff Gage

By Stephenie Livingston

From a fossil museum curated by students to a garden used for experimentation, an innovative program that exposes educators to scientific fieldwork is significantly impacting classroom curriculum in California and Florida.

The Florida Museum of Natural History’s Panama Canal Projects’ Partnership for International Research and Education program brings scientists and teachers together to engage in the real world of science through inquiry-based curriculum development during a two-week field trip to Panama. California teachers from Santa Cruz and Watsonville were joined this year by (more…)

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