By Danielle Torrent
Following more than 40 years of fieldwork, Florida Museum of Natural History malacology curator Fred Thompson was recently recognized for his research on freshwater organisms.
The Florida Association of Benthologists presented Thompson with the Award for Excellence in Contributions to Florida Benthic Ecology in recognition of accomplishments throughout his career. The award can be presented no more than once a year and was last awarded in 2008, said Gary Warren, an executive committee member and one of the association’s founders.
“It’s been awhile since we thought we had somebody worthy of the award,” said Warren, an aquatic invertebrate ecologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Every one [of the members] has been dependent on Dr. Thompson’s identification manuals – he is a resource for people that have specimens they can’t identify and he’s always been available.”
The association is comprised of about 250 scientists throughout Florida whose careers involve benthology, the study of all aquatic organisms on the bottom of water bodies, from protozoa, clams and snails to worms and crayfish. The association presented Thompson with the award during its annual taxonomic workshop in May.
Though small, these creatures serve an important role in helping balance the ecology of water systems throughout the world. Snails are among the most expansive of aquatic animals and comprise the largest group of primary consumers (herbivores) in aquatic ecosystems, feeding on decaying plant materials, algae, aquatic fungi and yeast. It was these organisms that piqued Thompson’s interest as a high school student in the 1950s.
By Logan Gerber
In the spring of 2010, Steve Manchester, Florida Museum of Natural History curator of paleobotany, and Fabiany Herrera, a University of Florida doctoral student studying biology, visited a site in Peru containing fossilized grape seeds in hopes of shedding new light on what the climate in South America was like millions of years ago.
The scientists traveled to Talara in northwestern Peru to determine if the fossils at the site are 20 million to 30 million years younger than previously thought.
Researchers who studied seeds from the site in the 1920s believed they are 50 million years old. Based on similarities with fossil plants found at the Panama Canal, Herrera and Manchester believe the seeds are closer to 20 million years old. Although Herrera did not find the same grape species at the Panama site, he found other plant fossils known to be about 20 million years old with similar characteristics to the seeds found in Peru. These include members of the plant families Annonaceae, Arecaceae and Humiriaceae.
“Either we can verify what people thought and published before us or we discover and present something new,” Manchester said. “If the seeds are younger than everyone thought, it would have some really interesting implications from a biogeographical perspective and for future research.”
By Danielle Torrent
The sweet smells of spring fill the air as more and more people head to parks and playgrounds to enjoy the weather. While the air grows warmer and the promise of summer quickly approaches, picnic-goers and adventure-seekers head outdoors, facing the risks that come with it – from sunburns and allergies to bee stings and ant bites.
Residents of the southeastern U.S. have learned keep a close eye out for soil mounds to avoid the painful stings of the red imported fire ant. Highly aggressive, the ants are often discovered by humans only after stepping on a mound.
“Fire ants are very annoying pests, and they cause people to suffer,” said Marina Ascunce, a postdoctoral associate with the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus. “People who are allergic can die (from ant stings).”
A study published in Science Feb. 25, 2011, could prove helpful in controlling the prominent red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. Ascunce co-authored the study with Chin-Cheng Yang of National Taiwan University and the results show the southeastern U.S. has been the source of recent red imported fire ant invasions around the world.
The ants have had a foothold in the U.S. for decades since their introduction through a port in Mobile, Ala. in the 1930s. They were contained in the southeastern U.S. for decades until about 10 years ago, when the global traders assisted its spread into faraway places, including Australia, California, China, New Zealand and Taiwan.
By Danielle Torrent
The sounds of the forest are intoxicating.
And in Ethiopia during August 2010, they were mesmerizing. Droning, melodic Gregorian-like chants filled the space between the trees as a group of scientists searched high and low for insects to use in biodiversity studies.
Forests surround Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo churches because generations of church members sharing a holistic view of nature have inhabited the land. The church congregations have honored their natural environment for thousands of years while the forests around them were destroyed by both human and natural causes.
“Basically, these are the last remaining near-virgin forests in northwestern Ethiopia in the Gondar area,” said David Jarzen, Florida Museum of Natural History scientist. “These forests are sacred. They’re revered by the locals as well as by the priests, the bishops and all the church members.”
To learn about the church forests and reach out to its inhabitants, a group of 16 scientists and environmentalists funded their own flights to Ethiopia to participate in a two-week research project initiated by the Tree Research, Exploration & Education Foundation. The Sarasota-based foundation promotes conservation of the planet’s botanical resources and ecosystems.
Lodging, transportation, meals and equipment for fieldwork were funded by a National Geographic Society grant and other sponsors including the Tree Foundation, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Tommy Hilfiger Corp.
The project goals included surveying insect biodiversity, creating identification tools to be used by local children and funding the construction of a fence to protect the church forests from further external human activity.
“What’s really important is that this is a classic example of how science and religion can work together,” said Meg Lowman, executive director of the Tree Research, Exploration & Education Foundation. “We’re on a mission for stewardship.”
By Danielle Torrent
For a few weeks each year, dozens of people stop their everyday activities to put on clothes they don’t mind getting dirty, drive to the middle of nowhere and dig in the dirt and mud for fossils.
Neither professional archaeologists nor paleontologists, the volunteers are like angels for the Florida Museum of Natural History, appearing when there is a need and enhancing the Museum’s collections in a way the staff could not manage alone.
“If it was just the few of us, we would only be able to collect a fraction of the specimens we do,” said Richard Hulbert, Florida Museum Vertebrate Paleontology collections manager. “The volunteers provide an invaluable service to the Museum.”
From Nov. 3 to 17, 2010, volunteers ventured to Thomas Farm, one of the richest fossil sites for terrestrial vertebrates in eastern North America. Located in Gilchrist County about 45 miles northwest of Gainesville, the site was accidentally discovered by a farmer in 1931.
The great diversity of species found there – from amphibians and reptiles to three-toed horses and bear-dogs – has led scientists to believe the 18.5-million-year-old site was an ancient sinkhole. As a result, bones discovered next to each other are often from different animals.
By Danielle Torrent
When lice attack, it’s hard to call it a blessing.
People have been tormented by the blood-sucking parasites for thousands of years, awaiting the latest technology to annihilate them. But some researchers are counting their lice and shipping them to genetics laboratories, where they are used to unlock clues about human history.
David Reed, associate curator of mammals at the Florida Museum of Natural History, studies lice in modern humans to better understand human evolution and migration patterns. His latest study used DNA sequencing to calculate when clothing lice first began to diverge genetically from human head lice.
“We wanted to find another method for pinpointing when humans might have first started wearing clothing,” Reed said. “Because they are so well adapted to clothing, we know that body lice or clothing lice almost certainly didn’t exist until clothing came about in humans.”
The results of the UF study show humans started wearing clothes about 170,000 years ago, a technology which allowed them to successfully migrate out of Africa.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study is available online and in the January 2011 print edition of Molecular Biology and Evolution.
Lice are studied because unlike most other parasites, they are stranded on lineages of hosts over long periods of evolutionary time. Host-parasite coevolution allows scientists to learn about evolutionary changes in the host based on evolutionary changes found in the parasite.
“We use these lice as a marker, if you will, as a marker of their host’s evolutionary history,” Reed said.
By Vilma Jarvinen
In a letter to his friend and colleague,19th century naturalist Charles Darwin referred to the sudden and rapid diversification of angiosperms, or flowering plants, as “an abominable mystery.”
Today, University of Florida researchers are part of a nationwide team preparing to open a door into a better understanding of plant evolution by sequencing the genome of the single living sister species to all other flowering plants. This plant, Amborella trichopoda, is a large shrub found only in high altitude regions on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia.
“Amborella, although not the most beautiful looking plant, has emerged as sort of a poster child for flowering plants because it is the sister group, or closest relative, of all of the other approximately 350,000 living species of angiosperms,” said Doug Soltis, UF distinguished professor of biology and project co-investigator. “It will allow us to better understand the genomes of other flowering plants such as crops – corn, rice, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, and so on.”