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.”
By Danielle Torrent
For more than 100 years, scientists have debated the relationships of a bizarre family of extinct mammals called apatemyids. Distinguished by can opener-shaped upper front teeth and two unusually long fingers, the odd features of these critters have led researchers to compare them with animals from different branches on the biological tree: opossums, hedgehogs and even woodpeckers.
So what is this animal that is so strangely adapted?
“They just don’t look definitively like anything that’s alive today,” said Florida Museum of Natural History vertebrate paleontologist Jonathan Bloch. “They have a mix of features.”
This combination of specialized traits places the family in its own biological order, but a new Florida Museum study of the cranial anatomy of a species of apatemyids, Labidolemur kayi, clarifies its ancestral relationships. A comprehensive analysis of well-preserved fossils shows the extinct mammal’s living relatives are tree shrews, flying lemurs, rodents, rabbits and primates, including humans.
“It’s a sufficiently odd animal, so we would agree that it should be classified in its own order,” Bloch said. “There are only a few examples in the history of mammals where you get such an incredibly odd ecological adaptation.”
By Leeann Bright
About 55 million years ago, a warming event that swept the globe had a profound effect on mammals.
A Florida Museum of Natural History study in the December 2010 print edition of the Journal of Mammalian Evolution describes a new species of carnivorous mammal that shrank to about half the size of its ancestors during a 200,000-year global warming period.
“We know that plant-eating mammals got smaller during the earliest Eocene when global warming occurred, possibly associated with elevated levels of carbon dioxide,” said lead author Stephen Chester, a Yale University doctoral student who began the research at the Florida Museum with vertebrate paleontology curator Jonathan Bloch. “Surprisingly, this study shows that the same thing happened in some carnivores, suggesting that other factors may have played a critical role in their evolution.”
Bloch said the findings from this study could help researchers better understand the impact of global warming today.
“Documenting the impact of global climate change in the past is one of the only real experiments that can inform us about the effects global warming might have on mammals in the near future,” said Bloch, who has studied this climate change event for nearly a decade.
By Leeann Bright
Florida Museum of Natural History researchers are leading a worldwide study to inventory the largest order of freshwater fishes with the help of a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
The grant, received during the summer of 2010, is part of the Planetary Biodiversity Inventory Initiative, which began in 2003 and aims to identify and catalog every species on Earth by 2025.
Larry Page, Florida Museum ichthyology curator, is principal investigator on the four-year grant and the only researcher to receive two Planetary Biodiversity Initiative grants to date.
Scientists and students from the Florida Museum, Auburn University and St. Louis University, along with about 50 other researchers worldwide, will search for undiscovered species and study known species of the order Cypriniformes (pronounced sy-PRIN-uh-FOR-meez), which includes some of the most economically valuable fish in the world.
Through field work and examining institutional collections, Page expects to describe 1,000 new species in this order, which includes minnows, carp, loaches and suckers.
By Leeann Bright
Florida Museum of Natural History scientists are leading a research and education project in Panama with the help of a $3.8 million National Science Foundation grant.
The five-year Partnership for International Research and Education grant emphasizes teaching students to conduct research and field work with their international colleagues.
“One of the primary goals of the project is to build internationally competent researchers among future U.S. scientists through innovative research and learning experiences,” said Doug Jones, director and curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum and principal investigator on the grant.
The international Panama Canal Project will allow researchers and students from Panama, the University of Florida and other U.S. institutions to study the history of climate change and biodiversity in the region.
Recent construction to widen and straighten the channel and build new locks has exposed fossil deposits of marine and land animals which will reveal important clues about Panama’s biodiversity and ancient climate change. Jones said the canal expansion, expected to continue through 2014, provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of the large amount of sediment being exposed.