By Danielle Torrent
Did an ancient crocodile relative give the world’s largest snake a run for its money? In the post-dinosaur world of giants, Florida Museum of Natural History researchers discovered a new species related to crocodiles they say ate the same freshwater fish as Titanoboa.
Sixty-five million years ago, when a mass extinction wiped out dinosaurs, flying reptiles, large swimming reptiles and many other marine animals, few survivors were left to tell the story.
But University of Florida researchers recently unearthed the second member of a family that lived alongside the beasts, yet mysteriously survived the theorized asteroid strike that forever changed the atmosphere of the world.
“The same thing that snuffed out the dinosaurs killed off most of the crocodiles that were alive at the time,” said Florida Museum of Natural History graduate student Alex Hastings, lead author of a study describing the new species of dyrosaurid published Sept. 15, 2011, in Palaeontology. “The dyrosaurids are one of the few groups to survive the extinction and later become more successful.”
By Danielle Torrent
The mysterious appearance of numerous ancient duck bones dating to the sixth century at the Pineland archaeological site on Pine Island in southwest Florida was the first clue to one Museum researcher’s new understanding of the state’s environmental history.
Karen Walker, assistant scientist of south Florida archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, knew it was odd to find so many bones since the winter migratory range for ducks normally extends to the northern Gulf Coast, but not as far as south Florida. This suggested a climate cooler than today’s.
Other clues from the same period include a change in residents’ firewood from black mangrove to pine, suggesting a drier landscape, and a reduction in the number of fish bones, indicating people were eating less fish.
Using isotopic information from southern quahog clam shells and marine catfish otoliths (ear bones) collected at the site, Walker and co-authors Ting Wang and Donna Surge of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill confirmed cooler and drier weather characterized southwest Florida from about A.D. 500 to 850. This time span correlates with a wide-scale climate episode known as the Vandal Minimum, which is also associated with lower sea levels.
“When we started out, we thought, ‘Well, why wouldn’t you want it to be cooler in south Florida, it must have been nice,’ ” said Walker, who co-authored the study published online April 11, 2011, in The Holocene. “But in the end, I realized it’s all about fish – if you lose your water, you lose your fish.”
By Danielle Torrent
One of the mysterious legends of the sea, the giant squid has haunted sailors for hundreds of years. From the adventures of Homer’s Odysseus to Melville’s Ishmael, the unknown of the deep invokes fear that the creatures may even threaten ships.
In 1830, Alfred, Lord Tennyson depicted the fabled sea monster “The Kraken,” as “far beneath the abysmal sea,” and “with giant arms.” In the final lines of the poem, he wrote, “Then once by man and angels to be seen, In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.”
It was this image that caught the attention of three recreational fishermen about 12 miles offshore from Jensen Beach Sunday, June 26, 2011. They spotted a 25-foot-long giant squid dying near the surface at about 11 a.m. and decided to slide it into the back of their 23-foot-boat so the sighting would not be lost as legend.
“I thought we definitely need to bring it in, because no one’s going to believe us if we don’t,” said Robert Benz, who was fishing with friends Joey Asaro and Paul Peroulakis. “I didn’t want to leave it out there and just let the sharks eat it.”
The next day, Museum researchers collected the deep-water specimen from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Tequesta Field Laboratory in Palm Beach County. The specimen is the only one of its kind in the collections of the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus.
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.”