Museum researchers use DNA evidence to understand diversity in endangered cloud forests

February 19th, 2013
This flat-stemmed cactus, Nopalxochia phyllanthoides, is an endangered species native to a cloud forest in Veracruz, Mexico. Photo by Juan Francisco Ornelas

This flat-stemmed cactus, Nopalxochia phyllanthoides, is an endangered species native to a cloud forest in Veracruz, Mexico. Photo by Juan Francisco Ornelas

By Danielle Torrent

In stark contrast to southern Mexico’s surrounding dry plains, the mountains in Mesoamerica ascend into a secret world, enshrouded in fog. The mesmerizing flora and fauna create a mystical aura and the sounds of birds and Howler monkeys fill the air – picture a scene from “Avatar,” where mysterious creatures are a reality.

Mesoamerican cloud forests are home to some of the most diverse plants and animals in the world. Like sponges, they store water from the clouds and release it slowly, a vital process for replenishing and sustaining water. Palpable moisture and mild temperatures on mountain slopes where they occur support numerous native, endangered communities scientists have only begun to explore.

These biodiversity hotspots historically provided billions of gallons of fresh water, and yet the delicate ecosystems have been devastated for grazing, development, and coffee and coca farming. In northern Mesoamerica, which includes southern Mexico and Guatemala, 50 percent of the original cloud forest habitat has been destroyed and it occupies less than 1 percent of the total geographic area today. Cloud forests are naturally fragmented and among the most threatened habitats in the region. (more…)

Museum study shows river turtle species still suffers from past harvesting

January 17th, 2013

By Danielle Torrent

When it comes to conservation efforts, the biggest, cutest and most recognizable animals are often the first to gain public attention. From cuddly koalas to giant, gentle manatees, the beasts at the top of the food chain usually become symbols for hope in the threatened animal kingdom.

This large female northern map turtle was captured in the North Fork of White River in 2004.
Florida Museum photo by Amber Pitt

But the smaller critters often overlooked are also essential parts of the planet’s ecology.

River turtles, which Floridians may glimpse basking on riverbanks, help ecosystems function by cycling nutrients and maintaining food web dynamics.

“The importance of river turtles is really underplayed,” said Amber Pitt, a Clemson University postdoctoral research fellow who studied with Florida Museum of Natural History herpetology curator Max Nickerson as a University of Florida graduate student. “River turtles are long-lived, rely on the same water resources that we do and can serve as indicators of water quality. People should be concerned if turtles are impacted by poor water quality because we are likely being affected, too.” (more…)

Museum researchers unearth St. Augustine: America’s oldest city

December 12th, 2012

By Danielle Torrent

Museum archaeologists Gifford Waters and Kathleen Deagan work at the Fountain of Youth site in St. Augustine.
Photo by Kristen Grace

Ask many Americans what they know about early colonial America, and Disney’s “Pocahontas” will probably enter the conversation.

Although the classic cartoon may help children connect with nature, it popularizes the misconception that Jamestown, Va., was the first permanent European settlement in America. Florida Museum of Natural History archaeologists are hoping to change what Americans know about its early history – before the English arrived in Jamestown the Spanish had colonized St. Augustine, Fla.

“The goal is to provide a different vision for American history to most of the country, to show that in fact Jamestown wasn’t the only early place here,” said Kathleen Deagan, Florida Museum distinguished professor emeritus in archaeology. “People came to St. Augustine 72 years before Jamestown, with a determination to make a permanent settlement. They built a city and stayed here.” (more…)

Museum researchers help revise ‘Red Book of Endemic Plants of Ecuador’

November 13th, 2012

By Danielle Torrent

With an area about the size of Arizona, Ecuador seems small when compared to other South American countries, such as Argentina or Brazil. But what it lacks in land, it makes up in biodiversity.

Endara and Whitten with orchid

Florida Museum researchers Lorena Endara and Mark Whitten co-edited the second edition of the “Red Book of Endemic Plants of Ecuador,” which describes about 4,500 plant species.
Photos by Jeff Gage

Deemed one of 17 “megadiverse” countries by Conservation International, Ecuador has the highest concentration of species of any nation, according to the organization’s website. But agricultural expansion, petroleum production and a lack of ecological awareness have hindered conservation efforts.

Hoping to bring attention to plants in danger of extinction, Florida Museum of Natural History researchers helped co-author and revise the second edition of the “Red Book of Endemic Plants of Ecuador” published in March 2012, setting precedents for Ecuador’s vast neighboring countries.

“Ecuador was the first country to have a Red Book devoted to plants,” said co-editor Lorena Endara, a Florida Museum researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida who also helped compose the first edition of the “Red Book of Endemic Plants of Ecuador” published in 2000. “Most of the species we evaluated are vulnerable and some are endangered or critically endangered. This is the first step to estimating their conservation status at a regional level.” (more…)

Florida Museum family members collaborate to publish ichthyologist’s life’s work on cusk-eels

October 18th, 2012

By Danielle Torrent

For Florida Museum of Natural History collection manager Rob Robins, biodiversity is something of a family theme.

Rob Robins holding large jar in collection aisle

Rob Robins displays specimens of Lepophidium brevibarbe, the Blackedge Cusk-eel, in the Florida Museum ichthyology collection.
Photos by Jeff Gage

With his father a renowned ichthyologist, his mother an ichthyologist who sacrificed career for family and his wife a wildlife biologist, Robins has always been surrounded with the wonders of animal life. As a child, he witnessed marine discoveries made by his father, C. Richard “Dick” Robins and grew up in a home fabled among friends and relatives for the diversity of living creatures cared for there by his parents. Today, his adult life is very much a continuation of what he was introduced to as a child: A workplace filled with a myriad of preserved fishes and a host of living animals waiting for him at home, including many pet snakes and fishes.


As collection manager of the Florida Museum’s ichthyology division, Rob Robins is tasked with identifying, labeling, sorting and storing thousands of marine and freshwater specimens that come through his office in Dickinson Hall. It was an ideal setting for conducting recent research that enabled his father’s monograph on cusk-eels to be published in the Florida Museum of Natural History Bulletin Sept. 11, 2012. His wife, museum volunteer Mary Brown, is also a co-author.

The 60-year study describes eight new species of one of the least-studied groups of cusk-eels – bony fishes distantly related to cod. Although abundant and widespread in the Americas, the fishes in the genus Lepophidium have previously been poorly known to biologists.


Museum researchers discover earliest use of Mexican turkeys by ancient Maya

September 14th, 2012

By Danielle Torrent

Erin in Lab

Erin Thornton analyzes ancient animal remains in the lab.
Photo by Dan Thornton

As a University of Florida graduate student, one of Erin Thornton’s first assignments was to identify turkey bones from an ancient Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala.

Determined to please her adviser, Thornton thoroughly examined the features of the bones, which dated to the Late Preclassic period from 300 B.C. to A.D. 100. She decided they were remains of a non-local turkey native to central and northern Mexico, Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, commonly known as the Mexican Turkey.

But unbeknownst to Thornton at the time, her conclusion defied previous archaeological evidence – the species did not belong in the Maya area during the Late Preclassic period. According to the archaeological record, the Maya did not use the non-local Mexican Turkey until about 1,000 years later.

“To be honest, I was so focused on getting the morphological identifications correct to impress my doctoral adviser that I wasn’t necessarily thinking about what species should or shouldn’t be there in the Late Preclassic,” said Thornton, a research associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus and Trent University Archaeological Research Centre in Canada.

Thornton then consulted the Museum’s resident bird expert, ornithology curator David Steadman, who confirmed the identifications. But they needed additional evidence. So Steadman, Thornton and her adviser, curator of environmental archaeology Kitty Emery, collaborated with DNA analysts to verify the bones belonged to the Mexican Turkey, representing the earliest evidence of the species in the Maya world.


Museum researchers name new ancient camels from Panama Canal excavation

August 1st, 2012

By Danielle Torrent

Museum researchers recently discovered this lower jaw of Aguascalietia panamaensis, a new species of ancient camel from Panama. © Florida Museum photos by Jeff Gage

When it comes to camels, it’s difficult not to think of the Old World depicted through Arabian Nights – Bedouin travelers crossing vast, radiant deserts by day, through dark, star-spotted Arabian nights. But according to the fossil record, the ancestors of modern camels were creatures of the New World.

Based on fossils from the North American Great Plains, the earliest-known camels dwelled in the American savannah about 35 million years ago. It was a time before the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, when the continents of North and South America were still separated by the oceanic waters. But despite the separation of the continents, recent Panama Canal excavations by Florida Museum of Natural History researchers show ancient camels similar to those in North America also thrived in Central America 20 million years ago.

“We’re discovering this fabulous new diversity of animals that lived in Central America that we didn’t even know about before,” said Florida Museum vertebrate paleontology curator Bruce MacFadden, co-principal investigator on the National Science Foundation grant funding the Panama Canal project. “Prior to this discovery, they [ancient camels] were unknown south of Mexico.”


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