Thursday, December 22, 2011

Collections, Collections

     As the next round of holidays swiftly comes around the corner, the gifts to give and receive are quickly staring to pile up. Stuff you've hoped for, like the new Wii or movie that just came out on Blu Ray. And stuff you've secretly hoped NOT for, like that scary looking head-massage-thing you looked at accidentally while shopping with your significant other (or maybe NOT so significant other after you receive it...). Being able to forecast what someone may want or need in the future is an artform, and the holidays always prove to be the most strenuous of tests.
     And this is where stewards of Natural History Collections can relate. They must not only be able to meet the needs current scientists working on our earth's biodiversity, but also forecast and prepare for the scientists of the future. In fact, sometimes its the stuff that you unintentionally get in the field collecting, solely by chance because it catches your eye, that can be the most valuable to others. You throw the specimen in your bag, process it, and then incorporate in to the collection as part of your field expedition of a particular area's diversity. Thirty years later, a scientist working on a particular group will find that specimen in the collection, and discover that it is the only record of the thing existing in that part of the world, and they can finally finish their study or thesis. Unfortunately that may not be the case for a head-massage-instrument, unless you consider your house a museum and the scientist some person on Ebay, just waiting for you to post it!
     My PhD dissertation work, as with many people working in taxonomy, relies on this forward thinking for specimens that I can't actually collect myself. As a case in point, part of my thesis work included working on plant-bugs (Miridae) that are from Papua New Guinea and the Indo-Pacific. Most of the diversity was known from the island, including some of the most bizarre body forms for mimicking ants. Swollen heads to mimic the swollen heads of ants, constricted wings and abdomens to mimic the distinctive ant petiole (waist). Very unique and fascinating bugs.
One of the more odd bugs from my group
     However, Papua New Guinea and several other places in the Indo-Pacific are very remote, difficult to do field work in, and have rapidly changing environments due to human activities. The likelihood that I was going to go to Papua New Guinea to get specimens was as likely as winning the lottery. And I was not the only one; field work in Papua New Guinea has only sporadically be accomplished over the last one-hundred years, and often by the same fortunate individuals or expeditions. In fact, most of the species known from Papua New Guinea for my research were collected over 50 years ago, and often from the same people: T. C. Maa, E.J. Ford, J.L. Gressit, etc. All of the valuable material these excellent field-biologists collected were placed in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, waiting for an expert who could identify and describe it. It wasn't until 1984, when Dr. Randall Schuh published the first seminal work on the part of the plant-bug fauna of the Indo-Pacific, that the material got the first wave of expertise to recognize its value. He also was not able to go to Papua New Guinea himself.
     Most of that material then was looked at again with my research, here in the twenty-first century. This time, however, there was the added benefit that the Belgian Museum had started a new wave of survey work on the islands. I was able not only to find several of the species that Dr. Schuh had already described, but several new ones they had collected over the past ten years. Many of those new species the Belgians collected had new body forms that helped explain the shapes of the already-described species. Their work allowed for me to fill in the missing gaps about how some of the weirdest body forms of my insects evolved, even from afar.
     Therefore, if it wasn't for the fore-thought and care of natural history collections, I would not have been able to do my thesis, or become the scientist I am today. Every day I am thankful for people like Tardigrada and our other collection assistants that help us keep the collections what they are today, and allow us to continue to study the things we love. So, even over the holidays as the various wanted and unwanted gifts pile up, I can at least be thankful that one the best gifts I've ever received will still be there: our collections.
        Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Behind the scenes of Recent Invertebrates

Have you ever wondered what’s it like to work “behind the scenes” in a museum – namely, in the Recent Invertebrates department at SNOMNH? If you have wondered such a thing, well then, I'm happy to tell you about it! I work in the actual Recent Invertebrates collection.

My workspace is in the actual collection, and so I share my space with crayfish, corals, beetles, butterflies, and spiders, just to name a few. It's fascinating to look around - see for yourself!

Here's a box of Odonates (dragonflies) and Hemipterans (true bugs). See that huge one in the middle? It's in the family Belastomatidae. These can sometimes be found in asphalt parking lots around street lamps. Unfortunately for them, they often mistake parking lots for bodies of water.

Here is a jar of various spiders, collected from an Ecology class in 1933.

Here are some of the gorgeous corals that we have, and a sea star as well. As you've probably seen on nature shows, corals can be very brightly colored when they're alive and underwater.

We've also got a collection of Lepidopterans, which include butterflies and moths.

I did a double-take with the Lycaenidae in the top left corner. Let's take a closer look at those gorgeous blue wings, shall we?

All right, enough distracting ourselves. I work mainly on beetles from a collection that was left to us by Dr. Harley Brown. Dr. Brown was a former curator here and did extensive research on riffle beetles. These beetles lived in shallow, fast-moving bodies of water, called riffles. They're attracted to the high levels of oxygen present in riffles - all of that water movement ensures that riffles are pumped full of oxygen. Dr. Brown has collected beetles from all over the world - some from areas that we can no longer visit due to waterway changes or law changes. Because of this, his collection is very valuable to us. Currently, I am going through the collection, entering the information from each specimen into a database, and assigning each one a museum number. This information will then be accessible to other scientists for their research.

Most of these beetles are very tiny – no bigger than the head of a pin. Many of them are crowded in their trays as well – meaning that if you try to remove one specimen, you’re likely to knock neighboring beetles off of their pins, and then you've got a mess to sort out. So, as I go through each tray, I give the beetles more space and a tidier arrangement to prevent that from happening.



It's careful work, and it's very satisfying to know that I am aiding in the safe curation of a valuable collection that will hopefully long surpass all of us.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Its cold out there!

   Unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere right now, winter is coming on strong this December, causing the temperatures to drop significantly as the days get darker. All of the college students on the University of Oklahoma Campus are bundled up in scarves, hats, and whatever layers so they can to beat the cold and trudge from study location to study location, dorm to library, or stop at the occasional coffee shop or dining halls to refuel for more studying. From above, one can imagine that the campus looks like an ant colony with everyone going to their respective "nest" to stay warm and prepare for the finals next week. Accumulating a proverbial "academic fat layer" to rely on while staring at the blue books, scantrons, and other miscellaneous test forms thrown at them. Then the mass exodus of everyone heading home for the holidays, leaving the OU campus empty and drained until January...and still cold.
Not OU campus, but might as well be! Image from South Dakota State University Collegian Newspaper
   Which brings us to this week's topic...why is it that most invertebrates aren't really active in the cold? After all, us humans and other animals are out and about (maybe not happily in the cold...but still out there). The reason is that, unlike other animals, invertebrates are poikilothermic, or cold-blooded. Humans and other mammals have an internal thermostat that keeps our body temperatures up (we are homeotherms, or warm-blooded) so that all of the enzymes, muscle contractions, and nerve signals that keep our bodies running can keep going normally, whatever the temperature is outside. Invertebrates instead have their bodies (and all of the functions contained in them) regulated to the temperature outside...when its colder, the enzymes for things like digestion slow down. Their muscle contractions slow down...all of the molecules that signal nerve pathways slow down. If you find an ant crawling on the sidewalk in December, even though its out in the cold environment walking around, its probably going VERY slow.
      This slowing down, or even stopping of functioning in the cold has its benefits. For one, if functioning in the body slows down because its cold, it also means that energy consumption slows down. All cells need energy, which is obtained through food that is digested, processed, and passed through the body. Winter, especially for animals that feed on plants, is not a good time for obtaining food because most plants die back and drop their leaves. Or, if the plant can tolerate the cold, usually they have various different modifications to survive the lower temperatures that make them fairly unpalatable for insects, like waxes or resins (think of trying to eat a Holly tree leaf or a pine-needle!). As a result, if the food source is not easily available, it might be beneficial to scale back energy usage in response. Other vertebrates do this too to some extent, including animals that hibernate (bats, bears, etc.).
    The second benefit is that most invertebrates have fairly short lifespans, and often the goal is: eat, breed, die. Most insects, for example, do not live much past a season and very rarely past a few years (though there are notable exceptions with periodic cicadas, some aquatic insects, spiders and beetles). Again, this is somewhat tied to the resources they depend on for food and energy. Invertebrates that rely on short-lived plants that only last a season usually have similar lifespans, often dying as adults before winter and the eggs for the next generation waiting for the next year's plants or going into hibernation (diapause) as adults to lay eggs in the spring.
Lady bug (Coccinellidae) in diapause. From
     Several of the longer-lived species live in habitats where the resources are around for longer periods of time (rotting logs, creek beds), so there is a benefit for possibly extending the ability to tolerate cold as an adult to continue to have access to that resource in the winter. Ants are a good example because as scavengers they constantly are on the move to look for a variety of food. Many are not limited to particular plants, and can even find some of the other insects that are immobilized by the cold and bring it back to the nest as a protein source. College campuses, in fact, probably make a great habitat because of all of those students eating on the run: providing plenty of dropped Burger King crumbs, potato chip bags, and other debris that ants can utilize no matter what the season if the temperature is right.
    So while moving much slower than they would in the summer, ants (like college students) continue to brave the cold, doing what they have to survive in their respective worlds this December.
      Good luck on finals OU students!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Contributors to our blog

   One of the major focuses of this blog is to introduce you all to all of the neat organisms we are encountering while cataloging our collection here at the Sam Noble museum. There have been several people who have been a huge help in accomplishing this goal, including: undergraduate and graduate students, staff members, and our curator Dr. Braun, who wrote or co-wrote several grants that have funded the endeavor. I'm going to ask them permission if we can put their names on here first before we thank them personally, but without their help we wouldn't have so many neat stories and finds to talk about. So far we have cataloged over 130,000 individual specimens, just over half of our collection!

Example of pinned beetle specimen we discovered cataloging our European material from the early 19th Century
    There are going to be several contributing authors to our blog: I [Miridae] am going to take a more formal approach and talk about more of the nitty-gritty science stuff since I'm a trained Entomologist [science of insects]. We also will have contributions from other members of our department who will have their own writing styles and experience working with invertebrates, each contributing different perspectives and stories about what they're learning. As we get going, I'm excited to introduce everyone to the contributing members, and hope you enjoy learning about our department!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History: First Entry for Recent Inverts!

   Welcome to the new blog of the Department of Recent Invertebrates at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), in Norman, Oklahoma. The SNOMNH is a state-repository for artifacts and history of Oklahoma, and is part of the University of Oklahoma.
   The museum itself has several departments, all of which are listed on the museum website. These departments encompass several branches of both human history (Ethnology, Archaeology, Languages) and natural history (Vertebrate Paleontology, Invertebrate Paleontology, Mammalogy, Herpetology, etc.), mostly focused on Oklahoma but including material from all over the world. Though all of these branches and topics are important, we are going to focus on one natural history grouping that is both the most numerous and also the most interesting (yes, there is some bias here): invertebrates.
   Invertebrates comprise up to 97% of all known animal life; far more than mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians combined. All invertebrates lack a back-bone (in-meaning missing, vertebrate- vertebrae, part of the backbone), have multiple cells, and those cells are eukaryotic (meaning they have a nucleus with a membrane and other membrane-bound organelles: this excludes things like viruses or bacteria). A good summary of characters of invertebrates is provided by Wikipedia here.
   Our Recent Invertebrates collection includes invertebrates that are not fossilized. Our department of Invertebrate Paleontology deals with invertebrates of the very distant past, including taxa as the super-diverse Trilobites that evolved in the Precambrian period, and had at least 20,000 species at their prime. Now they are extinct, but in modern times we have another lineage of megadiverse invertebrates: the Insecta, or insects.
   Insects are a lineage of Arthropoda, the largest phylum of Invertebrates. Arthropods are united by having a hard exoskeleton with jointed appendages (arthro- jointed, poda- foot), and include other sub-phyla such as Crustaceans (crabs, shrimp), and the sub-phyla Trilobita (trilobites) mentioned earlier. Part of what makes arthropods so successful is their hard exosceleton, as well as their ability to exploit several different habitats during different life-stages of development. Current insects are dominantly terrestrial organisms (meaning they live out of water, on the land), and are one of the first major arthropod lineages (and animal lineages) to make the transition onto land from the primarily ocean-based life of Earth's early history. However, many insects still have some form of their development tied to water, especially the older lineages of insects (Dragonflies, Mayflies, etc.), and several lineages have returned back to water to re-exploit resources of the habitat (e.g. aquatic beetles, aquatic Heteropterans such as Water-striders). Still, several other arthropod groups are still primarily aquatic (living in water) and mostly marine (living in the ocean), especially the Crustaceans. In fact, there is only group of Crustaceans that live on the land: the Armadillidiidae, or Pill-bugs. In Oklahoma you can see these little crustaceans wandering around moist environments during the spring, summer, and fall, usually in the early mornings, looking for food.
   Because Oklahoma is primarily a terrestrial environment (though we do have several unique freshwater environments, including streams, lakes and rivers), our invertebrates collection at the SNOMNH is mostly comprised of terrestrial insects. However, we do have several very good collections of freshwater crayfish (crustaceans), freshwater mollusks (snails, clams, oysters), and other invertebrate taxa unique to Oklahoma. In addition, we have several specimens of invertebrates from all over the world to diversify our collection, including representatives from marine environments like corals, jelly-fish, crabs, and more obscure marine invertebrate taxa (polychaete worms, etc.). We also have one of the best aquatic beetle collections in the world, of the group Byrrhoidea (which includes the Long-toed beetles, Water-pennies, and riffle-beetles), due to the extensive work of former curator Dr. Harley Brown. Dr. Brown did extensive field work in Oklahoma, the Southwest United States and Mexico, and Central and South America.
   Each week we will be posting stories that highlight one group of invertebrates from our collection. Further, we will be posting information about major events and finds in our collection as we catalog and database our material. So please come back and see what's new and to learn more about our specimens and collection here at the SNOMNH!