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Project Lab 

June 24, 2012

New Beetles!

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During a visit to California Academy of Sciences, you might find yourself standing in front of the Project Lab asking, “What is that person doing in there?” And if you happened to ask that question today the answer would be: discovering new beetles! Although most of my time in the Project Lab is spent working on my PhD dissertation research studying the biogeography and evolutionary relationships of snail-eating beetles, today is not a normal day in the Project lab. Today, I am identifying and describing new beetle species previously unknown to science.

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These tiny little beetles hail from Australia and come out at night to prey on other insects. Entomologists like myself use morphology (body shapes and structures) and DNA to help us determine if an insect is a new species. Sometimes something as trivial as a tiny hair or a wrinkle can be crucial to identifying a species. Additionally, two insects that may look identical to the naked eye could be very distantly related once we look at their DNA!

Here in the Project Lab, I will examine specimens from natural history museums world-wide in order to determine which ones are new species. Many microscope hours later, I will use our Auto-montage imaging system to capture high-resolution photographs of each new species. Finally, I will provide a written description and name for each new species. Getting to choose the name of a brand new species is a perk well worth all of that hard work!

Meghan Culpepper
PhD Candidate
Entomology Department


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 5:27 pm

June 20, 2012

CALIFORNIA – FIRST IN THE NATION!

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Most Californians could probably guess our state tree (the redwood), our state mineral (gold), and our state flower (golden poppy), but most people I talk to don’t realize that California has a state insect, the California Dogface Butterfly. First proposed in 1929, the Dogface (Zerene Eurydice ) became the official California State Insect in 1972. Other states soon followed suite, and most states now have an official insect. Named for a pattern on the male’s wings that resembles a poodle’s head, this butterfly was once also known as the “flying pansy”, and appeared on a U.S. postage stamp under its old name, Colias eurydice. The larvae of this butterfly feed only on the California False Indigo (Amorpha californica), while adults feed on nectar of thistles. More commonly seen in Southern California, the Dogface has become more difficult to find in our area, mostly due to destruction of its woodland chaparral habitat.

Deep in the bowels of the Academy’s insect collection is a special cabinet, referred to as the “OH-WOW” collection, containing many rare and unusual insects which highlight some especially interesting aspects of our collection. One of the drawers contains a collection of Southern and California Dogface butterflies collected by a British researcher in the 1930’s, showing the variation of colors and patterns among these animals. Of special interest is one rare specimen, known as a gynandromorph. Due to a mishap during reproduction, this individual is male on one side, and female on the other. This situation is uncommon, but is seen in a wide range of organisms. While I don’t know about this particular case, sometimes these animals can be functional as both sexes!

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In my next blog, I will continue to expose some of the wonders contained in our “oh-wow” cabinet.

Vic Smith
Invertebrate biologist, curatorial assistant and imaging specialist
Department of Entomology


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 4:46 pm

June 13, 2012

Ostrich leg bones

In collaboration with the new Earthquake exhibit, the Project Lab has been shaking things up a bit as well by working on some pretty special specimens!

This past week during Nightlife volunteers Kari Olila and Rosalind Henning flensed some Ostrich (Struthio camelus) leg bones for the Exhibits department.  These huge bones help Ostriches stand about 6-9 feet tall and run over 40 miles per hour.  Aside from looking a bit different from the typical bird we see around the city, Ostriches have some distinctly different features from their other avian relatives.

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Most birds have bones that have been adapted to their lifestyle in the air.  Their structure is hollow with an internal pattern of supportive struts making their skeleton much lighter than animals of similar size.  If you cut a slice out of a bird’s bone it would looks a bit like a sponge. Since Ostriches do not fly, many of their bones are like our own-solid bone encasing a tube of marrow.  With such heavy legs it would be extremely difficult for an Ostrich to ever take flight, but instead they have bones that can withstand pressure from walking and standing.  We see solid bones in other flightless birds like the Emu and even some penguins.

A second adaptation of flightless birds is their lack of keel.  A keel is the bird’s breastbone with a single process running the length of the ventral side.  This keel provides structural support for the muscle attachment of the breast muscle.  Unlike the relatively thin layer of muscle we humans have on our chest, birds have large chest muscles to flap their wings and provide flight.  Because the Ostrich and other flightless birds have no need to take to the wing, their breastbone is relatively flat in comparison to other birds.

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Now that Kari and Rosalind have prepared the Ostrich bones, the next step is to mascerate the bones, which means submerging the bones in warm water until the remaining muscle and tissue releases from the bone. Next an ammonia bath will help to leach out any grease leaving the bones dry and clean.  Preparing skeletons for museum collections and exhibits can be extremely helpful to researchers.  Although these specific Ostrich bones will be used for public educational purposes, the Ornithology and Mammalogy research collection is a library of skeletons and study skins that use this exact process to preserve avian and mammal life history.  Using our collection to look at skeletal differences between birds that have flight and those that do not can help trace the ancestry of different types of birds.  Form follows function for most of our bones, and researchers can extrapolate upon this information, gaining insight into the lifestyles of different species.

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology & Mammalogy Department


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 4:10 pm

June 5, 2012

Exploring Anilao, Philippines

When recalling my adventures in the Philippines, extreme oceanic beauty contrasted with heart-wrenching poverty comes to mind. The objective of the trip was to experience the center of the center of marine biodiversity, which is the Verde Island Passage within the Coral Triangle of the Indo-Pacific. For two weeks I stayed at Club Ocellaris, a dive resort in Anilao, situated on the Balayan Bay, which is a boat ride from the Verde Island Passage. More nudibranchs have been discovered and described here than any marine ecosystem on earth. Club Ocellaris was chosen, since it was the resort utilized for the marine portion of the Academy’s 2011 Hearst Expedition.

Alexis Principe, my dive guide, is excellent at spotting small marine organisms, like nudibranchs, in their natural environments. After my first dive, it was apparent that the Coral Triangle was a truly unique and magnificent place. My fondest diving memory was seeing three flamboyant cuttlefish and a coconut octopus at a muck site. Muck sites comprise of loose sediment, coral rubble, and some trash. They are excellent for viewing juvenile and exotic organisms adapted to creating homes out of garbage.  Anilao is well known for its exceptional muck diving.

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On my first night dive, Alexis found two nudibranchs, a Marionia sp. and a Gymnodoris aurita. He swam over to the Marionia and transplanted it to the rock on which the G. aurita was resting. Prior to SCUBA diving in the Philippines, I watched a YouTube video of a Gymnodoris feeding on a Hypselodoris, so inevitably I expected the G. aurita to feed on the Marionia. I felt quite sorry for the Marionia. The compassion felt for it was quite absurd considering my systematic research requires sacrificing Doto nudibranchs.

I also had the pleasure of seeing three different species of Indo-Pacific Doto, which are a part of the research I am working on within the Project Lab. These were Doto ussi and the two un-described species Doto sp. 2 and 7. Patricia, an avid diver from London, collected Doto sp. 2 and 7 to bring back to the resort for a brief period. It was awesome to finally see my research subjects alive.

Another amazing encounter was a pygmy seahorse on a gorgonian at less than thirty feet on a night dive. They normally inhabit soft gorgonian corals in much deeper waters. Alexis suspected a diver had transplanted the gorgonian to a shallower depth. Alexis brought back a Baeolidia sp. 3, which was a spectacular nudibranch to behold.  When it crawled, it reminded me of a centipede, since its cerata resembled the legs of a centipede.

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Once my Masters is completed at the Academy, I wish to pursue a PhD studying the anti-cancer compounds of sea slugs native to the Coral Triangle. Most of the marine slug species found here have not been investigated for anti- tumor agents. With thousands of species to be looked at, there is more than enough research to last a lifetime.

Carissa Shipman
Masters Student
Invertebrate Zoology & Geology Department


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 2:32 pm

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