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Project Lab 

July 25, 2012

Tales From the Oh-My! Cabinet: The 1,300 year old beetle?

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Deep within the bowels of the Academy’s insect collection is a special cabinet known as the Oh-My! Cabinet, a special part of the collection with unusual, rare, or otherwise especially interesting specimens. My blog this week focuses on one of the drawers in this cabinet that tells an interesting, but controversial story. The Goju-no-to is a five-story pagoda, a part of the Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan that was originally constructed in 725. In 1950, some work was being done on the temple, exposing the original foundation. A specimen of the Buprestid beetle Chrysocoa fulgidissima was reputedly found in the foundation timbers, which would make it a 1,300 year old specimen! Part of the controversy arises from the wording used by Austin W. Morrill Jr. of San Francisco who donated the specimen to the Academy. In his donation description, he (or someone else) writes, “The beetle was collected from the foundation timbers in 1950. The beetle emerged from the early foundation timbers, and therefore it seems likely to be nearly 1300 years old.”

Part of the controversy is the use of the word “emerged,” which to most entomologists suggests a living beetle. While it is quite within the realm of possibility that the exoskeleton of a beetle could survive unharmed in a protected location for such a long period of time, it does not seem likely that a living beetle could survive. A more recent specimen of the same species was collected in Nara in 1951, and looks about the same as the reputed ancient example.
We may never prove this one way or the other, but it makes for an interesting story!

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


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:58 am

July 20, 2012

Specimen of the Day: Southeast Farallon Island specimens

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This weekend I prepared three birds, Ptychoramphus aleuticus (Cassins Auklet), Oceanodroma homochroa (Ashy Storm Petrel), and Vireo gilvus (Warbling Vireo), found on the Southeast Farallon Islands (SEFI).

Most of the time Academy guests can find me preparing study skins in the Project Lab, but I also employ other methods to preserve specimens for the Ornithology and Mammalogy research collection.  For the three specimens from SEFI, I chose to preserve them in Ethyl Alcohol (EtOH), which has the advantage of keeping the entire bird for later research.  When creating specimens for our O&M collection the preparator must keep in mind the pros and cons of each type of preservation whether it be a “study skin” which preserves the external parts of the animal for dry storage, a “skeleton” which preserves only the bones of the body also for dry storage, or an “alcohol” specimen which preserves the entire body in liquid.

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Since these three specimens were found on the Farallon islands, an important stop during bird migration and breeding ground for many seabirds, preserving them in Ethyl Alcohol will give the most complete picture of what the birds were doing when they died.  Later research can not only look at the physiology and morphology of the specimen, but we can also examine stomach contents to see what the bird ate or examine other internal organs to determine the overall health of the bird.

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For the Ashy Storm Petrel, a bird considered a species of special concern, keeping all body parts can be especially helpful.  As a species that breeds on the Farallones, introduced species such as predatory cats and rats can have a huge impact on bird populations.  Using the specimens of the collection here at the Academy, researchers can determine population change over time by examining the locality distribution of found specimens.  Only time will tell if this Ashy storm Petrel has a special story to tell about life on the ocean but that story is invaluable to gaining a larger picture of its entire species.  The more we know about species populations the better we can provide conservation guidelines for the future health of all species!

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology & Mammalogy Department


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:35 pm

July 13, 2012

International Opisthobranch Conference

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For two solid weeks, I worked in the Project Lab preparing for the International Opisthobranch Conference at UC Santa Cruz. The focus of my talk for the conference was on unraveling the Doto coronata species complex. The background on this species complex was discussed in a previous blog entry (4/4/12). The aim of the talk was to compare the COI gene sequences of several specimens thought to be D. coronata from Wales, Maine, South Africa, and the North Sea. The species D. tuberculata and D. millbayana were also included in the comparison to confirm whether they were in fact different from those with the name D. coronata. Unraveling the D. coronata complex is important to my research since this species is representative of the Doto genus (i.e. it is the “type species.”).

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The International Opisthobranch Conference brought together students and scientists from ten countries to share and discuss their research on marine slugs. Part of doing science is sharing the knowledge and significance of one’s research with other scientists and the community. Conferences are paramount to doing science since they nurture the curiosity and collaboration of scientists interested in answering a diverse array of unknown questions.

Research projects can be easier to complete when working collaboratively with other scientists interested in solving related problems. As a researcher, it can be difficult to know who else in the world could be working on a project similar to your own. This can be a problem since significant research needs to be original. Thankfully, Bernard Picton, from the National Museum of Northern Ireland, connected me to Guillermo Diaz-Agras from Ferrol, Spain who is researching the morphology of the N. Atlantic Doto. In collaboration with Guillermo, I presented some of my recent research findings at the conference. He and I will be working to further clarify this challenging and ambiguous complex, which is an integral part of my graduate thesis.

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Carissa Shipman
Masters Student
Invertebrate Zoology & Geology Department


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 10:51 am

July 8, 2012

Summer Systematics Institute Intern Spotlight: Wendee Augustiro

Every summer, the Academy offers a research program for undergraduate students called the Summer Systematics Institute (SSI). During this 8-week program, students work with Academy scientists on research projects that address questions about biodiversity, phylogenetic systematics and evolutionary biology. The SSI program is now in its 17th year, and here on the Project Lab blog, one of its current students, Wendee Augustiro, shares her experience in the program:

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The amount of variation amongst plants is truly astounding.  Trying to understand the evolution of plant diversity is a large part of why I study botany.  Since plants are all around us and have a critical role for life on earth, I am constantly in a state of wonder. This is especially true now that I am participating in the California Academy of Science’s Summer Systematics Institute (SSI), where I am learning skills and using tools to study plant diversification. Currently, I am an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and study mostly native Hawaiian plants. This is fascinating to me because of the number of lineages that have diversified in our relatively young islands.

As part of the SSI, I am working with Dr. Gilberto Ocampo to study the evolutionary relationships among a group of species within the tribe Miconieae (Melastomataceae). This is part of the Planetary Biodiversity Inventory project on the tribe (funded by the National Science Foundation), with collaborators from  the California Academy of Sciences, The New York Botanical Garden, the University of Florida, and the Universidade Federal de Paraná (Brazil). The tribe comprises 18 genera and about 1,800 species distributed in the New World tropics, and its species have an important role in the ecosystem because of the number of individuals in forest understories and because it is an important food source for many birds and mammals.

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In particular, I am studying a group of around 30 species distributed from southern Mexico to northern South America, informally called the “Secundiflorae clade”. This group contains species recognized in two different genera, Leandra and Ossaea, but DNA analyses suggest they share a common ancestor. In addition, species of this clade share flower arrangement and seed morphology, supporting the relationships inferred by the molecular data. For this project, I am using molecular (chloroplast and nuclear DNA) and morphological data (measurements of vegetative and reproductive structures) in order to understand the variation of this group under a phylogenetic framework.

I plan to take the methods I learn at the Academy and apply them to study the evolutionary history of native Hawaiian species.  I feel lucky that I have the opportunity to come to San Francisco and be a small piece in a larger puzzle that will help us to understand the evolution of this vibrant group of melastomes.

Wendee Augustiro


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 5:22 pm

July 4, 2012

The fascinating toes of geckos

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Geckos are well known for their gravity-defying ability to climb up vertical and inverted surfaces, whether they’re trees, rocks, walls, ceilings or glass windows. Of the approximate 1,450 species of geckos, around 60% of them have adhesive toepads that allow them to exploit vertical habitats that aren’t easily accessible to other animals. This amazing adaptation has inspired scientists to engineer bio-mimicry technologies such as robots that can scale walls and new adhesive materials. So how do geckos do it? Several mechanisms have been proposed and disproven; these include suction, glue, interlocking, electrostatic attraction and friction. But instead, it’s been discovered that geckos hold on using weak attractive intermolecular forces (aka Van der Waals forces) with the help from specialized structures on their toepads.

In the Project Lab, I have been able to get a look at the toes of the different gecko species that I’ve been photographing from the Herpetology collection. In the photographs above, you can see that their toes are covered in rows of leaf-like structures called lamellae. An even closer look using a scanning electron microscope would reveal that these lamellae are carpeted with hair-like setae, the ends of which are split into hundreds of nano-sized hairs called spatulae. Altogether, a gecko can have a billion spatulae, making intimate contact with the substrate surface. The combined attractive force of all of the weak molecular interactions between the spatulae and the surface is equivalent to about 600 pounds per square inch! But if gecko toes are so ‘sticky,’ you may wonder how they even lift their feet up.  Geckos actually bend their toes in the opposite direction to human fingers and toes, and this allows them to peel their toes up from surfaces. This peeling action changes the angle of the setae, thereby reducing the Van der Waals force and releasing the foot.

Traditionally, it was thought that adhesive toepads evolved only once within geckos, but surprisingly, a recent study suggests that they evolved independently ELEVEN times (Gamble et al 2012)! It is truly incredible to think that natural selection repeatedly drove the evolution of such an extraordinary adaptation. There’s definitely still a lot more that scientists and engineers can learn from the natural world.

References:

Gamble T, Greenbaum E, Jackman TR, Russell AP, Bauer AM (2012) Repeated Origin and Loss of Adhesive Toepads in Geckos. PLoS ONE 7(6): e39429. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039429


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:56 pm

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