Staff & Student News

Associate Curator and Chair John Bates, Research Scientist Jason Weckstein, MacArthur Grant Coordinator Josh Engel, and Adjunct Curator Dave Willard (all Zoology/Birds) attended the American Ornithologists’ Union Meeting in Jacksonville, FL from July 25–29.  Jason presented a multi-authored paper on the timing of speciation and biogeographic patterns of diversification in toucans (co-authors included Zoology Research Associate Alexandre Aleixo and three former students, Holly Lutz, Swati Patel, and Jose Patané, that have worked with Jason and John).   John presented a multi-authored paper on genetic structure in four montane species of Albertine Rift birds (co-authors included Josh and Zoology Research Associates Rauri Bowie, Gary Voelker, and Charles Kahindo).   John also was co-author on a poster on the lack of genetic structure in African Paradise Flycatchers (Terpsiphone) with colleagues from the University of Florida.  Jason served on the meeting’s student presentation awards committee.  At the meeting, it was formally announced that The Field Museum will host the 131st Meeting of the A.O.U. at Palmer House in August, 2013.

What is an individual, biologically speaking? Associate Curator Scott Lidgard (Geology) and his collaborator, Research Associate and historian of biology Lynn Nyhart (University of Wisconsin-Madison) propose a new history of biological individuality and complexity.  Understanding part-whole relations in living nature has long been a fundamental philosophical problem for biologists, whether couched in terms of the nature of the biological individual (as in the 19th and 20th centuries) or in terms of biological modularity and levels of selection (as it is today).  The problem links to biological questions about evolution, emergence, systematics, development, and functional morphology; philosophical questions about the nature of the organism and causation in biology; and the historical and cultural circumstances in which such questions resonate with parallel questions about the nature of society.  In April, Lynn received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for her work on this collaborative project.  In July, Lynn and Scott received an award from the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.  They will be Cain Conference Fellows, with financial support to organize a conference related to their project in early 2012.  The object of the conference is to pursue the question: How can historians, philosophers, and biologists help each other to understand part-whole relationships in biology, both today and in the past?

In the last week of July, several scientists in the Botany Department traveled down under to Melbourne, Australia, where they participated in the International Botanical Congress, attended by over 2,000 delegates from all over the world.  Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch organized a symposium on biogeography of fungi and lichens in which Postdoctoral Research Scientist Sittiporn Parnmen presented a talk on biogeography and speciation of the lichen genus Cladia that has its center of distribution in Australia.  Collections Manager and Adjunct Curator Matt von Konrat gave presented papers at two symposia.  Matt's first presentation discussed biogeographic insights from phylogenetic analyses of liverwort lineages, and his second talk was entitled “The Plant list: the contribution from liverworts and hornworts—a model and community-driven system”.   The latter presentation outlined a community effort toward the synthesis of taxonomic and geographic data in which the Museum is taking a leadership role.  Collections Manager Christine Niezgoda met with collaborating Global Plants Initiative colleagues and the Mellon Foundation to discuss a new proposal for serving as a regional center for photographing types and participated in sessions on Legume Systematics, GPI, and Botanical Names Services among the many scientific programs offered.

Geology Associate Curator Scott Lidgard presented an invited paper in a symposium on “Understanding Organisms and Individuality: Organismality, Multicellularity and Major Transitions” at the July meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology in Salt Lake City.  His paper was entitled, “Darwin on Individuality, Polymorphism, and 'Modularity' in a Colonial Animal.”

The Mycological Society of America had its annual meeting in Fairbanks, AK in the first week of August.  Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch attended the meeting, coming directly from Australia and joined by Resident Graduate Student Matt Nelsen (University of Chicago) and Research Associate Carrie Andrew (all Botany).  Thorsten gave a presentation, co-authored—among others—by his postdoctoral coworker Steve Leavitt on species delimitation in brown parmelioid lichens in North America.  In this study they showed that a number of species in the North American flora that were considered to have a wide distribution in the northern Hemisphere (and were mostly described from Europe), actually are distinct, so-called "cryptic species" in North America.  Matt presented a talk on diversification in groups of lichen-forming fungi in a symposium on diversification of fungi.

Postdoctoral Research Scientist Sittiporn “Kong” Parnmen (Botany) received the Medal of Honor with Certificate of the “Excellent Academic Award for Ph.D. in Science” from the Professor Dr. Tab Nilanidhi Foundation (Bangkok, Thailand) for his outstanding thesis.  This award is given annually to the three best Ph.D. theses in science among all universities in Thailand, the Botany Department congratulates Kong for this outstanding achievement.

Kawinnat Buarang (“Nhong”), herbarium curator at Ramkamhaeng University, Bangkok (Thailand) is visiting the Botany Department for six weeks from August until mid-September.  While at the  Museum, she will be learning modern herbarium techniques and the methods and strategies of databasing of specimens.  Nhong is a lichenologist focusing on the lichen family Parmeliaceae, which is very diverse in the tropics.  She will also use the time at the Museum to do some work in the Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics with the help of Postdoctoral Research Scientist Sittiporn “Kong” Parnmen.

Research & Publications

Assistant Curator Leo Smith (Zoology/Fishes) co-authored an article in the July issue of Molecular Ecology entitled “Is sexual selection driving diversification of the bioluminescent ponyfishes (Teleostei: Leiognathidae)?”  Ponyfishes are the only shallow water bioluminescent fish family that has a sexual-dimorphic light organ system (a donut-shaped light organ that surrounds the esophagus that emits lights through “windows” in the flanks and head of the fish).  In most species, the males exhibit a tremendous expansion and/or elaboration of this unusual light organ system, including transparent bones, colored filters on the “windows” to alter the wavelength of the emitted light, guanine-lined tubes to direct the light out of distinct patches, etc.  Because of this elaboration and the observation that most species have a sexually dimorphic light organ system, Leo and his colleagues explored and demonstrated that evolution of sexual dimorphism and corresponding sexual selection is not driving diversification in ponyfishes.

For the first phase of their project on the history of biological individuality, Associate Curator Scott Lidgard and Research Associate Lynn Nyhart (both Geology) spent the month of June working in the archival and library collections of a number of museums in London.  There, they studied the original letters, notebooks, and unpublished lectures of major 19th century biologists who were colleagues (and some critics) of Charles Darwin: Thomas Huxley, Richard Owen, George Busk, William B. Carpenter, and others.  These biologists engaged in controversies and advancements about development and generation (including metamorphosis, alternation of generations, and regeneration), compound organisms (especially colonial invertebrates and plants), the relations between parts and wholes in the organic world, and ongoing debates over the nature and definition of species—all of these topics underlain by the problem of biological individuality.

Assistant Curator Leo Smith (Zoology/Fishes) co-authored two articles in a July special volume of the journalZootaxa that discussed the integration of and conflict between anatomical and DNA sequence data in resolving the fish tree of life.  These papers, “Will the real phylogeneticists please stand up?” and “A Response to Mooi, Williams and Gill,” promoted research efforts that utilize both morphological and molecular data in evolutionary biology.  The genesis for this special volume was a pair of talks by Smith and colleagues at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.  It is the hope of all involved that all of this discussion will promote research efforts to resolve evolutionary relationships among fishes.

Research Scientist Torsten Dikow (BioSynC) travelled to Manaus, Brazil from August 4–7 in order to work in the collection of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Aamazônia (INPA).  INPA is a federally-funded research institute in Brazil dedicated to the study of the biodiversity of the Amazon region.  Several interesting specimens of robber flies (Asilidae) and mydas flies (Mydidae) were studied and photographed, they are of importance to his current research project funded by an NSF REVSYS grant .  For example, Torsten discovered several specimens of the rarely encountered robber-fly genus Schildia on which he published an article in Insect Systematics & Evolution in 2009.   Among them were new distribution records of two species from around Manaus, but also an undescribed species from southeastern Brazil (see distribution map here).

Torsten also spent a day in the field with fly taxonomists and systematists from INPA visiting three nature reserves, which are under the jurisdiction of INPA, north of Manaus.  Seven species of robber flies were collected that will now be incorporated into Torsten’s world-wide studies on the evolutionary relationships within Asilidae.

Fieldwork & Collections

Public Education & Media Coverage