Staff & Student News

Assistant Curator Corrie Moreau (Zoology/Insects) gave an invited Plenary (Keynote) Lecture at the Australasian Evolution Society meetings in Queensland, Australia from September 24–27.  Corrie’s talk was entitled "Ants, Plants, and Bacteria: A Tale of Evolutionary Diversification.”  Ants are one of the most ecologically and numerically dominant groups of terrestrial organisms with most species diversity currently found in tropical climates.  But what promoted this diversity and discontinuity of species richness across the globe?  To fully understand the evolutionary history of the group and the factors that may explain patterns of diversity, a well-resolved tree of life is paramount.  Molecular phylogenetic analyses of the major ant lineages are providing a stable framework to understand the evolutionary relationships of the group.  From this, we are beginning to understand the biogeographic history of the ants and the timeline on which they diversified.  Interestingly, many factors seem to have shaped the diversification of ants, including their associations with hemipterous insects, ant-plant mutualisms, the diet enriching contributions of their endosymbiotic microbial communities, and the rise of the angiosperms (flowering plants).  The depth and breadth of bacterial associations in ants and how mutualisms have promoted diversification of the ants are just beginning to unfold, but new sequencing technologies and genomics are providing innovative tools to assess the evolutionary history of this diverse group of insects. 

On September 26, Tsenka Tsanova started working in the Anthropology Department as the new America for Bulgaria Postdoctoral Fellow.  The fellowship lasts one academic year (2011/2012), and she is the first Bulgarian postdoctoral researcher supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.  Tsenka is a Paleolithic archaeologist who specializes in prehistoric lithic technology, and she is coming from the Department of Human Evolution at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.  Her project, entitled “The emergence of cultural modernity. Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition: Neanderthal-Modern Human cultural transactions," will focus on the emergence of cultural modernity, which presumably appeared with the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe and the extinction of Neanderthal populations around 50,000–35,000 years ago.  Associate Curator William Parkinson (Anthropology) will be her supervisor.  Tsenka proposes to examine and validate the context of The Field Museum’s archaeological collections from various areas in Eurasia that were dated between 80,000–30,000 years ago.  Furthermore, she will characterize the lithic assemblages and isolate their technological elements and economical behaviors of cultural modernity.  This new study will then be integrated and compared with her previous analyses of “transitional” collections from the Levant (Ksar Akil), the Zagros mountains in Iran (Warwasi and Yafteh), and the Eastern Balkans and Bulgaria (Bacho Kiro, Temnata and Kozarnika).

Curator Larry Heaney (Zoology/Mammals) traveled to the University of Oxford, England for a pair of activities on September 23–25.  The first was a conference on “Advances in Biogeography” for young investigators (grad students and postdoctoral students) at which he served as a keynote speaker, presenting a paper entitled “Oceanic island biogeography: emerging perspectives and paradigm shifts.”  About 100 people attended the conference, coming from 16 countries.  On the same dates, Larry chaired the annual meeting of the Board of Directors of the International Biogeography Society (IBS), for which he is serving as President.  The IBS is an academic society that promotes the increase and diffusion of knowledge about the evolution, ecology, and conservation of biological diversity on the earth, with focus on geographic patterns of climate, earth history, topography, land use, etc.

Curator Gary Feinman and Adjunct Curator Linda Nicholas (both Anthropology) were asked to assist the Chicago Office of Homeland Security with the case involving prehispanic Mexican figurines that were confiscated by the Federal Officials from the mail.  Gary and Linda met with the officers at the Museum and later received a message of thanks from the government team for their assistance on this case.  This is the second such case this year that Gary has been asked to assist with. 

In September, Zoology’s Division of Amphibians and Reptiles hosted several visiting researchers.  Claudia Koch, a Doctoral student at the Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig (ZFMK) in Bonn, Germany visited during the week of September 5.  Koch spent a week at the Museum examining Peruvian reptiles.  William Farr and his wife LiMei visited during the week of September 26.  Farr, a keeper at the Houston Zoo, is working on a herpetological survey of the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico.  The survey will include examining and verifying approximately 15,500 specimens from numerous institutions.  Farr is hoping to examine up to 300 specimens while here at The Field Museum.

Research & Publications

Associate Curator Scott Lidgard (Geology) co-authored a paper entitled “Functional innovation through vestigialization in a modular marine invertebrate” that appeared online this month in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.  Vestigial organs are pervasive phenomena, and are usually seen as reduced body parts lacking visible function.  Their eventual evolutionary fate under most scenarios is to be done away with.  Morphological polymorphism is also pervasive, and is often seen in patterns of division of labor that have presumably arisen through variation among individuals and the relative value of functional specialization among group or organism members.  Recent work in molecular genetics has uncovered several examples of vestigialization, duplication, and repurposing of genetic structure.  In stark contrast, comparable instances in morphological evolution linking vestigialization, functional innovation, and consequent emergence of novel forms are so few as to be almost unique.  This study reports the discovery of one of the very rare instances in which vestigial organs are not destined for elimination, but instead facilitate functional innovation leading to novel roles and the evolution of extreme morphological polymorphism. Cheilostome bryozoans, like all polymorphic colonial animals, have a modular body plan in which budding over and over again duplicates zooids of the same or alternate forms, yet the zooids are identical genetically.   Zooid modules thus show some degree of developmental and morphological dissociation, but also degrees of communication and integration at the colony level. The study demonstrates that semi-dissociated zooids develop and evolve as units, and that bryozoan feeding zooids and other, more specialized polymorphs are in fact members of a gradational evolutionary series.

Zoology Research Associate Djoko Iskandar and two colleagues described a new species of frog from Indonesia in the August 31 Raffles Bulletin of Zoology.  The frog is a species in the genus Ingerana.  The genus Ingerana was erected in 1987 in honor of Curator Emeritus Robert Inger (Zoology/Amphibians and Reptiles).  It contains several interesting species including the new Ingerana rajae.  This paper is available here.

Fieldwork & Collections

From late August through mid-September, Adjunct Curator and Collections Manager Matt von Konrat (Botany) led an international team of 17 scientists representing ten institutions as they carried out fieldwork in Fiji.  The scientific team had a real United Nations feel to it with participants from Germany, Hungary, New Zealand, Romania, Sweden, Thailand, and the U.S.A., together with their Fijian collaborators and partners.  The islands of Fiji are part of the Polynesia-Micronesia biodiversity hotspot—one of thirty-five in the world.  Alarmingly, Conservation International recognized this hotspot as the epicenter of the current global extinction crisis; Fiji alone has less than 2% of its natural forest protected.  The multi-disciplinary team collected early land plants (liverworts, mosses and hornworts), ferns, and lichenized fungi.  The 17-member team also included Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch, Research Assistant Laura Briscoe and Research Associates John Braggins and Khwanruan Papong(all Botany).  The fieldwork represented an unprecedented expedition of this scale on spore producing organisms in the South Pacific.  With local support and technical support the party at times consisted of as many as 28 people!  Almost 5,000 specimens were collected from the largest island, Viti Levu, and the 4th largest island, Kadavu.  Preliminary data already indicates dozens of new genera and species records to the island, and possibly several new species to science.  Kadavu island has a population of less than 10,000 people and includes very remote villages only accessible by boat.  The field trip was not only full of adventure, including 4-wheel drive, outboard boats, camping and accessing mountain summits, but also provided a rare cultural experience for those who stayed in a remote village called Nabukelevu-ira.  Fiji has retained a great deal of its traditional culture and most areas remain under private and local ownership.  Matt attended a sevusevu (a ceremony for meeting and greeting visitors) with village chiefs, elders and majors seeking permission to collect, explaining the purpose of the expedition, and to show appreciation for being allowed to visit the host village. Critical to the success of the expedition was the support and guidance provided by collaborator Alivereti Naikatini (University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji) who worked tirelessly to help keep the rag-tag bunch together!  The fieldwork is part of a long-term project led by Matt.  A smaller team conducted fieldwork in 2008 and has a special issue of the Australian botanical journal Telopea in press, where they report almost 200 new records never previously reported for Fiji.  The fieldwork also led to the opportunity to foster the interest and development of bryology student Mereia Tabua, as well as collaboration with botanist Senilolia Heilala, both of University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji and members of the expedition.  As part of the expedition participants established permanent plots to monitor long-term changes in bryophyte composition, which may provide insight on climate and environmental changes.  Funding from Conservation International, an anonymous donor and the Warwick Foundation supported the three-week expedition.

Associate Curator and Chair Ryan Williams (Anthropology) conducted fieldwork in Peru from May 30–August 12.  Ryan coordinated the Contisuyo Archaeological Field School, directed by Adjunct Curator and Professor Donna Nash (Anthropology/University of North Carolina at Greensboro), which trained 14 students from UIC and UNCG in field and laboratory methods of archaeology in Peru.  Ryan also conducted field research and collected geoarchaeological samples for the Museum’s collections in Arica, Chile, Copacabana, Bolivia, and the Tambo, Vitor, Majes, Ocona, Nasca, Ica, Pisco, Chincha, Canete, and Asia Valleys of southern Peruwith Charles Benton Research Assistant Nicola Sharratt.  The new specimens, along with existing ceramic collections, will allow archaeologists to identify the geological source of the clays used to manufacture ceramics in the ancient Andes.

The Robert A. Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies is proud to announce the newest addition to the meteorite collection.  The newly named meteorite Thika, recently classified as a L6 ordinary chondrite, was donated to the Center by Collections and Research Committee member Terry Boudreaux in mid-September.  Falling on the morning of July 16, this bright fireball was observed traveling from southern Kenya to the northwest.  Residents in the Thika District in Kiambu County reported loud explosions and screaming noises.  The first piece weighing about 2.5 kg fell within a meter of a woman tilling her field!  Greenhouses were smashed in the village of Mwana Wikio and a house was damaged in nearby Muguga village.   It was in the village of Muguga where, on August 8, Leah Mjoki found the 36 gram piece that would later make its way into The Field Museum’s collection.  Thika belongs to a class of meteorites called ordinary chondrites, but, Collections Manager James Holstein (Geology) says, “There is nothing ordinary in what they can teach us.  We can learn about asteroids and our Solar System’s history by studying the petrology and chemistry of these meteorites.  For example, we can determine how large the meteoroid was before it entered Earth's atmosphere, when it broke away from its parent body and how long it took the meteorite to reach Earth.”

Research Associate John Murphy, a colleague of Curator Emeritus Harold Voris (both Zoology/Amphibians and Reptiles), honored a former Zoology Research Associate, the late Dr. Daryl Karns of Hanover College, as well as Collection Manager Alan Resetar (Zoology/Amphibians and Reptiles), by naming new species of snakes after them.  The snakes are named Myron karnsi and Myron resetari and are found in Indonesia and Australia, respectively.  The species descriptions appear in the August 31Raffles Bulletin of Zoology.  John also honored another Zoology Research Associate, Dr. Djoko Iskandar of Indonesia’s Institut Teknologi Bandung, by erecting the genus Djokoiskandarus.  The paper is available here.



Public Education & Media Coverage

On September 22, Director Jaap Hoogstraten (Exhibitions), Assistant Collection Manager Kathleen Kelly, Curator Emeritus Robert Inger, Intern Gabriel Hast and Collection Manager Alan Resetar (all Zoology/Amphibians and Reptiles) escorted a group of Indonesian dignitaries on a tour of The Field Museum to view the komodo dragon model on exhibit and the two preserved “full-body” dragons in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles collection in the Collections Resource Center.  The Indonesian guests included Dr. Jefri Riwu Kore (Member of Parliament), Hermawan Kartajaya (Indonesian Tourism Ambassador), Sylvia Shirley Malinton (Counsellor in Chicago’s Indonesian Consulate), Ratna Suranti (Deputy Director of Tourism Promotional Publications for Electronic Media in Indonesia's Ministry of Culture and Tourism), Esthy Reko Astuty (Director of Tourism Promotional Publications & Materials in Indonesia's Ministry of Culture and Tourism) and Kurniawan Hari Siswoko (Sunday Jakarta Post editor).  Later that evening, Jaap, Robert and Alan attended the “Komodo Night in Chicago” event held at Navy Pier’s Crystal Garden to highlight tourism in the island domain of the komodo dragon.  Alan gave a short presentation on the Museum’s komodo dragon connections.  Coverage of the Komodo Night event appeared in the Jakarta Post here.