Staff & Student News

Research Associate Jacob Esselstyn (Zoology) was informed last week that the NSF proposal he submitted with John Bates (Zoology/Birds), Julian Kerbis and Bill Stanley (both Zoology/Mammals) has been recommended for funding at the level of $500,000.  This three-year project will investigate the diversity, relationships, and biogeography in one of the most species-rich and least-studied mammalian clades—the Crocidurinae, a subfamily of Old World shrews.  These shrews include approximately 240 currently recognized species, and represent the largest remaining gap in the tree of extant mammal diversity.  Current knowledge of this group is severely limited by crocidurine’s conserved morphology and a historical paucity of specimens in natural history museums.  The holdings at the Field Museum are some of the largest and most diverse in the world, primarily because of the recent efforts of FMNH zoologists.  This project will satisfy the two goals of systematics (delimiting diversity and establishing relationships) in the largest remaining hole in the mammalian phylogeny and test an important hypothesis about how and where diversity tends to be generated at a continental scale in tropical ecosystems.

The first week of December, Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch (Botany) attended the 4th Barcode of Life Conference in Adelaide, Australia.  He presented results from a joint project with colleagues from the Botanical Garden in Madrid, including graduate student Raquel Pino Bodas, who spent several months in 2010 in Chicago working with Thorsten.  The presentation was entitled “Species delimitation in Cladonia: a challenge to the barcoding philosophy.”

The Field Museum was well represented at the annual meeting of the University of the Philippines Alumni Association of Greater Chicago on December 2.  Attending were Research Associate Danny Balete (Zoology/Mammals, UP class of 1988), Curator Larry Heaney (Zoology/Mammals) and Intern Sara DiDomenico (Anthropology).  Larry served as keynote speaker, presenting a talk entitled “Discovering Diversity in the Philippines: the Galapagos Islands Times 10.”  Most of the members of the association (about 150 of whom attended the event) have backgrounds in medicine and engineering, and some in the arts; nearly all professed to be unaware of the exceptionally high levels of biodiversity in the Philippines, of the complex geological history of the archipelago, or the full extent of deforestation, though all were aware of the increasing frequency of floods, landslides, and droughts.  All were pleased to hear of The Field Museum’s long-term involvement with training and research in the Philippines, and expressed pride in the unique biodiversity of their homeland.

On December 8, A. Watson Armour III Curator Bob Martin (Anthropology) returned from San Francisco, where he had been working closely with the Leakey Foundation for several days.  The primary motivation for Bob’s visit was an invitation to participate in a light-hearted debate at the California Academy of Sciences about the Flores hominid entitled “Who Was the Hobbit?” Dr. Ian Tattersall (Curator Emeritus, Division of Anthropology, American Museum Natural History, New York) presented the case for recognizing the Flores hominid as a new species, while Bob presented the contrary view that the main, tiny-brained specimen documenting the “hobbit” is a modern human suffering from a pathological condition (microcephaly).  Following the presentations and a lively discussion session, a vote was called from the capacity audience of some three hundred people.  Only two people voted in favor of the explanation that the peculiar features of the hobbit are attributable to island dwarfism.  The rest of the vote was split approximately equal between those who favor recognizing a new species and those who favor the interpretation that the Flores hominid is a modern human suffering from microcephaly.  The Moderator for the debate was Roy Eisenhardt, a former President of the California Academy of Sciences.  To Bob’s delight, the debate was introduced by Elizabeth Babcock, former Vice President of Education and Library Collections at The Field Museum.  Elizabeth moved to the California Academy just over a year ago to become Chief Public Engagement Officer and Roberts Dean of Education.  In due course, a video recording of the entire debate will be posted on the website of the Leakey Foundation.

In addition to engaging in the debate, Bob made a brief presentation entitled “A Clock for All Seasons” during the Leakey Foundation Holiday Open House held at the home of artist Alice Corning, a Trustee of the Foundation.  His presentation, which discussed the continued importance of biological clocks for human reproduction, notably for the hour of birth and the seasonal pattern of births observed in all human populations, was well received.  Bob also visited a local school, Lick-Wilmerding High School, to give an extended presentation on the Flores hominid.  That presentation was followed by some of the most astute and penetrating questions that Bob had to field during his visit.  Last but not least, Bob also discussed with the Leakey Foundation outline plans for a hominid conference to be held at The Field Museum in 2012.  The discussion was joined by Director Beth Crownover (Education), who happened to be in San Francisco for other meetings.

Associate Curator Bill Parkinson (Anthropology) presented a Membership Lecture at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico entitled “Revolutions: The Age of Metal and the Evolution of European Civilization” on December 1.  Bill’s lecture was an evening event at the New Mexico History Museum Auditorium that focused on the evolution of agricultural villages in Europe from their beginning in the Neolithic through their fluorescence during the Bronze Age.  Historically, scholars assumed that most innovations, including in metallurgy, occurred earlier in the Near East and only later moved into the European continent.  Advances in absolute dating and other research techniques prove otherwise.  The lecture was preceded by a radio interview on Santa Fe Radio Café with host Mary-Charolotte Domandi on KSFR.  This is a link to the radio show website:  Bill’s podcast can be heard here, and more information about his talk can be found here

Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch (Botany) spent the last two weeks of November in Madrid (Spain) to work with colleague, Professor Ana Crespo and her co-workers on their joint project addressing the evolution of characters and historical biogeography of parmelioid lichens.  They managed to finish the first drafts of two joint manuscripts and well as to begin preparations for a forthcoming EOL meeting on lichens that will happen in early January in Bangkok.

In early December, Adjunct Curator and Collections Manager Matt von Konrat (Botany) was appointed Secretary-Treasurer to the International Association of Bryology (IAB).  The IAB is a nonprofit organization that aims to promote international cooperation and communication among bryologists— bryology is the branch of botany concerned with the study of bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and hornworts).

Resident Graduate Students Rebecca Seifried and Matthew Piscitelli (both Anthropology) were each awarded Chancellor’s Graduate Research Fellowships from the University of Illinois at Chicago.  The fellowship provides $4,000 for multidisciplinary research projects developed by UIC graduate students.  Associate Curator William Parkinson (Anthropology) will oversee Rebecca’s project, called “Assessing State-Border Interaction using Medieval and Modern Agricultural Terraces in Greece.”  This project will focus on developing a GIS database of agricultural features in the Diros Bay region of the Mani Peninsula, Greece, and supplemental fieldwork will be conducted in the summer of 2012.  MacArthur Curator Jonathan Haas (Anthropology) will oversee Matthew’s project, entitled “Using Modern Tools to Reconstruct Ancient Ritual in Peru.”  This project will use the pXRF device from the Field Museum's Elemental Analysis Lab to reconstruct ancient ceremonial activities in an early ritual structure in the Norte Chico region of Peru.

Two Ph.D. students trained in Curator Rüdiger Bieler’s (Zoology/Invertebrates) NSF-funded PEET –Bivalves project have recently accepted professorships.  Ilya Tëmkin, after receiving his PEET project Ph.D. from New York University and holding a postdoctoral appointment in Rüdiger’s Bivalve Tree-of-Life project at Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, is now an Assistant Professor at Northern Virginia Community College.  Isabella Kappner, former Field Museum/UIC Ph.D. student (and recipient of The Field Museum’s Women-in-Science graduate fellowship), and until recently a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, has likewise accepted a biology position, as an Assistant Professor at New York’s St. Joseph's College.  Congratulations to both!

Research & Publications

Associate Curator and Chair Ryan Williams (Anthropology) authored a short bilingual book (Spanish and English) entitled Cerro Baul.  The book is designed to educate the general public about Ryan’s excavations at the enigmatic archaeological site.  The Contisuyo Association in Peru published it in full color.


Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch (Botany) co-authored a paper, entitled “Origin and Diversification of Major Clades in Parmelioid Lichens (Parmeliaceae, Ascomycota) during the Paleogene Inferred by Bayesian Analysis,” published in PLosOne.  The article provides evidence that the distribution patterns of major groups in this lichen group can be explained by long-distance dispersal with subsequent diversification on different continents and is not a result of vicariance.

Associate Curator Scott Lidgard (Geology) is the lead author on a major collaborative paper on the evolution of polymorphism, the occurrence of different forms in an individual organism or a population of organisms or a species.  The paper, “Division of labor and recurrent evolution of polymorphisms in a group of colonial animals,” appeared online in the journal Evolutionary Ecology in November.  Many living things call into question whether individuals exist at multiple levels: what is a part, and what is a whole?  Unlike familiar solitary animals, colonial animals like corals or bryozoans, as well as most plants, are decentralized organisms.  Colonial animals like bryozoans grow by budding new individual bodies—zooids or polyps—that can have different forms, even though they are part of the same genetic individual.  Also unlike solitary animals, this additional level of organization yields a distinct component of variation in form at this zooid or polyp level. Developmental selection has a hierarchical causal structure on morphological effects—at this zooid level, at an intermediate level of groups of zooids, and at the whole-organism level.  This in turn creates an opportunity for adaptive responses, or evolvability, at this zooid level as well as higher levels across environmental backgrounds and changing backgrounds through time.  The paper synthesizes nearly a decade of research by the co-authors on colonial bryozoan growth and form, and demonstrates that certain categories of zooid polymorphs have evolved again and again over the geological history of this group of animals.  This striking example of the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence, acquisition of similar biological traits in unrelated lineages, is unusual because it can be related to ecological interactions between predators and prey.  The different forms and functions of these zooid polymorphs likely evolved, at least in part, in response to the persistent selective influence of predation.  Not unlike the insects that feed on plants in our gardens, these very small invertebrate predators and ectoparasites typically consume only consume parts of zooids or colonies.

In early December, Research Assistant Josh Engel, Collections Assistant Mary Hennan, and Staff Scientist Jason Weckstein (all Zoology/Birds) co-authored a paper in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology with Christopher Witt (Museum of Southwest Biology, University of New Mexico) entitled “Affinities of Three Vagrant Cave Swallows from Eastern North America.”  Cave Swallows have two populations: one that breeds in Florida and the Caribbean and one that breeds in the southwestern US and has been gradually expanding its range for several decades.  Coinciding with this range expansion, many have shown up annually in autumn in the eastern United States, including one that was found dead by Mary at McCormick Place in 2008.  The team sequenced a mitochondrial gene for this individual as well as one found dead in Cape May, New Jersey, and compared those sequences to previously published sequences and determined that those vagrant individuals came from the southwestern breeding population. 

Adjunct Curator and Collections Manager Matt von Konrat (Botany) was a co-author on a recent paper reporting about amber inclusions of liverworts from the mid-Cretaceous of Myanmar.  The paper was published online in November in the journal Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology.  The fossils were assigned to the extant genus Frullania, which Matt specializes on.  One inclusion was described as a new species Frullania baerlocheri.  Jochen Heinrichs, a long-time colleague of Matt’s from Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany was the lead author.  Read the abstract here.

Staff Scientist Jason Weckstein (Zoology/Birds) co-authored a paper entitled “The evolution of host specificity in dove body lice” with Kevin Johnson (Illinois Natural History Survey), Sarah Bush and Dale Clayton (both University of Utah) in a special November volume of Parasitology dedicated to the topic of systematics as a cornerstone of parasitology.  The authors use a large phylogeny of dove body lice to reconstruct the evolutionary history of host specialization (number of hosts parasitized).  Traditional theory argues that specialist parasites (those parasitizing only a single host) evolve from host generalists (those that parasitize multiple hosts).  However, counter to this conventional parasitological wisdom, these analyses indicate that for dove body lice, host generalists have evolved multiple times from host specialists.  Furthermore, there is a strong association between the evolution of host generalists and the ecology of the hosts, which has important implications for understanding both the evolution of host specificity and the potential for parasites to move between host species.  The paper can be downloaded here.

Fieldwork & Collections

Associate Curator and Chair Ryan Williams (Anthropology) returned from a short field collection trip to Peru in November.  Ryan collected geoarchaeological clay samples in the Locumba Valley, Peru and surveyed the lower Sama valley for clays.  He also coordinated with colleagues on permits for next years’ archaeological fieldwork in Peru and collaborated with the Contisuyo Museum on promotion of his new publication on Cerro Baul.

Adjunct Curator and Collections Manager Robert Lücking (Botany) returned from a four-week field trip to Colombia and Brazil, as part of his NSF Neotropical Lichen Workshop project.  In Colombia, Robert gave a one-week workshop at the internationally renowned Universidad de Los Andes, which offers excellent facilities including DNA extraction and sequencing labs and has several ongoing research projects focusing on Andean paramo ecocystems.  The workshop thus focused on topics such as the evolution of lichens and their functional importance in the paramos.  Robert then travelled on to instruct another workshop in the Universidade Federal de Sergipe (UFS) in Itabaiana, northeastern Brazil, where local colleague Marcela Cáceres has a research program on lichen ecology in the dry Caatinga region and also undertakes lichen inventories in the greater Amazon region.  Robert is co-advisor on the thesis projects of several students at UFS.  During the third week, Robert participated in the 6th meeting of Brazilian lichenologists, REBEL (Reunião Brasileira de Estudos Liquenológicos), held this year in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul which covers the larger part of the Pantanal, one of the largest wetland areas in the world. The group performed fieldwork in the Cerrado and Chaco vegetation and Robert gave a workshop on the taxonomy of the lichen biota and a lecture on how to start and structure a scientific career. Highlights of the meeting included a bath with hundreds of fishes (luckily no piranhas) in a river basin and a visit to the largest sinkhole in South America, populated by hundreds of Red-and-Green Macaws.  During the last week of his trip, Robert participated in the 10th GLAL meeting in Bogotá, Colombia (Grupo Latinoamericano de Liquenólogos), where he presented a keynote lecture about his NSF workshop project and participated as co-author in several presentations and posters of co-advised students from the U.S.A., Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil.  Robert also assisted by distributing coffee and cookies, and counting registration money; a welcome change from his usual activities looking at lichens under the microscope, checking out alignments, and writing papers.

Public Education & Media Coverage

This week The Field Revealed brings you a new video entitled “Cloud Rat” please enjoy this window into the behind-the-scenes work in C&R and share with your friends and family!

The autumn has been busy in the Zoology Department’s Mammals Division Prep Lab (located in the CRC), which is managed by Anna Goldman (funded by a grant from the Negaunee Foundation).  Well over 1,500 mammal specimens were received during September, October, and November, the majority from our research programs in Kenya, Mozambique, and the Philippines, but some also from local zoos and nature centers.  Keeping up requires a small and dedicated army of carefully-supervised volunteers and interns, many of whom come from local universities, including Northwestern University, Northeastern University, Loyola University, DePaul University, Roosevelt University and The Art Institute of Chicago, with majors such as anthropology, biology, veterinary science, journalism, digital media and fine arts.  During the month of September the Prep Lab clocked 43 volunteer days, in October 65 volunteer days, and in November 66 volunteer days; with Anna as ringmaster, this tallies to more than 275% the number of days worked by paid staff!

Simultaneously, the Mammals Prep Lab remains a popular place for tours.  September was a little slow, with only five people from Human Resources and Institutional Advancement, and 10 people from the Museum’s staff and family, for a total of 15 visitors to the lab.  The Lab made up for it in October, with 116 students, 96 people in educational groups and seven from the Museum’s staff and family, for a total of 219 lab visitors.  November, however, blew both months out of the water with 130 students, 140 people with educational groups, 21 people with HR and IA and eight people from the museum’s staff and their family, for a total of 299 visitors to the lab, including two Field Museum trustees and their families.  In the month of November alone, the Mammals Division Prep lab had around 140 boy scouts learning about environmental sciences and mammal studies.