Staff & Student News

Deo Tuyisingize, Biodiversity Coordinator at the Karisoke Research Center at Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda arrived at The Field Museum on February 10 for a two-month internship program in the Division of Mammals.  Deo brought a robust collection of specimens collected in the Buhanga EcoPark that will be prepared, identified and catalogued before 50% of the collection is returned to Rwanda later this year.  This small EcoPark represents one of Rwanda’s only chunks of protected mid-elevation forest.  It survived Rwanda’s civil war intact due to traditional protection schemes.  While visiting, Deo will learn specimen preparation, identification, cataloguing and data-basing.  Deo will be working with the Mammals Prep Lab team headed by Anna Goldman as well as Adjunct Curator Julian Kerbis (Zoology/Mammals) who served on Deo’s M.Sc. committee at the University of Capetown. 

Deo has worked at the Karisoke Research Center for some seven years.  The Center was made famous by the late Dian Fossey, whose efforts to conserve the mountain gorillas made headlines.  She followed other notables, including former Field Museum zoologist Carl Akeley who died and was buried there in the 1920’s and was responsible for the first National Park in Africa, one that was established to protect the mountain gorillas.  The internship has been sponsored by The Field Museum/IDP Foundation, Inc. African Training Fund, so Deo will be following in the footsteps of some two dozen central African scientists who have come to The Field Museum for training over the past 20 years, many courtesy of Field Museum sponsorship.

On February 20, Associate Curator Petra Sierwald (Zoology/Insects) and Assistant Curator Ken Angielczyk (Geology) were notified by the National Science Foundation that their grant proposal “REU Site: Access to Global Biodiversity Studies for Undergraduates” was funded at the amount of $286,234.  REU-Site grants are awarded in support of research training of undergraduate students early in their college career, and also aim at the diversification of the biological research community.  This new grant will be the second REU-site grant for The Field Museum, the first was awarded in 2009 (to Petra and Associate Curator Peter Makovicky, Geology) and established The Museum’s highly successful Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. 

The REU program allows eight students per year to conduct 10-week paid summer internships at the Museum, during which they work on research projects with curators in the Botany, Zoology, and Geology departments; research in physical Anthropology can also be included. The REU interns are recruited from all across the United States and they receive training in taxonomy, systematics, and ethical conduct in research.  They also learn first-hand about the resources available at natural history museums such as FMNH and the importance of collections-based research.  The program’s focus on biodiversity-related topics is of particular significance, given that documenting and preserving biodiversity is an increasing problem in the face of anthropogenic climate change and habitat destruction but few students receive training in these topics during the course of the high school or undergraduate careers.  

Each REU season ends with the Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, this year’s will take place Saturday, August 10 and we hope that many members of staff and faculty will be able to attend.  The NSF-funded REU program provides important infrastructure benefitting The Field Museum’s in-house funded high school internship program.  Promising high school students work side-by-side with undergraduate interns and participate in REU-grant supported lectures and workshops.  Numerous curators support the Field Museum REU program by developing superb research projects and take on mentoring the REU interns, often also engaging their postdoctoral fellows and advanced graduate students: M. Thayer, C. Moreau, R. Bieler, K. Angielczyk, P. Makovicky, R. Martin, B. Patterson, L. Smith, L. Heaney, T. Lumbsch, J. Bates, P. Sierwald and S Lidgard.  Last but not least, the REU program would not be possible without the superb logistical support of Collections Assistant Stephanie Ware (Zoology/Insects).

Collections Manager and Adjunct Curator Matt von Konrat (Botany) received a $25,000 grant from the Negaunee Foundation for his ongoing project in the South Pacific, entitled “Biodiversity Studies of Early Land Plants of Polynesia—The Epicenter of the Current Global Extinction Crisis.”  Matt also received $15,000 from The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund for the project.  Only scant data exist for early land plants (bryophytes) compared to many animal and seed plant groups of the region.  Even so, these organisms are considered to be of great biological and ecological significance.  The project focuses on the taxonomy, biodiversity, and biogeography of liverworts from regions throughout the South Pacific, focusing especially on Fiji, but including poorly studied island groups such as Tonga.  The project will explore the functional role of liverworts in tropical ecosystems, their use and application as bioindicators of forest degradation, land use change, climate change and conservation.  Significantly, the project will build the capacity of local scientists and land managers to increase their knowledge about this overlooked and poorly understood group of organisms, and to apply this data to help manage priority landscapes.  The project team is also working towards developing a permanent biological facility in Fiji in partnership with colleagues based at the University of the South Pacific.

Research & Publications

Resident Graduate Student Nate Upham (University of Chicago) and his dissertation advisor MacArthur Curator Bruce Patterson (both Zoology/Mammals) co-authored an article published online February 7 in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.  The article, entitled “Diversification and biogeography of the Neotropical caviomorph lineage Octodontoidea (Rodentia: Hystricognathi)”, details the first chapter of Nate’s dissertation research and presents several novel results on the evolution of a diverse group of rodents called octodontoids.  These rodents are named after the figure-eight appearance of their molar occlusal (chewing) surfaces, and include 193 living species of spiny rats, tuco-tucos, degus, hutias, and their relatives (see photo: their ecological diversity is incredible!)  All of these rodents are endemic to the Neotropical Region where they represent about 75% of extant membership in the Caviomorpha (lineage that includes guinea pigs and capybaras).  Using approximately 4200 base pairs of DNA from 76 species and five fossil calibrations, this study uncovered strong evidence that the chinchilla rats (Abrocomidae) are sister to the rest of Octodontoidea.  This family is restricted to arid habitats in the southern Andes, and was previously hypothesized to be a derived member of tropical Amazonian radiations rather than the ancestral group.  Biogeographic reconstruction using a method previously developed by Associate Curator Rick Ree (Botany) confirmed this result, with the Patagonia–Southern Andes region found to be ancestral for Octodontoidea’s radiation.  Three component lineages appear to have emerged by the Oligocene–Miocene boundary (23 Ma) and radiated in step with the expansion of arid landscapes in South America.   Additional DNA sequencing and morphological analyses are now underway to improve the molecular phylogeny, incorporate more detailed fossil data, and investigate rates of evolution in this diverse rodent lineage.  This article can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Assistant Curator Corrie Moreau (Zoology/Insects) gave two invited departmental seminars.  The first was in late January, where Corrie presented her research on ant evolution and the bacteria that have evolved with ants to the Department of Entomology at Pennsylvania State University.  In mid-February, Corrie traveled to University of California-Riverside where she shared her research with the Department of Biology. 

On February 15–16, Robert A. Pritzker Assistant Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies Philipp Heck (Geology) had the opportunity to use Cameca Instruments’ (Madison, WI) latest high-resolution atom probe to analyze nanodiamonds.  The instrument has a higher mass resolution than the instrument Philipp uses normally, and the improved capabilities result in better data quality thanks to improved mass spectra.  In the last three years, Philipp and his team of collaborators at the Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have developed highly improved sample preparation methods for atom probe analysis of nanomaterials, in particular meteoritic nanodiamonds that where extracted from specimens of The Field Museum's collection.

Fieldwork & Collections

Collections Manager and Adjunct Curator Matt von Konrat (Botany) and Research Assistant Laura Briscoe (Northwestern University, Chicago Botanic Garden and Botany) returned from four weeks of fieldwork in southern Chile conducted between January 14–February 14.  The fieldwork was part of an NSF project entitled “Collaborative Research on the Marchantiophyta, Anthocerophyta and Bryophyta of the Cape Horn Archipelago: Floristics and Implications for Conservation.”  The expedition was led by PI Dr. Bill Buck (Curator, New York Botanical Garden) with a total of 11 participants, including colleagues from Spain, Uruguay, Chile, Finland and the US, as well as four crew.  The team spent about twenty days at sea on a small crabbing vessel accessing remote islands and areas that included some of the wettest areas of southern Chile.  Apart from the spectacular biomass of liverworts, the scenery was stunning (see header image), and along the way the expedition was often joined by pods of dolphins, whales, penguins or sea lions.  In total, an estimated 5,000 bryophyte collections were made during the expedition, although final numbers have yet to be tallied.  For a very colorful description and daily account of the trip, see the blog prepared by Dr. Bill Buck.  As part of the NSF-funded project,Laura also helped with a week-long bryophyte workshop prior to the field at Puerto Williams, on Isla Puerto Williams.  The workshop was very well-received and included the production of a documentary for ecotourism.

MacArthur Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch (Botany) spent two weeks in February on a joint field trip with George Mugambi, Curator of Fungi at the National Museums of Kenya (Nairobi) and Paul Kirika, Master’s student at Kenyatta University (Nairobi) who is co-advised by George and Thorsten on his project on altitudinal zonation of lichens in Africa.  They went to the Taita Hills in southeastern Kenya and intensely collected on the inselbergs.  Their rich collections included a number of additional new species and new records of lichens that they will work on in the coming years.

Public Education & Media Coverage

As part of the publicity for the opening of The Field Museum’s new exhibit Opening the Vaults: Mummies, A. Watson Armour III Curator Bob Martin and Regenstein Conservator JP Brown (both Anthropology) were interviewed on the objects and CT scans on show in the exhibit.  As reported in Time Out Chicago: “Brown told me he was so excited about the week with the CT scanner, donated by a Northern Illinois radiology equipment company(Genesis Medical Imaging), that he ‘would have slept in it, if my wife would’ve let me.’  In this exhibition, that curiosity and raw enthusiasm really shows.”  Press coverage was coordinated by Emily Waldren (Public Relations) and also included the following: ABC7 News, ABC7 Windy City Live, CBS2 Your Chicago, Fox News, NBC5, WBBM, WTTW Chicago Tonight, Art Daily, Chicago Sun-Times and WGN9.