Staff & Student News

Graduate Research Assistant Matthew Piscitelli (Anthropology) has been awarded a NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant ($22,104) for his work entitled “Ritual is Power: Small-Scale Late Archaic Ceremonial Architecture in the Norte Chico.”  Matthew is currently excavating a series of ceremonial structures at the Late Archaic (3,000–1,800 B.C.) site of Huaricanga in the Fortaleza Valley, Peru (for more information, see his project website here).  The grant will be used to fund pollen, botanical, micromorphology, and XRF analyses of floor surfaces in order to reconstruct 5,000-year-old rituals.  He hopes to understand the relationship between religious practices and emergent social complexity by examining changes in ceremonial architecture and activities over time.  


Andrew Pfeiffer completed the Northwestern University Bioscientist Program on September 25, based on his 12-week internship with Curator Larry Heaney (Zoology/Mammals).  The program provides a head start to freshmen at Northwestern by engaging them with biological research at an early stage in their education.  Andrew (right) has been working with Larry (left) on the Philippine Mammal Project, specifically on studies that document the project’s rediscovery of a putatively rare mouse from Mt. Pinatubo, the volcano that erupted explosively in 1991.  His studies at The Field Museum began in January, and he plans to continue as a student volunteer during the coming academic year. 

Dr. Christian Sidor (University of Washington) began a nine-month sabbatical in the Department of Geology on September 24.  Christian is a specialist on Permian and Triassic therapsids (ancient mammal relatives) and has been collaborating extensively with Assistant Curator Ken Angielczyk, including on fieldwork in Tanzania and Zambia.  Among the projects Christian is hoping to finish during his sabbatical are descriptions of new Permian and Triassic specimens from Tanzania and Zambia, as well as new material from the Triassic of Antarctica.

September 26 marked the 55th year since the untimely death by snakebite of Curator Emeritus Karl P. Schmidt (Zoology/Amphibians and Reptiles).  The bite was inflicted by an African boomslang (Dispholidus typus) sent to The Field Museum by Marlin Perkins of Lincoln Park Zoo.  Even though the boomslang is a colubrid, a family of snakes characterized by their typically non-venomous status, some species are venomous.  The venom of the boomslang is one of the most toxic of all snake species and rivals many of the vipers, cobras, kraits, and rattlesnakes.
                  Starting his Field Museum career in 1922, Karl was the first curator in the newly-created Division of Amphibians and Reptiles.  Karl, also known as “K.P.”, was instrumental in the early growth of the collection; with 3,245 catalog entries in 1922 to 282,817 catalog entries 90 years later.  Karl’s body of work (nearly 150 papers and books) is still important in the field of zoology today.  The Division remembers Karl often as staff members, interns, volunteers, students, and visiting researchers use the thousands of books and reprints he painstakingly assembled in the Karl P. Schmidt Memorial Herpetological Library.  On a walk through the amphibian and reptile type collection in the Collection Resource Center, it is not difficult to find a jar containing a holotype or paratype that still bears Karl’s handwritten jar label.  Karl preferred to write jar labels in No. 2 pencil rather than type them.  More information on Karl can be found in the Wikipedia account created by Teresa Mayfield, volunteer in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles.  Photo provided by Field Museum Library Photo Archives © The Field Museum, Z86242.

Research & Publications

From time to time, the journal Current Biology invites specialists to write a primer providing general background information for a specific topic.  A. Watson Armour III Curator Bob Martin (Anthropology) was asked to write a primer on primates, and it has just been published in the new online issue of Current Biology.  Bob provides an evolutionary overview of both extant and fossil primates, emphasizing the distinctive features of primates and exploring relationships to other mammal groups.  Largely thanks to the advent of reconstructions of mammal evolution based on DNA sequences, relationships among primates and other mammal orders have now been established with some confidence.  Among other things, it has emerged that primates, colugos, tree-shrews, rodents and lagomorphs together constitute a superorder that has been given the cumbersome name Euarchontoglires.  Above image: Inferred relationships within the superorder Euarchontoglires based on molecular data. Dashed lines with question marks indicate possible alternative links.

Research Associate Jake Esselstyn (Zoology) visited the Museum to work together with Negaunee Collection Manager Bill Stanley (Zoology/Mammals) and Associate Curator John Bates (Zoology/Birds) on their NSF-funded project investigating the diversity of Old World shrews.  During Jake’s 16-day visit, which ended on September 21, they managed to isolate, amplify, and sequence DNA from more than 2,000 African shrew specimens held in the Division of Mammals’ collections, and to generate Scanning Electron Micrographs of the crania of several, possibly new, shrews from Indonesia.  These new data will be used to delimit species and estimate relationships in one of the most diverse and least understood groups of mammals.

Boone Postdoctoral Fellow Lisa Niziolek (Anthropology) attended the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists’ (EurASEAA) conference in Dublin, Ireland, September 18–21.  Lisa presented research that is being conducted on the Museum’s 13th-century Java Sea Wreck collection, including the results of ceramic compositional analysis undertaken at the museum's Elemental Analysis Facility.  The Java Sea Wreck was found in Southeast Asia in the Java Sea in the 1980s and was excavated in 1996.  This ancient Indonesian ship’s cargo includes thousands of high-fired ceramics and 200 tons of iron from China, fine earthenware kendis (spouted vessels used in ritual contexts) from Thailand, aromatic resin and ivory from Sumatra, and objects that were likely possessions of the crew, such as scale weights and bars, sharpening stones, and small metal figurines.  The presentation also highlighted work done this summer by the Museum’s Boone interns, Maura Condon and Amanda Respess.  Maura and Amanda have assisted with the translation of Chinese inscriptions found on ceramics from the ship, which mainly include family surnames, numbers, and well-wishes.  One of the inscriptions, found on two different pieces, even mentions the location in China where some of the ceramics may have been made. This research is part of the Museum’s larger initiative to investigate early maritime trade in the South China Seas and Indian Ocean regions. Above Image: Small quingbai-style box with bird and flower decoration from The Museum's 13th-century Java Sea Wreck Collection. 

Associate Curator Rick Ree (Botany) traveled to Durham, NC from September 13–14, where he chaired the fall advisory board meeting of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent). From there, he went to the Harvard University Herbaria to work in the collection and meet with collaborators on a book project.  Finally, from Sept 19–21 Rick visited the University of Connecticut and gave two invited research seminars in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Curator Chapurukha Kusimba (Anthropology) was featured as a keynote speaker at a conference entitled “Connections, Contributions, and Complexity: Late Holocene Archaeology in Global Perspective,” held at University of Cambridge, England on September 21–23.  Chap’s speech, entitled “Trade: Evolution of Local, Regional, and Global trading patterns,” argued that trade was (and is) an ever-present necessity in any system of exchange and is the material basis of the relational network of exchange.  Using examples drawn from his and his colleagues’ research, Chap illustrated how trade accompanied and abetted humanity through the Upper Paleolithic, the emergence of agriculture/social complexity and the rise and decline of chiefdoms, states and nations.  He discussed how trading behaviors, including the human survival itself, has been shaped by social, political, and technological networks that have historically been predicated upon commerce and exchange.  Chap’s speech received critical acclaim.

Born into one of the harshest climatological eras known to humans, The Field Museum's “Magdalenian Woman” is named for the Magdalenian period (18,000–12,000 years ago) during which she lived.  She was discovered in a limestone rock shelter in Le Cap Blanc, France in 1911 by workers digging a barrier to protect the images of horses carved on the shelter walls.  Her skull was damaged during the work and is currently composed of over thirty bone fragments embedded in heavy restoration with plaster.  Recent CT scanning of the skull yielded an opportunity to non-destructively investigate the extent and quality of the reconstruction and restoration.  Starting from the CT scan, it was possible to virtually segment out the original bone fragments and subtract the restoration material.  After close examination by Regenstein Conservator JP Brown and A. Watson Armour III Curator Bob Martin (both Anthropology) the virtual fragments were rearranged in software to a more anatomically realistic solid model of the skull.  This model has already been printed in 3D and will be shipped to Atelier Daynès in Paris for the production of a forensic reconstruction in time for inclusion in the Lascaux Caves exhibit next spring.  Meanwhile, the software model of the bone fragments is being considered further by facial reconstruction surgeons at the University of Illinois who will approach the repositioning of the fragments as though treating a modern car crash victim.  Header Image:  The old restoration of Magdalenian Girl's skull (left) compared to the more anatomically correct virtual restoration (right).  Below Image:  Bone fragments prepared for consideration by facial reconstruction surgeons at UIC.

Adjunct Curator and Collections Manager Robert Lücking (Botany) spent two weeks of September in Brazil attending the EGBL meeting of Brazilian lichenologists in the state of Sao Paulo and conducting a lichen workshop at the Universidade Federal de Sergipe in Itabaiana.  During the EGBL meeting, Robert also led a workshop on molecular phylogenetic methods, including alignment techniques, tree searching, hypothesis testing, molecular clock analysis, and phylogenetic binning.  Brazil is currently at the forefront in Latin America in using molecular techniques for systematic and ecological research, but few courses are available at universities to provide formal training in phylogenetic methods.  The meeting also included a strong biochemical component, with several research groups in Brazil working on the production of lichen secondary compounds via immobilized fungal cell cultures.  Robert collaborated in one of these projects by studying the taxonomy and phylogeny of a lichen in the genus Graphis, which produces a rare, biologically active compound in culture only (absent in the lichen in nature).  This is the second such case reported in the family Graphidaceae and suggests that not only lichen extracts, but also substances produced only by the lichen fungus in culture are promising sources of pharmaceutical drugs.

Fieldwork & Collections

On September 24, Collections & Research Committee Member and private meteorite collector Terry Boudreaux donated and loaned specimens of a freshly fallen meteorite to the Museum’s Robert A. Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies.  The meteorite produced a fireball associated with a sonic boom before it hit the ground near Battle Mountain, NV on August 23.  The meteorite is tentatively classified as an ordinary chondrite of type L6.  Robert A. Pritzker Assistant Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies Philipp Heck (Geology) is excited to have pieces of this freshly fallen meteorite, noting “It still contains live radioactive nuclides whose concentrations enable us to determine its size before it entered Earth’s atmosphere, and got ablated and broke apart. This information will also help up to determine more accurately the time between the rock got ejected from its parent asteroid and the impact on Earth.”  The meteorite radioactivity level is very low and therefore harmless, despite this, it can only be measured in shielded underground laboratories with extremely sensitive detectors.  Therefore, the Pritzker Center immediately sent a piece to collaborator Matthias Laubenstein who runs such a lab beneath a mountain range at Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy.  Terry said, “it is always my pleasure to make sure the Field has the latest and greatest!”.  Image Above Left: Collections & Research Committee Member and private meteorite collector Terry Boudreaux and Robert A. Pritzker Assistant Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies Philipp R. Heck at the donation of the “Battle Mountain” meteorite. Photographer: James L. Holstein.  Image Above Right:  A 30.767 gram piece of the meteorite, unofficially called "Battle Mountain", was donated to the Field Museum’s Robert A. Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies. Photographer: James L. Holstein.

Intern Michael Page, an undergraduate from Northeastern Illinois University, is nearing the completion of the second phaseof a large archival project for Zoology’s Division of Amphibians and Reptiles.  In addition to assisting with collection work, Michael and Volunteer Teresa Mayfield have been vital in adding metadata to digital scans of Curator Emeritus Robert Inger’s vast photographic slide collection.  The project was initiated by Research Associate and Divisional volunteer James Koeppl who spearheaded the digitization of the slides depicting live Bornean amphibians and reptiles and Bornean fieldwork sites.


Public Education & Media Coverage

A new What the Fish? podcast is out, Episode 8: Exhibits – The Evolution of Scientific Communication.  In this episode, the What the Fish? podcast team is joined by special guests Chaifetz Associate Curator Shannon Hackett (Zoology/Birds) and Paola Bucciol (Exhibits).  The panel of six uses the reopening of the Ronald and Christina Gidwitz Hall of Birds as an impetus to explore the interplay between Field Museum scientists and exhibitions staff when creating new exhibits.  The discussion ranges from specifics about the Hall of Birds to the evolution of natural history exhibits.

Tune in every other Friday for this latest discussion from the fish nerds, Assistant Curator Leo Smith, Postdoctoral Research Scientist Matthew Davis, Consultant and Volunteer Eric Ahlgren (all Zoology/Fishes) and Outreach Coordinator Beth Sanzenbacher (BioSynC).  Please follow them on Twitter and tweet your fishy questions to @FM_WhatTheFish or The podcasts are also available at iTunes here.  The next episode will feature a guest from Louisiana State University, Caleb McMahan, and discuss invasive species.  Image Above: West Court Field Colombian Museum with Zoology Exhibit Cases (January 1897) CSZ8466 

On September 21, C&R Media Interns Jared Berent and Kate Webbink released a new The Field Revealed: Recovering Peregrines with Mary.  “The city is just a pseudo-cliff,” says Collections Assistant Mary Hennen (Zoology/Birds), explaining a Peregrine falcon’s perspective on Chicago’s landscape.  Illinois’ wild Peregrine falcons might not be here in the first place if it weren’t for the Chicago Peregrine Program.  Mary is also the CPP’s director and she attributes much of the program’s success to its network of hard-working researchers and volunteers.