Staff & Student News

On December 21, MacArthur Field Biologist Steve Goodman (Zoology) participated on a Ph.D. committee for a student at The Université d'Antananarivo, Département de Biologie Animale.  Sama Zefania, a student who has worked with Steve for nearly a decade, presented the thesis.  The topic was on an endemic Malagasy shorebird (image left), and entitled “Biologie de conservation d'une espèce menacée d'échassier enédemique: le Gravelot de Madagascar Charadrius thoracicus (Richmond, 1896).”  Sama received the highest grade possible for his thesis.

Research & Publications

Robert A. Pritzker Assistant Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies Philipp Heck (Geology) is co-author on a paper in the journal Science on the first results of the rare meteorite, Sutter’s Mill.  On April 22 a very fast-moving fireball was observed over large parts of California and Nevada. Equivalent to four kilotons of TNT, the fireball was photographed, and recorded by video and by weather Doppler-radars.  The photographs and videos helped to trace back its orbit to the far reaches of the outer part of the asteroid belt.  The Sutter’s Mill meteorite was scrutinized by almost the entire arsenal of observational and analytical state-of-the-art tools available to scientists today. The impressive synthesis of the collective results is published in this week’s edition of Science

                  Philipp and his colleagues studied a piece of the meteorite that was donated to The Field Museum by meteorite collector, philanthropist and C&R Committee member Terry Boudreaux.  Philipp prepared a polished section of the meteorite, and then he, Research Associate Andrew M. Davis (Geology/University of Chicago), and senior scientist Stephen B. Simon studied it with a scanning electron microscope to prepare a petrographic description and produce high-quality X-ray maps to determine its chemical composition (see image).  Sutter’s Mill meteorite is a so-called carbonaceous chondrite which is much more diverse in its composition than other meteorites of this type.  The unique rock came from a dark, carbon-rich asteroid that experienced an unexpectedly large variety of geological processes on its surface.  The reflectance spectrum of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite suggests it is similar to the asteroid that will be visited by the Japanese space mission Hayabusa-2 in 2018.  Thus, this meteorite seems to be the ideal sample to prepare cosmochemists for the arrival of Hayabusa-2. 

                  Philipp says, “I am fortunate to study this interesting, rare and unique meteorite, and will also preserve pristine pieces of it at The Field Museum for future generations of scientists who will be armed with analytical tools of which we can only dream of today.”  Read the abstract here.  Image above leftA composite RGB x-ray map of the elements magnesium (red), calcium (green), aluminum (blue). This map was made by the Chicago team of the Sutter's Mill consortium and helps to determine the mineralogy of the meteorite.

MacArthur Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch and Postdoctoral Research Scientist Steven Leavitt (both Botany) joined colleagues from Spain and Sweden in a paper describing the new lichen genus Montanelia, which appears in the American Journal of Botany.  The manuscript is entitled “Diversification of the newly recognized lichen-forming fungal lineage Montanelia (Parmeliaceae, Ascomycota) and its relation to key geological and climatic events.”  In this paper Thorsten and Steven showed that lineage divergence of Montanelia is correlated with climatic changes at the Oligocene–Miocene boundary and that the diversification during Miocene happened during major mountain uplifts.

The Field Museum of Natural History was among only 16 US institutions (one of 27 different countries) represented at the 13th International Deep-Sea Biology Symposium held the first week of December in Wellington, New Zealand.  Associate Curator Janet Voight (Zoology/Invertebrates) left Chicago on November 29, carefully avoiding the Hobbit movie debut in New Zealand, for the symposium the next week.  She arrived in time to tackle one of the major goals for the trip, identifying specimens of deep-sea wood-boring bivalves in the collections of TePapa (the National Museum of New Zealand). 

                  Janet has developed theories of how wood-boring deep-sea bivalves have undergone a tremendous evolutionary diversification to result in numerous species in the same area, despite what seems to be a lack of wood on the seafloor.  These theories rely on her work in the Northeast Pacific Ocean and on other data from the Northern Hemisphere; species found off of New Zealand can test of their generality.  Determining how well the New Zealand data support her hypotheses, however, will have to wait until Janet can closely examine specimens of what she thought, based on three days of work in the TePapa collections, were five new species.  Her extremely well received talk at the symposium outlined her hypotheses that the predictability of wood and its size generated different selective pressures near and offshore.

                  Other highlights of the trip included a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, sighting a tuatara in a nature reserve, several birds native to New Zealand and a few Janet had never before seen, but had no business being on the island.  Of course in the dark days of December, all Chicagoans dream of long, sunlit days spent in vivid green foliage, even if they are interspersed with days of gale-force winds and nearly (at times) horizontal rain. 

Postdoctoral Research Scientist Sittiporn “Kong” Parnmen, MacArthur Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch (both Botany) and several Thai colleagues published a paper entitled “Using Phylogenetic and Coalescent Methods to Understand the Species Diversity in the Cladia aggregata Complex (Ascomycota, Lecanorales)” in the online journal PLoS ONE.  Kong and his colleagues used DNA sequence data to examine how many species exist in a complex of variable lichens of the genus Cladia, which have their centre of distribution in Australia. The molecular data suggest that 12 species are present and that the previous species concept based on morphological and chemical characters vastly underestimated the diversity in these lichens.

MacArthur Field Biologist Steve Goodman (Zoology) made a presentation at Association Vahatra in Antananarivo, entitled “Fenêtres sur les animaux extraordinaires et les écosystèmes récemment disparus de Madagascar.”  About 100 Malagasy students, professors, and individuals interested in the natural history and conservation of Madagascar attended the event.  After the presentation the attendees celebrated the 5th anniversary of Association Vahatra.

This past week, Negaunee Collection Manager Bill Stanley and MacArthur Field Biologist Steve Goodman (both Zoology) co-published a paper in the Journal of Mammalogy on the systematics of bats with several colleagues in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Switzerland.  Using a variety of techniques ranging from external and cranial morphology, bioacoustics, and molecular genetics, some major taxonomic changes were made to western Indian Ocean members of the Emballonurini, including the description of a new genus and species.

On December 7, Boone Postdoctoral Fellow Lisa Niziolek (Anthropology) presented an invited lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Anthropology Department.  The talk, entitled “Early Maritime Trade in East and Southeast Asia: Stories from the Deep Blue Sea,” highlighted the research that Lisa and the Museum’s recently-graduated Boone Scholar interns—Amanda Respess from Northeastern Illinois University and Maura Condon from DePaul University—have been doing on the 13th Century Java Sea Shipwreck collection.  Since June, Amanda and Maura have been translating inscriptions and analyzing designs found on some of the ship’s Chinese export ceramics.  These inscriptions provide important information such as surnames, place names, and merchant marks that can help reconstruct the organization of ceramic production and model interregional maritime interaction in the South China Sea region during the early to mid second millennium A.D. Although most of the inscriptions contain Chinese characters, some may include non-Chinese scripts used by Arab traders or craftspeople that came to China from the Middle East.  Remarkably, one inscription, found on the bases of two of the Java Sea Wreck’s more than 1,400 small covered boxes, matches one found on the base of a box from another shipwreck, the Breaker Shoal Wreck, located about 1700 km (or just over 1000 miles) away in the Philippines.  Both inscriptions refer to a large residence or place of business in the modern town of Jian’ou in Fujian province (see photo). Such boxes were used in China and Southeast Asia to store cosmetics, medicines, ointments, tea, jewelry, and mirrors. Image Above Left: base of a covered box from the Java Sea Wreck with Jian Ning Fu inscription highlighted (cat. #344404)

Fieldwork & Collections

Most people are aware of the Great Wall of China, built initially by China’s First Emperor over 2,000 years ago and later expanded during subsequent dynasties. However, fewer people are familiar with earlier great walls that were constructed in China.  This fall, Curator Gary Feinman and Adjunct Curator Linda Nicholas (both Anthropology), as part of the continuing systematic archaeological survey in eastern Shandong Province, were able to walk, map, and record part of China’s first great wall, the Great Wall of the Qi state (see header image).  This wall, begun over 2,500 years ago, ran across much of what is now Shandong Province, separating the Qi state from their enemies to the south.

                  The Field Museum curators, collaborating with Professor Fang Hui of Shandong University and his students, mapped a segment of the wall, which cuts across their study region.  The mapping was implemented during the 17th season of collaboration between the Museum team members and Shandong University.  The project has now walked over more than 2,000 square kilometers, the largest contiguous area systematically surveyed by archaeologists in any region of East Asia.  In addition to mapping the wall, Gary and Linda recovered and located dozens of archaeological sites, some of which are more than 4,000 years old. They also noted interesting differences in the settlement patterns on the two sides of the wall.

                  Despite the wall’s great age, the Sino-American team found that remnants of this rammed-earth Qi construction were still in place in upland areas.  In some spots, it was still five to six meters wide, while in others it was still five to six meters tall.  In other places, where the wall was cut, large stones were visible (see image above right), which sometimes were placed to sustain the impressive earthen feature.  In a few areas, Gary and Linda documented that two parallel walls, less than a kilometer apart, were built.  By mapping the wall and reporting its condition and location to local government officials, the Field Museum-Shandong University team aims to encourage the preservation/conservation of this magnificent ancient feature on the landscape.  Ironically, significant segments of the wall have been preserved, albeit covered, as they serve as the foundation for paths and roads through this mountainous terrain. What once impeded contact and communication now facilitates it.

                  In 2012, eight archaeology graduate students from Shandong University assisted the project, receiving training in survey methods and archaeological interpretation from Gary and Linda.  Since 1995, over 70 students have participated in this project.  Many of these collaborators have found subsequent employment as professors and museum professionals across Shandong Province and elsewhere in China.

Zoology’s Division of Mammals hosted Hannah Walker from the University of California at Davis who examined and measured skulls and skins of several African ungulate species.  Shown in image left are Negaunee Collection Manager Bill Stanley, Volunteer Sarah Wachowski and Ms. Walker examining the preserved skin of a Burchell’s Zebra (Equus burchellii), photo by Preparator Anna Goldman.  The specimen was collected on the Serengeti Plains in 1928 and is housed in The Field Museum’s climate-controlled Tanned Skin Facility.




Public Education & Media Coverage

This week there is a “What the Fish?” double header.  Two podcasts have been released that are focused on the value and use of museum collections, collection data, and collection-based research for the advancement of science.  Episode 14: The Value and Role of Collection Data features guest researcher Hannah Owens, Ph.D. candidate from the University of Kansas.  This podcast focuses on how researchers can combine collection and specimen information with other ecological or environmental data to explore questions related to topics as wide as the expansion of introduced species to organismal responses to climate change, and it highlights that the use of Museum collections for these types of question could not have been predicted by the earliest Field Museum scientists. 

                  Episode 15: Exploring Collection-Based Research features special guest Associate Curator and Chair Peter Makovicky (Geology).  This podcast discusses the importance of new specimen discoveries for understanding dinosaur or fish evolution and how the combination of evolutionary trees and detailed anatomical or genetic analysis has incredible predictive power for understanding and explaining the diversity Museum scientists discover in the fossil record and across the globe. Tune in to these latest natural history podcasts 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.  Image above: Monkey-Faced Stonefish (Erosa erosa), one of the world's most venomous fishes

Curator Gary Feinman (Anthropology) was featured in the Chicago Tribune story “Field Museum expert expects to see Saturday, Mayan scholar debunks notion that world will end Friday.”  Gary says, “There’s really no basis for thinking we have to be worried about what will happen, there’s no Mayaprophesy of doom.  There’s no idea the world will come to an end that we can find in studies of the Maya.  And their calendar doesn't even end.  It just cycles.  This is like the odometer of your car turning over.  It doesn't stop running when it goes from 999999 to 00000.”

                  Gary was also featured on a WBBM radio interview, and television interviews on NBC Chicago, CBS Chicago, and WFLD (FOX).

Associate Curator Janet Voight (Zoology/Invertebrates) is among 25 Chicagoans highlighted in the cover story of the December 20 issue of the Chicago Reader.   This annual People issue is “a celebration of those who quietly follow their passion.”  As a member of The Field Museum staff, Janet has been following her passion to work to understand the diversity of life in the world around us since she started at the Museum in 1990.  You can see the article here.

Robert A. Pritzker Assistant Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies Philipp Heck (Geology) gave a presentation to members of the 31st and 32nd Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica at the Indian Antarctic station Maitri titled “Meteorites, their origins and Antarctica.”   In the talk Philipp discussed the study of meteorites and explained how to distinguish meteorites from terrestrial rocks, how to carefully collect (without touching) and transport meteorites in frozen state—below 15 degree Celsius—to a curatorial facility according to the rules governing the collection of meteorites in Antarctica.  More about Philipp's expedition can be found here.

Resident Graduate Student Matthew Nelsen (Botany/University of Chicago) gave a presentation at the Goose Island Brewery on December 10, for an event celebrating the release of their new Fulton & Wood series beer.  Matthew spoke about the diversity of the yeast genus, Saccharomyces, which is commonly used for brewing, wine- and bread-making.  The event was particularly special as the new beer, Baudoinia, is named after a fungus that is often found growing on barrels and walls in distilleries.  FM Operations Managers Carter O'Brien and Jessica Trent also took part in the celebration, and a great time was had by all!