Students return to the field thanks to museum travel grants
Courtesy of Florida Museum of Natural History
BY JERALD PINSON
Each year, the Florida Museum’s Department of Natural History provides funding to graduate students of the University of Florida to help cover travel costs associated with their research. After a long year of travel restrictions, the funds have been particularly helpful to this year’s recipients, many of whom have had to abandon plans, delay work and move on to other research priorities in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. -19.
When the spring semester ended earlier this year, the winners set out to make up for lost time. Shelly Gaynor, a doctoral candidate in biology, used the funds to scour the southern Appalachians in search of beetles, Galax urceolata, a small, evergreen shrub with a confusing origin story.
Although considered a single species, beetle populations differ in the amount of DNA they contain. Some are normal diploids, with a set of chromosomes from each parent, but other populations may have plants with a complement of three and even four chromosome copies, a phenomenon known as polyploidy.
Despite their genetic differences, the beetle often reproduces freely between populations, creating plants with varying amounts of DNA that look exactly the same, much to the chagrin of biologists trying to unravel the species’ natural history.
“It’s just a crazy mess,” Gaynor said. “It really made me wonder, ‘What is going on here and how do we tell it apart? “”
Although relatively rare in animals, polyploidy is the norm in plants, where it often confers a competitive advantage, allowing them to compete more efficiently for resources or to shine in new environments.
“All that extra DNA could be the difference between life and extinction for the beetle and other plants in a warming climate,” Gaynor said. “A solid understanding of how genetic diversity is created in plants is therefore an essential part of maintaining our food supply and conserving natural areas. ”
Gaynor also relied on a small number of specimens stored in herbaria across the United States, which she had shipped to the Florida Museum for DNA analysis. For graduate biology students Thomas Murphy and Alex Abair, a much larger proportion of the plants they needed for their projects had already been collected by other researchers. Murphy and Abair used their funding to visit these specimens in person, visiting herbaria housed at universities and botanical gardens in several states, including New York, Arkansas, and Wisconsin.
“I always feel invigorated and inspired every time I go to a large herbarium,” Murphy said. “It’s just a great place to synthesize all the information that people have been collecting for years.”
Murphy, who studies plants in the greenbriar family, worked extensively at the New York Botanical Garden for nine days this summer, taking small leaf extracts from preserved specimens for later DNA extraction. During his stay, he also helped annotate outdated catalog information for specimens collected decades ago, some of which have remained intact since their initial collection and likely represent new species previously unknown to science.
“A lot of them fall under the radar,” Murphy said. “They’re grouped together with extant species that artificially resemble each other, but when you really look closely at several specimens, there are patterns that start to stand out.”
Closer to home, Tyler Bowling spent a month searching for sharks along a small stretch of the coast at New Smyrna Beach, known as the shark bite capital of the world.
It’s very strange that this little cove in Florida has so many occurrences of shark bites, said Bowling, a graduate student in biology and director of the Florida Shark Research Program. “These are very minor bites, but they are extremely frequent, often occurring at double digits each year.”
New Smyrna Beach is a tourist attraction. Just east of Orlando, the city offers a variety of beaches, parks, and natural spaces. It is also one of the best places for surfing along the Atlantic coast; the water flowing from two nearby piers creates a whirlpool that produces waves all year round. “It’s cited as the most consistent surf on the East Coast,” Bowling said.
The same conditions that make the cove such a great place for people are also extremely supportive of marine life. The shallow, swirling water lifts nutrients that turn the entrance into an ideal feeding ground for fish, which in turn attracts a variety of sharks. In a small area very frequented by multiple species, encounters are inevitable.
Bowling hopes to determine which environmental conditions are most closely related to the presence of sharks, which can then be used to predict when the greatest number of bites are likely to occur.
“The goal is to get out and acoustically mark these animals,” he said. “If we see correlations with the environmental models, we can get a sense of when sharks are more likely to move around the creek.”
While most students travel separately to obtain data for their independent projects, others may pool their resources to answer similar questions. This is especially true of paleontology, in which researchers often visit the same excavation sites, which unearth a variety of fossilized organisms.
“We all see the outcrop a little differently,” said laureate Carmi Milagros Thompson, a graduate student in paleontology who studies marine invertebrates.
Thompson and graduate biology students Lazaro Viñola Lopez and Mitchell Riegler spent several weeks in the Dominican Republic. There, they worked closely with the curator of paleontology, Juan Almonte, at the Dominican Republic’s National Museum of Natural History to identify and catalog fossils relevant to their research. They also visited several field sites to do their own collections.
Viñola Lopez focuses specifically on the extinct mammals that once inhabited the Greater Antilles and has a broad interest in how life in the Caribbean has changed over geological time. But the fossilized remains of organisms that lived on earth millions of years ago are incredibly rare in the tropics due to a combination of dense vegetation and unfavorable conditions for preservation.
For Viñola Lopez, it’s like trying to complete a puzzle with several pieces missing.
“We have very few old Caribbean fossils,” said Viñola Lopez. “The vast majority that exist dates from the last 50,000 years. ”
When the opportunity to collect arises, paleontologists often need to act quickly to ensure that they can successfully dig up specimens before they are eroded by the elements or obscured by plants. “You can have a road cut or a construction site, and you have a very short window to enter and collect fossils before the locality is covered in vegetation,” said Viñola Lopez.
Viñola Lopez, Thompson and Riegler are currently analyzing their samples and plan to continue to collaborate in the future, each drawing strength from their different areas of expertise.
“Nothing exists in isolation,” said Thompson. “It’s really important to be exposed to different systems and methodologies outside of what you usually encounter and to learn from how other people conduct research, both to improve your own research and to see the results. potential connections and collaborations. ”
Graduate students Gregory Jongsma, Shelby Krupar and Julian Correa Narvaez were also recipients of the 2021 Summer Travel Awards.
The funds for the Florida Museum travel grants are funded in part by the Louis C. and Jane Gapenski Endowment Scholarship.