News

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

LAWRENCE — It’s not a monkey. It’s not a lemur. It’s not an African Bush Baby or even a Madagascan Mouse. Meet the Philippine tarsier: a tiny, adorable and downright “cool” primate from Southeast Asia.

“It’s really not like any animals that Americans are familiar with,” said Rafe Brown, curator-in-charge at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute. “A tarsier has giant eyes and ears; an extremely cute, furry body; a long tail with a furry tuft at the end; and interesting expanded fingers and toe tips that look a bit like the disks on the digits of tree frogs.”

Brown said the tarsier (tar-SEER) has become the “flagship” iconic species for promoting environmental stewardship and ecotourism in the Philippines, a nation suffering from large-scale destruction of natural habitat.

“They’re threatened with habitat loss due to development, mining and deforestation from the timber industry,” Brown said. “On Bohol, where they are a big part of the tourist economy, literally thousands of animals are taken out of the wild, essentially harassed by tourists, and die in captivity due to the stress and inability of their captors to feed them an appropriate diet of live small animals. Tarsiers must eat an enormous amount every night to fuel their high metabolism.”

Because of threats to the tarsier, conservation efforts are mounting for the charismatic animal. But these have been thwarted by a lack of research: Too little has been known about the tarsier’s taxonomic diversity; there have been too few field studies; and a scarcity of genetic samples and voucher specimens in biodiversity repositories has left advocates of the tarsier in the dark. In short, to save the tarsier, experts have needed to know much more about the species.

“Basically, we can not legally protect something if we do not know that it exists,” Brown said.

Today, research by Brown and colleagues published by the journal PLOS ONE will shed new light on the animal’s genetic diversity and distribution. Additionally, the KU researchers have verified the presence of a new variety of tarsier, one heretofore only suspected to exist — the Dinagat-Caraga tarsier.

“Previously tarsiers were one species, divided into three named subspecies,” Brown said. “Our data disagree with that subspecies arrangement and instead demonstrate that the Philippine tarsiers are divided into three genetic units — but these units are from different localities than the named taxa. So our data provide an objective way to restructure conservation efforts and point the resources where they need to go, in order to really have an effective impact on preserving genetic diversity in the group.”

Brown’s student Anthony Barley performed genetic sequencing of the tarsiers’ mitochondrial DNA at KU, while fellow student Karen Olsen characterized the nuclear microsatellite loci variation of the animals.

According to Brown, the results “tell us that we need a protected area — such as a national park — in the ranges of each of the genetic units if our goal is to maximally preserve the genetic underpinnings of that biodiversity. Currently, the newly discovered entity, the Dinagat-Caraga tarsier, has no protection. It is known from a small island that is being extremely heavily mined. Thus, it emerges as a new lineage — and a new major conservation urgency.”

They question of just how many Philippine tarsiers exist has been “left sort of hanging” for 25 years until now, according to the researcher. The newly discovered Dinagat Island and Caraga Region tarsier was first recognized as possibly distinct by the Filipino biologist Dioscoro Rabor in the 1970s, and now is confirmed by the KU genetic analysis.

“The confirmation of Rabor’s early suspicions about the Dinagat Island tarsier population was extremely exciting, and it was very satisfying to affirm his very perceptive early observations,” Brown said. “He commented that it looked larger to him and had different shaped fingers and toes. I’m just glad we were able to bring new, modern tools to this problem and identify the Dinagat-Caraga tarsier as a real conservation priority.”

Brown and Filipino colleagues have called for the establishment of separate tarsier sanctuaries and protection programs within the range of “at least” the three genetic entities established by the research at the Biodiversity Institute. Each, he said, merits unique strategies and programs, along with identification and remediation of conservation threats — for instance “mining in Dinagat versus unregulated tourist industry on Bohol,” he said.

To do less, Brown said, would harm the tarsier’s long-term prospects, potentially depriving the Philippines and the rest of the world of one of nature’s most charming and curious mammals.

“They move very rapidly and jump from tree trunk to tree trunk with ‘ricochet locomotion,'” Brown said. “They bounce from small sapling trunk to trunk, then leap down to pounce on their prey. They’re completely carnivorous. This is relatively unique among primates. The tarsier is famous for not eating any vegetable material of any kind. They eat insects, small snakes, lizards, small mammals and birds. They communicate with ultrasonic calls outside the range of human hearing. The tarsier is so cool!”    

The National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration and the National Science Foundation supported the research. -Brendan Lynch, KU News service

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, August 7, 2014

Hylarana centropeninsularisLAWRENCE — Recently, Malaysian herpetologist Juliana Senawi puzzled over an unfamiliar orange-striped, yellow-speckled frog she’d live-caught in swampland on the Malay Peninsula.

She showed the frog to Chan Kin Onn, a fellow herpetologist pursuing his doctorate at the University of Kansas. They wondered — was this striking frog with an appearance unlike others nearby in the central peninsula an unidentified species?

Poring over records to find out, the researchers saw that a comparable frog had been collected in the area 10 years earlier, but it was written off then as a species from an Indonesian island about 450 miles to the west. The distance and geography between the two habitats made them suspect their frog might have been formerly misidentified.

“The frog was originally confused with the Siberut Island Frog, which is a species that occurs on Siberut Island off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, due to their similar appearance in color-pattern,” Chan said.

They wondered if genetic code from the exact same frog species could have jumped eastward from a remote island across 150 miles of Indian Ocean — then over the whole of Sumatra — then across the Strait of Malacca into the Malaysian interior?

“Despite their similarities, we had a strong suspicion that the frog from Malaysia wasn’t the Siberut Island Frog,” Chan said.

Later, extensive genetic analysis performed in the lab of Rafe Brown, curator of herpetology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, would determine whether the Malaysian frog was indeed new to science — genetically distinct from its doppelgänger on Siberut Island.

“The lab is very high-tech and is able to run a number of different types of genetic analyses,” Chan said. “It’s also able to run the latest in cutting-edge genetic analysis called Next Generation Sequencing, which a lot of researchers are currently utilizing. We also have a very powerful bioinformatics lab that can analyze extremely large and computationally expensive datasets. The great thing about the lab is that we have the equipment and expertise to run everything from initial DNA extractions to the final data analyses without having to rely on any outsourcing.”

When testing was complete, the first hunch of the Malaysian team proved right: “Sure enough, results from Rafe’s genetic analysis showed that the frog from Peninsular Malaysia was genetically too distant from the Siberut Island Frog to be considered the same species, so we decided to describe it as a new species.”

As lead author, Chan published the team’s findings in a recent issue of the journal Herpetologica.

“We decided to call it ‘Hylarana centropeninsularis’ because it’s currently only known from central Peninsular Malaysia,” he said. “The name is constructed from the Latin word ‘centro’ that means center and ‘peninsularis,’ in reference to Peninsular Malaysia.”

To date, Chan has described seven species of frogs and three species of lizards, all from Peninsular Malaysia, that are new to science.

Born and raised in Malaysia, Chan took interest in nature as a child, interacting with jungle plants and animals — then keeping snakes and lizards as pets.

“At one point, I had as many as 25 species of pet snakes in my room,” said the KU researcher.

At the National University of Malaysia, Chan found himself under the tutelage of herpetologist Norhayati Ahmad and Lee Grismer of La Sierra University, California, a world-renowned herpetologist with research interests in Malaysia.

“I knew about Rafe Brown and KU through their research and publications and first met him at a conference in Borneo,” Chan said. “My research interests aligned well with Rafe — we both work on frogs in Southeast Asia and are generally interested in answering the same type of questions.”

For would-be herpetologists looking to follow in Chan's species-finding footsteps, the KU researcher had words of advice: “Do it the old-fashioned way. Wade through the mud and get dirty!” - Brendan Lynch, KU News Service

News Type:
Research News
Saturday, June 21, 2014
Rich Glor

KU Herpetology has launched a new Flickr group that will contain images taken by members of the division and their associates. The group already hosts more than 750 images. Visit the group's page and sign up for Flickr if you want to become a contributor.

News Type:
Saturday, June 21, 2014
Rich Glor

In the Summer of 2015, KU Herpetology will host the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. The meeting will take place in the Kansas Memorial Union, which is located adjacent to KU Herpetology headquarters in the KU Natural History Museum. Some social events will be hosted just down the road at the Oread Hotel. Preliminary details can be found in an announcement published in Herpetological Review. Stay tuned for more details.

News Type:
Research News
Friday, May 23, 2014

Scientists from the University of Kansas and more than 60 other international research institutions spanning six continents have responded to a recent paper in Science, which questioned the practice of collecting and preserving scientific specimens.

KU biologists Rafe Brown and Andrew Short, along with other researchers, argued that the value of scientific collections is vast and their effect on natural populations is minimal. The response also stresses the immense value of scientific collections – such as those held by the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum – across a wide range of disciplines.

In the original paper, "Avoiding (Re)extinction," the authors had argued that the collection of scientific specimens has played a significant role in species extinction, pointing to examples of now-extinct birds, frogs and plants to support this claim.

Today’s response paper, led by Luiz Rocha, a fish biologist from the California Academy of Sciences, emphasizes the minimal effect that research-based specimen collecting actually has on populations. Rocha, Brown and Short, and other scientists, argued that the value of scientific collections is vast and their effect on natural populations is minimal.

“This is a delicate topic because none of us like to think about the death of a beautiful bird or colorful frog,” said Brown, curator of herpetology at the Biodiversity Institute.  “But as conservation scientists, we are primarily concerned with species preservation and the long-term viability of populations.  It’s not the several individual frogs that are sacrificed humanely for the global good that make me sad…I get emotional about the many hundreds of thousands that will die this year en masse as we cut down forests and pave over the last of their habitat; we know that many of those individuals will be the last of their species."

The authors point to several examples that illustrate the role scientific collections have played in understanding such things as the effects of climate change on populations and the spread of disease. In one such analysis, scientists looked at specimens from a wide range of taxa, collected over the past several decades or more, and found a significant correlation between an increase in daily temperatures and a decrease in body size — a response that might limit the ability of some species to tolerate more dramatic swings in future temperature extremes.

Scientists have also analyzed amphibian specimens collected over the past five decades or more, including many hundreds of specimens in KU’s herpetology collections, to track the origin and spread of the frog-killing chytrid fungus in hopes of preventing its further spread.

It is only by investigating information about specimens collected across time that scientists can answer questions about species and the environment in a changing world, said Short, entomology curator at the Biodiversity Institute. Such collections are not the cause of extinctions.

“Responsible collecting of scientific specimens is the only way to identify most of the world’s species,” Short said. “These collections are critical to assessing water quality, habitat degradation and the impact of climate change. It is not a conservation threat and treating it as such distracts from the real drivers that are imperiling our biodiversity, such as habitat loss and invasive species.”

In the original paper, the authors went on to recommend alternatives to standardized collection methods used today, namely photography, audio recordings and non-lethal tissue collection. Although in many cases these methods are employed in species identification, scientists point out that they will often fall far short of the wealth of information that scientific specimens provide. Species identification, they write, is not the only — and is often not the most important — reason to collect voucher specimens.

In other cases, genetic data from decades-old scientific specimens has even been used to identify current species that were thought to be extinct.

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jesse Grismer (mentor: Rafe Brown) has learned that he has been awarded a $20,000 grant from National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration to study population genetics and taxonomic diversity of lizards in differing habitats across the Gobi Desert.  The upcoming Gobi expedition involves an integrative historical component which will include retracing travel routes of famed explorers Nikolai Przhevalsky and Ney Elias using original expedition accounts coupled with modern satellite based imagery and georeferencing tools.

In addition, Scott Travers (also in Rafe Brown’s group) has learned that his National Geographic Young Explorer’s Club proposal has been funded ($5,000) for work on adaptive radiation and community assembly of amphibians and reptiles in the Solomon Islands. This work will include blazing an elevational transect through uninhabited forests of Mt. Austen on Guadalcanal Island, the site of the infamous Guadalcanal Campaign battles between U.S. and Japanese troops in 1943.

News Type:
Student News
Thursday, April 24, 2014

PhilippinesIn November 2013, as Super Typhoon Haiyan produced landfall in the Philippines with the highest-ever recorded wind speed for a Category 5 tropical cyclone, it wreaked near complete devastation for miles. The expense was dear for each humans and wildlife.

Rafe Brown, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, already had spent years researching biodiversity in the country. He said watching the Tv coverage of Haiyan was "one particular of the most profoundly saddest events in my life."

"The death toll was so high, the calculations of loss of life so obviously underestimated—it was like the international disaster relief neighborhood had no notion what they had to deal with," Brown stated. "A important metropolitan location and university town exactly where I had spent several fine days interacting with colleagues and students —Tacloban City—had been reduced completely to rubble. And the devastation in more far-flung regions of the archipelago was totally unknown. I found myself asking yourself: What about all these forests? What happened to the sites we had surveyed in the last 5 years? Had been the locations exactly where we established survey transects flattened absolutely? What species nevertheless remained in the most devastated forests?"

Mainly because Brown, who also serves as curator-in-charge of the Herpetology Division at KU's Biodiversity Institute, had compiled such an in depth record of biodiversity in the Philippines by way of prior investigations, he realized he could be of aid to the nation and the scientific neighborhood if he have been able to characterize the extent of Haiyan's toll on wildlife in the location. Now, he has secured a one particular-year, $125,000 award from the National Science Foundation, a grant designed to address a distinct need of higher urgency in a rapid time frame.

"A number of of the locations we have surveyed prior to the typhoon are viewed as specifically biodiverse, with higher numbers of mammal species, birds, amphibians and reptiles," mentioned Brown. "We now have to have an immediate 'after' glimpse of the diversity ideal after the storm. Our project is aimed at delivering that picture of the aftermath…such that followup research can be conducted at 5, ten and possibly 15 or 20 years from now, to document how recovery transpires in these all-natural systems."

Brown, along with KU colleagues Robert Moyle and A. Townsend Peterson, will train a field group of personnel and graduate students to survey habitat impacted by Haiyan where biodiversity datasets had already been created ahead of landfall of the storm. Comparing the "prior to" and "right after" information will reveal the extent of the super typhoon's destruction, as properly as the capacity of various species to bounce back from catastrophe.

"The solutions we will employ will be the very same techniques we undertook for the earlier surveys, applying the same trails, the same transects and sampling measures, and even the very same individuals who carried out the operate," mentioned Brown. "We'll standardize the work so that statistical comparisons can be made, and then encourage future researchers to use these identical approaches once more over the next decade or two."

Whilst it is impossible to predict all of the aftereffects of Haiyan on the wildlife of the Philippines, the KU researcher said some species truly could be scattered to the winds.

"These typhoons are usually devastating to low-lying regions since storm surge can scour coastal plains and eradicate anything that lives there," Brown said. "They are normally also heavily damaging to mid- and upper-montane locations for the reason that the heavy rainfall causes landslides and flattens forests if winds are powerful enough. There is no doubt that they also transport species from a single region to another—small animals, literally blown from a single island to the next—but these specifics have seldom been quantified to date. This is an ancillary target of our new project, to measure the quantity of storm-associated translocation of populations of land vertebrates from one particular island to yet another."

Brown stated that the Philippines is an desirable nation in which to study biodiversity since of the stark contrasts, such as habitable islands versus inhospitable intervening seaways, along with the recognized geological history of the archipelago, the rich legacy of data compiled by scientists over centuries to draw upon, and the incredibly clear and, at instances, simplified communities of vertebrates that inhabit the 7,one hundred landmasses of the archipelago.

Even so, he stated that his findings could shed light on how species thrive or fail in the aftermath of all-natural disasters anyplace on Earth.

"This award addresses a unique higher-urgency need to have for surveys post-Haiyan but fits into the general framework of our investigation plan in that we seek to fully grasp how such exceptionally high levels of land vertebrate diversity can exist in the island archipelagos and biodiversity hotspots like the Philippines," said Brown. "It may perhaps relate to the frequency of all-natural disturbance. That is, if chronic and periodic natural disturbance is standard of a forest community, it is conceivable that such a forest neighborhood may perhaps stay specifically diverse since it contains a combination of steady, resident neighborhood species and also a cohort of 'edge' species or species that invade an area following the effect of natural disturbance. Our information may present a direct measure of the predictions of this 'intermediate disturbance hypothesis' in a actual-time empirical method. Such an chance is really rare—only coming along as soon as or twice in a lifetime."

News Type:
Research News
Monday, February 17, 2014
Jen Humphrey

Research by former KU EEB/BI student Cameron Siler (now an Assistant Professor at University of Oklahoma), current student Andres Lira, and Rafe Brown recently has been covered in depth in a Science Magazine article “Genetic forensics wakes a dragon." In this study, Brown, Siler and Filipino colleagues Arvin Diesmos and Emerson Sy (National Museum of the Philippines) collected genetic samples from animals in the illegal pet market trade of a major metropolitan area (Manila) and compared traders reported origins of the species to the genotypic match of these samples from animals collected in the wild from throughout the Philippines. The authors found that virtually all of Manila’s poached animals came from a particular area (The Bicol Peninsula) where a genetically distinct lineage occurs with almost no protected area coverage.  Collaborations With KU’s Andres Lira modeled the species habitat suitability and demonstrated that very little of available habitat overlaps with protected areas, demonstrating a new conservation urgency, identified with an integrative combination of forensic science, ecological niche modeling, and covert black market surveys in the back alleys of Manila. This work comes on the heels of an earlier study by former KU student Luke Welton in which trade forensics of Monitor Lizards revealed that, when asked, traders misrepresent the origins of their animals more than 50% of the time, presumably in an effort to increase the perceived value of their illegal wares.  Both articles can be located at: http://www.nhm.ku.edu/rbrown/PublicationsMain.htm

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Jen Humphrey

Nature recently published a feature on Rafe Brown, Biodiversity Institute herpetology Curator and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor. The article focused on his research, its connection to a controversial KU scientist from the early 20th century, and the importance of species identification for conservation.

News Type:
In the News
Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Anthony Barley, graduate student in Herpetology at KU, won this year's American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists Stoye Award for best student paper presented at this year's Joint Ichs and Herps Meeting.  Barley’s paper will be published next month in the journal Evolution.

News Type:
Student News