Into the forest
With its host of top-rated attractions and miles of bike paths and running trails, Forest Park has enticed generations of WashU community members to step outside the university’s campuses and explore. Today, students and faculty are venturing deeper into the woods to learn about the biodiversity that teems there and to highlight the connectedness between the natural and the human.
WashU students and faculty venture deep into Forest Park to study the biodiversity that teems there, including more than 200 species of birds. (Video: Thomas Malkowicz/Washington University)
By Terri Nappier August 7, 2023
Missouri native is flowering earlier due to climate change
Matthew Austin, an ecologist and biodiversity postdoctoral fellow with the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis, published a study in the American Journal of Botany that describes changes to the flowering time and other important life cycle events in Leavenworthia species, a group of small flowering plants found in glades in Missouri.
Glades are open, rocky areas that are typically drier than other local habitats. Spring rains, alongside other climate and climatically-related factors, had the most dominant effects on changes to Leavenworthia over time, and these effects are expected to increase.
“This research is important beyond just the enjoyment of flowers because understanding what affects the time of year that plants reproduce is important for their conservation,” Austin told HEC Media. Learn more by viewing the video and story on this research.
A dog’s work: Rescue animal goes all in for wildlife conservation
Officials in Argentina are building a statue to recognize the work of Train, a rescue dog who contributed to significant conservation research by a WashU scientist.
By Chris Woolston June 17, 2023
Our future hangs in the balance: climate and biodiversity loss
The Earth is facing two interconnected crises — loss of biodiversity and climate change. Each separately is an enormous threat to life on this planet. However, together they are fueling each other, creating a worsening downward spiral.
The losses in biodiversity are staggering.
Kaylee Arnold joins Tyson team as LEC Postdoc
From exploring the beach and San Diego Zoo as a kid to studying kissing bugs in Panama as a PhD candidate, Kaylee Arnold’s path in biology has been a long and winding one. Most recently, it has brought her to St. Louis, where she is joining Washington University’s Living Earth Collaborative as a postdoctoral research associate.
Kaylee is a disease ecologist who studies the impact of anthropogenic disturbances on microbial communities and infectious disease transmission – in other words, how does human activity affect the small-scale workings of microbiomes, such as insect guts or plant roots, as well as the large-scale picture of public health? In this LEC position, Kaylee will be joined by WashU’s Rachel Penczykowski, Tyson’s Solny Adalsteinsson, and SIUE’s Danielle Lee to study these patterns in plant microbiomes and fungal pathogen transmission across an urbanization gradient.
When asked how she felt about the switch from studying kissing bugs to studying plants, Kaylee laughed.
“Honestly, I would be happy doing any type of microbiome work across any disturbance gradients. I worked with insects because that’s what my advisor worked on, and she had everything set up for it. Now I’m doing plants because I got connected with Rachel Penczykowski and was like, okay, well, this is a cool system. I almost worked on river otters for a similar project. So it’s really like, find me some bacteria and I’m happy!”
“I study diseases and public health,” said Kaylee, “so I think communities – especially marginalized folks – should know just as much as I do in terms of what’s going on in the environment and what that means for them.”
However, Kaylee’s postdoctoral plans extend beyond research. Along with her three mentors, she is already planning collaborations with local communities to actively involve students in science.
“Outreach is just as important for me as research,” Kaylee said. “I want to make sure I give equal weight to building skills and thinking about how to reach marginalized communities, how to expand literacy and access to STEM. So as I was considering the application process and developing my proposal, I was really excited to have three mentors who all love outreach just as much as I do and all have something unique to bring.”
Though these plans are still in their early stages, Kaylee imagines this outreach as a K-12 program which will integrate kids into her research, with lessons in data collection designed to show students how the scientific process happens from the ground up. She also stressed the importance of clear communication – ensuring students understand the goals and takeaways of the research they are involved in and can use the knowledge to serve their communities.
“I study diseases and public health,” said Kaylee, “so I think communities – especially marginalized folks – should know just as much as I do in terms of what’s going on in the environment and what that means for them.”
Early crop plants were more easily ‘tamed’
By Talia Ogliore April 7, 2023
The story of how ancient wolves came to claim a place near the campfire as humanity’s best friend is a familiar tale (even if scientists are still working out some of the specifics). In order to be domesticated, a wild animal must be tamable — capable of living in close proximity to people without exhibiting dangerous aggression or debilitating fear. Taming was the necessary first step in animal domestication, and it is widely known that some animals are easier to tame than others.
But did humans also favor certain wild plants for domestication because they were more easily “tamed”? Research from Washington University in St. Louis calls for a reappraisal of the process of plant domestication, based on almost a decade of observations and experiments. The behavior of erect knotweed, a buckwheat relative, has WashU paleoethnobotanists completely reassessing our understanding of plant domestication.
“We have no equivalent term for tameness in plants,” said Natalie Mueller, assistant professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University. “But plants are capable of responding to people. They have a developmental capacity to be tamed.”
Her work with early indigenous North American crops shows that some wild plants respond quickly to clearing, fertilizing, weeding or thinning. Plants that respond in ways that make cultivation easier or more productive could be considered more easily tamed than those that cannot.
“If plants responded rapidly in ways that were beneficial to early cultivators — for example by producing higher yields, larger seeds, seeds that were easier to sprout, or a second crop in a single growing season — this would have encouraged humans to continue investing in the co-evolutionary relationship,” she said.
Small flowers focus of big climate research at Missouri Botanical Garden
( from Fox2, about Bio/Matthew Austin’s research)
How GPS tracking is helping expand our understanding of Forest Park
in LADUE NEWS (Innovation Hub) – By Drew Gieseke
Experts in wildlife ecology, animal movement and veterinary medicine joined forces in a landmark collaboration to enhance how we understand Forest Park.
Dubbed the Forest Park Living Lab, the team behind the project is comprehensively examining the health and behavior of Forest Park’s wildlife as well as interactions between its ecosystems. The hope is that the work will shine a light on the intricate web of wildlife in St. Louis’ most beloved urban park and its relationship with the millions of people in the region.
“When we study these animals, we can understand how they’re interacting with each other, with humans and with the urban environment around them,” says Stella Uiterwaal, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow with the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University. “This gives us data to understand how best to protect our park’s treasured wildlife and answer fundamental ecological questions.”
WashU great ape, biodiversity research informs decision to expand Congolese park
Djéké Triangle inclusion protects western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees
Washington University in St. Louis scientists and their international partners have long conducted conservation research in the Republic of Congo, where scientists continue to learn about the great apes and their habitats so that we can better protect them.
This month, the Republic of Congo agreed to protect a 36-square-mile area called Djéké Triangle by making it part of the adjacent Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park — the only habitat in the world home to habituated groups of both gorillas and chimpanzees. The Djéké Triangle is also home to other large mammals such as forest elephants and bongo antelopes, plus more than 300 bird species and 1,000 plant species.
Biodiversity research led by St. Louis scientists helped inform the decision to include the Djéké Triangle in the existing national park.
“The Djéké Triangle is one of the last large areas of intact forest in the region and home to rich biodiversity,” said Crickette Sanz, a professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University. Since 1999, the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project, co-directed by Sanz and David Morgan at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, has conducted research and helped provide evidence that this region has high conservation value and deserves legal protection.
Can Elephants Save the Planet?
by Jacob Born
Researchers Discover Elephant Extinction Could Have Major Impact on Atmospheric Carbon Levels
In findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Saint Louis University researchers and colleagues report that elephants play a key role in creating forests which store more atmospheric carbon and maintaining the biodiversity of forests in Africa. If the already critically endangered elephants become extinct, rainforest of central and west Africa, the second largest rainforest on earth, would gradually lose between six and nine percent of their ability to capture atmospheric carbon, amplifying planetary warming.
IN THE GARDEN
After a Frantic Year, It’s Time for ‘Slow Birding’
A new book borrows from the slow food movement to propose a more thoughtful, less competitive form of bird-watching.
The feeders are filled and hung; the scene is set. Are we ready to let our incessant daily to-do list take flight and settle in to watch the birds?
I’m not talking about the occasional glance out the window, but a long, contemplative look.
A new book, “Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard,” proposes doing just that — during feeder season and throughout the year. The author, Joan E. Strassmann, is an animal behaviorist and professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis.
By Talia Ogliore November 22, 2022
Forest Park Living Lab
St. Louis scientists collaborate on new study of wildlife in one of America’s greatest urban parks
No, autumn leaves are not changing color later because of climate change
But they might become less brilliant
It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, and the nights are cooling down. But when will the natural fireworks display of autumn leaves actually begin this year? Read more….
By Talia Ogliore September 22, 2022
Squirrels and the city | Washington University
Elizabeth Carlen is a postdoctoral fellow with the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis. She is studying how city life is changing the local populations of eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).
By Talia Ogliore August 1, 2022
Seedy, not sweet
Ancient melon genome from Libya yields surprising insights into watermelon relative
Biologist Susanne Renner in Arts & Sciences investigated the oldest known seeds from watermelon relatives. Her research team shared two new genomes of the ancient seeds and described how Neolithic humans in Libya likely used the seeds, not the bitter flesh, from the melons.
By Talia Ogliore July 21, 2022
The birds and the bees – and the temperature gauge
Temperature affects nearly every part of an animal’s day-to-day existence. Biologists have, for good reason, spent a huge amount of time trying to understand how animals can survive in the climates in which they live. They have learned a lot about the strategies that animals use to keep themselves from overheating or freezing to death.
Study: Climate change improves violet blooms. but there’s a hitch
ST. LOUIS — There’s a flashy purple disco in your garden that’s been ramping up for more than a century.
The star of the show? Common blue violets.
The plants are now blooming earlier in the year and producing more flamboyant, attention-grabbing flowers in the spring thanks to increasing precipitation driven by rising temperatures.
In other words, climate change is affecting how and when these plants reproduce, according to a study of preserved specimens of the flower published last month by the Missouri Botanical Garden and Washington University.
That may seem like a silver lining to climate change. But there are a few caveats.
Scientists aren’t certain whether the activity of the insects these violets need to reproduce is also moving forward at the same rate. If not, the plants and the bugs might fall out of sync. That could prevent pollen, which carries the genetic material plants need to reproduce, from being transported by bees from one flower to another.
Climate change is affecting when, how violets reproduce
Nonlethal parasites reduce how much their wild hosts eat, leading to ecosystem effects
Washington People: Fangqiong Ling
Making science accessible to the community
How I Do It: Partnering with a University on Sustainability
Focal Pointe Outdoor Solutions, based in Caseyville, Illinois, has been working with Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, for a number of years and the college has been focused on sustainability for some time. Washington University established the Office of Sustainability in 2011. Read more ….
Episode 4: The wonders of urban wildlife
National Geographic Explorer Danielle Lee reveals the incredible array of wildlife often hiding in plain sight in our cities. Her other mission? As a Black scientist, she wants to open the door for others to join the field.
MoBot researchers organize, show off objects made from plants, trees, flowers
How birds are adapting to climate crisis
By Katie Hunt, CNN
Updated 12:39 PM ET, Fri February 11, 2022
Brief history of the cabbage butterfly’s evolving tastes
By Talia Ogliore August 11, 2021
The cabbage butterfly, voracious as a caterpillar, is every gardener’s menace. Turns out, these lovely white or sulfur yellow butterflies started trying to take over the planet millions of years before humans ever set foot on it.
To respond, plants threw resources into self-defense. Proto-broccoli and other brassicas got more bitter. Yet even as plants changed to deter chomping larvae, the Pieridae family butterflies were one of few insect groups that evolved to tolerate these new chemical defenses.
Research from biologists at Washington University in St. Louis uses statistical methods to trace the path of ancient pierid butterflies as they diversified and their plant hosts fought back over and over again, a battle repeated across evolutionary history.
“Our study provides some of the first evidence that the structure that we observe in butterfly-plant networks today — that is, the way the species interactions are organized — is stable over millions of years, even though the species-level interactions change,” said Mariana Pires Braga, a postdoctoral research associate working in the laboratory of Michael Landis, assistant professor of biology in Arts & Sciences. Braga is the first author of the new paper in Ecology Letters and Landis is the senior author.
To model how butterfly-plant interactions evolve, Braga and Landis used previously published time-calibrated phylogenies for 66 Pieridae genera and 33 angiosperm (flowering plant) families that are known to be hosts of this kind of butterflies. The Washington University scientists collaborated with researchers from Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History.
“Butterflies depend on host plants as their only food source when they are caterpillars, and caterpillars of different species are able to eat different plants,” Braga said. “These ecological interactions can be represented by a network — similar to a social network — that encodes which species interact.
“We also know that many of these relationships resulted from a long coevolutionary history shared between plant and insect lineages,” she said. “But without a time machine, we can’t directly observe who interacted with whom, what those interactions were and when they were gained or lost.”
To get around this time-machine problem, statistical models can be used to reconstruct, or infer, coevolutionary history that occurred millions of years ago.
A major challenge is that there are billions and billions of histories that could have generated the complicated network of insect-plant interactions that are known to biologists. The new computational and statistical techniques that Braga and Landis developed assign probabilities to each history of network evolution so that the scientists can find the most probable ones.
What Braga and Landis discovered with butterflies and the plants they choose to eat is somewhat akin to the “clumping” one might observe within a social network in a college or university, Braga explained.
Most interactions between people likely happen within departments. Biologists talk with biologists. This is true over a long time period, even though the individual people working and studying within each department changes over time.
“Pieridae-plant relationships might similarly be resilient to changes in species composition, but larger structural changes might destabilize the whole network,” she said.
Taking another bite
Another important finding from the new paper is that butterflies often regain hosts they haven’t used for millions of years.
“This means that they likely have a kind of ‘memory’ mechanism that increases the number of host plants they can choose from, which in turn increases their chances of survival,” Braga said.
The method that Braga and Landis developed for this research could prove useful for other scientists interested in investigating coevolutionary systems.
“A major component of our work involved the development of new computational tools that can be used by other researchers who study different types of ecological interactions,” Landis said. “Even though we developed these methods to understand how networks of interaction between butterflies and their host plants evolve, the same methods can be applied to a variety of biological systems.”
Examples include other kinds of crop pests and their hosts, or parasites responsible for spreading infectious diseases. Or systems that people consider more positive, like plant-pollinator networks.
In the case of cabbage butterflies and their hosts, these interactions have been happening for millions of years. This research work was only possible thanks to records that people have been writing down since Charles Darwin’s days.
“Much of our data concerning ecological interactions comes from centuries of field observations that have only been digitized in recent decades,” Braga said. “Approaches like ours are important to link the future of biology to its past.”
In search of refuge..
Researchers look at whether Ozark oases at Tyson Research Center — climate change refugia — could help species persist in spite of rising temperatures. Read more …
Great video on Saint Louis’ efforts to link sustainability and environmental justice featuring LEC Fellow Catherine Werner
From strawberry poison dart frogs to Trinidadian guppies
By Erin Gerrity
10.30.20 | RESEARCH
Postdoctoral fellow Yusan Yang shares her path to Washington University and her belief that biology is not simply a formula or rule set to be followed.
Yusan Yang recently joined the Biology Department as a Living Earth Collaborative Postdoctoral Fellow. She is originally from Taiwan where she completed her undergrad education. Her focus shifted from physics and chemistry to biology in high school and college. The discovery that biology was not simply a formula or rule set to be followed, but rather a discipline that allowed room for change, was an inspiration point for that transition of interest.
“Early on, in middle school and high school, people often think biology is a subject of pure memorization, but I think actually there is a lot of logic behind the phenomenon that we see even though there is always exception in biology. I think that is really beautiful. This realization attracted me to dig deeper into why things are the way they are and why things evolved this way,” explained Yang.
Yusan began graduate school at Tulane University in New Orleans, but after one year, the Richards-Zawacki lab moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where Yusan completed her PhD dissertation on sexual selection and phenotypic divergence in the polymorphic strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio).
“You don’t always find things that are the same as your hypotheses and that’s okay because that’s sometimes how you find new things or new directions in your research. For example, poison dart frogs have really strong color biases in terms of their behavior, so when the female is choosing a mate, she pays attention to color, and when the males are fighting, they pay attention to color, too.”
“We actually discovered that this behavior did not come from their genetics but instead comes from learning. So when the tadpoles are being fed by their mother, they imprint on their mother’s color, and that’s how they learn their color biases. I think that’s one of the things that is surprising but also really cool,” said Yang.
As an LEC postdoc at WashU, Yusan has 4 different mentors, with disciplines spanning ecology, evolution, neuroscience and economics. The collaborative nature of the program and opportunities to learn new things from a variety of people attracted her to the WashU community. Yusan’s interest mainly lies in the evolution of animal coloration and the evolution of their mating behaviors.
She is currently exploring how genetic and environmental influences on mating behavior modulate ecological and evolutionary processes in Trinidadian guppies in collaboration with ecologists Swanne Gordon and Andrés López-Sepulcre, neuroethologist Bruce Carlson, and economist Paulo Natenzon.
“I’m an evolutionary biologist, interested in how evolution works. When we are first learning about evolution, this is the general introduction we usually get: there are variations in the populations and because of environmental pressure on different phenotypes, some die, some survive, some reproduce more, and these variations are passed on to the next generation and so we get evolution. We had this non-spoken assumption that only traits that are inherited mattered in evolution, but we are starting to realize more and more that things that change within the organism’s lifetime also impact evolution.”
“I am trying to fundamentally add to what we understood about the evolution process by looking at how experiences that one organism or one individual or different individuals have in their lifetime change the evolutionary trajectory of that population,” Yang explained.
Yusan’s proposed research had both field and lab components. Plans to test some of the field components last May were canceled due to COVID restrictions, so she started with the lab component instead. Hopefully next year or next season, this research will resume at Tyson Research Center, using the mesocosm stream that Swanne Gordon and Andres’ López-Sepulcre are building. Yusan hopes to do onsite fieldwork in Trinidad as well at some point to study the guppies in their natural environment.
From pigeon stalker to squirrel chaser: Elizabeth Carlen studies urban wildlife in St. Louis
By Erin Gerrity
7.9.21 | RESEARCH
Elizabeth Carlen is a Living Earth Collaborative postdoc and NSF postdoctoral fellow working in the Losos lab at Washington University.
She completed her PhD in Jason Munshi-South’s Lab at Fordham University in New York City. Munshi-South is at the forefront of the field of urban evolution, which examines how organisms evolve in response to urbanization.
“We previously assumed that evolution was a really slow process, taking millennia to occur. What we’ve been finding recently is that it can actually happen very quickly. The relatively new concept of urban evolution allowed me to bring all these parts of my life together— my love of cities and people, and my desire to study animals—and work in this really cool new field,” Carlen said.
Fordham University’s location was the perfect place for Carlen to start her urban evolution career. Carlen remarked that New Yorkers would walk right by her on the street, without even noticing that she was catching pigeons with a net gun and taking blood samples because it was “guaranteed not the weirdest thing they had seen that day!” While the average New Yorker may have passed her by, she became known as the “Pigeon Stalker” a title bestowed upon her by the New York Times and Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update even featured her research.
Carlen’s work in St. Louis and the surrounding area will focus on squirrels and how they may be evolving and adapting to urbanization. She will compare a variety of urban squirrel populations to squirrels in more suburban and rural areas, including Tyson Research Center.
“Across St. Louis, I’ll be looking at how environmental racism influences the population structure of squirrels. We know that St. Louis has this long history of racism which impacts where illegal dumping occurs, where pesticides are sprayed, where parks are taken care of, and where street trees are planted. All of these features influence the physical environment, and subsequently, the flora and fauna of that area,” Carlen explained. In a short time, she’s already made connections with community members who are recommending neighborhoods and places for her to find squirrels.
One thing that Carlen enjoys about working as a biologist in cities is providing opportunities for spontaneous learning. “One of the best things about studying urban ecology and evolution is when you’re working in the city, people end up getting these impromptu science lessons where they get to really see, hands on, how we’re doing science. It can be powerful watching someone in your city demonstrating that there’s still many questions, even on common animals, that we don’t have answers for yet.”
In future research, Carlen plans to continue to ask questions about urban evolution in different taxa to understanding whether or not certain patterns are universal. Ultimately, she hopes to work with city planners and policy makers to design cities that address the needs of both people and animals.
“I want to understand fundamental truths about ecology and evolution. Cities are great places to live. You get all these interactions with people that are honestly more sustainable than having us spread out across a bunch of land where we’re all driving cars. I really enjoy cities. And I want to make them great spaces for humans and animals,” Carlen said.
To learn more about Elizabeth Carlen’s research, visit http://www.elizabethcarlen.com/.
Living Earth Collaborative announces 2021 seed grant recipients
Photo: Joseph Steensma
The Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis announced the recipients of its fourth round of seed grant funding.
“This is a great set of projects,” said Jonathan Losos, the William H. Danforth Distinguished Professor of biology in Arts & Sciences and director of the Living Earth Collaborative. “We’re particularly thrilled at the institutional diversity of the recipients, spanning the breadth of Washington University and many local institutions beyond the Living Earth Collaborative’s three partner institutions.”
The 2021 seed grant investigators come from eight St. Louis area institutions, including researchers from six different departments or programs in five schools at Washington University. The projects and local recipients are:
- Biodiversity of freshwater mussels of the Upper Sangamon River (Illinois): Community science in action. Danelle Haake (National Great Rivers Research and Education Center); Sarah Douglass (Illinois Natural History Survey); Christy Edwards and Bob Coulter (Missouri Botanical Garden); Edward Spevak (Saint Louis Zoo); and Bruce Colravy (Upper Sangamon River Conservancy)
- Expanding the toolset for chelonian conservation: Understanding the diversity, distribution and dynamics of Terrapene microbiomes. Fangqiong Ling (Washington University, McKelvey School of Engineering); and Maris Brenn-White, Kathleen Apakupakul and Sharon L. Deem (Saint Louis Zoo)
- Forest Park Living Lab: Exploring the biodiversity and natural history of one of the world’s great parks. Joseph Steensma (Washington University, Brown School); David Webb (Washington University, Environmental Studies program in Arts & Sciences); Anthony Dell (National Great Rivers Research and Education Center); and Amy Witt (Forest Park Forever)
- Origin and diversification of the flowering plants of the Gulf of Guinea archipelago.Patricia Barberá and Tariq Stévart (Missouri Botanical Garden); Joan Garcia-Porta and Michael Landis (Washington University, Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences); and Nathan Muchhala (University of Missouri-St. Louis)
- Páramo biodiversity farms: A collaborative conservation project (Colombia). Iván Jiménez (Missouri Botanical Garden) and Derek Hoeferlin (Washington University, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts)
- Socio-economic and cultural adaptation to biodiversity loss and climate change: Analysis and intervention efficacy study in three Madagascar subsistence communities. Armand Randrianasolo, Nivo H. Rakotoarivelo and Fortunat Rakotoarivony (Missouri Botanical Garden) and Judi McLean Park (Washington University, Olin Business School)
Learn more about the seed grant projects here.
(Photo courtesy of Danelle Haake)
The Living Earth Collaborative is a center for biodiversity built from a partnership among three leading institutions in the study of plant and animal science — Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Saint Louis Zoo.
Its mission is to celebrate the diversity of living organisms and promote further understanding of the ways humans can help preserve the varied natural environments that allow plants, animals and microbes to survive and thrive. The center exists as a hub that facilitates interdisciplinary research among scholars across a wide range of fields.
In four years, the Living Earth Collaborative has funded 29 projects involving collaborators from 11 local institutions. Within Washington University, investigators hail from six schools: Arts & Sciences, the Brown School, the McKelvey School of Engineering, Olin Business School, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and the School of Medicine.
If I never knew you
Australian reptiles highlight urgent need for taxonomic research in the fight against biodiversity loss
New research published in PLOS Biology emphasizes the importance of prioritizing taxonomic research in conservation, with biodiversity loss greater than realized due to the high number of unknown and undocumented species.
Jane Melville, senior curator of terrestrial vertebrates at Museums Victoria and associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University, led the collaborative research effort as part of a Fulbright Fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis.
The study establishes a new return-on-investment method of determining species that are a priority for closer scrutiny: undescribed species that are likely already threatened.
Implementing this method on 870 Australian snakes and lizards — a highly diverse group of vertebrates — Melville and her colleagues identified 282 reptiles needing taxonomic research. Of these, 17.6% comprise undescribed species of conservation concern, and 24 species are in need of immediate taxonomic attention, as they are likely already threatened or at risk of extinction.
“There are many species that we haven’t yet discovered, and until a species is known to science, we can’t evaluate its status, much less take action to preserve it. The question is: where do we devote our efforts?” said Jonathan Losos, director of the Living Earth Collaborative and the William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.
A seedy slice of history: Watermelons actually came from northeast Africa
Just in time for picnic-table trivia, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences rewrites the origins of domesticated watermelons.
Using DNA from greenhouse-grown plants representing all species and hundreds of varieties of watermelon, scientists discovered that watermelons most likely came from wild crop progenitors in northeast Africa.
The study corrects a 90-year-old mistake that lumped watermelons into the same category as the South African citron melon. Instead, researchers, including a first author now at Washington University in St. Louis, found that a Sudanese form with non-bitter whitish pulp, known as the Kordofan melon (C. lanatus), is the closest relative of domesticated watermelons.
The genetic research is consistent with newly interpreted Egyptian tomb paintings that suggest the watermelon may have been consumed in the Nile Valley as a dessert more than 4,000 years ago.
“Based on DNA, we found that watermelons as we know them today — with sweet, often red pulp that can be eaten raw — were genetically closest to wild forms from west Africa and northeast Africa,” said Susanne S. Renner, honorary professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.
Renner is an evolutionary biologist who recently joined Washington University after 17 years working as a professor at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, where she also served as the director of the Munich Botanical Garden and Munich herbarium.
Her lab has long focused on honey melons and cucumbers, but for the past 10 years she has turned to watermelons and bitter gourds.
The genetic information published in the new study — completed with colleagues from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Ithaca, New York; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London; and the University of Sheffield — could be useful for developing a more disease-resistant watermelon crop, Renner said.
“Today’s watermelon comes from a very small genetic stock and is highly susceptible to diseases and insect pests, including various mildews, other fungi, viruses and nematodes [worms],” Renner said. “So far, we found variation in three disease resistance genes between the Kordofan melon and the domesticated watermelon. Breeders might use these and other insights from the genome.”
But some of the greatest takeaways from this study, Renner said, are related to the mobility of people and their cultural connections.
“It was the Egyptian tomb paintings that convinced me that the Egyptians were eating cold watermelon pulp,” Renner said. “Otherwise, why place those huge fruits on flat trays next to grapes and other sweet fruits?”
“Melons, cucumbers and watermelons were domesticated several times” across human history, she said. “But to place these domestications in space and name is much more difficult than I thought 10 to 15 years ago. DNA from ancient seeds is already beginning to help.”
By Talia Ogliore May 24, 2021
Jenny Price, “Stop Saving the Planet!: An Environmentalist Manifesto”
Virtual Video premiere: Monday, June 21, 7:00 p.m. on Facebook.com/STLCoLibrary
We’ve been “saving the planet” for decades while accomplishing little to nothing–and low-income communities continue to suffer the worst consequences. St. Louis author and artist Jenny Price presents an environmentalism that is hugely more effective and a whole lot fairer. Concise, funny, and radical in the truest sense. “Stop Saving the Planet!” dissects our failures, posits solutions, and offers concrete actions we can take to mend our planet.
Books available from Novel Neighbor. Curbside pick-up and shipping available.
Brood X cicadas emerge in a rapidly changing world
“Brood X cicadas, like all periodical cicadas, are a Rip Van Winkle story,” said Brett Seymoure, the Grossman Family Postdoctoral Fellow with the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis. “They live underground for 17 years, and then come up to a completely different world due to human-induced rapid environmental change, or HIREC.”
Rooted in St. Louis: The Elizabeth Danforth Butterfly Garden
There is a lot to look forward to this summer, and Washington University’s Butterfly Garden should be on that list. Come the imminent summer planting, the garden transformation will be almost unbelievable. A plethora of vibrant blooms will pop up, making the garden the perfect peaceful resting place for students on campus.
A tale of two forests could reveal path forward for saving endangered lemurs
By Talia Ogliore
Yes, spring flowers are blooming earlier.
It might confuse bees.
But change is even more challenging for plants that need help with pollination
By Talia Ogliore
Peter Raven autobiography just released!
|It’s safe to say that few people have lived lives as thoroughly devoted to plants as Peter H. Raven has. The longtime director—now president emeritus—of the Missouri Botanical Garden, author of numerous leading textbooks and several hundred scholarly articles, Raven has been a tireless champion of sustainability and biodiversity, earning him the plaudit of “Hero for the Planet” from Time.|
Driven by Nature is the first chronicle of this prominent scientist and conservationist’s life. Moving from his idyllic childhood in the San Francisco of the 1940s to his four decades leading the Missouri Botanical Garden, Raven’s autobiography take readers across multiple continents and decades. Driven by Nature follows the globetrotting botanist from China to the American Midwest as he works to foster concern for a changing planet, further the cause of biological education, and build the Missouri Botanical Garden into the world-renowned haven for plant life it is today. Raven brings his story into the twenty-first century with a timely epilogue that reinforces the crucial importance of scientific learning, active conservation, and committed activism in the face of a rapidly changing natural world.
Featuring an introduction by the Pulitzer Prize-winning naturalist E. O. Wilson, this beautifully illustrated book should thrill nature lovers, plant enthusiasts, and environmentally-conscious readers looking to take action to preserve our planet’s biodiversity.
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As revenues slide amid pandemic, scientists warn of ‘orphaned’ plant and animal collections
By Bryce Gray Dec 6, 2020
Secrets of the ‘lost crops’ revealed where bison roam
What cold lizards in Miami can tell us about climate change resilience
Winners of ISME/IWA BioCluster Award 2020 announced …
CONGRATULATIONS … to LEC Biodiversity Fellow, Fangqiong Ling
Sicker livestock may increase climate woes
Viscous cycle: More parasites means higher emissions of potent greenhouse gas
Elderly ball python lays eggs ‘without male help’
With travel limits and labs closed,
MoBot researchers struggle to name,
catalog new species
By Max Kozlov St. Louis Post-DispatchSep 3, 2020
Once infected, twice infected
Prior exposure to powdery mildew makes plants more vulnerable to subsequent disease
By Marta Wegorzewska August 31, 2020
PBS News Hour program on Wildlife Trafficking includes our LEC Fellow, Odean Serrano
Lifestyle trumps geography in determining makeup of gut microbiome
Captive apes’ microbiomes more similar to some humans’ than to wild apes’
April 1, 2020
A bird’s-eye view of global health
By Christian Fogerty
As a science communications fellow at Tyson Research Center, Christian Fogerty embedded with the tick and wildlife ecology team to document their summer fieldwork. Here, he reflects on his experience and explains how it impacted his perspective on global health.
Postdoctoral Fellowships in Restoration
Ecology at the Missouri Botanical Garden
The Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development (CCSD) at the Missouri Botanical Garden seeks to hire two full-time postdoctoral scholars. The candidates will 1) develop and implement collaborative research project(s) that advance restoration science in woodlands, grasslands, and glades at MBG’s Shaw Nature Reserve and the broader region; 2) train and mentor undergraduate and graduate students; 3) assist MBG scientists with coordinating grant-funded activities including recruitment and mentoring of students, organizing and participating in outreach events and workshops, and presenting lectures to professional organizations and the general public; 4) prepare and submit manuscripts for publication; 5) build relationships with SNR staff and collaborative partners; and 6) actively participate in events with the St. Louis Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation community.
MBG’s Shaw Nature Reserve contains over 2,000 acres of fire-maintained woodlands, grasslands, and glades. Three decades of ecological restoration (i.e., selective tree thinning, removal of invasive species, prescribed fire, seeding of native species) has resulted in a chronosequence of restored natural areas at SNR. As part of this grant-funded project, new sites will be restored over the next three years. The successful candidates will be expected to develop new research projects related to their subject of interest, but focusing on past and/or future restorations at SNR. Research projects may also include other field sites and natural areas in the region. We anticipate hiring one postdoctoral fellow whose research focuses on the population genetics of restored populations (in collaboration with the lab of Dr. Christy Edwards) and another whose research focuses on any of the following (in collaboration with the lab of Dr. Matthew Albrecht Lab): plant community ecology, seed-based restoration, plant-soil interactions, and/or biological invasions. Floristic knowledge of Midwestern plant communities is desirable, but not required. The successful candidates will have opportunities to collaborate with MBG scientists active in conservation genetics, reintroduction biology, restoration ecology, global change biology, and community ecology.
Candidates with a completed Ph.D. or that will soon graduate with a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Botany, Restoration Science, Environmental Science, Conservation Biology, or a related field are encouraged to apply. Ideal start time is before summer 2020, but this is negotiable. The term for this grant-funded position will be up to 3 years, with renewal each year contingent on satisfactory performance. Salary will be commensurate with experience, and this position includes a comprehensive benefits package.
The position will be based in St. Louis, where a vibrant community of ecologists, conservation practitioners, and evolutionary biologists that interact through partnerships among MBG, Washington University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Saint Louis University, plus other area institutions. The position will be seated in the CCSD, which explores and implements new, science-based approaches to the conservation and sustainable use of plant diversity. CCSD’s strategies for conservation are based on a sound, scientific understanding of the occurrence and distribution of plants. CCSD applies the knowledge of plant diversity accumulated by Missouri Botanical Garden researchers over many years, making that knowledge usable for conservation planning and decision-making. Operating under the auspices of the Garden and as part of its division of Science and Conservation, CCSD builds upon the Garden’s institutional expertise, scientific programs, influence and resources.
For more information and to apply: https://usr57.dayforcehcm.com/CandidatePortal/en-US/MBG/Posting/View/471
Thursday, February 6 4:00-7:00PM
Join us for a free reception at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art to celebrate the opening of Too Hot to Sing.
Too Hot to Sing is the result of Kasey Fowler-Finn’s research of how global warming directly affects the abilities of insects to find suitable mates. Her study focused on the treehopper. For this exhibition she collaborated with sound artist Stephen Vitiello whose recordings show how vibrational signals sound at different temperatures, and with Impact Media Lab, a creative agency for scientists.
Fowler Finn’s study shows how climate change can impact mating success and, ultimately, survival of species that communicate through vibrations. It is important to note that more than 90% of insects use vibrations to communicate within and between species.
Vitiello and Fowler-Finn used a specialized laser recording device to record the sounds of insects as they moved on the stems and leaves of plants. Vitiello then manipulated the sound recordings to make them audible to humans.
This exhibition, a collaboration between a scientist and an artist brings climate change into sharp focus as one of the existential challenges humanity faces.
Saint Louis University Museum of Art
3663 Lindell Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63108
Parking will be available at the lot located at the intersection of Lindell and Spring Avenue.
The museum is free and open to the public.
11 a.m. – 4 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday
Researchers say goodbye to Georgette — A Very Tough Turtle
St. Louis Wildlife Project captures the day-to-day of region’s wild animals
Bat poop may give Missouri researchers clues about historical changes to climate, vegetation
A cluster of hibernating gray bats (Myotis grisescens) (Ann Froschauer/USFWA/via Flickr)
Four ways to curb light pollution, save bugs
Insects have experienced global declines. Flipping the switch can help.
Artificial light at night negatively impacts thousands of species: beetles, moths, wasps and other insects that have evolved to use light levels as cues for courtship, foraging and navigation.
Writing in the scientific journal Biological Conservation, Brett Seymoure, the Grossman Family Postdoctoral Fellow of the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis, and his collaborators reviewed 229 studies to document the myriad ways that light alters the living environment such that insects are unable to carry out crucial biological functions.
“Artificial light at night is human-caused lighting — ranging from streetlights to gas flares from oil extraction,” Seymoure said. “It can affect insects in pretty much every imaginable part of their lives.”
The air you breathe, the water you drink and the food you eat all rely on biodiversity, but right now it is in crisis – because of us. What does this mean for our future and can we stop it?
by Damian Carrington Environment editor, The briefing
New research from Washington University in St. Louis shows that invasive mosquitos at the northern limit of their current range are successfully using time-capsule-like eggs to survive conditions that are colder than those in its native territory. (Photo: Shutterstock)
The ptarmigan is a small-brained bird that thrives in colder, high latitude regions. A global study in the journal Nature Communications compares more than 2,000 birds and finds that, in highly variable environments, birds tend to have either larger or smaller brains relative to their body size. (Image: Shutterstock)