Thursday, August 15, 2013

My newts shoot their ribs out of their skin?!

It's crazy that you can feel the ribs underneath the skin!
The arrows are pointing to the ribs that shoot out of small openings in the skin!

The fact that these guys shoot their ribs out of their skin as a defense mechanism is AWESOME, but that's actually not why I'm interested in them.  I'm studying Iberian ribbed newts (Pleurodeles waltl) because they are one of the largest newts (reaching almost 12 in in the wild), and are primarily aquatic.  While they can move on land quite a bit during migrations, they prefer to stay in the water.

Just hanging out before going to work!

My research involves evaluating how body morphology influenced the evolutionary invasion of land by vertebrates almost 400 million years ago, and involves using extant taxa to model the biology of fossil taxa.  Salamanders and mudskipper fishes are often used to model the earliest tetrapods and tetrapod-like fishes since they share numerous morphological, physiological and ecological similarities.  Previously, I studied how African mudskipper fishes (Periophthalmus barbarus) and tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) moved on land, but these guys are normally pretty terrestrial (these mudskippers spend about 90% of their time out of water!  Pretty cool fish, huh?).

The fossil record suggests that tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates) evolved underwater, so our earliest ancestors were aquatic.  We have a better understanding of how more terrestrial amphibians move on land, but what about ones that are primarily aquatic?  These Iberian newts will provide us with important biological information about how primarily aquatic organisms move on land, and how their morphology helps them to accommodate the different physical demands placed by the terrestrial environment.  The data that we collect from these newts will be important in modeling the movements of some of the most important fossils during the water-to-land transition in tetrapod evolution!

Stay tuned to learn more!  

Monday, August 12, 2013

Kristine Moody creates a hominid evolution exhibit for Long Hall!

One of our BSGSA members, Kristine Moody, has been diligently working with the Department of Biological Sciences, including Stanlee Miller (Curator at the Campbell Natural History Museum), for the past several months to create an exhibit on hominid evolution, and this exhibit received its official unveiling today!  Come check it out!  Just come in through the front entrance of Long Hall, and it'll be straight ahead.

They all did a great job showcasing the sequence of events leading to the evolution of humans, and the major milestones that were associated with some of the major taxa that are on display.

Great job to Kristine for leading this initiative, and to all that helped make this happen!  Thank you for providing a really great public resource for evolutionary education!

Come learn about hominid evolution!  Curious about what we've learned from fossils?

In addition to the general information from the placard, be sure to read the informational cards for each skull!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A slippery slope with slimy salamanders

Over the past three months, I have been living in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina conducting research on terrestrial salamanders. It has been an incredible experience to work in this system, and I have no doubt that I work and live in one of the most beautiful places in our country. But being my first field season on this project, I had my fair share of issues. Learning how to use my flow through system to measure evaporative water loss was insanely tricky. The relationship between temperature and vapor pressure is a tricky to manipulate, sometimes with experiment-ending consequences. Miscommunications and unexpected surprises from the salamander digestive system (that's poo) also produced significant hurdles.

As of right now, it appears I will actually finish my project - at least before the first day of school. I will be honest, I have never worked this hard in my life. I sleep during the day, and at night, I hike up mountains to catch salamanders and conduct my experiments. The learning curve has been steep, as well as the mountains. I'm pretty sure I have permanent nerve damage in my big toes; I haven't felt them in a few weeks. I also had a fun trip to the emergency room at 4 in the morning to remove a moth that lodged itself next to my eardrum.

In the end, I love my project, and I am thrilled to see my first data plots and analyze my data. But I have poured almost everything I have into this project. I can't wait to return to campus and....start working again (haha).

For those of you that are close or already have finished your graduate degree, I am just beginning to understand what it takes: everything.

Thanks for letting me vent; this blog is great for that.

Time for more experiments!