Members of the Hadly lab recently traveled to LA to participate in the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology. Paleontologists from around the world gathered to share findings, results, and news!
The Hadly lab was represented by Liz, a member of SVP’s executive committee, as well as by Melissa, Zixiang, and me. In addition, Ariel and Jessica, alumni of the lab, were also there to present their work!
Melissa gave an excellent talk highlighting body size changes over time in Anolis lizards, and also helped showcase some work that she and Simon have done in our lab.
All of us enjoyed the scientific discourse and the feedback we received on our work. However, it wasn’t all science! We took a field trip one day to the Natural History Museum of LA - the SVP meeting certainly wouldn’t be complete without a visit to see dinosaur bones and more!
There was also a hilarious live auction, with proceeds benefiting the society. Here, the SVP auction committee gets into the Halloween mood:
And of course, we had time to catch up with friends old and new! Below, members of the Hadly lab pose with friends from the Barnosky lab at Berkeley.
On Wednesday evening, we held the first Stanford Biology Thinks Big! symposium, where four Stanford faculty from across the biosciences each gave a short, ten-minute TED-like talk about a big idea in their research or their field.
I first starting thinking about hosting such an event last year, as a way to showcase the amazing diversity of scientific research and viewpoints within the biosciences at Stanford, and to introduce people to science and research in an accessible, engaging format. To that end, I was thrilled with the four speakers we had, with John Boothroyd, Mary Teruel, Carlos Bustamante, and Susan McConnell each representing different departments here at Stanford. Even with such an amazing line-up of faculty, though, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about turnout for the event - this is the first time anyone’s tried doing such an event here, and I had no idea what to expect.
The first indication that my nervousness was unwarranted, though, came when the first people starting arriving thirty minutes prior to the start time! More and more people filled in, and the response was overwhelming - not only was our room at maximum capacity (with the aisles filled with people sitting and standing), but our overflow room next door was also absolutely jam packed, with people still trying to peer in from outside the doors.
It was clear that the audience was very enthusiastic and eager about this event. I took a moment to poll the audience at the beginning, and there was a good distribution of undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, and general community members!
Despite some of our A/V equipment not cooperating in our overflow room, the excitement of the audience was palpable. Dr. Boothroyd (Department of Microbiology and Immunology) began by talking about his work on a specific microbe, and Dr. Teruel (Department of Chemical and Systems Biology) highlighted the mechanisms behind the development of fat cells.
Next, Dr. Bustamante (Department of Genetics) engaged the audience in a wide-ranging discussion on genetics, before Dr. McConnell (Department of Biology) wrapped up the symposium with an inspiring message on science and conservation, using her own photographs of nature and animals.
It was a really great experience to hear four different perspectives on science, and to listen to such a diversity of ideas. Afterward, I was thrilled to see so many students come up to each of the speakers to ask more questions about their work, and many of the students even asked about advice regarding finding and joining a lab or the graduate school process!
Overall, it was clear that everyone was eager to hear the big ideas that Stanford researchers have, and I’m already looking forward to the next time we do this!
I love biodiversity, so please allow me to occasionally direct your attention to organisms outside of our current research focuses. I thought about writing a blog on the adorable blobfish, but thanks to its recent publicity as the “ugliest endangered animal”, many people probably know this exotic deep sea creature more than the critters that share our backyards. Speaking of under appreciated animals in our neighborhoods, American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) is a pigeon sized falcon whose range overlap with northern California. It is the smallest falcon in North America, as well as one of the most colorful raptors. This fierce little predator has a beautiful rusty red back and slate blue wings, decorated with dark streaks (species account). It prefers open habitat, has about 5-6 young per brood, and often sings killy-killy-killy loudly. In case my description didn’t do this species justice, here is my watercolor painting of the majestic little bird, along with a little bit of life history and species identification information in the background. Enjoy!
Two weeks ago, graduate student Alexis Mychajliw and I came back from a six-week research adventure in the Dominican Republic. In the days before we flew down to the Caribbean in July, we had little idea of what the trip would bring, as neither of us had visited the area before. We traveled with a dual purpose: I was searching for people to interview for a podcast about solenodons, and Alexis was determined to find as many active solenodon burrows as humanly possible in six weeks.
Though the focus of our trip was on finding field sites, we found lots of fantastic opportunities for us to participate in science outreach. We found the first way to contribute on a sweltering afternoon at the Museo del hombre, the national archaeological museum. The museum is just a few blocks away from the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo, the oldest European city in the Americas.
That day, as we looked through the museum’s fossil exhibit, we stumbled on a display of hutias and solenodons, the only two surviving endemic mammals on the island. The museum director loved Alexis’s idea of updating their exhibit, which was mislabeled and confusing. They said it hadn’t been touched since the museum’s opening in the 1970s!
Notice that the solenodon peeping out of a hole is missing a nose! We realized he had a well-preserved rear end, and tucked him facing into the hole instead of out.
Alexis cleaning up a rather disheveled specimen:
The finished exhibit:
We also set up an exhibit on fossils and extinct mammals of Hispaniola, with the help of The Paleontological Society.
While still in the capital we got in touch with the National Zoo, the only institution in the world to house live solenodons, though they’re not on exhibit yet. They’re mascot is a super cute, cartoonish solenodon!
Every summer, the zoo runs an ecocamp for children between ages five and twelve. It is an amazing program for the kids: Monday through Thursday they get to see what goes on behind the scenes at the zoo, and Fridays are for field trips to the local botanical garden, aquarium and natural history museum. We volunteered to give a class on the solenodon, and ultimately came back for talks on invasive species of Hispaniola, marine mammals and fossils.
Though the kids didn’t really know what to make of manatees and humpback whales, they were all excited about the solenodon. They wrote storybooks about the animal, and got really creative with it. Two boys wrote comics about “Super Solenodonte”, a hero who gets easily distracted by tasty insects. Many kids drew a story of the living fossil side by side with a dinosaur friend. Our biggest reward was hearing a little girl start the trend of saying the solenodon is now her favorite animal.
For me, this was an incredible part of our journey. I had never so much as tutored before, and I found that teaching children for the first time was just as loud and hectic as it was invigorating. I was blown away by how much they could take in and how much fun they had with learning.
The best part of this story is that these aren’t the only efforts on the island to encourage conservation among young people. In the town of Oviedo in the south of the Dominican Republic, an NGO called Grupo Jaragua started an ecocamp that over the last 17 years has grown to accommodate 100 children each year. The group teaches children about the ecosystems in nearby Jaragua National Park, and many of the educators told us that they themselves had participated in the event year after year as children, inspiring them to take up the baton and pay their knowledge forward.
With the prospect of spending hours editing interviews in the coming weeks, it definitely motivates me to think how the small efforts that Alexis and I were able to witness and participate in were able to fuel a new respect for conservation.
This past week, I attended the 11th International Mammalogical Congress (IMC11) in Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK. IMC11 was hosted by Queen’s University Belfast, and talks were held on various locations spread throughout the gorgeous campus.
The conference brought together over 600 researchers from over 40 different countries. Though united by taxonomy (and even then, there was broad representation from rodents to lagomorphs to cats to bats!), the conference was extraordinarily diverse in terms of topic area. Symposiums and plenary sessions spanned a gamut of topics, ranging from research that was pure genetics and molecular biology to work that was more behavior and ecology-focused. Many of the symposiums I attended generated lively discussion and back-and-forth conversations about novel techniques, applications of current work, and strategies for promoting conservation policies.
I presented a poster on my tuco-tuco research; all told, there were nearly 200 posters at the conference, likewise representing a broad range of topics and taxa within the mammal class. It was wonderful being able to see all the other great research that is ongoing, and I stopped to chat with many of the other poster authors, gaining new insights and gleaning ideas. Likewise, presenting my poster meant gaining invaluable feedback and ideas on my project as well.
The posters being set up… by the end of that day, nearly every slot was filled with a poster! My poster below!
I was also fortunate enough to have some time to explore Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland, aided largely by the conference having an “off day” in the middle of the week. Science was put on hiatus that day, and instead all of the mammalogists went to explore the beautiful landscapes in the region.
That’s Newgrange, a prehistoric mound that’s over 5000 years old, predating Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was amazing to be able to walk into such an ancient site and view a simulation of how the light would hit the inner passageway on the winter solstice, filling the chamber with a mystical and illuminating light.
I leave you with these final shots of Northern Ireland, from Giant’s Causeway, comprising octagonal-shaped basalt columns, and the view on the northern coast of Ireland, a truly breathtaking scene.
The Galapagos. Every biologist knows about it, dreams about it. It is a sacred site to multiple disciplines, functioning as Jerusalem does to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It was here where observations of biodiversity lead to the most important work in evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Unlike Jerusalem, making a pilgrimage to the Galapagos is much more difficult; it is more like Mecca due to the restricted access. In order to preserve the archipelago, which is a National Park, the Ecuadorian government limits the number of tourists who can enter, and many islands must be vacated by a certain hour each day. Of course the Galapagos has changed a lot since Darwin arrived there, but Ecuador is doing a great job preserving this UNESCO world heritage site and as a result visiting the Galapagos remains a dream.
But through the generosity of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), which is devoted to diversifying the field of evolutionary biology, Aide Macias Munoz (a 1st-year Ph.D. student in Dr. Adriana Briscoe’s lab at UC Irvine) and I recently had the privilege to attend the III World Summit on Evolution, hosted by the Universidad de San Francisco-Quito and held on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos.
The conference is held every four years and draws participants from throughout the world, although the majority of the people come from South America. The conference had 5 sessions on topics ranging from the RNA World to Evolution and Society. There was also a large poster session where students like myself were able to present our work. One thing that made this conference stand out to me, compared to some of the other ones I’ve attended, was the large student presence. And I’m not just talking about graduate students, but also undergraduate and high school students! These young minds were active participants in all sessions, asking great questions to some very impressive scientists. Coming from a country where we are still debating whether evolution should be taught in high schools, it was refreshing and promising to see these youths discuss evolution so eloquently.
It goes further than the academics though. The local people understand the importance of their home, and they are proud that it holds a place in history. When I picked up a keychain at one shop the owner approached me to point out Charles Darwin, who had a prominent place in the middle of the carving, surrounded by the charismatic endemic fauna.
There is a commitment to research on the Galapagos, as evidence by the creation of the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Science (GAIAS) and the Galapagos Science Center (GSC). We toured this newly built facility and met some of the researchers who are working there, studying everything from microbiology to sharks.
Midway through the conference we had a field trip, where we visited the giant tortoise breeding site la Galapaguera, saw the crater lake Laguna el Junco (the largest freshwater lake in the Galapagos), and went snorkeling. I was excited to see the tortoises and they did not disappoint; they start off so small when they are young!
Hands down, the highlight of the day had to be the snorkeling trip. Perhaps it’s because I study island biogeography, but I tend to be fonder of what’s below sea-level than most terrestrial biologists are. And given my fondness for lizards, my mission was to see a marine iguana in action.
If you talk to a herpetologist, you’ll know that most of them have dreamed of swimming with marine iguanas at least once in their life.
I jumped off the boat into the ocean, with its choppy waves pushing me around as I tried to adjust my mask. The water is a bit cooler than I like but fortunately I have a wet suit. There are lots of fish and sea urchins, I marvel at them as I try to catch up with the rest of our group, who are gathered around a rocky area closer to shore. I am battling the ocean and fins from other snorkelers propelling through the ocean, hoping that I don’t kick them (or even worse, a sea lion). The sea lions are little cute devils that will swim right up to your face and around you, beckoning you to play with them, but I am wary of their games; on land they are not as friendly. I proceed cautiously and I hear a lot of commotion, but my head is mostly in the water so I don’t know what’s going on exactly. I stop to catch my breath and ask the girls around me what did they sea, because they sound very excited.
"There was a marine iguana."
"OH! WHERE?" I said (probably squealed).
They point in the direction and I don’t see anything, but I make my way over there anyway. And then I see it. It’s little, probably a juvenile. Most of its body is in the water wading, not awkwardly like me although it does look awkward like me, its long tail perpendicular to the ocean floor. It was so serine, so beautiful, making its way back to the rocks, probably to warm up under the sun. That was what I wanted to do.
We saw many more iguanas on land. On the last day of the conference we went to Las Loberias, where I had hoped to fulfill my childhood dream of swimming with sea turtles. Well nature had other plans and the waves were way too large for us to comfortably swim let alone snorkel, so I was restricted to land. That’s okay though, because I found about 10 iguanas, just relaxing under manchineel trees! I knew better than to go bush-wacking, but I was able to get some good photos of them, and there was one very calm one that I got within 2 feet of; I probably could’ve gotten closer, but the claws are threatening, even if the demeanor is not.
The conference itself was amazing, but it took on an even more significant meaning due to its location and constituents. It was both humbling and invigorating to see such a diverse group of scientists—diverse in nationality, age, and research interests—convene together in a place known for being a cradle of diversity that birthed one of the most important scientific documents ever written.
I am thankful to NESCent for providing us this amazing experience in the Galapagos, and all the friends we made (human and non-human) while there! I hope to go to the next World Summit, which promises to be even grander!
For those of us not traipsing through jungles or digging through museum collections, summer brings the opportunity to delve into research without the distraction of classes. And it brings a lot of new, often younger, faces into the lab.
In this photo you can see everyone working hard on a Wednesday afternoon in the morphology room. Jeremy (far right) is looking through rodent specimens that were excavated from an Argentinian cave while Melissa (pink sweater) sorts through lizard bones collected from the Lesser Antilles. Mindy (undergrad; purple short sleeved shirt) is hard at work using her skills as a computer scientist to help me process blood smear images. Seth (undergrad; grey t-shirt, left) and I are consulting textbooks in an attempt to find the eyes on an Anastrebla sp. bat fly individual. (It’s harder than it looks!)
Meanwhile ZiXiang (below) is furiously photographing salamander vertebrae for his undergrad thesis, assisted by Emily, our high school volunteer.
Below Emily sorts and catalogs hundreds of vertebrae.
Summer presents a great opportunity for us grad students to mentor younger students and teach them new skills and a great opportunity for undergraduates and high school students to try research. As one can tell from the photos and descriptions above, there’s a lot going on in the Hadly lab and the unique skills and approaches each person brings make it a fun, productive environment. With any luck we’ll all finish the summer with a lot more data but certainly we’ll finish it having had a lot of fun.
As preparation for our upcoming field and museum research in the Dominican Republic and to collect data, undergraduate honors student Laura Cussen and I visited the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH) paleontology and mammalogy collections, held at University of Florida at Gainesville. The FLMNH collections are renowned for their West Indies collections, so it was the perfect place for us to collect modern and fossil data.
We began work in the mammalogy collections, where I took tiny tissue and hair samples from Hispaniolan solenodon remains from the 1980s. The entire collection was from Haiti, which was ideal because I will not be able to travel there myself. The week before I had taken samples from skins at the American Museum of Natural History, and I now have a sizeable dataset of “historic” DNA from the 1890s to the 1980s. This will allow me to compare solenodon genetic diversity through time to understand how climate change and humans have influenced their survival and geographic range.
Next, we moved onto the paleontology collections, where Laura and I focused on Nesophontes remains – the extinct relatives of solenodons. We sorted through several thousand specimens to select mandibles and maxillas suitable for geometric morphometrics and ancient DNA. These bones will serve as the basis for Laura’s honors thesis examining Nesophontes species distinctions and ecological niches in relation to solenodon and invasive rats. We were also lucky enough to take several samples of extinct solenodon mandibles, Solenodon marcanoi, which once likely coexisted with the modern solenodon species.
After many hours in collections, we had some extra time to explore Gainesville. Coming from an undergraduate agricultural university, I fell in love with the campus organic garden and green houses, as well as the swamp right in the middle of campus. We were so excited to see the Bat Houses, in which several thousand bats take up residence, and every night people gather to watch them erupt from their home like a giant river, streaming over our heads and off into the swamp to gather insects. The students use the bat guano to fertilize their organic garden.
We also had a chance to visit the public section of the Florida museum, which had amazing exhibits. In particular, we had a lot of fun in the extinct megafauna room, which had fossils from numerous mammal species, including life-sized giant ground sloths!
Taking hikes through the humid, hot, buggy weather in Gainesville nature preserves was the perfect training for our upcoming treks in the mountains of the Dominican Republic. Overall we were able to bring several hundred Nesophontes fossil specimens and about 40 solenodon historic specimens back to the lab for analysis. But those analyses are on hold for now, as right now we are awaiting our connecting flight to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic! Vamos a ver los solenodontes vivientes!
- Alexis Mychajliw (twitter)