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)