UNM Biology 402/502 // UNM Art Studio 389/429/529 // UHON 402
Joseph Cook // Szu-Han Ho

Space for posting thoughts, ideas, references, resources, and works. The theme of our seminar and workshop series is "Morphology and Geographic Variation." With the natural history collection as our starting point, we'll hear from scientists, artists, designers, programmers, musicians, and more on place-based study. Part of AIM-UP, an NSF Research Coordination Network.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Extinction of Natural History: from the Chronicle of Higher Education

Imagine you are a naturalist with a liking for insects. You are interested in how insects make a living, in how they are fit for survival. You marvel at how protected they are as adults, when they are able to fly. And you think of how helpless they are as eggs and pupae, when they are stuck in place, unable to take evasive action. True, pupae are sometimes enclosed in protective cocoons, or hidden in dugouts in the soil, but some live out in the open, where they are exposed to a world of predators. How, for instance, do the pupae of ladybird beetles (family Coccinellidae) manage to survive? They are typically affixed to stems or leaves, where one would imagine they don't stand a chance against ants. Might they have special weaponry? You look closely and find that they do. They have what are essentially biting devices, in the form of clefts along the backs of their abdomens that they can open and close and use to snap at ants that come too close.
As a naturalist with a Darwinian bent, you wonder whether such snapping devices are present in every ladybird-beetle pupa or whether, in the best evolutionary tradition, different ladybird species have come to possess variants of this defense. You look at different species and find that, yes indeed, the beetles of one genus, Epilachna, which includes among others the Mexican bean beetle and the squash beetle, have evolved a remarkable alternative defense. Instead of the pinching devices, Epilachna pupae have a dense covering of tiny glandular hairs, the secretion of which forms a potent deterrent to ants.
You get in touch with chemists, whom you provide with a sample of the secretion, and in due course you find out that you have stumbled upon a unique group of chemicals. The substances include some fascinating new ring structures of enormous size -- so novel, in fact, that the paper you eventually write on the secretion with your colleague chemists attracts wide attention.
The discovery may look serendipitous, but it was not. It was driven by rational inference from pure, old-fashioned natural history, the close observation of organisms -- their origins, their evolution, their behavior, and their relationships with other species. That kind of close, scrupulous observation of nature has a long and illustrious history, but it is now sliding into oblivion. READ MORE....

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