“I never thought I’d be doing field work for a National Science Foundation-funded project.”

BY | Joanne Johnson ’16
Biology, Geography
Eagan, Minnesota

Jill Oberski ’16
Biology, German Studies
Chaska, Minnesota

We camped in the rainforest, hunted for scorpions by UV light at night, pulled bark off trees to reveal gigantic, poisonous centipedes, and went spider hunting in underground caves with tens of thousands of bats.

It might sound like something on the Discovery Channel, but we were biology students on a 20-day research jaunt to Queensland, Australia. Led by Professor Sarah Boyer, we drove to patches of largely uninhabited tropical rainforest along the coast to collect harvestmen, arachnids of the “daddy long-legs” variety. (No, they’re not spiders.) Our team of collectors included Professor Boyer, post-doc Prashant Sharma, and us—rising seniors at Macalester.

Jill: I’ve gone out collecting with jars and a butterfly net my whole life, but I never thought I’d be doing field work for a National Science Foundation-funded project. After sifting leaf litter in the pouring rain with professional researchers and talking about future projects, it registered that I could actually make a living as an entomologist, doing field work and studies of my own.

Joanne: Although we had worked in Sarah’s on-campus lab before, this opportunity offered hands-on fieldwork experience and hours of shop talk about the fields of evolutionary biology and systematics, the study of classifying organisms. It was invaluable to hear about graduate school, arachnology and systematics meetings, and to meet scientists whose names I recognized from academic papers read in class.

Back at Macalester, the real molecular biology work began. With Jill taking on the genus Austropurcellia and Joanne working on Zalmoxis, we went through rounds of extracting DNA, amplifying it, and sending samples off for sequencing. With sequenced DNA, we built phylogenies, or trees of evolutionary history, that allow us to see the genetic relationships between and within species and populations of harvestmen.

For Joanne, this evidence resulted in describing a new species of Zalmoxis, nicknamed Z. “hypillian” after the localities where it is found—Mt. Hypipamee and Charmillan Creek. Jill combined her new findings with Austropurcellia data generated by Macalester students in years past and ran molecular evolution dating analyses to estimate when species separations took place.

Together, these research projects will continue to build our understanding of the diversity and evolution of rainforest life.

November 23 2015

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