Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Biology

Winter 2008

Fine Specimens

Washington State University is home to three superb research collections, all begun soon after the young agricultural college opened its doors. What makes them research collections, says Ownbey Herbarium director Larry Hufford, is "sheer numbers." The Conner Zoology Museum has about 69,000 specimens, the Herbarium about 375,000, and the James Entomology Collection more than 1.25 million. These numbers make WSU's collections among the best in the nation. » More ...

Value of the collections

“[The collections] answer to a lot of people,” says Rich Zack. “They answer a lot of questions, and at times they can generate funds, but it’s not a steady stream of funds. Often you’re answering small questions from hundreds of people.” Any one of those hundreds might get along OK if the collections shut down, “but because we serve so many, it would be a major loss,” says Zack.

Anthropologist Karen Lupo, whose students make frequent use of the Conner Museum’s bone collection, says she was disturbed to learn that WSU once considered closing the Conner. With new analytical techniques making collections more valuable than … » More …

Tracking a cattle disease

In addition to consulting botanists at the Ownbey Herbarium, retired veterinarian Clive Gay and range scientist Ernie Motteram have dipped into the specimen drawers and expertise at the James Entomology Collection. They have  been working with cattlemen in central Washington to pinpoint the insect vectors for pinkeye, the general name for a number of nasty eye infections. Ranchers in Kittitas County have told Motteram that pinkeye is their biggest herd health problem. He says the conventional wisdom that we already know all we need to know about pinkeye is dead wrong. Almost all of the scientific literature on pinkeye is old and doesn’t take into … » More …

Coping with Climate Change

Several years ago, scientists noticed that recent herbarium specimens had been collected earlier in the season than specimens from decades past. Since most plants are collected when they are in flower, that meant they were flowering earlier. The easy explanation was that they were responding to the warmer temperatures caused by climate change. The trouble with that, says Larry Hufford, is that it didn’t happen with every species.

He searched the Herbarium’s database for the first date of collection for several plants common in eastern Washington, and found that the habitat a species lives in may be a factor in whether the plant is now … » More …

Summer 2006

The worm turns: A Palouse native is found

A Palouse native, not seen in nearly two decades and feared extinct, has been rediscovered. While digging soil samples at the Washington State University botany department’s Smoot Hill preserve, University of Idaho graduate student Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon noticed a glimpse of white. Quick with her shovel, she captured the six-inch specimen of Driloreirus americanus, also known as the giant Palouse earthworm. Historically, specimens have been recorded as long as three feet. Although an observer reported it as “abundant” in the Palouse in 1897, tillage and competition from European earthworms seem to have taken their toll.

Smoot Hill contains the largest remnant of native Palouse prairie. … » More …

Spring 2008

Clarence A. (Bud) Ryan: A scientist who catalyzed excellence

Clarence A. (Bud) Ryan, one of WSU’s preeminent scientists, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in October. Ryan pioneered the study of the innate immune response of plants. Prior to his work, plants were assumed to contain protease inhibitors all the time, as a deterrent to being eaten. Ryan discovered instead that plants make the inhibitors in response to an attack. He further showed that an attack on one part of a plant sets off chemical signals that spur production of inhibitors throughout the entire plant. Besides his scientific renown, Ryan was well known around campus for his graciousness—-and his ability on the … » More …

Spring 2008

The orphan flower

In a Washington State University greenhouse, on the roof of Abelson Hall, dwells an orphan. Sheltered by a translucent plastic tent that diffuses the sunlight, drenched in water that keeps the air heavy with moisture, a semitropical plant called Gasteranthus atratus unfurls its crinkly, dark mahogany leaves. Once a year or so it puts forth cream-colored, vase-shaped flowers. It doesn’t seed, however. Whether it needs another member of its species or a particular insect or bird to pollinate it isn’t known. For now, it simply grows, and waits.

Gasteranthus atratus is an orphan, because its home no longer exists. The species was discovered in the … » More …

Sparingly introduced in waste places

Although scientists have been aware of biological invasions at least since the mid-1800s, when Charles Darwin noted the rampant spread of European species in South America, only recently has the scientific community recognized the broader threat invaders pose to biodiversity and environmental quality. Richard Mack of Washington State University recalls that when he first started talking about the cheatgrass invasion at annual meetings of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), his presentations would be scheduled for the “Miscellaneous” session on the meeting’s last day.

“Thirty years ago, it wasn’t on the radar screen as an academic topic worthy of investigation,” he says. “It felt … » More …