Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Virtual Science Café: Ancient Hobbits, Fungus-Farming Ants, and Tracking Volcanoes

Webinar – Virtual Science Café: Ancient Hobbits, Fungus-Farming Ants, and Tracking Volcanoes
April 19, 2022

Naimah Muhammad:
Hi, everyone. Welcome to this evening's Virtual Science Café Program, presented by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. My name is Naimah Muhammad and I am one of the public program coordinators at NMNH. I'm an African American, curly-haired woman with an orange shirt with a plant and a white wall in my background.

Amanda Sciandra:
And I'm Amanda Sciandra. I'm a brown-haired woman wearing a blue shirt with a black cardigan. Sitting in front of a full bookshelf. On your screen is the name, date, and time of our program, along with the images of our three speakers. Naimah And I are delighted to be your hosts for this event in this series. We kicked off the series last month with our first Science Café. This is the second of three. If you catch the next one, which will be the last of the series next month, we have volcanoes, hobbits, coral, fossils. We had birds, bats, and parasites. We really cover it all. And we are so excited to be here with you.

Naimah Muhammad:
Yes, and I hope we've had some folks return from our last program and from last year. So thanks always for tuning in and joining us again. The best part of course is that our virtual café is not bound by the laws of space and time. We're united by science from all over the world. So let us know where you're tuning in from by dropping your location in the Q&A box. We'd love to know where you're coming from. While you do so, we want to go ahead and thank those who made this series possible. This year's Science Café series was developed with Science Communication Resources, generously provided by NMNH board member [Edward Warner 00:01:47].

Amanda Sciandra:
Our sincere thanks to them for making this possible and to all of those who support the museum's mission and outreach. Thank you to all of you who are here tonight. So far, we have North Haven, Connecticut; Maryland; San Diego; DC; Virginia; New Jersey; Toronto, international; Vancouver; Washington; Virginia. Keep them coming. We are so glad to have you.

Naimah Muhammad:
All over the place. And for those of you who are in DC, join us in thanking our local DC restaurant partner, Busboys and Poets, who, if you, I hope had a chance to take advantage of the order discount code or the recipe for a cocktail or mocktail that they shared with us to shake it up at this program this evening. So thank you Busboys and Poets.

Amanda Sciandra:
Before we turn it over to our guests, just a few housekeeping notes. We have three incredible speakers who will present back-to-back lightning style talks. And then we'll answer your questions during the second half of the hour. That Q&A goes by so quickly, so please help us in answer as many questions as possible by submitting your questions right after each talk, or as you have them. We'll collect them on the back end, and then we'll bring them all back for our Q&A with you in the second half. I know some of you already found it because you let us know you're tuning in from, but just in case, your Zoom interface toolbar has that Q&A box. Finally, also on that toolbar, you'll find the closed captions. Those are available by clicking the CC button.

Naimah Muhammad:
Awesome. So as Amanda mentioned, tonight we're talking volcanoes, real life hobbits, and fungus-farming ants. Our first speaker is Kadie Bennis. I'd like to go ahead and invite her to come on camera here with me.

Amanda Sciandra:
Hey, Kadie.

Naimah Muhammad:
Hey, Kadie.

Kadie Bennis:
Hello.

Naimah Muhammad:
So did you know, audience, did you know that there are about 1,300 volcanoes that have erupted in the last 12,000 years? Of that 1,300, as many as 88 volcanoes have erupted each year since 1991? Volcanoes are found all around the world. So it's an international and global effort to monitor and report on them. Kadie Bennis is a volcanologist for the Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program, also known as GVP. One of those unique places, only found at the Smithsonian, where they untangle all the exciting and messy details surrounding volcanic eruptions, why they happen, and the work that goes into reporting what is happening so that everyone else can learn about them too.

So Kadie, with that, I will let you take it away and tell us more.

Kadie Bennis:
Okay. So right now, as I'm giving you this presentation, there are 48 volcanoes that are erupting. One actively erupting volcano that is closest to me in Washington, DC is a volcano called Popocatépetl, which is located in Mexico about 2,000 miles southwest of me. And did you know that about 40 to 50 volcanoes are erupting at any given time? Erupting, meaning that there's something within the earth that is being brought up to the surface through volcanic processes. That something could be rocks, ash, lava, et cetera.

So I want to spotlight Popocatépetl, which is located in Mexico. It's been erupting since January 9th of 2005. But I want to pose you this question: Have you ever heard of this volcano, also known as Popo for short? Over the past two years, it's been characterized by relatively low intensity ash emissions, some minor explosions, some asphalt and volcanic earthquakes. But this is very common volcanic behavior for this specific volcano. But why haven't you heard about this? It's been erupting for years and years and years nonstop.

Well, what about this volcano? This is La Palma in the Canary Islands, and it had a massive volcanic eruption back in September, which continued through December 15th, 2021. It was this beautiful photogenic, very destructive volcano that you can see in the background of this picture here. It displaced thousands, about more than 6,000 people from their homes and destroyed more than 3,000 buildings and crop fields. It consisted of explosions, lava flows, lava fountains that you see here in this image, and ash plumes. And this volcano was plastered all over social media, all over these huge high headlines of different news sources. Typically, the only time that you hear about volcanic corruptions like this is when it is directly impacting human life or affecting society in some way. So this brings people to question, well, just how often do volcanoes erupt and where are they located and is this volcanic activity considered normal activity?

So here I want to present to you the top five countries of the most active volcanoes that we have in the world. And surprisingly, the United States has the largest number of active volcanoes in the world, followed by Japan. Active is the metric that we use for volcanoes that have erupted within past 10,000 years, which we then have archived in the Global Volcanism Program database. A majority of these active volcanoes in the United States, though, are located in remote Alaska. So there's little to no impact on human life. It's very difficult to get to these volcanoes and actually interact with them. So that's why you're not hearing about volcanic activity in the United States as often as you might expect to.

In this talk, I want to do a little bit of volcano one-on-one overview to talk to you about why volcanoes erupt and how they erupt, and then I'm also going to talk to you about the work that we do at the Smithsonian. This data that you're seeing here is collected by the Global Volcanism Program, which is the only comprehensive volcanic database in the world. But I'm going to talk to you about that a little bit later in the presentation.

Here by this red box, I just wanted to highlight the numbers of volcanoes that are active in the world.

So why does a volcano erupt? Well, there are two things that we have to consider into the factoring of volcanic eruptions, and that is through the composition, what is that magma made of, which is a function of location? And that's also through how much gas is in that magma.

So composition affects something that is called viscosity. Viscosity is just a measure of a fluid's resistance to flow. So if something has low viscosity, it flows more like water would, and has a higher viscosity, it's stickier kind of like honey. It doesn't really want to flow.

So the next question that we ask is how much gas do we have and how sticky is this magma? The amount of gas greatly influences the eruption style, whether it's going to be an explosive eruption or a non-explosive eruption. And typically the more gas that is within that magma, the more violent the explosion can be. So the question that we have to ask ourselves is how easily can this gas escape? One image that I want you to think about is if I had a soda bottle with me, and I had the lid screwed on tightly. The gas couldn't escape as easily. And so if I shook up that soda bottle and you would see the pressure starting to build, the gases trying to escape that soda bottle, and it would tend to explode in your hands and it'd be a really gross, sticky mess.

But imagine if I poked a couple of holes in that soda bottle and allowed some of that pressure to easily be released. So if I shook that set of bottle up again, the gas would come out a lot easier. So the composition or stickiness of how that magma is composed or how much that's composed of is also telling us, well, what would we expect it to be more explosive or less explosive?

So maybe you remember one or both of these eruptions during your lifetime. On the left here, I have a video of Kilauea, which is in Hawaii during the May, 2018 eruption. This is a good example of a non-explosive eruption. I do want to side note and say that there were explosions during this time at this eruption, but the images that is being shown here is a lava fountain, which is considered to be non-explosive.

Then here, this footage on the right is located in Mount St. Helens, Washington during the 1980 volcanic eruption. And this was a very massive explosive eruption that occurred.

So what does the Global Volcanism Program do, again? I talked to you a little bit about where volcanoes were located and that they could be found all around the world, and that we're this archive or this database for information. But there's a lot of information out there of people wanting to educate you about volcanoes and volcanic eruptions. But some of those sources are not quite accurate, and some of those sources might use just to generate click bait or to generate fear and this increased sense of urgency.

So I have screen capped a couple of examples of these stories about Yellowstone that tend to be a very hot topic, pun intended, Yellowstone super eruption. Look at how many views these videos are getting. They're getting millions to hundreds of thousands of views each day. Volcanologists such as us at the Global Volcanism Program and people at the USGS Volcano Observatories constantly have to be on the lookout to fight misinformation and correct some of the information that is being put out on social media.

But social media is also a double-edged sword because there's a lot of information that is getting put out on the internet daily in multiple languages, multiple agencies. How do you sort through this? How do you read it? How do you understand what's going on at a specific point in time? It's really difficult to be able to sift through all this information when information like this is being put out every single day. So I want to take a second, breathe, and tell you that it's okay.

I'm Kadie and I am like a volcano detective, and the Global Volcanism Program is here to help you out with some of these questions that I'm asking you. We're the only database in the world that does this high level of consistent volcano reporting and data archiving. We take all this information that you're seeing from everywhere online and condensing it into something that is readable, accessible, and understandable for everyone. You don't have to be a volcanologist to understand our reports. We do this for every single volcano that is erupting. We filter out the misinformation that is being put out on the internet, and we translate some of the difficult information so that you can understand what the story is at a specific volcano.

One of the things that I want to do in the last portion of this talk is walk you through my specific job and what the work I do is writing these monthly bulletin reports that is being put out on our website. So here I want to give an example of San Cristobal, which is a volcano located in Nicaragua. It's been erupting since December of 2020. Have you ever heard of this volcano? Let me know. Right now it's in a relatively low eruptive state, so maybe you haven't heard of it because there aren't that many news agencies reporting on it.

So here, what I usually do is I take a volcano like this and I write a six-month report where I have to cover, for example, July to December of 2021. And what I need to do is I check multiple satellite sources and I crosscheck this information with other sources. I'm looking for thermal signatures that you're seeing on the screen here, or maybe ash blooms or sulfur dioxide pool data, just to see what kind of stuff is coming out of this volcano. Then the next thing that I do is I go to the official volcano observatory website to get primary information of the people that are actively monitoring this volcano 24/7. So in the example of San Cristobal, the website that I would go to is called INETER.

Some of these reports though are not always in English, so it's my job to translate these reports that they post on their website into English, and then technically interpret them so I can get the big picture of what's happening at that volcano so I can add that to my bulletin report. But sometimes we do get mistranslations, which can make understanding the bigger picture more difficult. And if you want to see some more mistranslations that we get for our job, you can check out our Twitter site where we do mistranslation Tuesdays that I'm showing you here. Then the final end result of this report is then published beautifully in this nice cohesive format on our website.

So I just want to wrap up my presentation and mention that it's a huge international effort to report on volcanic activity, but the Smithsonian is the only organization that consistently archives this kind of work and organizes it in an easy-to-access, digestible format online. The GVP database helps create a historical timeline that will help understand common behavior at specific volcanoes at a specific point in time, which then helps better our monitoring practices of volcanic eruptions. It helps with implementing safety policies, which will then further help communities that live near active volcanoes.

So in the chat, there are a couple of links if you want to check out our website, that is also located here on the screen, or if you want to check out any of social media sites as well on Twitter or Facebook. Thanks so much for your attention and I appreciate it.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thank you, Kadie. Oh, my gosh. You have a super cool job. Thank you for sharing everything that GVP does. I know there'll be a lot of great questions. We already have quite a few, so keep them coming. We'll get to as many as we can after our third speaker. Thanks, Kadie.

Our next guest is Elizabeth Grace Veatch. Elizabeth Grace Veatch, she goes by Grace, is a human origins, Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow here at the National Museum of Natural History. And if you were paying attention to Kadie's talk, you might remember that the US has the most active volcanoes in the world. But not far behind the US, coming in third, was Indonesia, which happens to be where Grace's research is located. As a zooarchaeologist, she studies what ancient humans ate and specifically the extinct human relative Homo floresiensis in Indonesia. Grace's research shows that it wasn't all just big game hunting back then, that small mammals had a big spot in ancient human diets. Grace, I turn it over to you.

Elizabeth Grace Veatch:
Thank you so much. Hello, everyone. I'd like to start my talk this evening by posing this question to you all: What does it mean to be human? Many of you have probably thought of this question before and can imagine a couple of possibilities, some of which may include a large and a complex brain, maybe stone tool using, walking upright on two legs. How about a unique skeletal plan compared to other animals? We look quite different, don't we? Maybe even the ability to create artwork and use symbols, language, or even complex social networks. These are just a few features that paleoanthropologists have identified in the human fossil and archaeological records that have emerged some time over the last six to eight million years.

So now when you think of humans, you may think of us, Homo sapiens, but there were once also other species or types of humans living contemporaneously. They were also very unique in their own human way. So now I would like to pose the question to you all: What does it mean to be a hobbit? So now you might be thinking, why am I talking about hobbits in this talk? Because they're not real. They're fictitious, right? Yes, that is correct. Bilbo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, shown here are fictitious characters imagined by fantasy writer Tolkien in his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, for those of you who are not as familiar. But the media and scientists from around the world began associating the Hobbit with a discovery that emerged from Indonesia in 2003.

Located on an isolated island in the Indonesian archipelago, archaeological excavations at a cave site called Liang Bua uncovered a human relative that really shocked paleoanthropologists. Particularly, because she stood at just over one meter tall and had very big feet, so you can imagine why this human relative was nicknamed the hobbit. But in addition to her short stature, she also had quite a small cranium or a smaller head with very long arms relative to the length of her legs. Other aspects about her hip and leg anatomy also suggested that the hobbit walked on two legs just like us. So the partial skeleton that was recovered, shown on the left hand part of your screen, is known as LB1 and was found alongside fragments of many other individuals. All of these were given the scientific name, Homo floresiensis. Excavations at Liang Bua also uncovered thousands of stone artifacts and animal remains dating back to at least 190,000 years ago.

As archaeologists excavate, they uncover a range of different kinds of materials, such as bones, stones, shell, and sometimes even artifacts made of these materials. So it's our job to then analyze these objects and create a timeline or a story of events at the site. That's what I would like to do for you here today.

On the left hand side of your screen, you can see a drawing or representation of what's called the stratigraphy or the layers of sediment that have been excavated at Lian Bua. A series of dating techniques were used to estimate when the sediment and bones and other objects accumulated over time, and these dates are shown on the right hand side of the drawing corresponding to different layers. So for example, on the bottom, we have the oldest date of around 190,000 years ago and the top representing the present. So there's also this very thick, volcanic layer represented by the dotted bar that goes just across your screen. It's dated to around 50,000 years ago. It's actually a very important part of the stratigraphy that I'm going to point out in just a moment.

So from around 50 to 190,000 years ago, we find skeletal remains of the hobbit and very simple stone tools that they probably used to process food. So you can almost think of them as hobbit cutlery, if you will. We also uncovered bones belonging to a giant Marabou stork that stood at around six feet tall, very tall stork; a very short, extinct species of elephant known as stegodon that stood around five feet tall, as well as vultures and Komodo dragons. Also, based on many different kinds of evidence and techniques, we know that during this time the environment was much more open. So there was much more grasslands as being the kind of dominant habitat around the Liang Bua cave.

So in addition to hobbits, there is also a lot of evidence of modern human activity beginning at around 47,000 years ago. All this is resting above that thick volcanic layer that I mentioned earlier. Evidence of modern human activity includes things like fire use, for example, that are found in the form of charcoal fragments and burnt bone. Also, the further you get up in the sequence, so the more recent time period, agricultural practices and barrels can be found beginning at around 3,000 years ago. But before that, humans were primarily foraging on the landscape. So the stone artifacts were also found in association with modern humans and they were very similar in shape to the ones found associated with the hobbit or the ones that the hobbit made. However, these stone tools are primarily made of a rock called chert while the hobbit primarily made their stone tools from a volcanic rock material.

So this suggests that hobbits and modern humans were sourcing different kinds of material in the landscape to make actually very similar-looking stone tools. What is also different in this context is the environment, which became much more forested over time and we no longer see evidence for these larger-bodied animals, although there are plenty of other animals for humans to hunt, including a wide range of rats. And, yes. So I actually find this really interesting because this site is full of rodent remains. In fact, around 78% of the total amount of animal bones that have been identified are actually rat. So this means that both modern humans and hobbits were living in an ecosystem that supported a lot of rodent activity. So you might be saying, "Rats? Weird. And did hobbits eat rats?" Well, this is actually something that I'm very interested to find out because I research, or my research focus is primarily on the role of smaller animals as a dietary resource for ancient hominids.

So this site is full of opportunity to see how humans were foraging for different rats and how different humans were foraging for different rats. The rats on Flores Island are actually very unique in that they're not found anywhere else in the world. They range in body sizes from small, think of like a 50 gram rat, and then they can get pretty large, to a giant size, or we refer to as a giant size, and they can get up to around three kilograms or about the size of a small dog. Let's put it that way. So these body sizes also broadly correspond with a known habitat preference.

What do I mean by a known habitat preference? I mean that the small and the giant rat species, for example, tend to live in more closed environments. So they like forests, so to speak, while the medium and the large- sized rats tend to live in much more open environments, so much more grasses. So you can imagine if we know which animals were being accumulated and what frequency we could have a better idea about which kinds of environments were available at different time periods. We can also find out whether humans were sourcing these rats from these different environments if we can positively identify evidence of butchery.

So one way to do this is by looking for cut marks. Cut marks are striations that are left on the bones of animals after humans have used stone tools to cut meat. Once we find these, we know that humans were eating them. And that's actually exactly what we found. So here are a few examples of cut marks found on a variety of rat bones. So the top three, shown here, were actually found in layers associated with modern humans, while the bottom three were found in association with the hobbit. So while modern humans use fire and were quite different anatomically speaking, both modern humans and hobbits found rats to be a very tasty meal at Liang Bua.

Now I just want to go back to this question of what does it mean to be a hobbit? Well, they had smaller bodies compared to us and a smaller brain, but they did use stone tools and walked on two legs, although their body proportions were also a bit different. We don't yet have any evidence that hobbits were making artwork, had language, or had large social networks. But one thing is now certain, that both modern humans and hobbits could and did hunt for rats of unusual sizes for food. It was a very reliable food source for both of them.

So before I end my talk, I do just want to recognize the decades of research at Liang Bua involving dozens of international scientists, and all led by Indonesian archaeologists, without which I would not be here talking to you all today. So thank you so much. And thank you for listening.

Naimah Muhammad:
Thank you, Grace. Thank you for giving us so much to think about by posing that question, what does it mean to be human? And helping us better understand what it means to be a hobbit.

So moving along. As we learn more and more, we're learning that humans aren't the only source of the planet's brilliant ideas, but instead the earth has held knowledge long before humans even existed. What sets us apart from other animals and were we the first to domesticate other species or cultivate our own food? Emilia Albuquerque, who is our next speaker, is here to tell us no. Certain species of ants have actually been farming their food before we did. Let's see, along those lines. Let's see. Okay. So, yes. Let me dive, go ahead and introduce Emilia. Hi, Emilia.

Emilia Albuquerque:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Hi.

Naimah Muhammad:
Dr. Emilia Zoppas de Albuquerque is a Peter Buck post-doc fellow here at the National Museum of Natural History in the Department of Entomology's Ant Lab. She's interested in understanding the origin and evolution of ants that farm yeast. Fun fact: She has been in love with ants since college because of their unique social behaviors, where ants, mostly females have all the power. With that, I welcome Emilia to take it from here.

Emilia Albuquerque:
I'm going to talk to you today about evolutionary novelties and evolutionary novelties is something that happened between species. I will say more about that in a moment, but I would like to begin talking to you about a code, evolutionary novelty that you probably have in your pocket or your purse right now, evolutionary novelty that is allowing us to be connected to one each other right now.

Let's go back to the 1980s, when teleconferencing did not really exist other than just a phone call between two people. In the 2020s, suddenly we are able to do video calls using the internet. When the pandemic hit, we are able to communicate on Zoom, like today, because this technology was already available. What's happening in the past 40 or 50 years with this kind of evolution and its pieces also go through a similar evolution.

I would like to show you the land animal evolution. Here in this picture, we can that the fishes used to have the flippers in the lateral, in the side of their bodies. These flippers is timed to grow, like to develop, and migrate to under their bodies, giving rise later to the legs. In this transitional period, these animals also develop the ability to breathe outside the water and to be more resistance for temperature variation and the desiccation. We should pay attention that all this process took about 80 million years. So an evolutionary novelty is not something that occur fast.

Just to give you a quick concept. So an evolutionary novelty could be a new structure or behavior that allows an organism to perform a new function in a given environment. Usually, it is triggered for a change in this environment.

I study ants, and ants haven't been gone from this process too. Today, I'm very excited to talk about the group of ants that started to be farmers before the humans. The cultivation of fungi for food by fungus-farming ants was a transition that allowed them to use new niches, new habitats. This behavior was originated between 55 and 60 million years ago. It likely arose from a hunter-gatherer ant ancestor in the rainforest, and probably because of that, they achieve their greatest diversity in those forests. By the way, the fungus is an organism that live by decomposing organic matter, including mold, yeast, and mushrooms.

So here in this picture, we can see the diversity of head shapes in fungus-farming ants that also reflects their diversity of biology. Until now, we have at least 20 genera and 277 species of fungus-farming ants. And the fungus-farming ants, of course, from South America, Central America and the South of United States. As we can see in this first picture, the leaf-cutting ants cut fresh leaves to feed their fungi here in those picture and then feed their brood, like their babies. Their nest can be composed by a few chambers or many chambers, or we can see here. They have been very well-studied due to the damage that they can cause in human agriculture.

But not all fungus-farming ants use fresh materials to grow their crops. Some species use pieces of other insects or pieces of flowers or seeds, or even poop from other insects that they found on the ground. Because they use this different substrates to grow their fungi, their crop, they can have different farming systems.

So until now, we know at least five agricultural systems. In first farm, the ants cultivate the fungi as a mycelium, and this mycelium is a pluricellular form. It's like many cells of the fungi together, and they look like this fluffy, interconnected spider web. This shape is the regular and most common shape of the cultivation from fungi from the ants.

But one of this group, it starts to cultivate the fungi as a yeast, as we can see in this picture. So these little balls, call it nodules, is the same fungi from the mycelium, but in a unicellular form. It's like these ants have a super power or a technology to take the mycelium that was many cells and transform in a different way, just one cell. Some researchers believe that they do that to protect their fungi against infection from other fungi that can affect the ant colonies. Another fact, really interesting, is that if you take these little balls and you put in a Petri dish with a nutrient medium like food for the fungi, these little balls will revert to the mycelium form, the one that looks like a fluffy spiderweb. If the fungi keep growing, they will produce mushrooms. That is the reproductive form of the fungi.

This relationship is so close and so specialized that the ants cannot live without the fungi anymore. So we say that they have an obligatory mutualism. When a queen is going to start a new colony, she brings in her mouth, like in a cavity, call it infrabuccal pocket, a fungal pellet that is like a seed to start the new crop in the new nest.

Here at Smithsonian in the AntLab, we have a group of researchers that is specialized to study their biology and their taxonomy. I personally came to Smithsonian to study one of these amazing ants that cultivate the fungi as a yeast. What we are interested for, so we are looking to understand when this behavior started, like in time, where, and what was going on on earth that triggered this behavior.

So to do that, we are using a multidisciplinary approach focusing in the molecular stuff. So we are going to the field; we are collecting colonies alive; we bring to the lab; we extracted DNA. We also use specimens from the museums, taking notes from the labels and doing computational analysis to answer our questions.

Why do they matters? Because this group of ants have this interest in behavior that they can change the shape and the number of cells of the fungi, and they started to do that many years ago, and it's almost like a technology that they have for a long time. So we think that understanding this behavior, we could generate in science to the challenge of the human agriculture as well because we have a lot of similarities. So I'd like to thank you for your attention. I'd be glad to answer any question.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thank you, Emilia. Those ants are cool. You have a cool job too.

At this point, we'd love to take audience questions. So please, we welcome Grace and Kadie back so we can get into it. All right. The whole crew is here. Thank you to everyone who has already submitted your questions. If you don't remember where to do that, it's on the Zoom toolbar. Click the Q&A button, send those in, and we will ask your questions to Emilia, Kadie, and Grace. So let's just get going here because we have a lot already.

Kadie, this first question is from you from the [Sidanella 00:38:23] family. They ask... I love this question. "Does the 40 to 50 erupting volcanoes per day include those on the sea floor?"

Kadie Bennis:
That's a great question. Thank you for asking that. Typically, we don't include volcanoes that are on the sea floor because some of them are too far down below, are observable or a possible way to observe them. But I do want to clarify that 40 to 50 volcanoes are continuously erupting at get any given point, but not specifically every single day. So that can change quite easily because sometimes eruptions only last a day. But thank you.

Naimah Muhammad:
That's awesome. Thanks, Kadie. Grace, a question for you. Are there any other sites with evidence of hobbits?

Elizabeth Grace Veatch:
Yes. So for Homo floresiensis, Liang Bua is the primary, the type locality. But there's been some material that has been recovered from sites actually on the Eastern side of the island, same island. They're described as being Homo floresiensis-like, so they're not attributed to it because they're quite fragmentary, and many deciduous teeth too, like baby teeth. But they're also very small and very similar to floresiensis. So we do think that they were there a lot earlier than on the island, than what the record shows at Liang Bua because we also have evidence of stone tools that date back to about a million years ago on the island. So there definitely was some form of human, whether it be Homo floresiensis or another ancestor was there on the island quite a long time ago.

Amanda Sciandra:
Grace, did you call baby teeth deciduous teeth?

Elizabeth Grace Veatch:
I did. So that's the term for your milk teeth or your baby teeth. They're [crosstalk 00:40:22]

Amanda Sciandra:
I've never heard that. I've only heard deciduous in terms of trees. But that's pretty cool. Do I wish I had evergreen teeth? I don't know. I guess this the way to go. Thank you so much. Okay.

Elizabeth Grace Veatch:
Sure.

Amanda Sciandra:
This next question is for you, Emilia. I'm actually going to double it up if that's okay. So one person just wanted to clarify why the transformation to single cell from my mycelium is a superpower. So maybe you can just drive that home one more time. And then the follow-up question for you is can ants switch fungi species in their agricultural practices or are they captive to a single or small set of fungi? So I can repeat either one if you want.

Emilia Albuquerque:
Okay. So the first one. I call like the superpowers, because for me, it's kind of hard to understand how they manipulate the fungi from many cells, that looks like different, to just one cell in a different shape. So for me, it's kind of like a technology that they have superpowers because the ants do something. They put something, in the same way that when we grow tomatoes on the yard, that we cut the leaves to grow bigger tomatoes or that we can grow grapes seedless or watermelon seedless. It, for me something like that, something like a technology. I'm very interested to understand how they do that. But I don't have the answer right now.

The other question. So besides the ants, we also are studying the fungi. There is many species of fungi and we see that sometimes when a colony, the fungi die, they can try to take the fungi from the nature or from other nest or... So we don't really know how it works, but we see that they can switch sometimes.

Amanda Sciandra:
Industrious. Thank you.

Naimah Muhammad:
Wow. And we have so many questions. I'm hoping that we can get through. If we can't, maybe we can find a way to answer some of these offline. But all right, let's power through here. We have a question here for Kadie. A question for you. I love this question because the Gems and Minerals Hall is one of my favorite at the museum. So the question is can diamonds survive magma contact?

Kadie Bennis:
That's a great question. There is actually some kimblerlite pipes. So these are specifically pipes that contain diamonds out in Africa that are being researched. The way that we get diamonds or any rare stone is they have to be formed somewhere in the magma chamber beneath the surface of the earth, and then they are erupted to the surface so that we can study them and look at them through volcanic processes. So the diamonds are forming deep underneath the surface of the earth, and then the volcanic activity is what's bringing them to the top or to the surface of the earth so that we can study them, collect them, mine them. So yes, they can.

Amanda Sciandra:
Okay. This next question is for Grace. I have a personal interest in the answer because I also am short with big feet. Are there any theories you can share about the hobbits as to how their large feet or short stature may have been useful in their environment?

Elizabeth Grace Veatch:
So I think she was definitely more bipedal, but the post-cranial, so from her skeleton below her head down was actually pretty, or had a lot of traits that you would find in earlier hominins or earlier humans. So it's quite complex. Like, it's very much a mismatch, if you will, of many kind of derived features. So for example, she is walking by bipedally quite well, but she still has quite a wide pelvis and other features like a short clavicle, and like I said, very long arms that makes us think that she was potentially still utilizing maybe trees or being more arboreal that way. But her fingers aren't really curved.

If you look at, say, like orangutan fingers or their finger bones, they're curved, and that's actually something that comes about in your behavior. So that's a used kind of trait. You're not born with curved fingers. Her fingers are actually quite straight, so we don't think she spent too much time in the trees and was much more terrestrial. But she does have a very interesting combination of just skeletal features that maybe she was spending some time in the trees and it's maybe not as reflected in the skeleton per se.

Amanda Sciandra:
Thank you.

Naimah Muhammad:
Amazing. Emilia, a question for you. And it's kind of a clarifying question of the punchline here, which is exactly how long, or what do we know about how long ants have been farming?

Emilia Albuquerque:
They have been farming in the past 55 or 60 million years ago. Maybe I forget to tell, and the human agriculture started between 8 and 10 million years ago.

Naimah Muhammad:
Wow.

Emilia Albuquerque:
So they started pretty much early than us.

Naimah Muhammad:
Yes, very much early. Very much so. Then we had kind of another question which maybe you can speak towards. It's a question about this relationship between ants and fungi. There's films going out which show ants being controlled by fungus and having this relationship where the fungus kind of controls their behavior. Are there other examples in relationships between fungus impacting the ant's behavior and what they're doing in kind of like controlling their behavior?

Emilia Albuquerque:
We have this case about zombie ants that is another species of fungi that infect the brain of the ants and they start to grow and then they change their behavior. So usually they ant go far away from the colony, climb in a tree, or in a bush, and then the fungus goes to start to grow from outside of the head with the mushroom part that is the reproductive part. When it's like grow enough, it pops, and the spores go through the air to infect another insect. So I just know about the cases of zombie ants and the fungus-farming ants, but it's possible that they have like other relationship between fungus and ants, but I wouldn't know to say right now.

Naimah Muhammad:
That's helpful though. Thank you. I don't like to think about these zombie ants, but it's a great, it's a very intense image. Thank you.

Amanda Sciandra:
Okay. This next question is for Kadie. Kadie, I was also concerned for you. This person asks, [Ray 00:47:50] asks, is any data auto-pulled and auto-inputted into GVP in order to reduce your burden? Is anything auto or do you do it all?

Kadie Bennis:
That's a great question. Sometimes I wish we had auto-pullers. There is some work going into the technology of trying to create a site that can scrape some Twitter feeds or something like that to help us digest some of this information. But right now it's just all manual labor.

Amanda Sciandra:
And how many people did you say are at GVP?

Kadie Bennis:
Actively working on bulletin reports, there are about three people.

Amanda Sciandra:
Whew. Got your work cut out for you.

Kadie Bennis:
Definitely.

Naimah Muhammad:
Grace. Okay. So a question here, what else can the rat bones tell us besides diet?

Elizabeth Grace Veatch:
Actually, they can tell us a lot about the environment. So in addition to humans, the only other predators that are really going to be going after these guys are going to be owls or any kind of like raptor or predatory bird. I'll also add this, it preserves bones. So like Komodo dragons probably also ate these rats, at least the giant ones as well, but they kind of dissolve everything they eat. So they're probably not going to leave behind an assemblage of bones for us find. So the majority of these rats that we're looking at were accumulated through either bird or through human predation, if you will. So by looking at if there's digest evidence of digestion versus evidence of cut marks or tooth marks, or other kinds of evidence for human consumption, we can parse those out and see where these predators are selecting these rats on the landscape, so we can see if they're going after more open habitat adapted rats or more closed adapted rats, or are they just more varied.

So by looking at that kind of a combination of both taking into account where these rats live, then we can have an idea about the environment in addition to other means, but I'll cut it short for that.

Amanda Sciandra:
All right. Thank you. Okay. This next question, Emilia, is for you. Talking about the ants. I think the question is about like how they're actually transforming the fungi, the mycelium. Do they do this transformation in their body or by secretions, protein enzymes, or genetic material influencing like our mRNA technology?

Emilia Albuquerque:
Actually we have no idea how they do that. So for sure it's not inside of their bodies. It's something outside. We don't know if they manipulate the fungi in a way that changed their shape, or if they put like some substance. So we are looking for this answers, but it's something. So we don't know what, but it's something they do because it's the same fungi that can grow as a yeast and as a mycelium. When the ants are present, they do something and they don't grow. They grow as a mycelium. They grow like an yeast.

Naimah Muhammad:
Excellent. Thank you, Emilia. Okay. So Kadie, we have a few questions in the audience that are asking about the relationship between volcanoes and climate change. So it's kind of a two-part interrelated question. The first question asks if the frequency of eruptions and active volcanoes is a result of climate change. But in turn on the flip side, how much do volcanoes contribute to climate change?

Kadie Bennis:
Yeah. So we have a great resource on our website that shows tracking of volcanic activity throughout several decades back. Volcanic activity hasn't actually been changing. It hasn't been increasing or anything like that. The only thing that has changed is the introduction of technology, satellite imagery, things like that so we can better monitor and observe volcanic activity. So there isn't any direct link between climate change and volcanic activity. They're completely separate things. The only thing that has changed is human behavior and the rise of technology. So, yeah, volcanic activity has not been increasing. It might just sound like it because there are more stories about it on the news, and with the rise of social media, it's a lot easier to get some of that information out there to people.

Naimah Muhammad:
Perfect. Thank you.

Amanda Sciandra:
Okay, Grace, I think you might have touched on this a bit, but maybe you could say it again. Why did the hobbits become extinct?

Elizabeth Grace Veatch:
Oh, my goodness. We don't actually have an answer to that question. We all want to know. We all want to know what happened because especially at Liang Bua, there seems to be this really nice section of the record that shows that they were there with all these other animals. Then all of a sudden you see this introduction of modern humans and then the ecology completely changes. But we don't have any overlapping evidence of these two occupations for modern humans and hobbits. So to see in the record that interaction, one that would be, I think, very rare to find that one instance in time. But, you know, it is an open question. Did humans have or play a role in the extinction of the hobbit because they survived on this island for a long time and then you see modern humans appear and then we no longer see hobbits.

So it's an interesting question. We're still excavating. There's lots of other sites on the island to look at. And so I think right now that's an open question. But what does seem to happen, too, at Liang Bua is there's a change in the environment, or a small one at least. We actually see less of floresiensis, less stone tools, less of the larger animals, and so we think that actually the populations maybe migrated elsewhere on the island. So maybe at another site we might be lucky enough to find that overlapping stratigraphy of modern human activity and Homo floresiensis. But as of right now, we're not too sure.

Naimah Muhammad:
I'm glad we asked that because we were behind the scenes wondering, oh, boy, is it related to diet? Is it the rodents? So I'm glad we ended up asking that after all. Thank you to the audience.

We're coming towards the end, but we might have time for one or two more. Emilia, question for you. Are there any fungi that are only seen in the ant colonies you study and nowhere else in nature? Or, sorry, fungi in these ant colonies, so fungi in the ant colonies and nowhere else in nature. So I think that's also playing with the dependency between the ants and the fungi.

Emilia Albuquerque:
Okay. So most of these species of fungi that we know only live with the ant colonies. But some in those group of ants that I study in the yeast growers, so they can also grow in free living in the nature, but the others usually are only associated with the ant colonies.

Naimah Muhammad:
Perfect. Thank you. All right. So I guess Amanda... I don't see... I think we can probably wrap towards the end here, unless there are any closing thoughts. But I did want to make a note. We have a question in the audience and the question is asking what other animals and insects have symbiotic relationships with fungi. So to that point, I do want to make a plug for our next upcoming program, which is going to feature and focus on symbiotic relationships; this one will be on coral. So everyone can tune in for that last program as well.

But for now, I want to go ahead and thank our three speakers here and thank our audience for tuning in tonight this evening with us. We will be recording this program and archiving it on our website.

Next month, we have our program in May, which will feature a conversation on coral resilience, on studying ancient human bones, and also better understanding and working with indigenous communities to transform and inform museum collections.

Amanda Sciandra:
Again, thank you. Special thanks to all of you who made it possible, for all of you for attending, for our three fantastic speakers, for our behind-the-scenes team, our volunteers and donors, and our partners who help us reach and educate, empower millions of people around the world. So again, mark your calendar for May 17th. Information will be up on your screen shortly, and we also put a link in the Q&A where you can find more information. If you don't already subscribe to our weekly newsletter, it's a pretty good one. I might be a little biased. But make sure you sign up. That's where you can find out what programs we have upcoming. Then as well, when the webinar ends, you'll see a survey pop up. That link will also be in the Q&A. That's asking for your feedback about today's program. Please take a moment to respond. We really do read all of them and we appreciate your feedback greatly.

Naimah Muhammad:
Awesome. So again, thank you all. Thank you, the three of you, and thank you, audience. We look forward to seeing everyone next month.

Amanda Sciandra:
Bye! Thank you.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with scientists Kadie Bennis, Elizabeth Grace Veatch, and Emilia Zoppas de Albuquerque aired April 19, 2022. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

Get a taste for some of the unique Smithsonian research and discoveries related to wonders big and small. Unwind at this virtual science café as you learn about the lives of "Hobbit" hominin, ants who farm, and the epicenter for volcano 411. The short talks are:

"Tracking and Fact Checking Eruptions with Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program," by Kadie Bennis
When a volcanic eruption makes the news, the headlines can be equally as explosive. But the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program (GVP), an internationally recognized online database and nexus for volcanic activity and reporting of the last 10,000 years, gets to information beyond the surface to provide accurate real time and archived information. Kadie Bennis, Volcano Data Researcher, shares how GVP tracks and investigates the often messy trail of volcanic activity around the world.

"Rats for Elevenses: What a 'Hobbit' Hominin Can Tell Us About Early Human Diets and Environments," by Elizabeth Grace Veatch
Ever wonder why humans are the only surviving hominin species today? It’s true! There once were dozens of human species, some even living at the same time as modern humans. One small-bodied hominin even made it to the island of Flores in Indonesia and survived until around 50,000 years ago at a site called Liang Bua. So, what was life like on this isolated island in Southeast Asia? Zooarchaeologist Elizabeth Grace Veatch analyzed thousands of murine (rat) and other faunal remains to better understand the paleoecology of the area and what kinds of animals’ humans were consuming.

"Fungus-Farming Ants: One of Earth’s First Farmers and Why They Matter," by Emilia Zoppas de Albuquerque 
Turns out ants, not humans, could be The Original Farmer. Agriculture, once thought of as a hallmark of human evolution, can now be traced to various species of ants, each collectively cultivating a food source. When and where did this behavior occur and what climatic conditions prevailed to influence this adaptation? Emilia Zoppas de Albuquerque, researcher at the National Museum of Natural History’s AntLab, shares how what she calls "evolutionary novelties" open significant niches to a species in a given habitat, making the way for these Neotropical ants to farm fungus and achieve their greatest diversity in Amazonian rainforests.

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Earth Science, Life Science, Social Studies