GAINESVILLE, Fla. — New research led by University of Florida Professor of Biology Harvey Lillywhite uncovers an odd similarity between elephant skin and the skin of the yellow-bellied sea snake (Hydrophis platurus) — namely, its ability to create a water sheath around the animal. In addition, sea snake skin has evolved to permit the animal to thrive as the only pelagic species of venomous sea snake. (Pelagic refers to species residing in the open sea.) This study, published in the April issue of Journal of Morphology, is the first to quantify the water-retention capacity of sea snake skin, which is crucial to their ability to rest on the surface of the ocean to bask and travel great distances oversea without drying out.

Squamates (snakes and lizards) have a thicker, cornified outer layer of skin called the stratum corneum that allows them to thrive in many arid or semi-arid environments. The stratum corneum includes a lipid- and keratin-based permeability barrier. Yet Hydrophis platurus has an unusual skin structure.
To support H. platurus’ ability to move between the ocean’s surface and depths, the outer keratin level is thinner to allow for improved respiratory gas exchange in the skin. The skin also includes filamentous receptors that permit the snake to detect nearby prey and even help distinguish freshwater from seawater.

The species’ enormous range takes it across the Indo-Pacific Oceans, and it moves between the surface of the water down to depths of 50 feet. According to Lillywhite, because of this unusual habitat, its skin has some distinct features, including furrows along its scales, as opposed to the overlapping morphology of other snakes’ scales. These furrows collect water and form a sheath around the snake. A similar structure is seen in elephant skin. Indeed, this research shows that the meso layer of H. platurus’ skin features a “brick and mortar” organization of lipids that is closer to mammalian skin and is markedly different from most squamates’ skin.
Moreover, to keep from drying out while constantly immersed in seawater, sea snake skin actively creates lipids to enhance the permeability barrier. This increased production of lipids to keep the skin hydrated is unusual among squamates, including other species of sea snakes, but has parallels to the skin of cetaceans (dolphins and whales).

Lillywhite’s co-author, Gopinathan Menon from the California Academy of Sciences, said, “We get an evolutionary insight into what preceded the development of mammalian skin barrier, what preadaptations allowed the mammals to go back into an aquatic life as mammals and birds evolved from reptiles.”

Sea snakes are well suited for a life at sea — and the secret lies in their skin.

UF professor receives NEH fellowship to research under-studied African writing traditions

Researcher: Fiona McLaughlin, 352-392-4829,

Fiona McLaughlin, professor of linguistics and African languages at the University of Florida, has received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to work on a new book, Trans-Saharan Literacies: Writing across the Desert, in the 2019-2020 academic year. Only 8 percent of applicants were awarded fellowships this year. This fellowship will support McLaughlin in exploring the social consequences of two overlooked writing traditions in Africa.

The project brings a sociolinguistic perspective to two writing traditions used by populations within and adjacent to the Sahara desert to argue for the conceptualization of a trans-Saharan world of shared historical, religious, and linguistic influences. McLaughlin developed the project over the past decade as she and colleagues have identified cultural continuities across the Sahara. “I decided that looking at writing practices would contribute to reconceptualizing the Sahara and the areas directly to its north and south as a coherent cultural sphere of mutual influence rather than a barrier,” she says.

Both literature and popular conception have tended to portray the Sahara as a barrier between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, but McLaughlin’s work suggests that the Sahara should be conceptualized as a cultural sphere of influence, and of religious, economic and intellectual exchange, of which writing is a crucial part.

The research focuses on the everyday writing of African languages in scripts other than the Latin script, specifically the Arabic script, in a tradition known as ajami which arose in the 15th century, and tifinagh, which since the third century BCE has been used to write Berber languages such as Tashelhiyt in Morocco and Tamasheq in Mali and Niger. These vernacular literacies persisted throughout, and provided an important social function in resistance to the imposition of colonial languages. Despite their importance, these literacies have been under-studied, due in large part to colonial and postcolonial depictions of Africa as the “oral continent.”

“There are many ways in which colonialism and Western scholarship have constructed Africa, not least of which is painting it as a continent devoid of literacy before European intervention, and this is simply not accurate,” says McLaughlin.

Moreover, ajami and tifinagh are rarely counted in official surveys of literacy, meaning that we likely don’t have an accurate picture of the prevalence of written language in the region. McLaughlin’s research will break new ground by using these writing systems as a point of departure to re-conceptualize the three countries of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia), the West African Sahel (Senegal, Mali, Niger), and the Saharan country of Mauritania, as a coherent trans-Saharan sphere.

“Being awarded an NEH Fellowship allows me the precious gift of time off to concentrate on this project, and it also reaffirms to me that the project is an intellectually worthwhile one,” McLaughlin says.

Cojot movie posterThe University of Florida Center for Jewish Studies and the Jewish Council of North Central Florida will host a special rough-cut preview of Cojot, a feature-length documentary that follows the life of Michel Cojot-Goldberg, a Nazi hunter, Entebbe hostage, and ultimately, a Klaus Barbie trial witness.

Audiences will have a rare opportunity to provide input on a work-in-progress. The screening will take place at 7 pm on Thursday, November 15 at the Hippodrome Cinema.

Developed from a project at the UF Paris Research Center, and shot in numerous locations in France, UK, Israel and the US, Cojot is composed from hundreds of hours of footage, archival documents, and animation. The film includes interviews with Cojot family members, international Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, and Operation Entebbe lead pilot Joshua Shani.

A riveting character study, Cojot is written, directed and produced by UF alum, journalist, and filmmaker Boaz Dvir (Jessie’s Dad, A Wing and a Prayer). Dvir is faculty in the Department of Journalism at Penn State University. The film is narrated by actor Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire).


UF’s Dr. Gayle Zachmann, who serves as the feature-length documentary’s historical consultant and producer, will present the film. CLAS International Educator of the year (2016) and University Term Professor (2018-2021), she is Associate Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida.

Gayle Zachmann conducts an interview in Paris in 2015.

In recent months, Dvir and Zachmann have screened the rough-cut to more than 1,300 people around the country.

Director of the UF Center for Jewish Studies Jack Kugelmass, said “Projects like this come about because a faculty member is doing work on the ground, and there is no substitute for this. Sometimes these kinds of endeavors can really bear fruit. Here is a case where it has. The project has already had –and will continue to have—important implications for course development and student research projects as well.”

Zachmann, who developed the UF Certificate in European Jewish Studies, has been instrumental in curriculum building, regularly offering courses in French Jewish Studies at UF. Her research focuses on French Jewish writings and literary and visual cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries. She spent last summer in France and Israel interviewing for a class she is currently teaching on cultural flows between France and Israel. She notes: “Working on the film has been quite an adventure, from the very first interviews, to Boaz’s turn –much to my delight– to the story of Cojot. A perfect fit, and a wonderful opportunity for students–who were always part of the process–at both the University of Florida and Penn State.”

“We are excited to offer this special screening to the Gainesville community and delighted by the support we’ve seen over the years, on campus and off,” said Zachmann.

“I have seen this film emerge in its various stages and I am truly impressed by how it’s come together into a powerful and coherent whole,” said Professor Kugelmass, “I am particularly struck by the creative use of animation. This is something which might seem overly daring and difficult to integrate with footage […], but Dvir succeeds and it makes the film that much more compelling and a pleasure to watch.” He added, “This project has been an excellent one for the Center and UF. It has given students hands on experience in filmmaking, editing, translation, and wonderful outreach to the community. It presents a new and exciting way for academics to present their work to the larger community.”

Dvir’s previous film, the PBS documentary A Wing and a Prayer, has screened around the world and won Best Feature Documentary at the 2016 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman wrote: “It wasn’t until I saw Boaz Dvir’s very moving forthcoming documentary about him, Cojot, that I truly understood Michel’s life, and perhaps the message of it.” Cojot is a co-production with Matthew Einstein and Richie Sherman.
This special fall sneak preview will also include trailers for the Ninth Annual Gainesville Jewish Film Festival, which will run from Sunday, March 17 through the 30th. Admission is $10. Students are admitted free with valid ID. Tickets may be reserved now. For more information about the screening or for assistance with reserving and purchasing tickets, please contact the Jewish Council office at 352.371.3846.

Sneak preview event hosted by the Gainesville Jewish Film Festival and co-sponsored by the UF Center for Jewish Studies, the Jewish Council of North Central Florida, the UF Harry Rich Endowment for Holocaust Studies, and Hadassah of Gainesville.

Read the note about Cojot in Ytori.

November 4, 2018: For Immediate Release

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida announces:
From Segregation to Black Lives Matter. A Symposium and Celebration of the Opening of the Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History at the University of Florida

Register for free

Contact: Tamarra Jenkins, (352-392-7168),
Organized by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program,
Event Date: Thursday, March 21, 2019 to Saturday, March 23rd
Locations: George A. Smathers Libraries, The Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, A. Quinn Jones Center

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) is hosting a new symposium, From Segregation to Black Lives Matter, on March 21-23, 2019. 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the African American History Project at the University of Florida. Funded by the UF Office of the Provost, this research initiative has resulted in over twenty-five public history programs, university seminars on African American studies, conference presentations and scores of community-based oral history and Black History workshops across the country. The new collection includes over six hundred oral histories with African American elders in Florida telling stories of memories of slavery, resistance to segregation, anti-black racial violence, the coming of the modern civil rights movement and narratives of Black and Latinx intersectionality among many other topics.

This symposium marks the formal opening of the Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History at the University of Florida to scholars, students, and researchers worldwide. Joel Buchanan (1948-2014) was a beloved civil rights activist, historian and librarian in Gainesville and at the University of Florida. Joel was an indispensable member of the community, a tireless speaker who gave countless lectures and informal talks to elementary, high school and college students about the histories of segregation, the civil rights movement, and Gainesville. Joel used history to share his dreams of a better future for all. Joel guided generations of high school, college and university students in the completion of their class projects and dissertations. The naming of this collection is meant to pay homage to Joel Buchanan’s vision of history and social justice.

The symposium will feature panels, films, exhibits, performances, and lectures on many different facets of Black History. The event will bring together scholars, educators, and community organizers to discuss how to infuse African American history in K-12, higher education and social justice organizing on a national level. Participants will have the opportunity to discuss the role of African American history in classrooms, communities, and civic engagement. “This is truly going to be a historic event at UF,” says Paul Ortiz, director of SPOHP.

The event will also feature book-signings of noted authors.

Sponsored by the University of Florida Office of the Provost, African American Studies, George A. Smathers Libraries, the College of Medicine, Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere (Rothman Endowment), Bob Graham Center for Public Service, Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research, The Richard J. Milbauer Program in Southern History, Department of History, The Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida.”

Researchers: Mark Brenner,, 352-392-7226, Jason Curtis,
PIO: Rachel Wayne, 352-872-2620

The lowlands of Mexico and Guatemala experienced widespread deforestation by the Maya beginning about 4,000 years ago. The region has never fully recovered. Ancient Maya environmental impact provides a case study for the long-term effects of deforestation, and according to a new Nature Geoscience study published today, the implications for current tropical deforestation are far-reaching.

The lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula were occupied and heavily used by the Maya at the height of their civilization. Contrary to popular belief, “the Maya did not live in complete harmony with the environment, and there is ample pollen evidence throughout the region for severe deforestation over a protracted period of about 2,000 years,” says study co-author Mark Brenner, Professor of Geological Sciences and Director of the Land Use and Environmental Change Institute (LUECI) at the University of Florida.

Carbon sinks are realms in which carbon is sequestered in soil and biomass. Large-scale disruptions of the reservoirs, such as through deforestation, destabilize the sinks, leading to buildups of atmospheric carbon and potential climate effects. In turn, plant life reflects such changes and thereby provides a historical record of fluctuations in carbon storage. This study is the first to focus on soil carbon dynamics in response to protracted land use and suggests that extensive deforestation had dire consequences on agriculture and the availability of potable water. “The findings have relevance today,” said Brenner. “Modern tropical forest loss will likely have longstanding impacts on soil carbon stocks in the future, and there is evidence that abrupt climate changes can have devastating effects on agricultural output.”

The team measured radiocarbon in plant waxes collected from sediment cores obtained from the bottom of lakes in the affected region. The ages of waxes provide insights into the carbon cycle in terrestrial ecosystems. By calculating the age difference between waxes and terrestrial macrofossils (e.g. seeds, charcoal) from the same sediment level in which they were buried, the scientists could assess the persistence of soil carbon over time. The study found that Maya deforestation effectively reduced the transit time by 70 to 90 percent—essentially stripping the soil of its carbon-storage potential.

In the mid-1990s, the UF team of David Hodell, Mark Brenner, and then-PhD student Jason Curtis used lake sediment cores from the Maya Lowlands to explore past climate of the region. They discovered that a series of severe droughts were temporally correlated with the mysterious 9th-century Classic Maya “collapse.” In 2007, they were approached by late Yale professor Mark Pagani and his graduate student Peter Douglas, the lead author of the present study, who were using leaf waxes to study paleoclimate and wanted to run samples from the Maya Lowlands lake cores. “Direct radiocarbon dating of leaf wax molecules and macrofossils from the same sediment depths revealed the fact that the leaf waxes, part of the soil carbon stock, are retained for long periods of time in the watershed,” said Brenner. “That finding led to the present study and the discovery that ancient Maya deforestation accelerated the export of carbon from local soils. That is, vegetation loss shortened the carbon storage time.”

Numerous descendants of the Classic Maya still occupy parts of Mexico and Central America. However, the natural environment in which the ancient Maya lived has not fully recovered from the effects of their agricultural practices, says Brenner.

University of Florida student Aaron Sandoval, a sophomore, has been awarded a Goldwater Scholarship for the 2018-2019 academic year. Andrew Sack, a junior, was recognized with an Honorable Mention. Both are members of the UF Honors Program.

Sandoval is a biology major and plans to earn an M.D. and a Ph.D. in Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology before pursuing a research career in regenerative medicine. He is also a UF University Scholar and currently conducts research with Dr. Malcolm Maden, UF biology professor and researcher in the Cancer and Genetics Research Complex.

young man standing in front of green chalkboard with math equations

Andrew Sack Tim Sofranko

Sack is a mathematics major with plans to earn a Ph.D. in math and teach at a university.

“I’m proud to have Aaron Sandoval and Andrew Sack receive recognition from Goldwater for the outstanding records they have compiled at UF,” said Mark Law, director of the UF Honors Program. “They will go on to great things with their research and academic interests.”

The Goldwater Scholarship is the most prestigious undergraduate award in the fields of natural sciences, mathematics and engineering. It is awarded to students who demonstrate outstanding work in these areas and encourages them to continue their career paths.

This year, 1,280 students from 470 institutions were nominated for the scholarship. The Goldwater Foundation awarded 211 nominees with scholarships and named an additional 281 as Honorable Mentions.

Past Goldwater Scholars include other members of the UF Honors Program, Mihael Cudic (2017, electrical engineering), Tiffany Paul (2016, physics), Colin Defant (2015, mathematics) and Lauren McCarthy (2015, chemistry).

Originally published on UF News.

New result ends a 30-year research and development phase and begins the definitive search for axion particles

Contact: David Tanner, 352-392-4718
Media: Rachel Wayne,

Forty years ago, scientists theorized a new kind of low-mass particle that could solve one of the enduring mysteries of nature: what dark matter is made of. Now the search for that particle has begun in earnest.

This week, the Axion Dark Matter Experiment (ADMX) unveiled a new result (published in Physical Review Letters) that places it in a category of one: it is the only experiment on Earth capable of probing for these low-mass particles, called axions, with the sensitivity necessary to find them. This technological breakthrough is the result of more than 30 years of research and development, beginning with the efforts of a team at University of Florida. The final piece of the puzzle now has come in the form of a quantum-enabled device that allows ADMX to listen for axions more closely than any experiment ever built.

ADMX is managed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and located at the University of Washington. This new result, the first from the second-generation run of ADMX, sets limits on a small range of frequencies where axions could have been hiding, and sets the stage for a wider search in the coming years.

“This result signals the start of the true hunt for axions,” said Fermilab’s Andrew Sonnenschein, the project manager for ADMX. “We know we have the sensitivity now to detect them, and if the theory is right, it’s only a matter of time before we find them.”

That theory suggests that the dark matter that holds galaxies together might be made up of a vast number of low-mass particles which act like waves streaming through the cosmos. The first efforts to find this particle, named the axion by theorist Frank Wilczek, took place in the 1980s. Pierre Sikivie, UF professor of physics, believed that axions could be the dark matter, and with UF professors David Tanner and Neil Sullivan, began working on a detector in 1983. “In principle, you could detect dark matter here, because it’s throughout the galaxy,” says Sikivie. The present iteration of the detector at Washington finally has the sensitivity necessary to detect axions.

ADMX is an axion haloscope – essentially a large, low-noise, radio receiver, which scientists tune to different frequencies and listen to find the axion signal frequency. Axions almost never interact with matter, but with the aid of a strong magnetic field and a cold, dark, properly tuned, reflective box, ADMX can “hear” photons created when axions convert into electromagnetic waves inside the detector.

Sikivie wrote seminal papers on axion cosmology, including the notion that the galactic halo – the swath of matter enclosing a galaxy – could be made of axions, and he theorized a detection method to make the “invisible axion” visible. Pioneering experiments and analyses by UF scientists, in collaboration of the University of Rochester, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Fermilab, demonstrated the practicality of the experiment. They led to the construction in the late 1990s at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of a large-scale detector that is the basis of the current ADMX.

“If you think of an AM radio, it’s exactly like that,” said Gray Rybka, co-spokesperson for ADMX and assistant professor at the University of Washington. “We’ve built a radio that looks for a radio station, but we don’t know its frequency. We turn the knob slowly while listening. Ideally we will hear a tone when the frequency is right.”

It was only recently, however, that the ADMX team has been able to deploy superconducting quantum amplifiers to their full potential enabling the experiment to reach unprecedented sensitivity. Previous runs of ADMX were stymied by background noise generated by thermal radiation and the machine’s own electronics.

Fixing thermal radiation noise is easy: a refrigeration system cools the detector down to 0.1 Kelvin (roughly -460 degrees Fahrenheit). But eliminating the noise from electronics proved more difficult. The first runs of ADMX used standard transistor amplifiers, but after connecting with John Clarke, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, Clarke developed a quantum-limited amplifier for the experiment. This much quieter technology, combined with the refrigeration unit, reduces the noise by a significant enough level that the signal, should ADMX discover one, will come through loud and clear.

“It’s very satisfying to have this achievement,” says Tanner, who worked on the super-cooling systems for the detector. “Potentially, from the signal, you could trace back the history of the dark matter flow in the galaxy.”

“The initial versions of this experiment, with transistor based amplifiers would have taken hundreds of years to scan the most likely range of axion masses. With the new superconducting detectors, we can search the same range on timescales of only a few years,” said Gianpaolo Carosi, co-spokesperson for ADMX and scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“This result plants a flag,” said Leslie Rosenberg, professor at the University of Washington and chief scientist for ADMX. “It tells the world that we have the sensitivity, and have a very good shot at finding the axion. No new technology is needed. We don’t need a miracle anymore, we just need the time.”

ADMX will spend the next five years testing millions of frequencies at this level of sensitivity. If axions are found, it would be a major discovery that could explain not only dark matter, but other lingering mysteries of the universe. If ADMX does not find axions, it may force theorists to devise new solutions to those riddles.

“A discovery could come at any time over the next few years,” said scientist Aaron Chou of Fermilab. “It’s been a long road getting to this point, but we’re about to begin the most exciting time in this ongoing search for axions.”
Read the paper in Physical Review Letters here.

This research is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, the Heising-Simons Foundation and research and development programs at the U.S. DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the U.S. DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The ADMX collaboration includes scientists at Fermilab, the University of Washington, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of Florida and the University of Sheffield.

Fermilab is America’s premier national laboratory for particle physics and accelerator research. A U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory, Fermilab is located near Chicago, Illinois, and operated under contract by the Fermi Research Alliance LLC, a joint partnership between the University of Chicago and the Universities Research Association Inc. Visit Fermilab’s website at and follow us on Twitter at @Fermilab.
DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

UF zoologists discover a mysterious disappearance of seabirds on a Florida key.

Contact: Mark Sandfoss
Harvey Lillywhite

Mysteriously vanished waterbirds. Cannibalistic snakes. An island with no freshwater except for rainfall. It may sound like a Crichton novel or SyFy original movie, but it’s the reality of Seahorse Key, part of the Gulf Coast Cedar Keys that University of Florida biologists have been researching since the 1930s, when the renowned late zoologist Archie Carr first began studying the unusually large cottonmouth population there.

Cottonmouths are the world’s only semi-aquatic viper and also one of the few snakes that eat carrion. Unlike many other Florida snakes that eagerly consume bird eggs and hatchlings, cottonmouths enjoy a more pescatarian diet, which made them a great neighbor for the birds that nested on the keys. Birds are notoriously messy eaters and, on Seahorse Key, pelicans, cormorants, and other waterbirds made a smorgasbord of fish scraps for the cottonmouths, that also ate the rats lurking around the nests in hopes of snatching an egg or two.

This beneficial arrangement collapsed when the birds suddenly abandoned their nests. In the western part of Seahorse Key, where most of the rookeries were, cottonmouths have struggled ever since, limited to the occasional stranded fish or forced to eat each other. So discovered Mark Sandfoss, UF zoology doctoral student, who was two years into his research on waterbird–cottonmouth mutualism in the Cedar Keys, only to discover that one party was vanishing. In April 2015, the birds abandoned their rookeries on Seahorse Key for reasons still unknown, and as Sandfoss continued to capture, tag, and track the snakes, he found that many of them were small, weak, and dying. The research was published on Nov. 6, 2017, in the Journal of Zoology.

Sandfoss is a mentee of UF biology professor Harvey Lillywhite, who was director of Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory from 1998 to 2012 and who has studied the cottonmouths for almost two decades. “I knew, and was curious about, the dense population of cottonmouths on Seahorse Key for years,” said Lillywhite. “In 1998, I became the director of the Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory and decided to conduct a research program there to better familiarize myself with the island.”

Eleven years prior to Sandfoss beginning his research, Lillywhite and his student and eventual postdoc, Coleman Sheehy, published their observations of the island cottonmouths’ intense foraging behavior, especially below the rookeries. At that time, they noticed that drought was affecting the birds, and therefore the snakes. However, decades of literature showed that the Cedar Keys experienced natural cycles of inhabitation. The total abandonment of the Seahorse Key rookery was unprecedented, but presented what Sandfoss calls a “natural experiment.” What would become of the Seahorse Key cottonmouths?

Over the years, Lillywhite and Sheehy, now the herpetology collection manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History, have continued their annual check-ups of the snakes. Sandfoss was intrigued by their work and cites Lillywhite’s lab as his primary reason for coming to UF.

Cottonmouths (genus Agkistrodon), also called water moccasins, have a broad geographic range, making them a common fright in 16 states. Despite their scare tactic— a threatening gape that shows the white interior of their mouth, hence their name — incidence of human bites is low, and they are not particularly aggressive. They present little danger to humans, said Sandfoss, and “they’re really cool — and nice.” They’re especially so in Seahorse Key, where many have become accustomed to being approached and handled. In Florida, all cottonmouths are the species A. conanti, recently upgraded from a subspecies. (Interestingly, the type specimen for the species description was found just seven miles outside Gainesville.) Fairly tolerant of saltwater, the cottonmouths were able to populate Florida’s barrier islands. Unfortunately, they are not strong oceanic swimmers, and although their island lifestyle is no longer as blissful as it was, they are not well equipped to migrate.

Many snakes are ovivoric (egg-eating) and especially so on islands, where resources are scarce, but the Cedar Keys featured a remarkable symbiotic relationship. Typically, in island ecosystems with both birds and snakes, snakes prey upon the birds, explained Lillywhite. However, at Seahorse Key, the birds feed the snakes in a different way — their table scraps, so to speak. Sandfoss was entranced by the research potential of the Cedar Keys’ denizens: “The behavior and biology of the cottonmouths that survive on these islands is fascinating. It is truly a unique system.”

Although snakes are generally evolved to handle long periods without sustenance, the nesting season had lasted March to November in Seahorse Key, providing a long-term source of energy for the cottonmouths. Despite A. conanti’s guts of steel and exploratory feeding, starvation is still a real possibility and, if not fatal, detrimental to reproductive efforts in a species that bears live young.

Those live young get a taste for their prey in the early days of life, and in the western part of Seahorse Key, where birds bestowed a regular rain of fish detritus upon them, the young quickly lived up to their scientific name, derived from Latin for “fish eater.” Previous research by Lillywhite and Sheehy shows that although cottonmouths won’t turn their nose up at unfamiliar prey, they do develop a palate. On the eastern part of Seahorse Key, where fewer birds roosted before the 2015 abandonment, cottonmouths seem to have adapted to a less fishy diet, and therefore were not as negatively affected by the birds’ departure.

The nearby Snake Key seems to have fared better, although less research has been done there. “Now that bird nesting is occurring on Snake Key and not Seahorse Key we are interested to see how Snake Key cottonmouths will fare as a population,” said Sandfoss. “We suspect that the Snake Key population will receive some positive benefits from the presence of the nesting waterbirds.” The team plans to continue monitoring the keys and tracking the cottonmouth population. Meanwhile, Sandfoss, who received the 2017–18 Seahorse Key Fellowship, is tackling the question of how snakes subsist in an environment virtually free of freshwater — another characteristic of these unusual, island-dwelling snakes. Clearly, life finds a way in the Cedar Keys.

See photos and more on Exposure.

LIGO and Virgo Detect Gravitational Waves from Neutron Star Collision for the First Time


Guenakh Mitselmakher, 352-871-1663;

Stephen S. Eikenberry, 352-514-7632;

Imre Bartos, 917-455-6264;

David Tanner, 352-318-3985


Neutron stars are dead stars collapsed into the densest form of matter known to humans, with a teaspoon of neutron star matter weighing a billion tons, and their collision creates a swath of galactic debris. Decades ago, stargazing scientists formed plans to detect signals from this debris. Now, in the new era of aptly named “multi-messenger astronomy,” two international projects have achieved this goal: On August 17 of this year, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)’s two U.S.-based interferometers and the Virgo Collaboration’s Italy-based interferometer detected for the first time gravitational waves — ripples in space-time traveling at the speed of light — from the collision and subsequent merger of two neutron stars. The detection occurred just three days after yet another “chirp” from colliding black holes.

This is LIGO’s fifth significant detection of gravitational waves from a catastrophic cosmic event, but the first detection from a kilonova. The Aug. 14 and 17 chirps were the first for Virgo. LIGO sent an alert to about a hundred observatories around the world, sparking a six-hour hunt for light and other emissions within a banana-shaped band of cosmic signals from the event. At an unprecedented scale of international, interdisciplinary collaboration, 60 observatories confirmed that the ripple of gravitational waves were indeed from a kilonova. A broad range of so-called cosmic messengers (gravitational waves, gamma-rays, X-rays, light, radio waves) have been recorded from the collision, marking the beginning of what astronomers refer to as “multi-messenger astronomy.”

Gravitational waves carry information on the acceleration of heavy objects, such as what occurs during the merger of two neutron stars or black holes. In this case, they told scientists that the neutron-star merger occurred about 120 million light years from Earth, closer than scientists’ previous expectations. The discovery was almost simultaneous with a sharp burst of gamma rays observed by two orbiting satellites, Fermi and INTEGRAL.

Neutron star mergers were one of the original motivations for constructing the LIGO detectors, an endeavor that began half a century ago and became the biggest project the National Science Foundation ever funded. In the Advanced LIGO project stage, the interferometers heard the first chirp of gravitational waves from merging black holes in September 2015. The discovery, announced last February, heralded the beginning of gravitational-wave astronomy and earned the LIGO Scientific Collaboration much acclaim.

Scientists in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, of which UF is a founding member, and elsewhere are using their observations of the neutron-star merger to study the universe as well as the fundamental laws of nature. Currently, gravitational-wave detectors have 232 institutions and about 1600 scientists as members. UF has made key contributions to these studies across the entire scope of the project. Physicists now better understand how extremely energetic photons are produced in outer space. LIGO enables scientists to study the expansion of the universe in unprecedented ways by comparing the observed gravitational waves to what is known about the distant galaxy in which the merger happened more than 100 million years ago. Physicists are also increasing their understanding of how matter behaves at densities greater than that of the atomic nucleus.

UF made seminal contributions to infrared and optical observations of emissions from the debris around the merged neutron stars. Led by Steve Eikenberry of UF Astronomy, UF built the FLAMINGOS2 instrument, a near-infrared imaging spectrograph installed in the Gemini-South 8-meter telescope. FLAMINGOS2 detected the infrared emission 12 hours after the chirp took place and helped confirm the signal, which was characteristic of a kilonova.

In addition, newly appointed UF Physics faculty member Imre Bartos plays a leading role in searches for neutrinos from the merger, probing emission mechanisms at extreme energies. “Neutrinos are notoriously hard to detect, so we use IceCube, a billion-ton detector deep in the ice under the South Pole in Antarctica,” said Bartos. “No extra neutrinos were seen from this event, but even this allows us to set limits on what happened following the merger.”

UF became the third university to join LIGO after Caltech and MIT. The UF-LIGO team in the Department of Physics has spearheaded the design and construction of crucial components of the LIGO observatories and was responsible for the input optics (IO) of both the initial and the Advanced LIGO detectors. The IO is one of the most complex parts of the detector, and many key components were fabricated at UF. Florida also made significant contributions to the optical design of the main interferometer. The team working on these efforts includes Guido Mueller, David Reitze, David Tanner, Paul Fulda, and John Conklin. Hai-Ping Cheng leads the computational effort to reduce thermal noise in the detector.

UF’s Sergey Klimenko and Guenakh Mitselmakher developed the algorithm that discovered the first gravitational-wave signal in LIGO data on September 14, 2015. The UF algorithm is now being used to study the fate of the neutron stars after they merged.

The discovery was published on Oct. 16, 2017 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters (PDF).

This year’s Physics Nobel Prize was awarded to three scientists who were instrumental in the construction of LIGO and the first direct observation of gravitational waves, published last year. This award was given independently of the discovery of the neutron star collision.

LIGO is funded by the NSF and operated by Caltech and MIT, which conceived of LIGO and led the Initial and Advanced LIGO projects. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by the NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council) making significant commitments and contributions to the project. More than 1,200 scientists and some 100 institutions from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian collaboration OzGrav. Additional partners are listed at The list of UF senior LIGO members is Guenakh Mitselmakher (PI), David Tanner, David Reitze (LIGO Executive Director), Sergey Klimenko, Guido Mueller, Bernard Whiting, Steve Eikenberry, Hai-Ping Cheng, John Conklin, and Imre Bartos.

The Virgo Collaboration comprises more than 280 physicists and engineers belonging to 20 different European research groups: six from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; eight from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy; two in the Netherlands with Nikhef; the MTA Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland; Spain with the University of Valencia; and the European Gravitational Observatory, EGO, the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy, funded by CNRS, INFN, and Nikhef.

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UF psychologist Lori Knackstedt studies an antibiotic that may cure cocaine addiction.

Lori Knackstedt, professor of psychology, is seven years deep into research that’s yielded some surprising results: in cocaine-addicted rats, an antibiotic reduces their drug-seeking behavior and may prevent relapse. The drug Ceftriaxone appears to increase reuptake of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that regulates dopamine, the crux of the reward system. Knackstedt’s team wonders why.

Her latest paper, published online May 11 in the Journal of Neuroscience, has identified novel mechanisms of how Ceftriaxone (abbreviated “Cef”) reduces cocaine seeking. However, they also found that Cef is not directly increasing gene expression of two key glutamate transporters, GLT-1 and xCT. “We do find that this antibiotic changes things in the brain,” she says. “We’re just not sure how it’s doing it.”

Knackstedt’s fascination with behavior motivates her research. Her neurobiological approach stems from her undergraduate education in biology, where a neuroscience course piqued her interest in how cellular brain processes affect behavior. Now, she’s concerned with the practical aspects of behavior modification. The Ceftriaxone research examines how an antibiotic is disrupting the reward pathway in the nucleus accumbens — the reward center of the brain — and now that they know it’s not acting directly on DNA, the team is one step closer to understanding how Cef reduces excess glutamate that supports continued addiction and encourages patients to relapse.

Next, the team will expand their perspective beyond the nucleus accumbens, but that requires a broader approach: proteomics, a portmanteau of “protein genomics,” involves the use of a mass spectrometer to analyze tissue. An emerging body of research shows that “listen to your gut” has some neuroscience behind it; a reduced gut microbiome has been linked to cocaine relapse, as well as anxiety and depressive disorders. Cephalosporin antibiotics such as Cef have been shown to reduce these behaviors, but their role in the gut–brain axis is not well understood.

Nevertheless, overuse of antibiotics has its own set of side effects. Thus, Knackstedt’s side project is to get the best of both worlds: “I’m interested in developing a drug with reduced side effects to treat addictive behaviors,” she says. “Ceftriaxone is a real contender.”

See this story and learn more about the neurobiology of addiction on Exposure.