Research & Collections News
At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM), the curatorial staff members are widely recognized authorities in their fields. They win major grants. They serve as faculty and research associates at universities, museums, and other institutions. They publish regularly in journals and magazines. They are engaged in field and onsite research. They even play roles in crime fighting and policy-making. And of course, they preserve and strengthen the Museum’s collections — the platform upon which exhibitions and public programs are built.
To learn about recent accomplishments by Research and Collections staff, see the Research and Collections Newsletters, published by Jody Martin and Dean Pentcheff.
NHM Science News
By Lisa Blai
Mapping the Evolution of the Arctic Fox
There are many reasons why the Tibetan Plateau in western China is an arduous place to set up shop and work. Freezing temperatures for one—lack of air another. The area has an elevation of nearly 15,000 feet and it’s dominated by tens of thousands of glaciers. These facts did not deter NHM paleontologist Dr. Xiaoming Wang, who for years has made the journey from Los Angeles to this isolated, frozen land in order to chip open a window into the past. Recently, Wang and team happened upon a new fox species (Vulpes qiuzhudingi) that once roamed the Tibetan Plateau between 3.5-5 million years ago—a highly carnivorous predator, as demonstrated by the jawbones and teeth of the specimen. Wang and team believe this fox to be an ancient ancestor to the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus).
The arctic fox is thought to have evolved in Europe during the last Ice Age, less than a million years ago. This evidence suggests otherwise. The find also helps bolster Wang’s “Out-of-Tibet” hypothesis: with its frigid environs, the Tibetan Plateau, which loomed high in the clouds millions of years ago, was a training ground for high-altitude and cold-environment adaptations by animals long before the Ice Age. The current-day small, carnivorous arctic fox is well adapted for frigid terrain with its thick winter fur, compact body, and specialized paws that resist freezing on the icy ground. And the arctic fox isn’t the only animal adapted for freezing temperatures that Wang and team found in the plateau—the list of over 25 mammals includes a wooly rhino, three-toed horse, and ancient cousin to the modern snow leopard. These discoveries, taking place over 15 summer seasons, are very rewarding for the team. Although it’s a grueling environment to work in, the Tibetan Plateau still holds treasure, and Wang will be back to find it. “There are large areas of potentially fossiliferous terrains that have not been explored by paleontologists. Success is not guaranteed, but the excitement and expectation is palpable” said Wang.
Photo: Vulpes lagopus by Rama, Wikimedia Commons
Citation: Wang, X., Tseng, Z. Jack., Li., Q., Takeuchi., G.T., and Xie., G. 2014. From ‘third pole’ to north pole: a Himalayan origin for the arctic fox. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2014. 281 (1787): 20140893.