biodiversity

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Smart Science

Not a week passes without one of our scientists or students making an outstanding discovery about the life of the planet.  They mount expeditions to the most remote areas of oceans and continents to assay and document the animals and plants, living and fossil.  In our anatomical, DNA, and computational laboratories they decipher the evolutionary history, behavior, and the state and fate of species, habitats and ecosystems threatened with environmental change.  Here are just a few highlights.

In August, Luke Strotz, a postdoctoral researcher in Invertebrate Paleontology, garnered international headlines with his research findings that the “laziest” organisms—“couch potatoes” with the lowest metabolic rate—might be best at avoiding extinction.  At least judging from the survival record of fossil and living mollusks.

In September, entomologist Michael Engel and colleagues described a beetle that pollinated cycad plants in Myanmar 99 million years ago before it was trapped in amber and preserved.  The discovery indicates that beetles might have begun pollinating these ancient plants, commonly known as sagos, in the Jurassic world.

In October, Kate Ingenloff, a doctoral student in Ornithology, won the prestigious Young Researchers Award from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Copenhagen.  She developed a breakthrough analytical method that combines the geographic records of species with time-specific environmental and behavioral data to produce highly accurate forecasts of how these species will move and disperse across the landscape.  In turn, these forecasts can inform conservation and other policies affecting species and their habitats.

Also in October, the Coleopterists Society recognized aquatic beetle specialist Andrew Short’s research, research training and mentoring.  His doctoral student Steven Baca won the Edwards Prize for best publication based on a Master’s thesis, and Grey Gustafson, his postdoctoral associate, won the Lacordaire Prize for best publication based on a PhD dissertation.  Andrew’s work was recognized with the Golden Net award by the Entomological Collections Network.

In November, Chris Beard, in Vertebrate Paleontology, and his international team announced the discovery of fossil mammals from an isolated geologic “island” in Turkey that, literally, time forgot when it became separated from the rest of Eurasia. Although dating to about 43 million years ago, the extinct marsupials, rhino-like animals, and primitive tarsier-like primates represent relict animal groups that had long disappeared elsewhere. 

And in December, the New York Times featured the research of Johana Goyes, a postdoctoral researcher in Herpetology—she had documented exceptional “paternal devotion” in the caring for eggs by male Smooth Guarding frogs in the rain forest of Borneo.  These “devoted dads” will “scarcely move or eat for days while tending one clutch of eggs, and … once hatched, tadpoles clamber on the males’ backs to be ferried to pools of water.”

Now more than ever, when powerful institutions deliberately distain and dismiss our environmental knowledge and responsibility, we stand up for smart science and smart solutions in sustaining the life support systems of the planet and human well-being.  Join us.

 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

21 years later, the other stream frog shoe drops

Habitat

Today was a cathartic day in my own personal journey in studies of Philippine biodiversity.  The story starts in 1991 when, as an undergraduate student at Miami University, I joined my first biodiversity inventory expedition to the Philippines.  This was a great experience for a 22 year old, and my life took an immediate and irreversible turn (for the better) towards my passion for the study of life in islands archipelagos.  But more to the point: in 1991 we surveyed the southern slopes of Mt. Busa in South Cotobato Province (southern Mindanao).  The southern Philippines was a bit wild back then and a major commercial logging operation was focused on logging out the remaining huge, closed-canopy, forests along the south coast of Mindanao.  Valued at $10,000 per trunk on the Japanese timber market, the hardwood logs that came down the slopes of Mt. Busa made two Kiamba area families extremely wealthy…and changed the landscape and biodiversity of the immediate area forever.

In 1991 I took this image of a WWII MacArthur era weapons carrier truck, converted to a logging skidder, carrying out the massive trunks of the last giant trees from the lowland forests of southern Mindanao.  The environmental devastation imparted by this kind of logging is clearly evident; in this picture a logging truck drives through a small stream in a denuded area where a few days before I had collected frog specimens in what had then been pristine forest.

On that trip, justifiably convinced that all local frog populations were going locally extinct, we mounted a salvage operation and collected specimens to the very legal limit allowable by our permits.  We anticipated that no animals would survive the holocaust of large-scale commercial logging in that drainage on Mt. Busa and we did the best we could to document every resident species’ presence in the form of preserved specimens, before the record of their existence had been erased forever.

In the middle of a large series of preserved frogs, I unknowingly preserved a single specimen of what I have, over many years, come to believe is new species, still unnamed and unknown to the world.  At the time, the slight morphological differences did not impress me and I misidentified the specimen as one of the locally common species.  Years later, during my Masters work at Miami University, I showed that this one individual was genetically distinct…but I hesitated to name it because I had only that one specimen…

 Now, 21 years later—last night—I finally collected another specimen and knew in an instant what it was…as I flash backed to my memories of Mt. Busa in 1991. How could I have ever doubted myself?  This frog obviously is a new species of great conservation significance. 

After decades of biodiversity work, so many species discoveries, years of contributions to conservation efforts and student training, I reflect back on so many arguments with my fellow “conversation” biologists on the topic of faunal collecting and the age-old tradition (standardized by Linnaeus) of preserving specimens for describing and documenting biodiversity.  Some individuals, understandably abhorring the killing of animals for any reason, frequently speak ill of the practice of collecting and preserving specimens for science.  They argue that it is no longer necessary, that it is unethical, or that scientists may actually contribute to extinction of a species by removing a few individuals from the gene pool. Given the unceasing pace of habitat destruction brought about by logging, mining, and gradual conversion of forest to agriculture, there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the real threat to biodiversity is habitat loss, not occasional specimen preservation by scientists. We can debate about all the possible causes, but at the end of the day the fact remains: when we cut down the forest, the organisms that depend on it will go extinct. If we cut down all the forest in an area in rapid succession, there is little to no chance for survivors.  

For my part, I’m reminded of how important it is to document biodiversity assessments with vouchered specimens.  I’m relieved that I unknowingly collected and preserved that large series of frogs in 1991, before their population’s extinction at the hands of the loggers.  We now know that there once was a population in the previously forested area, which has now been converted to scorched, arid, grassland.  And in the process we discovered a new, unknown species, albeit by mistake.  It has taken me 21 years to convince myself of its distinctiveness, but today I am vindicated.  And another population (in a protected area) has now been identified, with positive prospects for the continued survival of the species.  Finally, the Philippines now has 110 + 1 species of amphibians.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

21 years later, the other stream frog shoe drops

Logging

Today was a cathartic day in my own personal journey in studies of Philippine biodiversity. The story starts in 1991 when, as an undergraduate student at Miami University, I joined my first biodiversity inventory expedition to the Philippines. This was a great experience for a 22 year old, and my life took an immediate and irreversible turn (for the better) towards my passion for the study of life in islands archipelagos. But more to the point: in 1991 we surveyed the southern slopes of Mt. Busa in South Cotobato Province (southern Mindanao). The southern Philippines was a bit wild back then and a major commercial logging operation was focused on logging out the remaining huge, closed-canopy, forests along the south coast of Mindanao. Valued at $10,000 per trunk on the Japanese timber market, the hardwood logs that came down the slopes of Mt. Busa made two Kiamba area families extremely wealthy…and changed the landscape and biodiversity of the immediate area forever.

In 1991 I took this image of a WWII MacArthur era weapons carrier truck, converted to a logging skidder, carrying out the massive trunks of the last giant trees from the lowland forests of southern Mindanao. The environmental devastation imparted by this kind of logging is clearly evident; in this picture a logging truck drives through a small stream in a denuded area where a few days before I had collected frog specimens in what had then been pristine forest.

On that trip, justifiably convinced that all local frog populations were going locally extinct, we mounted a salvage operation and collected specimens to the very legal limit allowable by our permits. We anticipated that no animals would survive the holocaust of large-scale commercial logging in that drainage on Mt. Busa and we did the best we could to document every resident species’ presence in the form of preserved specimens, before the record of their existence had been erased forever.

In the middle of a large series of preserved frogs, I unknowingly preserved a single specimen of what I have, over many years, come to believe is new species, still unnamed and unknown to the world. At the time, the slight morphological differences did not impress me and I misidentified the specimen as one of the locally common species. Years later, during my Masters work at Miami University, I showed that this one individual was genetically distinct…but I hesitated to name it because I had only that one specimen…

Now, 21 years later—last night—I finally collected another specimen and knew in an instant what it was…as I flash backed to my memories of Mt. Busa in 1991. How could I have ever doubted myself? This frog obviously is a new species of great conservation significance.

After decades of biodiversity work, so many species discoveries, years of contributions to conservation efforts and student training, I reflect back on so many arguments with my fellow “conversation” biologists on the topic of faunal collecting and the age-old tradition (standardized by Linnaeu) of preserving specimens for describing and documenting biodiversity. Some individuals, understandably abhorring the killing of animals for any reason, frequently speak ill of the practice of collecting and preserving specimens for science. They argue that it is no longer necessary, that it is unethical, or that scientists may actually contribute to extinction of a species by removing a few individuals from the gene pool. Given the unceasing pace of habitat destruction brought about by logging, mining, and gradual conversion of forest to agriculture, there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the real threat to biodiversity is habitat loss, not occasional specimen preservation by scientists. We can debate about all the possible causes, but at the end of the day the fact remains: when we cut down the forest, the organisms that depend on it will go extinct. If we cut down all the forest in an area in rapid succession, there is little to no chance for survivors.

For my part, I’m reminded of how important it is to document biodiversity assessments with vouchered specimens. I’m relieved that I unknowingly collected and preserved that large series of frogs in 1991, before their population’s extinction at the hands of the loggers. We now know that there once was a population in the previously forested area, which has now been converted to scorched, arid, grassland. And in the process we discovered a new, unknown species, albeit by mistake. It has taken me 21 years to convince myself of its distinctiveness, but today I am vindicated. And another population (in a protected area) has now been identified, with positive prospects for the continued survival of the species. Finally, the Philippines now has 110 + 1 species of amphibians.