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Week of: Jan 20, 2019

Stephanie Steffen Biological Sciences

Link Olson, PhD, University of Alaska Fairbanks, will present “Reconciling scientific collecting with conservation: a case study on Madagascar’s endemic small mammals”.

Taxonomy--the science of grouping and classifying organisms--provides a necessary conceptual framework for recognizing and communicating units of biological diversity and is firmly rooted in specimen-based comparative biology. Due to a number of misconceptions, the continued collection of specimens is increasingly seen as unnecessary, contrary to conservation, or both, and a minority opinion staunchly opposed to collecting has emerged in the peer-reviewed literature. The island continent of Madagascar is renowned for its high levels of endemism and is considered both a biodiversity hotspot and conservation priority. 95% of its reptile species, 99% of its amphibians, and 100% of its terrestrial mammals are endemic to the island (i.e., occur nowhere else). Among Madagascar’s unique mammal fauna are tenrecs, a textbook example of adaptive radiation. For the past two decades, my students, colleagues, and I have been studying tenrecs in order to understand the tempo and mode of their diversification. Through a combination of extensive field collecting, exhaustive examination of >5,000 voucher specimens, and the analysis of genetic and genomic datasets, we have uncovered evidence of an astounding number of undescribed species. Our analysis of historical and ongoing trends of taxonomic discovery and description among Madagascar’s vertebrates reveals that the modern rate of species discovery is unprecedented—not only for Madagascar but for other tropical biodiversity hotspots around the world—and shows no sign of imminent deceleration. Tenrecs exemplify many of the issues confounding species delineation and conservation prioritization, and our results highlight the urgent need to “collect to protect” Madagascar’s highly threatened biodiversity.

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