CHICAGO, Oct. 6, 2008 – Putting together the Who's Who of bats, bears, beaked whales and all of Earth's other known mammals was a gigantic task ably assisted by a Field Museum scientific team with access to one of the planet's most extensive and diverse mammal collections.
A team headed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is releasing its comprehensive status on the world's mammals, including assessments of diversity, threat and knowledge of the creatures. The Oct. 10 issue of Science will feature the results of the study.
A major reason for doing the assessment is to get a picture of how mammals on our planet are doing. The news isn't good. One in four appears to be threatened with extinction and half the known species appear to be losing rather than gaining population. For land mammals, destruction or degradation of their habitats is the biggest threat, while marine mammals suffer more from accident deaths stemming from fishing practices and pollution.
Field Museum Provides "Gold Standard" for Study
The comprehensive assessment, which covers 5,487 wild mammal species, represents five years of work by more than 1,700 scientists from 130 countries and is the first update on mammals since 1996.
Among those scientists were seven affiliated with Chicago's Field Museum who helped colleagues from around the world by accessing the museum's data base of 200,000 records that document the existence and relationships of thousands of species. Field Museum zoologists have active survey programs and expertise in Asia, Africa, and the Americas; their recent collections inform and authenticate the status report. Just this summer, Field zoologists Bill Stanley, Steve Goodman, and Julian Kerbis Peterhans returned to Chicago with important new collections from Tanzania, Madagascar, and the Congo Basin.
"The Field Museum provides the gold standard for biodiversity studies," said Lawrence Heaney, a Field mammal curator and co-author of the study. "Our records are based on research collections that are permanent and are constantly updated."
Scientists Discover and Describe New Species
Besides information about mammals gathered over the 115 years that the Field Museum's collection has existed, scientists have access to specimens that can provide genetic material and anatomic information to help clarify whether animals are members of different species, are part of a subspecies, or fall into some other category.
In the current mammal update from the IUCN, such questions loomed often as scientists raised the number of recognized species by nearly 20 percent over what it had been just 14 years ago. This included 349 newly described species and 512 others that saw their status elevated to full-fledged species from some lesser category.
An example is the clouded leopard in Southeastern Asia, which was recently split into two separate species, with one living on the Southeast Asian continent and another native to the island of Borneo.
"Scientists are discovering 25 new mammal species a year," said Bruce Patterson, a Field mammal curator and also a study co-author. "We're still describing them. These aren't beetles or flies. They are our fellow vertebrates living on this planet. And we don't know them all."
Storing thousands of samples in its collection, the Field can provide scientists access to specimen that may be difficult to find or even extinct for analysis with the latest technology. Analysis of DNA is now possible for animals that lived and died before scientists even knew that DNA existed.
"We also can do isotopic analysis and study anatomy using a scanning electron microscope," said Heaney, again applying techniques that were unknown at the time when the collection samples were taken.
Although many mammal species are endangered, the Field Museum's Patterson found at least one upbeat message in the assessment project. "It was possible to marshal this much expertise and information and focus it on critical environmental issues," he said, "and it was all privately funded. That is impressive."