In June of this year, the Smithsonian's Global Genome Initiative (GGI) sponsored an expedition to Myanmar to preserve genomes of its fauna. Below is a story by one of our researchers!
My work involves collecting venomous snakes, and on my most recent trip we also collected tarantula's and other spiders, scorpions, and a foot-long centipede, which you do not want to bite you.
I am Dan Mulcahy, I have a bachelor’s degree in Integrative Biology, with an emphasis on Vertebrate Zoology. I have a PhD in Evolutionary Biology, and I currently work at the National Museum of Natural History's (NMNH) Global Genome Initiative (GGI). I study natural history, biogeography, taxonomy, and speciation of amphibians and reptiles. In the last two years, I have conducted biodiversity surveys in Myanmar, and I really enjoy that because it's different, new to me, and one of the more "un-explored" places on Earth.
Conservation of life on earth—I study these animals because I like them, but they are disappearing fast. Many species are becoming extinct before we can properly describe them, a phenomenon now known as "forensic taxonomy" (see also one of my articles in Zootaxa 2396). Species are often disappearing before we know their geographic distribution, or understand their roles in their ecological community. I would hope that my work helps to achieve a better understanding about these organisms and ultimately contributes to help conserve them. So much habitat is disappearing so rapidly around the world, from agriculture, to mining, logging, and human development. I think it is important to educate the public on environmental issues and evolutionary biology. But what is really necessary is for people to understand that biodiversity on this planet is extremely diverse, interesting, fascinating, and ultimately, worth saving.
We conducted biodiversity surveys in Myanmar, in collaboration with Fauna and Flora International (FFI), a conservation group with an office in Yangon, Myanmar. A major project of FFI in Myanmar is to inventory the biota (fauna and flora) of areas proposed or designated as national parks in the Tanintharyi Division, the southern-most part of Myanmar, located on the Malaysian Peninsula. We assisted FFI with their biodiversity surveys by providing taxonomic expertise, and with additional funding from a Global Genome Initiative grant, secured genome-quality tissues to be stored at the Smithsonian Institution's Biorepository.
Due to the remoteness of this region, we were not able to obtain liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze our samples (the preferred method). Therefore, we used different ambient-temperature solutions for storing our genomic materials for later comparisons.
Our efforts were focused on three major taxonomic groups: amphibians and reptiles (myself), insects (Bonnie B. Blaimer, an NHMH Postdoc in Entomology), and terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates (John D. Slapcinsky, a Senior Biologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History). We conducted visual encounter surveys, both day and night, on trails, streams, and in limestone caves. We also conducted leaf-litter sampling, set Malaise traps (for diurnal flying insects), and used black-lights (for nocturnal flying insects) for insects and other invertebrates.
We surveyed two areas over the course of 17 days, in Lenya National Park and a proposed extension area, both near the border with Thailand. These areas are currently vulnerable to logging, mining, agriculture, and over-harvesting of endangered animals by local hunters. Preliminary estimates from our surveys indicate that we sampled: 2 classes, 3 orders, 14 families, 38 genera, and over 60 species of amphibians and reptiles; 12 orders, and over 300 species of insects, and 5 phyla, 8 classes, 15 orders, 32 families, and likely over 500 species of other invertebrates.
Our teams are now in the process of confirming field identifications, assessing the quality of the genomic material, and conducting DNA barcoding analyses. We will then provide FFI with detailed reports of our findings, so that our efforts will contribute to documenting the biodiversity of this region and assist in conservation management strategies.
By Daniel G. Mulcahy, staff of the Global Genome Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History.