(Source: Star Advertiser)
The National Science Foundation has awarded two grants to the Bishop Museum — one for $1.3 million and another for $245,000 — to digitize its separate mollusk and insect collections, which could help identify living species of animals believed to be extinct.
The bigger grant of $1.3 million over four years is designed to digitize the museum’s mollusk collection to better understand the extinction of land snails, which have the highest number of extinctions of any major animal group. The greatest losses of land snails occur among the Pacific islands, according to the museum.
Researchers currently have to visit the Bishop Museum to look at mollusk field notes from Hawaii, Polynesia, Micronesia and East Melanesia that could be over 100 years old and are currently housed “in the back of the museum” — along with shells of snails believed to be extinct, according to Ken Hayes, the Bishop Museum’s invertebrate curator and director of its Pacific Center for Molecular Biodiversity.
The Bishop Museum is taking the lead on the project, which includes the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University, Philadelphia; Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Mass.; Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville; Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago; and the University of Hawaii.
The smaller grant, for three years, is for the Bishop Museum to join 22 other research collections in digitizing its insect collection.
The information from all of the organizations is expected to go online as soon as it’s digitized. But Norine Yeung, the Bishop Museum’s malacology curator, was attending a conference in Florida last week where researchers were trying to come up with uniform ways to format the information and images.
When the information does become available, the idea is to make it readily accessible online for anyone.
“Think of it like Google for biodiversity,” Yeung said. “It’s going to be online and available for anyone who’s interested in different species or interested in saving a species. It’s like Wikipedia for biodiversity.”
It’s not unthinkable that someone who culls through the data could retrace some of the original research and discover that a snail species considered extinct is actually alive in the wild.
A decade ago researchers estimated there were only nine surviving species of the amastridae family of snails in Hawaii — and one species was thought to be found only on Kauai.
But Yeung and Hayes were able to find 12 more species on Kauai, Maui and Oahu.
“We were able to rediscover species that haven’t been seen since the ’40s or the ’60s,” Hayes said. “Now there are 23 species. We were able to put 12 more on the list.”
The original information on where snails were identified in the past “has been locked away,” he said.
Making the collections and field notes available on the internet also might increase appreciation for the way earlier Hawaiians considered creatures such as snails, which were a sign of a healthy ecosystem, Yeung said.
“They were highly revered in the Hawaiian culture,” she said. “They weren’t thought of as icky or yucky. Native land snails took fungus off of leaves, which helped in photosynthesis. They were revered as auspicious, a good omen after a storm. If you find a snail after a storm, everything is OK again. In Hawaiian culture they were treasured, very important.
“If these species go extinct,” Yeung said, “we’re losing something of our culture, not just our ecosystem.”