June 2001

From Field Museum

Web key helps researchers identify mammals

CHICAGO – A Field Museum scientist has come up with a novel way of putting the museum’s enormous collection of artifacts and specimens to use around the world.

With more than 21 million items, The Field Museum’s collection is an ideal place for researchers to identify various faunas from many countries or regions. For example, the museum has an extensive collection of skulls and skins of mammals found in Tanzania. The challenge, however, is to find ways to give researchers worldwide – including Tanzanian biologists – access to the collection.

To meet this challenge, William Stanley, The Field Museum’s collection manager of mammals, has organized images and descriptions of the skulls and skins of mammals found in Tanzania on a Web site – in English and Kiswahili. "This allows scientists, students and educators, anyone, in fact, to reach through the Web and open a drawer in The Field Museum and study what they find there," Stanley says.

But the site, which will launch in late June, is not just a list. Rather, it is structured as a taxonomic key to identify mammals. By answering a series of either-or questions, someone with a skull or skin specimen in hand can narrow down the possibilities until he or she identifies the specimen. Each question is accompanied by images (photographs and/or drawings) illustrating the difference between the two choices presented.

This easy-to-use tool is the first Web-based key to Tanzanian mammals. In addition, it relies on a full set of images to differentiate one mammal from another. This differs from the traditional textbook approach, which relies on the written descriptions for identification. Finally, it is easier to update a Web-based guide with new findings than to update a textbook.

The Field Museum does not have a complete set of skulls or skins for all Tanzanian mammals, so Stanley had to round out the set by photographing specimens at the Smithsonian Institution. And he turned to students at the Art Institute of Chicago for drawings of whales.

Giving back to the world

The new key identifies about 170 mammals to the level of genus, but Stanley plans to extend that to the level of species. "If this model works, it could be a good way to increase access to – and the usefulness of – our collections of plants and animals from other countries," he says. "This is a good way for us to give something back to the world."

Stanley focused on Tanzania because he has been studying mammals there for years. The country is rich in biodiversity, especially the Eastern Arc Mountains. Formed millions of years ago, these mountains contain some of the most biologically diverse and endemically rich montane ecosystems in all of Africa. They have been referred to as the "Galapagos Islands of Africa."

Throughout the world, scientists have only identified a small percentage of all species that are thought to exist. It is vitally important to identify and classify all plants and animals to improve our understanding of life on earth, especially since many species are threatened with extinction. This project is one of the first steps in creating a new generation of tools that will help researchers – even those with little training – to identify local fauna, Stanley says. "We expect that it will also generate interest in Tanzanian mammals and hook future scientists on studying mammals."

The key was developed in collaboration with the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania with support from the MacArthur Foundation. Since Internet access in Tanzania is limited, The Field Museum plans to supplement the Web-based key with a compact disk.

To use the key, which is still in beta testing, visit www.devdirection.com/tanzania/. (Soon, this temporary site will link to the key’s permanent Web home on The Field Museum site.) Stanley will return to Tanzania in July where he will test and refine the new key.

Founded in 1893, The Field Museum is one of the world’s great museums and research centers. It is home to more than 70 scientists in anthropology, botany, culture, environmental studies, geology and zoology.

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright © 2004

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