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Kickstarter for a Species Seeker

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 1, 2012

I’m borrowing this, with thanks, from Bug Girl’s Blog because it’s a great cause.  I’ve traveled with Brian Fisher and his team as they hunted for new ant species in Madagascar, and they do great work.  You can read that story here and in my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time.  I’m also a fan of Kickstarter, the fundraising site for creative projects.  My daughter recently raised funds there to do an art project about my father as an Outsider Artist.  So it’s great to hear that crowdsource project funding has now come to science, too:

Earlier this week, the internets were buzzing with a claim that Kickstarter is funding more projects than the National Endowment for the Arts.  It turns out that may not be strictly true, but it certainly is true that a lot of cool projects are being crowd-sourced that otherwise would never have made it off the ground.

I’ve mentioned some insecty Kickstarter projects before, like Meet The Beetle (a film about an endangered tiger beetle).  Unfortunately, Kickstarter is limited to arts and humanities. But now the concept of crowdsourcing has been harnessed for science!

Petridish.org is so new it hardly has a bacterial film growing on its website yet. Its first science crowd-sourcing project involves two awesome things: Insects and Madagascar.

“Unique” doesn’t begin to describe Madagascar. This giant island split from the African Continent over 160 million years ago, and over 90% of it’s mammal and reptile species occur no where else in the world.  Deforestation and erosion are critical threats to the island’s ecosystems, and many native species are endangered.

Brian Fisher, one of the folks behind AntWeb, is leading a project to document the ant species of a high remote preserve.   You might be wondering why you should care about ants in Madagascar.  You may especially be wondering this because you have figured out that at some point later in this post I’m going to hit you up for a donation.  I really like this statement from AntWeb that puts ants in context:

“At this moment, more than one thousand trillion ants are scurrying all over the Earth. If every human climbed aboard one side of a scale, and every ant crawled onto the other side, the scale would just about balance.”

Ants probably move more earth and recycle more dead things yearly than a whole army of human undertakers with bulldozers ever could.  Ants are a critical part of making the world’s living systems function.  The project description:

“Ants are the glue that hold forests together. But Madagascar’s hotspots of biodiversity are vanishing, and along with them unknown species. An estimated 40 percent of the island’s species, in fact, have already perished through human encroachment.

Pyramica hoplites stalks other insects in the leaf litter like a miniature jaguar. "If your sister goes to the corner for a glass of milk and never comes back, it's Pyramica that got her," says Fisher.

While ants aren’t as popular as furry and feathery animals, the insects turn over forest soil, breakdown debris, disperse crucial nutrients and otherwise support an unimaginable number of species both up, down and across the food chain. The insects are also a growing resource for antimicrobial and antifungal compound discovery, as many ants manufacture such chemicals to ward off disease and even farm food.

I need to reach one of the last standing pristine forests, called the Kasijy, before nearby populations burn them down to raise cattle. Researchers have visited the remote site only a handful of times because it’s a rugged, canyon-filled landscape resting on high blocks of limestone and sedimentary rock.Because Kasijy is so pristine, it also serves as a crucial data point of what Madagascar used to be like before the advent of modern civilization. The region and other forests are great places to understand the ongoing impacts of climate change on highly specialized ecosystems.

My expedition aims to:

  • Inventory Kasijy’s untold new species and document their roles in a pristine natural ecosystem.
  • Understand the biodiversity patterns of Madagascar and resolve our “bioilliteracy” of the Kasijy forest.
  • Set up more robust conservation plans for the island.
  • Raise awareness of Madagascar’s natural wonders and its ongoing plight.”

There are 39 days left to fund this project–I hope you can spare a dollar or two to help a researcher out!  Note that a large gift gets you acknowledged in any manuscripts published from this research.

And for a mere $5000, you can buy scientific immortality with your name, or the name of a friend or loved one, on one of Fisher’s new species.  Whatever you give, Fisher will not waste your money.  When I was there, we jumped a freight train to get to a research site, and he seemed to live on rice, a little chicken, and a horrible tea made from the burnt leavings at the bottom of the rice pot.

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