A meeting of carbon and code: Using ants and Open Science as tools for conservation assessment in Madagascar
What would it be like to live in a world where you could know the name of any ant? And could learn not just its name, but what it looks like, its habits, its distribution, whether it is endangered, whether it is invasive? What if you could do this without visiting a museum or library? And what if this knowledge could also help protect habitats, monitor ecosystems, and link the health and well-being of humans to that of the natural world?
We set out to make these ideas a reality in Madagascar. This has required rethinking the traditional inventory program, the analog museum, and how we make data available for conservation planning and sustainability studies. Our inventory program visited over 300 localities across Madagascar, visiting all major habitats across representative soil types and bioclimates. Despite having a team of highly trained parataxonomists and scientists, it was a challenge to transform a collection of over 400,000 pinned ants that include at least 800 new ant species into a data set for ecosystem assessment and sustainability studies.
In this talk I will discuss how the creation of AntWeb.org and the programmatic interface in R (in collaboration with Ropensci.org) facilitated the description of hundreds of new species, enabling the data to be accessed for conservation analysis. This approach also has enabled local experts to participate, and has helped move ants front and center in the conservation effort, putting this ubiquitous group of animals on an equal footing with birds in biodiversity monitoring and stewardship.