California Academy of Sciences (2014)

Digitizing Southwestern-African Herpetological Collections

Project Details

Grantee Organization: California Academy of Sciences
Grant Amount: $180,000
Contact: David Blackburn
Contact Email: DBlackburn 'atsign'
Funding Dates: 7/1/14-6/30/15
Project Links:

As of July 2015, the PI for this project, Dr. Blackburn, has moved to the University of Florida. The remainder of the grant from JRS continues at UF and you can find the new grant page here.

BackgroundCAS logo_wide

Angola and Namibia form a hotspot for amphibian and reptile diversity, together encompassing a complete faunal turnover from arid to equatorial African biotas. Most primary biodiversity data for species in these countries remain inaccessible. Decades of civil war in Angola coupled with a lack, in both countries, of expertise in biodiversity informatics means that much of the scientific collections that document the diversity and distribution of this unique fauna remain unknown.

Biodiversity data associated with specimens in scientific research collections underlies this project’s ability to investigate spatial patterns of biodiversity (including richness and endemism) as well to make informed conservation decisions. A significant challenge facing students, biodiversity scientists, and conservationists working in Africa is the lack of access to information and primary data. By facilitating access to biodiversity data through digitizing existing scientific collections in countries, such as Angola and Namibia, and providing training to build in-country capacity in informatics, both basic science and conservation can be advanced for species and landscapes that have and will continue to change quickly.

Key Objectives and Activities

In partnership with African institutions, this project will collaboratively

  • Digitize and geocode data from the principal herpetological collections for Angola and Namibia and distribute these globally under a Creative Commons license via VertNet
  • Georeference digitized data for amphibian and reptile specimens from Angola and Namibia in other collections in South Africa, Europe, and the United States
  • Train in-country students and collaborators via on-site sessions in biodiversity informatics
  • Update conservation assessments for reptile and amphibian species with data generated from this digitization, many of which have not yet been assessed or are currently assessed as Data Deficient because primary data are lacking
  • In-country training focused on database creation, maintenance, use, and downstream conservation applications will be provided to colleagues in governmental and non-governmental institutions interested in the biodiversity of Angola and Namibia and will facilitate current priorities in these countries for biodiversity documentation.

Planned Outputs

  • Literature records of Angolan and Namibian amphibians and reptiles will be gathered, standardized, and annotated
  • All unique localities for collated records will be georeferenced and proofed and all records will be formatted to Darwin Core standards
  • Training sessions in georeferencing standards will be held for in-country partners
  • In collaboration with local partners, the postdoc, PIs, and co-investigator will personally verify all museum records in U.S., European, and African museum collections
  • A specialized training session in biodiversity informatics will be held in the region for 15 to 20 colleagues from Angola and Namibia
  • The fully verified data for Angolan and Namibian scientific collections will be published to GBIF (with sponsorship by VertNet) and updated georeferenced records will be redistributed to data providers
  • Technical syntheses will be distributed to appropriate conservation and governmental organizations for immediate use in threat assessment, while non-technical syntheses intended for broad dissemination are distributed to Angolan and Namibian governmental ministries, NGOs, and educational institutions

Planned Outcomes

The most significant results from this project include the digitization and dissemination of more than 40,000 specimen records of approximately 440 reptile and 115 amphibian species from Angolan and Namibian museum collections and the capacity building of in-country collaborators in biodiversity informatics. This project will globally distribute data on historical localities for poorly known species that are of conservation concern. By providing staff at Angolan and Namibian institutions with equipment, software, and technical skills, this work will facilitate the further digitization of existing collections at these institutions.

These data will also be used in technical publications and non-technical syntheses including gazetteers of localities and summary documents on the conservation status of Angolan and Namibian amphibians and reptiles that will serve a broad audience including NGOs, ministries, and policy makers.

Primary Software Platforms

  • VertNet to publish data
  • GBIF Integrated Publishing Toolkit

Results to Date

  • Comprehensively assembled specimen collections data for amphibians and reptiles of both Namibia (~35,900 records) and Angola (~7,000) from 53 scientific collections. In addition, members of the group have personally visited three museum collections in Portugal, two in Switzerland, one in Namibia, and three in the US.
  • Identified participants from our partner institutions in both Angola and Namibia for our upcoming training workshop (to be held in Namibia in 2016).
  • Published two papers and two short notes related to scientific collections from Angola as well as new species records from Namibia.

Lessons Learned

Generalism, blind faith, and not a small dose of luck, can be major assets to a multi-national project. The team was hoping to locate a famous collection believed to have been destroyed in civil unrest. They fortuitously discovered a reference to the collection made in 1948, and learned that the collection was intact at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium. The discovery of this reference was lucky because it the reference was located in a Portuguese language report, a language in which Dr. Ceríaco happens to be fluent.

Related Publications

  • Ceríaco, LMP; DC Blackburn; MP Marques; and FM Calado (2014) Catalogue of the amphibian and reptile type specimens of the Natural History Museum of the University of Porto in Portugal, with some comments on problematic taxa. Alytes.  31: 13-36. (link)
  • Ceríaco, LMP; AM Bauer; DC Blackburn; and A Lavres (2014) The herpetofauna of the Capanda Dam Region, Malanje, Angola. Herpetological Review. 45(4): 667–674.

Project Director Biography

While this project is award by JRS to the California Academy of Sciences, it is collaborative effort among four key researchers; project director David Blackburn, Luis Ceríaco in Portugal, Aaron Bauer at Villanova, and Matt Heinicke at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Dave Blackburn is a curator of amphibians and reptiles at the California Academy of Sciences. His research focuses on the evolution, diversity, and conservation of amphibians, especially frogs and in Africa. Since 2000, Dave has worked in many different countries and landscapes across Africa ranging from the Sahara to montane forests.

Notes from JRS

JRS is pleased to announce this new grant in 2014 to a team with proven success in and dedication to the biodiversity of Southern Africa. The project builds upon the first JRS grant related to reptiles and amphibians awarded to the University of Cape Town  to support the atlas of the Southern Africa Reptile Conservation Assessment (SARCA) and deepens the regional expertise for biodiversity informatics and conservation assessments. This project will build capacity and awareness in Angola and Namibia where JRS has only had minor activities to-date.  Expanding our geographic reach to new countries with low biodiversity data capacity poses risks and challenges to our ability to provide supporting services to the grantee and their local partners yet also provides the opportunity for significant benefits.  A unique and welcome feature of this project’s original design was a 24 month period after the major activities end to continue to monitor and evaluate the results of the project and to provide some continuing technical support.

Last Updated: February 28th, 2017

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