Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=118723
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 6:05:46 AM CST
The name Batman elicits an image of the dark comic caped-crusader. But at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, the bat-man is curator Lawrence Heaney, head of the mammals division.
Instead of plotting plans for justice in the Batcave, Heaney spends most days at his computer figuring out how to describe, define and protect new species of bats, rats and other small mammals.
He hasn’t been to Gotham City. But Heaney flies to the Philippines to study furry animals that are endemic to the island – and often found nowhere else.
He doesn’t fight crime. But he fights to educate people about his discoveries and the importance of biodiversity.
All with a relaxed, unassuming disposition.
“Of the 95 million or so Philippine citizens right now, probably 80 percent have no clue that the Philippines is a country that is unusually rich in unique biological diversity, and that’s terribly unfortunate,” Heaney said.
To address the lack of knowledge, Heaney and other U.S. and Filipino researchers work together to create tools for both researchers and the general public.
“Publications that describe the results of our surveys in technical language definitely have a real impact. That’s the hard currency; that’s the stuff that everybody accepts as being real,” Heaney said.
But the soft science – educating school officials, local citizens and other community leaders through posters and articles written for general audiences – is also important, he said.
With help from a team at the Field Museum that includes illustrators, a specimen preparator, and a research assistant, Heaney investigates differences among animals that he and other scientists have discovered in the Philippines.
The team uses measurements, photographs, specimens – both complete animals preserved in alcohol and bones – and DNA data from collaborators at other institutions to determine where in the tree of life a certain animal fits.
For its current project, the team will finish posters of insect-eating bats found on the island of Luzon before Heaney heads back to the Philippines in March as a way to increase public interest in biological diversity and natural history.
Velizar Simeonovski, an illustrator and zoologist, has been drawing the faces of each type of bat to look lifelike. These sketches will enable anyone who comes across a bat in Luzon to compare facial features and, for the first time ever, quickly determine the type of bat he or she has encountered, he said.
Simeonovski and other team members including Clara Richardson, another illustrator, describe their working relationship with Heaney as symbiotic. Though they deferred to him when asked about specific components of their projects, they also described the natural back-and-forth Heaney encourages as their research progresses.
But why the Philippines? Heaney explains this with a laugh and a reference to Charles Darwin.
“It started in 1981 as a five-year project,” he said. But “the more questions we answer, the more we can ask!”
He and others study the Philippine archipelago for the same reasons Darwin went to the Galapagos: because islands provide a unique environment with a relatively shorter and simpler biological history than the mainland.
Over millions of years, animals and plants that reach an island – often via an ocean current or some other natural means – adapt and evolve to the abundance of available resources and limited predators. This process, called adaptive radiation, has led to many entirely new species of animals.
On an average day, Heaney might blend into the room – with his white beard and glasses, quiet personality and thoughtful nature. But when he discusses biodiversity and the research he continues to help advance, his face resembles that of a child describing an adventure through the park.
Among recent accomplishments, Heaney co-authored the description of a new rodent species announced last week. Discovered in 2006, the unusual native creature, called the hairy-tailed rat, or Hamiguitan batomys, lives only in Mount Hamiguitan forests on Mindanao island. Part of the mountain has been designated as a wildlife preserve, but it remains threatened by rapidly expanding mining activities, a fact of particular concern to Heaney.
Heaney is also working on similar descriptions for seven previously unknown species of forest mice and a field guide to help researchers and the general public better understand “the unique and distinctive fauna of the island of Luzon,” he said.
While he may not have a bat-signal, Heaney takes the call to educate people about the realities of biodiversity and conservation seriously.
“I’m a firm believer in doing everything you can to express the truth. And if there are people who don’t like the truth, well I guess I am fortunate that by and large I don’t need to care whether they like it or not.”