Editorial: Campus research with global impact

  • Duncan Irschick, a University of Massachusetts biology professor and director of the Digital Life project, with the “Beastcam MACRO,” a device for capturing animals in full 3-D. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 5/25/2017 7:55:26 PM

Two reports this month describe cutting-edge research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Hampshire College that has global implications.

Digital Life researchers at UMass are using new 3-D technology to focus attention on some of the most endangered frog species on Earth as an example of the alarming possibility of mass extinction for the planet’s animal life.

“We really are running out of time,” says evolutionary biologist Duncan Irschick, who is leading the project. “These animals really are going extinct and we need to capture them in time.”

And by “capture” he does not mean taking them into captivity. Instead the Digital Life team used the 3-D technology to preserve high-quality, accurate models of 15 endangered frog species. The “Frogs of the World” models are aimed at aiding conservation, education and science by showing off the beauty of the frogs as well as their vulnerability to ecological threats including destruction of their habitats and climate change.

Among the images are some of rarest frogs, including the Panamanian golden frog. The images were scanned in the Philippines by researchers from the University of Oklahoma, and at the Amphibian Foundation in Atlanta, Zoo Atlanta and UMass.

The key tool is a new photogrammetry rig called “Beastcam MACRO” created by undergraduate Trevor Mayhan and custom-built for small live animals. The models can be 3-D printed into realistic physical replicas.

Photography helps make people aware of endangered species and efforts to conserve them. “A lot of conservation is about storytelling,” says Irschick. “If you get people to care, people are very generous with their money, and that money can go to great causes.”

He explained that models make the danger of extinction seem more real. “It shows people why we care, why we love these animals, why they’re worth preserving.”

The sensitive skin of amphibians makes them particularly vulnerable to changes in the environment.

“This project helps highlight the slimier creatures that are kind of the underdogs in the conservation world,” says Mark Mandica, executive director of the Amphibian Foundation, a nonprofit partner with UMass on the project. “We can really showcase how unique and beautiful and diverse they are.”

Mandica studied herpetology and amphibian biology as an undergraduate student at UMass, and soon realized “that this group of animals I love so much are disappearing.”

The declining amphibian population is a sign of danger for other species and an overall threat to biodiversity. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2016 Living Planet Report warns that Earth may lose as many as two-thirds of all wild animals by 2020.

In addition to helping save endangered creatures, the researchers would like to create a 3-D library of all existing species for scientific and educational purposes.

Meanwhile, Hampshire College — true to its innovative approach to education — announced the world’s only academic program for non-humans, with its first scholars-in residence, plasmodial slime molds, moving into an office in the Cole Science Center.

They are single-celled, autonomous organisms that are not animal, plant or fungus species. They live in the soil and join with each other as superorganisms in which a single mold works for the good of the entire group.

“That’s why we got interested, because humans don’t tend to do that. We act as individuals but should probably be focused on the good of the whole,” says Megan Dobro, an assistant professor of human biology and one of the principal investigators doing the research. “It’s a very Hampshire project.”

Slime molds have been used elsewhere to study complex problems, including effective systems for transit and information delivery.

The Hampshire researchers hope to use the slime molds to help provide insights about topics as diverse as earthquake modeling, urban planning and border policies.

“I anticipate that we’ll be communicating their findings to World Bank and the UN,” says experimental philosopher and co-principal investigator Jonathan Keats, who Hampshire refers to as the “human liaison” to the slime molds. “Plasmodial slime molds are superorganisms, meaning that their self-interest is inseparable from their collective interest. The same is true of us humans, only our society doesn’t realize it yet.”

We hope that 3-D models of frogs and slime molds play a key role in helping today’s students unlock solutions to global problems.

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