Exploring the past to conserve the future
Discovering new species is an exciting and rewarding field of biological science and it’s part of the much larger objective of species conservation.
Our researchers make an enormous contribution to global biodiversity awareness, adding to protected and endangered species lists and providing evidence for establishing nationally protected environments.
Professor Kris Helgen has discovered more than a hundred new mammal species all over the world, with around 40 officially named and described.
His field research has inspired conservation of habitats and cooperation between local communities and international environmental organisations.
A prime example is his discovery of the olinguito, a member of the raccoon family, in South America.
It was found in habitats called cloud forests, scattered high in the Ecuadorian and Colombian Andes.
Professor Helgen says since his discovery in 2013 local people have provided information that has helped build a more complete picture of the olinguito’s way of life and its distribution.
“It’s also been used as a conservation and ecotourism emblem to justify protecting more and more areas of cloud forest.”
But while new-species discovery is what Professor Helgen is renowned for, he understands the importance of investigating the past.
“I’m focused on documenting the richness of mammal life globally—today and in the past.”
His team analyses ancient DNA and skull anatomy—in fossils and specimens collected by early European settlers—to understand how species’ ranges and numbers have changed over decades and centuries.
“We’re especially studying animals like marsupials, native rodents and flying foxes; creatures that define the Australian bush.”
Professor Helgen has conducted similar large-scale research in the US, Africa and the South Pacific, and knows its conservation value.
“This kind of work has many benefits: documenting extinctions and illuminating how to avoid them in future; tracing the origins and impacts of invasive species; and tracking changes in endangered species’ populations and their environments to inform future action.
“It shows we need to work at all costs to push back against human impacts threatening the species and environments that make our world so rich."