Researcher will push emerging field of biodiversity informatics in Africa

Jul 13, 2012

The term “biodiversity informatics” may not set the average person’s heart aflutter. Yet, this emerging field is revolutionizing conservation efforts, public health and agriculture in parts of the world. Now, a researcher at the University of Kansas is ready to bring comprehensive training in biodiversity informatics to students and scientists across Africa.

“Biodiversity informatics is about how to develop, integrate and use information about life on Earth,” said Town Peterson, University Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and curator in the Biodiversity Institute. “We have a lot of raw data about biodiversity, which is to say we know places where particular species have been seen. But turning those raw data into usable information is a much bigger challenge.”

In , as in much of the world, there is scant availability of training in this important discipline. This is about to change. With funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, Peterson will lead multiple training sessions in four African nations: Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt.

“The people doing the training will come from around the world, and the trainees will be a range of people, from people in decision-making situations, such as a ministry of natural resources, to professors, graduate students and undergrads,” said Peterson. “We’re going to focus on people with the promise to take this training and put it to good use.”

What’s more, Peterson and his team will make videos of the training sessions, along with other learning materials, available on the Internet for anyone to access. He calls it a free online “biodiversity informatics university.”

“You have a field that’s relatively new,” said the KU researcher. “Being able to analyze biodiversity patterns worldwide is not something that’s been feasible in terms of data availability for very long. This field emerged just in the last 10 to 20 years. It requires a fair amount of technology and access to the Internet. So not just Africa, but people all over the world, including in the U.S., are looking for means of obtaining quality training in terms of how you learn these techniques. The in-person training will be in Africa, but the training materials will then be made available worldwide.”

The could significantly enhance efforts in Africa and elsewhere in several important fields.

“Say a country has the will to protect its natural resources in biodiversity, but may not have good information about where protection should be focused,” said Peterson. “If you want to have maximum effect, you need to know where each species is. Think of the national parks in the U.S.: here you have the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Great Plains and California. But if you were starting from zero and setting up a national park system, where would you protect first? Take that question to any number of countries in Africa, and there are data out there, but they are raw. So you need to organize the data and have a framework for analyzing and interpreting the results.”

Peterson also said that public health officials could use biodiversity informatics to track transmission of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue, while agricultural experts could know better what insects and weeds could pose a threat to crops.

This work is funded by a three-year grant from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation.

Explore further: Stanford researchers rethink 'natural' habitat for wildlife

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The grass is always greener

Aug 19, 2011

( -- Recent study of grasslands shows that species variety more important to ecosystem services than previously thought.

Plants protect from climate impacts

Aug 02, 2011

Native vegetation must be restored to protect Australia’s unique ecosystems from the impacts of climate change, according to scientists from the Australian National University.

Cockatoo survival under threat

Mar 13, 2012

The long-term survival of three black cockatoo species endemic to the south west of Western Australia is under threat.

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Apr 18, 2014

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Apr 18, 2014

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

( —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

( —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.