A new National Science Foundation grant will fund digitization of museum mammal collections, which is integral to research in the fields of medicine, physiology, ecology, evolution and biomechanics, among others.

The grant brings together scientists and educators from collaborating institutions: the University of Michigan, Chicago State University and the University of Florida. The University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratory are also involved.

The grant is funding digitization of collections from the U-M Museum of Zoology, UNM’s Museum of Southwestern Biology and other museums via loans. The three-year $180,000 grant is titled “Digitization PEN: Functional Quantitative Characters for Ecology and Evolution” (FuncQEE). Noé de la Sancha, Chicago State University, is the principal investigator with co-PIs David Blackburn, UF Florida Museum of Natural History and Cody Thompson, U-M Museum of Zoology. This award is part of the Open Vertebrate Thematic Collection Network as a Partner to an Existing Network (PEN).

The project will generate computed tomography (CT) scans as a basis for 3D modeling of structural diversity for some 1,700 specimens of rodents. These data will be made publicly available on the MorphoSource website to the life science community, educators and science-interested public.

The resulting 3D modeling will allow researchers to examine and quantify the characters found in this radiation of vast diversity throughout the rodent tree of life.  Many species of rodents are susceptible to extinction in the face of anthropogenic climate and habitat changes, according to de la Sancha.

“CT data provides an excellent opportunity to leverage museum collections in a way that was never envisioned a 100 years ago,” said Thompson. “Specifically, as it relates to the FuncQEE grant, we will open the doors of the most diverse group of mammals in the world, making important collections available to anyone wishing to study or learn more about rodents.”

“Despite the importance of organismal phenotypes (observable, measurable characteristics of an organism) in ecology, evolution and biomedicine, high resolution anatomical data from many vertebrate groups remain limited in taxonomic scope and highly uneven in digital accessibility,” said de la Sancha.

“The physical shapes of today’s living organisms are a result of millions and even billions of years of countless evolutionary and ecological filters,” said de la Sancha. “For the vast majority of species, especially in tropical regions, we don’t know much at all about where or how they live, eat or find mates. Understanding the bigger picture patterns about how animals adapt to their environments, now and in the past, we believe is embedded in their shape. This project will allow us an initial glimpse into more pieces of this huge puzzle that evolutionary biologists and ecologists have been trying to build. There is a great deal of information we can capture in the small bones and body parts of rodents that we had not been able to access before CT scanning. And this opens up a whole new world of knowledge.”

“Rodents are among the most common and the most diverse mammals on the planet, comprising approximately 40 percent of global mammal diversity. They inhabit virtually all terrestrial ecosystems and display a range of lifestyle and locomotor adaptations, making them model systems for research in medicine, physiology, life history, biomechanics and functional morphology,” said Thompson. “Like a library, natural history collections hold the knowledge of our planet's biodiversity, and they are an empowering resource to scientists in that they offer both a geographical and temporal record of species.”

NSF abstract