'I am striving to democratize the use of natural history collections'

University of Kansas faculty are striving to advance knowledge, interpret our world, solve problems, spark innovation, create beauty and catalyze imagination through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Through the “I Am Striving” series, we’ll learn more about what inspires KU researchers, as well as the goals and impact of their work. 

Q&A with Ana Motta, herpetology collection manager at the KU Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum

Explain your research as you would explain it to someone outside your field, such as your grandparents. 

I'm a herpetologist, and I study amphibians like toads, salamanders and frogs, and reptiles like snakes, lizards and turtles. My research focuses on a group of frogs from South America. They occur all the way in the Andes, from Argentina to Ecuador, and all the way to lowlands in Brazil. And my main questions about this group were, “Why do they look the way they look now?” For example, are species that occur in the same habitats more similar to each other, or are species that are more related to each other more similar to each other? To answer this question I look to their external morphology and their skeletons.

What does your research look like? What methods do you use? 

You can imagine how unfeasible it would be for me to go to all these places to collect the frogs that I was studying. And that's when natural history collections made it possible for me to do my research. I visited many collections, and I was studying specimens housed in those collections, especially here. KU has the largest tropical amphibian and reptile collection from Central America, the Caribbean and South America.

I came all the way here from Brazil to study the specimens that are housed here. We have specimens from all over South America representing many species that I was studying.

We have host specimens that are preserved in ethanol. I would take measurements of them, and I would check a bunch of characteristics of their external morphology. We also have the biggest skeleton collection. I would look at dry material and clear and stained skeletons. 

What inspires your research? Why are you passionate about this work? 

Finding the resources to come here was not trivial, and it's not trivial for a bunch of people around the world, including students and researchers. So now I am the collection manager of the KU herpetology collection. My job is to basically take care of 350,000 specimens that we have housed here, and now I am in a position that I can make a difference in other people's research, all around the world. I can facilitate access to our collection while also improving the diversity of researchers that use our collection. I'm very passionate about it. 

How does your research directly impact your field, society, Kansas and the world? 

The data that we make available through digitization is very diverse. It can be pictures of the specimens along with coordinates and maps. It can be 3D models of those specimens, genetic data, just to name a few. We have many kinds of associated data for the specimens that are now available for people to access and use in their research. 

What is a recent study/example of work you’d like to share? 

I can show you an example of these species that are critically endangered. This species is known only from two populations that were collected 50 years ago, and it hasn't been seen again. So right now we have available for people anywhere to look at pictures of this specimen. They can see the coordinates exactly where those specimens were collected. We have 3D models of the skeleton of that species. Unfortunately, we still don't have genetic data for that species, and that's a problem. Why? Because there are many questions that we can't answer when we don't know what's the relationship of a species. So we want to know, for example, who is that species related to? How did it occupy habitats where it occurs? Why does it look like it looks now? What happened in the evolutionary history of that species? To be able to answer those questions, we need genetic data to know the relationships of that species.

We actually have a project that was funded by KU Research GO and by the KU Center for Genomics where we are getting genomics data for these species — and many other species that we have in our collection that don't have genetic data available. This is one more step into expanding [knowledge of] the specimen and digitization of the collection. That genetic data is going to be produced here, and it's going to be added to our database and be available for researchers to use anywhere. After this, they will be able to answer all these questions for this species and many others that we don't know because of the lack of that kind of data. 

What do you hope are some of the outcomes of your research and work? 

I hope that with this digitization initiative, we can facilitate access to our collections and promote the use of the collection. That's the main reason why we have them — for researchers, educators and the general public to use.