Andrew Mack

Specifying Specimens

A new publication co-authored by Andrew Mack consolidates research work in Papua New Guinea to help future researchers

By: Terry Boyd

Papua New Guinea is quite a distance from western Pennsylvania. No one knows that better than Andrew Mack, grants and contracts coordinator for Penn State Altoona’s Academic Affairs. It wasn’t that long ago that Mack was deep in the South Pacific rainforest searching for cassowaries and working as executive director of the Indo-Pacific Conservation Alliance. Out of that work came his book Searching for Pekpek: Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rainforest (2015), “a compelling and humorous account of the author’s 20 years in Papua New Guinea,” according to Shelf Unbound, which named Searching for Pekpek one of the top 100 indie books of 2015.

In a new publication from the Museum of Texas Tech University, Mack and coauthors Ronald H. Pine and Robert M. Timm (both from the University of Kansas) focus on consolidating previous specimen research to help future researchers. For Marsupials and Rodents of the Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea“we went through visiting museums of the world and looking for specimens from Manus Island,” a place Mack is familiar with because “over the years I have visited there and done some survey work,” he says. He is very aware of the area’s history: “That’s the island Margaret Mead wrote about. And in World War II it was the staging area for the Allied effort to take the Philippines back. There were 1,200 ships in the harbor at one time—it’s mind boggling.”

For the authors, the goal of the museum survey was to try “to identify how much of a conservation priority these islands ought to be—particularly for birds but also frogs, any terrestrial vertebrate,” Mack explains. “People set priorities for conservation based on what species are there. Find an island that has six species that aren’t found elsewhere and another that has six common species—the first one takes the priority.” And so by compiling this survey Mack and his coauthors are providing a guide for those future researchers. “When you do work like that and collect specimens, you can visit them later and do scholarly work. We wanted to make a single definitive list of what mammals are there.”

But you can’t do the work if you can’t find the right specimens. As sometimes happens in field work and museum conservation, Mack and his coauthors found that not all specimens were labeled accurately or completely during the initial cataloging. “People misspelled things. There were misidentifications due to changes in taxonomy. It could be pretty confusing. Even sometimes there would be a specimen, such as cuscus [an Australasian possum], that people identify as one species or another. And then those errors can get perpetrated.” In some cases information was completely lost, such as where museum specimens were destroyed during the bombings in Berlin in World War II.

Biogeography is the study of the distribution of life on earth, such as the work done by Alfred Russel Wallace “when he noted change in species distribution in Indonesia. When you get islands that have a unique assemblage of things and an island nearby has a different assemblage, biotas are not mingling,” Mack says, adding, “The questions ‘What’s where?’ and ‘How are they related?’ are step 1 of biogeography.” Marsupials and Rodents of the Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea will help researchers answer those questions.