ROBERT GURALNICK – ASSOCIATE CURATOR OF BIODIVERSITY INFORMATICS AT THE FLORIDA MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

In the past few centuries, we have lost up to 500 times more plant and animal species than in the previous 3.5 billion years.

By Stephenie Livingston

Like a massive wave rolling into Southern California where he grew up, Robert Guralnick predicted the Internet would change the landscape of scientific research when it hit.

Now an associate curator of biodiversity informatics at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus, Guralnick is working to digitize plant and animal collections in an effort to preserve and understand our natural heritage and plan for the future.

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“The question we need to ask is will we be able to sustain our current quality of life for future generations,” Guralnick said. “How can we understand change that’s happening so quickly that if we miss it, we will face increasingly diminished services from our planet?”

It was as an undergraduate studying psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, when Guralnick stumbled upon a course in physical anthropology that sparked his interest in evolutionary systems. Wanting to learn more, he found a job working with computers in a vertebrate paleontology lab. Within a year, Guralnick designed one of the world’s first 50 websites.

Guralnick’s lab is building Web-based tools to integrate and improve knowledge and one day allow anyone to instantaneously access and understand everything scientists know about biodiversity. The majority of knowledge about biodiversity is inaccessible online. For museums alone, only 5 to 10 percent of collections have been digitized and made available.

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It is important to fill the gaps in our knowledge of how biodiversity is changing, Guralnick says, because without a complete picture we do not know to what extent humans are impacting the environment and natural resources. Overcoming these limitations, he said, will allow researchers to build models that help better forecast our planet’s ecological changes.

Guralnick said he was drawn to UF’s Biodiversity Initiative and projects like iDigBio that will allow researchers to monitor biodiversity—the planet’s heartbeat—during a period of unprecedented environmental change.

“We must find the right balances for managing our biodiversity as a resource that generates the core things that we need to survive,” he said.