Curator-in-Charge, Division of Mammals, National Museum of Natural History
With a zeal for fieldwork and a detective’s curiosity, Dr. Kris Helgen has played a role in discovering approximately 100 species of mammals previously unknown to science.
Describing this wealth of overlooked mammalian diversity forms the core of his research program. One of these discoveries is the olinguito, a raccoon relative found only in the cloud forests of the Andes of Colombia and Ecuador, which was announced in 2013. “It’s a very beautiful animal that captured a lot of people’s hearts because it’s really adorable,” says Helgen. The discovery generated worldwide media attention, highlighting how much is still unknown about the natural world.
Another focus of Helgen’s research is the study of the richness and diversity of mammal life on Earth in order to address questions like: How many species of mammals are there? What are their distributions? Which ones are endangered? Which ones are not?
“But I’m also really interested in using museum collections not just to study the richness of life, but also to study change through time. In the last 200 years, people have collected modern mammal specimens—things like skins and skulls—and put them into museum collections. I want to expand on how we use those collections to reconstruct ways in which our world has changed.”
Helgen’s fascination with animals started at an early age and never waned. “When I was a little kid of three or four years old, I was fascinated by the question of ‘how many kinds of animals are there?’” As he grew older that interest grew, taking him on an unbroken path from a childhood passion through his education to today. Helgen studied at Harvard University and the University of Adelaide in Australia, joining NMNH as a post-doc in 2006.
The Carnivore's Dilemma
Helgen is Principal Investigator of the Consortia-supported project The Carnivore’s Dilemma: Understanding the Impacts of Environmental Change on Africa’s Large Carnivores. The global decline of large carnivorous mammals may be one of the most extensive effects of humans on the natural world. However, study of this decline can prove challenging due to the lack of historical baseline data from a time prior to human disturbance of the animal populations.
The Carnivore’s Dilemma focuses on the East African country of Kenya, renowned for its populations of large mammals, and takes advantage of the uniquely strong historical and modern (tissue-based) collections of African carnivores at the Smithsonian to study three species—lions, leopards, and African wild dogs.
Carnivores such as these play a critical role in regulating entire ecosystems. The pan-Institutional research project will address the magnitude of decline of these carnivores, study the change in their genetic diversity and shifts in diet over time, and explore the likely role of disease as the driver of decline. The outcomes will help address pressing conservation questions regarding the viability of and threats to populations of some of the world’s most iconic mammals, and the findings will ultimately be showcased in a wide variety of scientific contributions, media features, and Smithsonian exhibitions and displays.
“East Africa is a remarkable place to study large animals and predators like lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs, and to observe how they interact with their environments,” says Helgen. These environments in East Africa are changing rapidly: human populations have grown and urbanized, agriculture has expanded, and pollution has increased.
“We’re interested in investigating how that world has changed over the last century,” says Helgen. “One advantage in understanding these changes is that we actually have real physical specimens that we can hold, handle, and study from 100 years ago, most famously in the form of specimens that came to us from the 1909–1910 Smithsonian Roosevelt East Africa Expedition, led by Theodore Roosevelt.”
The Smithsonian Roosevelt East Africa Expedition
The 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, decided not run for another term in office in order to fulfill his dream of leading a grand African expedition that turned out to be the largest safari field expedition of all time. For more than a year, Roosevelt, accompanied by his son Kermit and master naturalists from the Smithsonian, Edgar A. Mearns, J. Alden Loring, and Edmund Heller, led a large safari party that crossed much of Kenya along with parts of Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
During their journey, they amassed more than 23,000 natural history specimens of plants, birds, insects, and mammals large and small, including notable numbers of predators like lions, leopards, and wild dogs. In addition to African flora and fauna, the expedition also collected ethnographic artifacts. All of these collections have been carefully preserved and maintained by the National Museum of Natural History for more than 100 years, and the specimens and artifacts continue to prove their scientific value today.
The Carnivore’s Dilemma will endeavor to understand the nature and natural history of Africa by comparing specimens from the Roosevelt expedition and other pioneering collections with the current environments, species, and populations in four sites in East Africa.
“I think the excitement of this project is that it marries these phenomenally interesting historical collections with new and modern technologies. We’re planning to use genetic techniques to study the DNA found in skins and skulls of animals in our collections and compare that with a range of samples that we will be able to get in Kenya today.”
The modern expedition
“Of course, things have changed over 100 years, not just environmentally, but in the way that these kinds of expeditions are done,” says Helgen. “We no longer go out and shoot animals.” The team will take noninvasive samples—samples of DNA from the dung or hair of animals—and compare them to the DNA found in the specimens from 100 years ago. “We will survey existing animal populations through the lenses of camera traps, rather than the sights of guns.”
In addition to genetics, key information can be obtained through stable isotopes extracted from the skin and bones of the animals in the collection, even after 100 years. “We can use the chemistry of isotopes to make inferences about the animals’ diet, the vegetation of their habitats, and even make inferences about the complexity of food webs.”
The team will use the rich resources from the Smithsonian Roosevelt Expedition—field notebooks, maps, records, photographs, letters, and other archival documents—to reconstruct the exact path of the expedition and develop as clear a picture as possible of the environments at that time. Resources will be pulled from the Smithsonian Archives, NMNH, NMAH, Library of Congress, Harvard University, and the Roosevelt estate.
The Carnivore’s Dilemma will be a compelling example of the integration of science, history, and conservation. Collaborators in the project include Hillary Young (a former Smithsonian postdoctoral fellow) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and researchers in the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoo’s Genetic Lab, the Museum Conservation Institute, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and the National Portrait Gallery, among other Smithsonian and external collaborations. “It’s very exciting to draw on all of these kinds of expertise: field ecology, museum detective work, genetic laboratory expertise, and stable isotope chemistry,” says Helgen, with childlike enthusiasm undiminished. “It’s really fun.”