Melissa Songer

Conservation Biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Dr. Melissa Songer on elephant

What is your field of study?

I specialize in landscape ecology, focusing on broad geographical and environmental patterns and how they’re linked to biodiversity. It also involves trying to understand how landscape patterns are changing and then assessing how that’s going to impact particular species, such as endangered species or a threatened ecosystem.

The applied side of landscape ecology and conservation biology goes beyond research to actually develop strategies for mitigating those impacts, either on particular species or on biodiversity in general. Then I work to try and help implement those strategies.

What is the history of the Smithsonian in Myanmar?

Most people aren’t aware that former Smithsonian Secretary Dillon Ripley conducted ornithological research there in the 1950s. We also had scientists working in Myanmar in the 1970s, but in the 1990s we started to have a lot of scientific productivity there, with over 50 different research projects from 1993 through 2008/2009. We had experts studying a range of taxa through biodiversity surveys, as well as other scientists working on conservation research on endangered species, community conservation around protected areas, and mapping the forests.

This research resulted in around 70 scientific articles, discovery of 60 species new to science, and cataloging thousands of species. John Kress’s work is a good example; the botanical work was a nine-year countrywide survey and I think they increased the number of known species in the country by about 40 percent.


Please elaborate on why Myanmar is such an important area to study.

Myanmar is a global biodiversity hotspot at the intersection of three different biogeographic regions, so it has an incredible range of diversity, and because the country has been so isolated, there is a great deal of natural resources intact compared to surrounding countries. There is poor infrastructure development, and as a result they have a lot of forest areas remaining—areas where larger mammals that need larger habitats, like tigers and elephants, have strongholds. So it is important in terms of the amount of biodiversity and for endangered species. It also has a great deal of cultural diversity, with over 130 different ethnic groups, so it’s a fascinating place in that respect as well.

Myanmar has incredible terrestrial and marine ecosystems, yet it is one of the least developed and poorest countries in the world. So there are huge gaps in their capacity to study and understand their own natural heritage, and in their ability to protect it and figure out the best strategies for the development that is now moving forward rapidly. So this is a critical time where we can hope to make a difference in their paths forward.

Please give an overview of your Consortia-supported projects in Myanmar.

The Smithsonian has a long history in Myanmar, but since 2008 or so, most of our scientists had ramped things down or given up completely because of the political situation. A lot of times our research was in remote areas, and it was becoming so difficult to get permissions to go to key sites and the bureaucracy was slowing us down to the point that we just weren’t being productive.

In 2011 and 2012, Myanmar started making major changes in their government and showed really amazing political progress. Having worked there for many years, I didn’t expect to see such dramatic changes during my lifetime. So as a result, the U.S. restored diplomatic relations and started rolling back economic sanctions.

Suddenly there was a lot of interest in going to this very isolated country. In 2012, I received Level 1 grant support for Gateway to the East: Smithsonian’s Role In Myanmar’s New Spring to try and get Smithsonian back on the ground in Myanmar. We started with an open forum where we brought together about 40 people to talk about research plans and how to be more strategic since we, like everyone else, were surprised by how rapidly those changes happened.

With the Consortia support, we were able to get people interested and back on the ground quickly. Otherwise, it would have taken years to get to the level of interest and involvement that we have right now.

Growing out of that effort is the broader Level 2 grant awarded recently for Smithsonian Biodiversity Conservation for Sustaining Natural Diversity of Myanmar.

What do you hope to achieve long term in the country?

With this new Consortia grant our goals are both scientific research and capacity building. We’re hoping to develop a Smithsonian biodiversity conservation platform and answer some fundamental questions about species biology, drivers of extinction, and looking at these landscapes more holistically.

Along with Myanmar’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry and in partnership with staff of the protected areas and universities, we’re working to develop a national biodiversity framework to build capacity Myanmar’s for assessing, monitoring and managing their own biodiversity.

How is the Smithsonian uniquely positioned to further this kind of initiative?

Well, first of all we have the largest biodiversity specimen collections in the world, so just having that sort of base to work from is a huge asset. We also have expertise in so many areas. So in addition to having the experience in Myanmar, we have the experts in almost any taxonomic group and a lot of institutional capacity building experience.

For example, we’ve started working with Fauna and Flora International (FFI) because they have staff and a program going in the southern region where we’re hoping to focus our first development of this national framework for biodiversity.

FFI has been working hard to help the government set aside a protected area that has been proposed but hasn’t been officially designated. This area hasn’t been well explored, so they were excited to make contact with us and get some of our experts to help with their biodiversity survey. They came to us and said, “Well, we don’t have entomologists. We don’t have botanists and we don’t have herpetologists and we need expertise in specific marine areas.”

In a very short time period, we were able to identify people with that expertise and deploy them, which was a huge opportunity for us because it’s expensive to do these trips to the field. So we were able to leverage Consortia funding to get our people there, and FFI is providing the financial support for them on the ground.

Consortia-supported projects have a strong multidisciplinary aspect. How does that play into your project?

I think this is key in our project. We have a range of expertise from Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, but it’s really critical to bring in other disciplines and different Smithsonian units as well. At this point, most of our PIs are from SCBI, NMNH, SERC and STRI. But the country is also a fascinating place for the history, art and culture side, and once people see that, they will be as excited about it as we are.