For quite a while, I have been fascinated with natural history collections and how they document the past and present of our natural world. My research reflects this, as each aspect of it involves the use of natural history collections and the data they amass to answer questions about Central American biogeography and biodiversity. Central America is an intriguing study region as, despite only accounting for 0.4% of earth’s land area, it is home to an impressive array of species and an amazing geographic complexity. I am studying the phylogeography of two lowland mammal species: the variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides) and the gray four-eyed opossum (Philander opossum). By using molecular and morphological data and ecological niche modeling, I can document the distinct spatial and temporal patterns caused by Central America’s turbulent history of geologic and climatic change over the past few million years. My research aims to elucidate the particular mechansims that have shaped the present diversity seen in these species, increasing our scant knowledge of Central American mammal evolutionary history in the process. Understanding how species such as these responded to past ecological and geological events is crucial to our future predictions of how ecosystems will react to changing temperatures and human built barriers, such as the disastrously proposed Nicaraguan Canal.
Additionally, I am looking at patterns of biodiversity amongst mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians in Central America. Most studies examining biodiversity focus on species richness, but this measure may cause an underestimate of biodiversity in the Neotropics where many cryptic species escape detection. By using previous phylogeographic research, estimates of phylogenetic diversity and phylogenetic endemism can be determined. These alternative measures of biodiversity take into account the genetic diversity of the species under consideration and are recently being associated with ecosystem productivity and stability. Using these measures to compare with previous studies utilizing species richness will enable us to understand different, yet integral facets of biodiversity within this region. Determining these patterns of Central American biodiversity, how they differ among broad taxonomic groups and various measures, and their associations with Central America’s complex geography and suite of protected areas will allow for our future conservation efforts in this incredible region to be more well informed.