Brian Fisher, PhD
Curator of Entomology, Patterson Scholar
“The glue that holds the ecosystem together”
When it comes to the diversity of life on Earth, studying small things is essential to understanding the big picture. In Madagascar, one of the world’s most unique and threatened ecosystems, Brian Fisher is studying some of the island’s smallest life forms—ants—to create a more accurate picture of biodiversity on which to base future conservation decisions.
Over the past 15 years, Academy entomologists, botanists, herpetologists, and invertebrate zoologists have identified more than a thousand new species from the island and its surrounding waters. Fisher’s prolific exploration of Madagascan species of ants spans more than two decades, but his work extends beyond describing the often-overlooked creatures he calls “the glue that holds ecosystems together.”
Through a collaboration with partners including Conservation International, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Madagascar National Parks, and Malagasy scientists, Fisher and local researchers are zooming out, mapping a larger look at the distribution of animals across the island to identify patches of forest that should be highest priority for protection.
Although Fisher’s subjects—ants—may be small in stature, they have a huge impact on their ecosystems. Ants shouldn’t be scientists’ only focus, according to Fisher, but the perspective that research on these types of animals provides is helping to correct a bias in habitat conservation—especially in critically endangered regions like Madagascar.
“If you base conservation on vertebrates alone,” he says, “it leads you to conclude that only the largest forests are important. Ants and other insects provide a better map of true biodiversity.” Fisher urges decision makers to look beyond simple deforestation figures, and use detailed biodiversity maps to identify areas that should be set aside to protect the highest number of species. So far, he’s helped recommend eight areas for protection, and continues the search for more.
Mapping the Future
Comprehensive maps—built from research on the ground, drones in the air, and satellite images from space—help guide conservation organizations and Madagascan government officials in their work toward a sustainable future for all of the island's inhabitants, from tiny ants to humans. Through his tireless commitment to building scientific capacity in the island nation, Fisher supports Madagascan leaders and budding scientists in their quest to protect their country’s priceless natural resources before they are lost forever.