Conception · Harvard meeting · 2018 · 2019 · 2020 Google docs


The Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia, ancestral mother of all life, has guarded her secrets well. Nature holds many mysteries. Millions of species interact across our planet, providing us with food, fiber and other benefits, harboring yet undiscovered plagues and invasive pests, responding in unknown ways to our changing world. Where are species in decline and why? How might climate change disrupt seasonal interactions such as caterpillar emergence and the nesting success of birds? What are the impacts of urbanization on the health and functioning of life within our neighborhoods? How do we answer such questions?

Because of the great size and complexity of ecosystems, we are only beginning to understand their species, their interactions, their functions, and their drivers. Controlled experiments are considered the gold standard in science, but we cannot use controlled experiments on a large regional scale. Instead we must rely on natural experiments with data collected across many sites and over multiple years. For example we can determine the effects of drought by observing what happens when some sites have dry years and others rainy ones.

Advances in technology will soon enable scientists, with help from the public, to understand comprehensively how millions of species are distributed across ecosystems, interact together within communities, and provide essential functions such as pollination, carbon capture, and decontamination of pollutants. The Polistes Foundation with a consortium of the Smithsonian Institution and many other partners is building SHIELD (Species, Health, and Interactions of Ecosystems in Landscapes with Drivers). The goal of SHIELD is to study biodiversity and ecosystems in detail with a suite of standardized methods at field sites, first in North America, Costa Rica, Panama, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and then in other parts of the world.

SHIELD will document thousands of species and their interactions, integrating information on the diversity, abundance, and seasonality of target arthropods, plants, fungi, microbes, and vertebrates. Currently, only taxonomic experts can identify many species, which is a bottleneck that hinders processing samples. SHIELD will overcome this bottleneck by expanding DNA sequence libraries of species. It will use metabarcoding techniques and computer vision software to speed specimen identification by orders of magnitude.

With samples collected across years from an array of study sites, in conjunction with satellite monitoring, ground sensors, and chemical sampling, SHIELD will use natural experiments to determine the importance of the local and regional factors that drive ecosystems. This research should answer how changing weather patterns, land use, pesticides, fire, invasive species, novel diseases, and other factors affect our environmental wellbeing. SHIELD will share all of its raw data, results, and analyses publicly, excluding the exact locations of rare and endangered species. It will advance ecological theory on biodiversity and ecosystems, empowering better environmental policy making, conservation, and land management.

For more information or to share your ideas, please contact any of us:

  • Dac Crossley, University of Georgia, Athens,
  • Nico Franz, Arizona State University,
  • Melissa Genazzio, Battelle-NEON,
  • Rosemary Gillespie, University of California, Berkeley,
  • Amy Lafrenierea, Battelle-NEON,
  • Hank Loescher, Battelle-NEON,
  • Nancy Lowe, Brighter Impacts,
  • Stacy McNulty, Adirondack Ecological Center, SUNY-ESF,
  • Albert Meier, Western Kentucky University,
  • Joe Miller, Global Biodiversity Information Facility,
  • Scott Miller, Smithsonian Institution,
  • Jackie Mohan, University of Georgia, Athens,
  • Sarah Oktay, University of California, Davis,
  • John Pickering, Discover Life, -- USA-706-254-7446
  • Leslie Ries, Georgetown University,
  • Jorge Soberon, Kansas University,
  • Brian Wiegmann, North Carolina State University,
  • Kevin Weick, Polistes Foundation,
  • John Wenzel, Carnegie Museum of Nat. Hist.,

Updated: 12 November, 2020
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