The museum helped to turn up living exemplars of an unknown insect order, Mantophasmatodea, dubbed more familiarly "gladiators" [see "Gladiators: A New Insect Order," by Joachim Adis, Oliver Zompro, Esther Moombolah-Goagoses and Eugne Marais; Scientific American, November]. Eugne Marais, the museum's senior curator for natural history, observes that the Namibian institution might not have played the role it did but for a decision by the museum staff in 1999 that allowed it to make the best use of its limited resources. It was then that Marais and four colleagues met to commiserate about how difficult it had become to do the type of research carried out at better-endowed institutions. No one wanted to lend books and specimens to investigators in a Third World country--and it was hard to come up with the funds to travel abroad. "We started looking at it from a sociological perspective," Marais remarks. "We said, 'We can do research, but we can't be very effective.'"
From that informal meeting, a new strategy emerged. The staff decided that it would try, for the most part, to forgo independent, publishable research; rather its members would function as "facilitators" for other institutions. The naturalists would provide scientists worldwide with collected samples of insects, snakes, spiders, scorpions and the retinue of diverse fauna, some of which can be found only in Namibia. As facilitators, they would not have to conduct laborious taxonomic classifications of the specimens they found on their travels.
If the museum had not changed its practices, Marais says, he might have been slow in responding when the Max Planck Institute for Limnology in Pln, Germany, sought out living specimens of gladiators. As it was, the museum was the sole African institution that promptly recognized the insect.
The new approach has been fruitful; overall productivity of the scientists has gone up. From the collection, Marais and his colleagues have been able to assist in the cataloguing of about 30 new species every year--had the museum been doing the work on its own, it would have logged just half that number. These discoveries have come from the 8,000 specimens sent around the world annually to 30 to 40 institutions, which then proceed to classify the shipments.
Acting as research scouts gives scientists more latitude to conduct cross-disciplinary studies. Marais has also pursued an interest in documenting the insect classification systems developed by the San Bushmen and other tribal groups. Although the Bushmen categorizations lack scientific rigor, they can provide hints about where a researcher should look for a specimen. Marais noted that the Bushmen in northeastern Namibia have names for eight species of bees, whereas only two have been recorded by entomologists, a disparity that suggests that naturalists still have much work left to do.