Sharon Jansa standing in front of a mammals collection case

Going to Bat for Biodiversity

Get to know Sharon Jansa, curator of the Bell’s mammals collection.

Published10/31/2019 , by Eve Daniels

When learning about Sharon Jansa, the mammals collection curator at the Bell Museum, bats are a good conversation starter. First, because the Bell’s collection has numerous bats, along with squirrels, shrews, and “more field mice than I know what to do with,” she says.

Second, because bats are one of the biggest orders of mammals in the world. And third, because one of her favorite museum specimens happens to be a fishing bat.

A relatively large bat from the tropics, the fishing bat comes equipped with its own sonar system. It can detect ripples on the surface of water, signaling that a fish is down below. It has long nails on its hind feet to use as grappling hooks. It even has a tail membrane it can spread out like a net.

“It’s an incredibly well-adapted organism for what it does, which is to hunt fish, and we have a beautiful specimen that shows all of these features very nicely,” says Jansa. “I like it because it shows just how organisms can become adapted to their environment.”

Jansa also recently worked with Bell resident artist Anna Cerelia Battistini on her project, Illuminating Forms, which highlights threatened or endangered species in Minnesota including the northern long-eared bat (below).

A Bay Area native, Jansa completed her undergraduate biology degree at the University of California, Berkeley, where she stumbled into the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and took a course in mammalogy. Fascinated by the topic, she adapted accordingly: “I started out wanting to be a developmental biologist and rapidly switched into evolutionary biology.”

She completed her doctoral degree at the University of Michigan, along with postdoc positions at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and American Museum of Natural History, where she met her now-husband and fellow Bell curator, Keith Barker. Today, she’s a researcher and professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences.

As a college student, Jansa was inspired by enthusiastic teachers with a passion for the field. (In fact, during this interview, she asked to give a shout-out to her old professors, Jim Patton and Harry Greene.) Now, as a dynamic lecturer who teaches a popular mammalogy course, she’s inspiring a new generation of evolutionary biologists.

Pangolin specimen
“By understanding past biodiversity and how humans impacted that biodiversity, we can shape how we approach the future.”

In her research lab, Jansa and her students are working to understand the diversification of three isolated groups of mammals: South American opossums, rodents of Madagascar, and rodents of the Philippines. Using molecular data, her research team infers phylogenetic and population history, as well as molecular evolution.

Like all Bell curators, Jansa’s research helps to build and inform the collection she manages, which holds about 19,000 mammal specimens. Roughly 10,300 of these were collected in Minnesota, while the rest came from elsewhere in the U.S., Mexico, Argentina, Chile, the Philippines, and other regions where Jansa and her predecessors have done research. The majority are dry skin and skull preparations, along with some full skeletons and fluid-preserved specimens.

“This collection, and natural history collections in general, give us windows into the past,” she says. “By understanding past biodiversity and how humans impacted that biodiversity, we can shape how we approach the future.”

Hat Tip to Student Scientists

There are more than 4,500 different species of mammals—and studying their past, present, and future requires a lot of time and energy. Jansa and the rest of the Bell curators, who all wear multiple hats, depend on graduate students in the museum, the lab, and the field.

One of Jansa’s students, Dakota Rowsey, studies the diversification behind rodent invasions in the Philippines. Another, Danielle Drabek, focuses on the molecular evolution of venom resistance in mammals like the honey badger. Carmen Martin, who is also a graphic artist, explores the systematics of Madagascar’s native rodents. And recently, two of Jansa’s doctoral students—Juan Diaz-Nieto and Tom Giarla—conducted research on opossums that transformed our understanding of the species.

The Bell Museum provides ongoing graduate awards and fellowships to train budding biodiversity scientists in areas ranging from mammals to birds, reptiles to fungi. This past year, the museum supported 20 graduate students who pursued novel research on plants and animals.

“Our students are the best,” says Jansa. “We couldn’t do this work without them.”