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Classic Detective Work and Modern Tools Pay Off for Heritage Database

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, July 28, 2017

Since 1978, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC) has maintained a dynamic biodiversity database of rare species and natural communities. This database serves as a centralized resource for all of Arkansas’s sensitive natural features. The importance of the database is measured through its use: 1) in the agency’s Environmental Review/Information-sharing program; 2) as a biodiversity assessment tool; 3) as a land management planning tool; and 4) as a natural area selection tool. Therefore maintaining its integrity, through reviewing and updating data, is an important part of daily operations. (Photo at left, volunteer Karen Seale working on processing data records)

Many may think of a database as a storage jar, holding bits of information in a static state. In reality, the contents of a database are constantly changing; this is especially true for a database cataloging living organisms. Records evolve through time and are “fine-tuned” and improved as new information is uncovered. Often these improvements are accomplished by using investigative skills and taking advantage of modern technologies that put a world of information at one’s fingertips.

An example of such an improvement happened recently while evaluating new information on Ouachita burrowing crayfish (Fallicambarus harpi), a species found only in the Ouachita Mountain region of Arkansas (pictured at right, photo by Brian Wagner). Scotty Winningham, ANHC conservation data specialist, discovered the record representing the site from which the species was first described was mapped incorrectly in the database. This error came to his attention while comparing historic locations reported in a new study to existing database records. The locations didn’t match. This sent Scotty back to the original data source, a 1985 article published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington by H. H. Hobbs, Jr. and H. W. Robison. Scotty discovered the authors had identified the land owner of the locality as Milburn Dillard and the collector of the crayfishes as Kyla Dillard. Armed with this overlooked information, Scotty immediately began researching the locality of Dillard’s property and hunting down the collector. His diligence paid off when he acquired a copy of Dillard’s deed from the Pike County Circuit Clerk’s Office and located the collector, Kyla, now a veterinarian in Canada. Kyla was more than happy to provide additional information on her collections, including maps of the exact localities.

Kyla had been curious about what had become of those crayfishes that she had collected many years ago. As a courtesy, Scotty provided her with a copy of the Hobbs and Robison 1985 article and informed her that the specimens are currently housed at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. Kyla was pleased to know her past scientific endeavors were playing an important role in conservation today.

Scotty’s research and Kyla’s data collection so many years ago are good examples of how the ANHC database continues to evolve and change as data records are researched, collected, and added to this vast resource.

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