Dr. Rob Dillon, Coordinator

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Progress in the Museums

To the FWGNA group:

It's been several years since we last took an electronic tour around the major systematic collections of North American freshwater mollusks. And it's nice to see such good progress being made in on-line database access. When the FWGNA project kicked off in 1998, only two national or regional collections of freshwater gastropods were effectively searchable on line: The Florida Museum and the ANSP. Today that small club has been joined by eight other museums. I'm impressed!

Databasing efforts are, of course, an ongoing project in all active systematic collections. But I thought it might be useful for our group if I took a snapshot of the distributional information available on-line for North American freshwater gastropods, as of April 2009. Developing an independent metric by which to evaluate and compare ten disparate databases was, however, something of a challenge.

My first thought was to query each database for all records of a common and widespread freshwater gastropod family, such as the Physidae. But alas, many of the ten databases are not searchable by family - only by genus or species. And most of the lower taxa are regional in their distributions and taxonomically unstable - not the best targets for a comparative search.

After some head-scratching, I've decided to evaluate the ten on-line databases by the number of Campeloma records currently retrievable. Campeloma is the most widespread and stable genus of North American freshwater gastropods I can think of, although its distribution does introduce a bias against museums with predominantly western holdings. The California Academy of Sciences ranks #8 by Campeloma, but would certainly rank above the Field Museum (#6) by physid records, if all the collections were rankable using that criterion. But for what it's worth:

(1) University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Campeloma = 2,456
Searchable by Family = No

(2) Florida Museum of Natural History
Campeloma = 1,414
Searchable by Family = Yes (Physidae = 2,063)

(3) Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia
Campeloma = 890
Searchable by Family = Not effectively

(4) Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard
Campeloma = 488
Searchable by Family = Yes (Physidae = 1,033)

(5) National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian
Campeloma = 127
Searchable by Family = Yes (Physidae = 793)

(6) Field Museum of Natural History
Campeloma = 88
Searchable by Family = Yes (Physidae = 149)

(7) Illinois Natural History Survey
Campeloma = 62
Searchable by Family = No

(8) California Academy of Sciences
Campeloma = 2
Searchable by Family = Yes (Physidae = 290)

(9) Los Angeles County Museum
Campeloma = 1
Searchable by Family = Yes (Physidae = 3)

(10) Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
Campeloma = 1
Searchable by Family = Yes (Physidae = 0)

All of these on-line databases, I'm pleased to report, are searchable by double criteria, such as species AND state/province. Two databases were able to handle my (rather complicated) "Physa OR Physella" query, by which I was trying to eliminate the double-counting of records where Physella is a subgenus but not a genus: MCZ and LACM.

Kudos to all our hard-working colleagues in the ten museums listed above! And for our colleagues working at the museums listed below - a word of encouragement. I know funding is tight, but we're all in this together. So hang in there, get those grants, we're rooting for you!

Other Museums visited, Collections not on line at present:
American Museum of Natural History
Canadian Museum of Nature
Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh)
Delaware Museum of Natural History
Ohio State Museum

And keep in touch, everybody!