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NSF grant brings natural history collections to larger audience
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Filed under Public Information on Monday, October 22, 2018 by Author: Public Information.

A little known fact about Midwestern State University – it is home to the third largest mammal collection in Texas. The more than 23,000 specimens are locked away in cabinets and drawers in storage rooms throughout Bolin Science Hall. The specimens are listed in a large binder, logged in by hand, with the earliest entries going back to the 1940s and ’50s.

The specimens are also entered into an Excel spreadsheet, but that is the only digital presence the specimens have, making research on the collection difficult. That will soon change. Associate Professors of Biology Ray Willis and Matt Watson received a $472,804 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will allow the collection to be digitized so it will be more accessible for research. Willis will be curator of the collection.

The proper name for the project is “Modernization and Consolidation of the Natural History Collections at MSU into the Xeric Ecosystem Research Center,” or XERC for short. It will place much of MSU’s large and diverse natural history collections under one umbrella, stored in modern equipment and entered into a digital database to improve access for MSU researchers, their students, and the greater scientific community. In addition to the mammal collection, it will also include more than 4,000 plants and part of MSU’s 100,000-specimen arthropod collection. That collection includes more than 670 species of spiders representing 56 families – a collection on par with the largest and most complete spider collections in Texas.

“We’re literally going from a spiral notebook to high-tech computers, digital images, and online databases,” Watson said. “That’s what the NSF had envisioned for us, to take these types of collections and make them useful to the public in a modern, computerized manner.”

Willis, a member of the Texas Society of Mammalogists, learned about the grant at one of its meetings. The grant, a three-year project, will cover the purchase of camera equipment to photograph the specimens, and will make it possible for undergraduate students who participate in the digitizing process to be paid, with two paid graduate positions to oversee and conduct research as the process progresses. With some of the specimens being more than 70 years old, Willis said that species names have changed; a problem that will be corrected as the data is entered.

The grant also will provide funds for adding more modernized storage equipment, some exhibitions, and freezers. Watson said that when specimens are collected now, preservation calls for more than just alcohol. Tissue samples are also collected for genetic studies, which require freezers.

“Much of the bird collection is housed in wooden boxes,” Willis said. “Those will be replaced by metal insect-resistant boxes that are up-to-par with today’s standards.”

Two regions are represented in MSU’s collections; one focusing upon the prairie ecosystem of North Texas and Western Oklahoma, and the other representing the Trans-Pecos region of the Chihuahuan Desert where MSU manages the Dalquest Desert Research Station (DDRS). Among the specimens are the endangered Texas Kangaroo Rat, only found in a small area of North Texas. With the changing conditions of both regions due to invasive species, fires, conversion to cropland, oil and gas extraction, overgrazing, and climate change, documenting the biodiversity in the regions is a high priority, and will provide a much-needed record of the many plants and creatures that are native to both areas.

Willis said that part of the mammal collection includes specimens brought from Africa by Dr. Walter Dalquest, longtime biology professor at MSU. “Bringing these specimens here today would be impossible,” he said.

Watson said that the standard now is to have such collections online, complete with photos and data on where they were found, so that people anywhere in the world could access them – an invaluable asset for the department and the University. “That’s not where we have been,” Watson said. “This funding will allow us to take all of our collections, put them in online databases, make sure that they are stored correctly, and make sure we have a good pest management plan, because insects can be a big problem.”

The expected completion date is August 2021. Even though the collections are not for everyday viewing in person, part of the grant will allow for a display at the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas that would make connections between the plants and animals of this dry area and the Native Americans who lived here and used those resources. A permanent display that highlights the biodiversity of the DDRS area is also planned.

Watson and Willis also plan to work with education specialists, Spanish professors, and information technology to develop a bilingual online educational module that will introduce elementary students to the biodiversity of the region.

“We have a world class collection but students walk past the doors every day and don’t know it’s here,” Watson said. “What this is going to do is let the scientific community know it’s here. This puts us on a larger stage.”

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