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Biodiversity Blog


Fish Collection Expands with TPWD

A quick overview of 15 years of UT Fish Collection growth and collaborations with Texas Parks and Wildlife

by Dean A. Hendrickson, Adam E. Cohen, Gary P. Garrett


As stated in the Biodiversity Center’s Collections webpage, the challenges for our collections are to: 1) “document biodiversity,” 2) “understand how biological processes generate and maintain it,” and 3) “communicate those findings and their relevance to a broader community”. Some readers may have seen our recent post about the space issue in UT’s Fish Collection. If not, in a nutshell - we now house 73,047 cataloged jars of preserved fishes containing more than 1.5 million specimens of 871 species, and our continuing growth has us now very close to our facility’s capacity. We thus worry that we will soon be unable to continue addressing challenge 1, and will be lacking up-to-date data needed to continue to evaluate the status of our regional biodiversity (2 and 3).

Scientists have for years now been decrying the general inadequacy of the world’s biodiversity data for modern big-data analyses, such as those aimed at better understanding the effects of climate change and sustaining biodiversity. With collections of specimens being the heart of those data, we’ve been doing our best to address that issue. But if we can’t continue collection growth, we simply can’t continue to contribute to solving those global challenges.


Paluxy River bioblitz at Dinosaur Valley SP with park staff and local citizen scientists. Participants in background: TPWD River Studies and Tarleton University staff conducting the electroshocking portion of the study.  Foreground: seining team - Melissa Casarez (ID’ing/teaching - UT Biodiversity Collections), Tom Heger (TPWD), Dinosaur Valley SP staff (TPWD), Texas Streams Coalition members, local citizen scientists. Photo credit: TPWD River Studies

Naturally, we couldn’t help but wonder how our peer collections compare in this regard. Seriously investigating all of their varied space situations would entail laborious surveys, but given that we have long been publishing our collection’s database to the major global biodiversity data aggregators (see, for example our data and summaries of it in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility - GBIF), as now do most other major collections, it’s easy to at least compute the rate at which each collection is adding specimens. 

A GBIF download of all North American Bony Fish occurrences had 1,984,649 records from 200 collections. Focusing on the top 10 largest collections plus us (at 11th), we found decreasing trends in numbers of specimen collections by year from 1990-2019 for all except our own collection, which had an overall positive trend, despite being on the same initial negative trajectory as all others to start. We also saw that since 2012, the top 10 collections (except University of Florida, which beat us twice) each had half or less the annual numbers of collections that we cataloged. We could see that our upward turn started in 2006, which happens to be when we received the first Fishes of Texas Project funding from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). They funded us (more than $2 million to date) largely because they recognized the unique values of long-term specimen-based (so verifiable) documentation of the dynamics of the states’ fish fauna, and the high-quality science, technology, and data permanence that UT can provide. The initial objective was development and maintenance of the FoTX database and website, a carefully curated, high-quality, openly accessible compilation of all (our own and those of all other collections) specimen-based records of fish occurrences in the state going back to 1850. The Project addresses the common issues that impede use of biodiversity data in cutting-edge analyses (see Ball-Damerow et al. 2019) and makes those data openly available. More recently objectives transitioned to supporting fieldwork to update FoTX data by collecting and growing our own collection. The project impacted nearly every aspect of our operations, and is largely why our collection has been able to counter the declining trend of our peers’ collections. Looking more broadly at all of the 200 other collections’ combined data, we see that post-2005 records comprise only about 25% of their total post-1990 holdings, but post-2005 collections comprise 60% of our own post-1990 records. Basically, all of those results confirm that, for the last 15 years, when it comes to updating and openly publishing specimen-based records necessary to track the current status of the continent’s fish fauna, our collection has been leading the pack.

Collecting and photographing specimens in a Canadian River oxbow at Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area. From left to right: Sarah Robertson and Clint Robertson (TPWD), Adam Cohen and Melissa Casarez (UT Biodiversity Collections), Kevin Mayes (TPWD), Aaron Urbanczyk (Texas Tech Univ.). Photo credit: TPWD River Studies 

So, we might blame our current space crunch on TPWD, but they have only been helping us do what we had always been mandated to do, as noted above. They helped us first increase the quality of our own (and others’) legacy specimen-based biodiversity data (challenge 1 above), thus opening the door for us to use those data in  research that describes how statewide fish communities have changed (2), and publish our data and research (3). Now, our incoming specimens are quickly processed and the data published (with weekly updates) in ways that assure it’s globally Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR - Wilkinson et al. 2016). So our collection users have broadened beyond being just those mostly UT- and TPWD-insiders who happened to learn about us through personal connections, to now include the world’s entire community of modern, data-savvy, big-data ecologists and natural resource managers, who can use their cutting-edge skills with our data to do important research and management (2) and help us communicate those advances to others (3).

TPWD, having a broadly overlapping mission, benefits for all the same reasons, with FoTX and our own collection providing sound, open and transparent science that enables them to implement a better-informed approach to filling in data gaps and deploying its conservation and management resources. It’s clearly been a win-win relationship, and we owe a very big thank you to TPWD! We look forward to many more years of biodiversity-related scientific collaborations with them (and, one day, to a new collections facility)!

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