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Digital Dish: APSU profs taking atlases online

By: Colby Wilson November 1, 2023


In the 1990s, Dr. Floyd Scott created invaluable resources for researchers, educators, and conservationists interested in Tennessee’s rich biodiversity—comprehensive atlases documenting the distribution of the state’s 75-plus reptile and amphibian species. These detailed atlases mapped each species across Tennessee counties using records from Austin Peay State University’s extensive natural history collections. The atlases included photographs, descriptions, and historical information about the species alongside the insightful distribution maps.

For decades, scientists, agencies, classrooms, and amateur naturalists relied on Dr. Scott's acclaimed reptile and amphibian atlases as authoritative references on Tennessee herpetofauna. But the atlases had inherent limitations. As physical printed books, their content became static and outdated over time. The only way to integrate new distribution or natural history data as it emerged is if Dr. Scott manually updated the next printed edition, which could take over 10 years. Once Dr. Scott retired from Austin Peay, the fate of the atlases he devoted much of his career to creating and expanding was still being determined.

Two of Austin Peay’s current biology professors have taken up the mantle to bring Dr. Scott’s venerable atlases into the 21st century. Dr. Chris Gienger and Dr. Rebecca Johansen partnered with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) on an ambitious project to develop a modern digital version that lives up to the spirit of its predecessor.

“After Dr. Scott retired, the atlases could no longer be updated and were limited as static content,” said Dr. Johansen. “We want to take that and update the atlases and move it out of this static content framework.”


The new online atlas—still in its beta stage—will mine reptile and amphibian observations from Austin Peay’s extensive natural history collections and large aggregator databases like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. Ideally, users can search for a particular species and generate maps incorporating the most up-to-date findings across Tennessee counties and localities rather than waiting years for the next print edition to be published with new data painstakingly integrated.

Dr. Gienger, curator of Austin Peay’s herpetology collection and the project’s principal investigator, sees firsthand the immense value of keeping the atlas’s data current for researchers. “The real-time component is the crucial part,” he emphasized. “The constant updating is what makes it really useful long term. As the curator, it’s my job to make sure the information is portrayed and distributed correctly, in addition to making sure the physical specimens themselves are well-maintained.”

For TWRA, the state wildlife agency tasked with managing and conserving reptile and amphibian populations, the atlas provides an invaluable tool to inform those efforts.

“They rely very heavily on our atlases to track distributional changes and identify areas that need more information and monitoring,” Dr. Johansen explained. The agency also deposits many important specimens and datasets at Austin Peay’s natural history collections, further facilitating timely data integration into the atlas. Proving this as a workable concept at Austin Peay could pay dividends in the future as well—Dr. Johansen, who curates Austin Peay’s ichthyology collection, wants to one day run a similar program tracking fish in Tennessee.

While meeting the needs of scientists and agencies, a priority for the updated atlas is harnessing technology to promote broader public education and engagement with Tennessee's herpetofauna. Features like user-friendly search functions, interactive maps, and mobile optimization aim to make the resource accessible to professional and amateur herpetology enthusiasts.

“It’s a tool people will use in a variety of ways, from general interest to scientific research,” said Dr. Johansen. “User-friendly access for all potential audiences was a priority in how we designed the atlas.”

Given its extensive collections and esteemed legacy in organismal biology research, Austin Peay provides the perfect home for nurturing such a project.

“We have the largest independent herpetology collection in the state,” Dr. Gienger noted. “For a university our size, we’re consistently punching above our weight in terms of natural history and organismal biology. This project is right in our wheelhouse.”

Still, developing a cutting-edge atlas platform has been challenging. As biologists, the professors needed more web development and database management expertise, requiring collaboration with outside software developers to bring the concept to fruition. Ongoing funding for the programmer positions and a full-time collections manager is crucial to keep the massive data feeds updated.

Plans are in place to widely solicit feedback from herpetologists and the TWRA on desired functionality and directions for growth — however, Drs. Johansen and Gienger remain optimistic about the atlas’s sustainability and are committed to continuously securing resources to enhance its capabilities.

Overall, the meticulous effort to modernize Dr. Scott’s atlases exemplifies Austin Peay State University's steadfast commitment to its legacy of natural history collections and service to the citizens of Tennessee. It ensures this pivotal work will continue informing herpetology research, education, and conservation for generations while evolving to meet changing needs.

“Floyd was my predecessor,” said Dr. Gienger. “Not only do I think this is a great tool for students, researchers and wildlife managers, I think it's the right thing to do. Other states have atlases like this developed by a large flagship university doing the heavy lifting. We're doing it all at Austin Peay, and I’m very proud of that effort.”

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