Those dusty specimens stored in museums are about to get a rocket boost into cyberspace. A new database will put an enormous data trove at researchers' fingertips, paving the way for studies on everything from bird migrations to saving rare species.
Museum collections contain centuries worth of facts and figures on specimens. But culling these data usually means weeks or months pestering curators and searching scattered records. To speed up the process, David Vieglais of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum in Lawrence developed a software program called The Species Analyst  that was just released as a prototype on the Web. The program sends a query to six museums' online collections.* It then pools the data it gets back and, in seconds, produces a world map showing where the plant or animal has been found, along with a table that lists each specimen in the museums' collections and the date, collector, geographic coordinates, and so on. "It's a virtual world museum," says A. Townsend Peterson, an ornithologist at the Kansas Natural History Museum and a project leader.
The data can be merged with habitat and climate information, thanks to new software developed by David Stockwell of the San Diego Supercomputer Center. That could make The Species Analyst network a potent way to bring museum and survey data to bear on pressing policy needs, such as tracking the ecological effects of climate change, designing preserves for endangered species, or managing deleterious invading species like the hardwood-chomping Asian longhorn beetle, Peterson says.
The network linked by The Species Analyst is expected to expand to 40 institutions or more by year's end. "What many of us have been talking about for well over a decade is beginning to be doable: Pulling together collections of data seamlessly and being able to apply the data set to science or policy questions on the fly," says Len Hirsch, who works in environmental policy at the Smithsonian Institution.
* Smithsonian Institution; University of Kansas Natural History Museum; Museo de Zoologia, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico; Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California, Berkeley; University of Michigan Museum of Zoology; University of Nebraska Museum