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Harvard University: An Anthill of Activity Spurs Versatile Database

Ants—thousands of species, hundreds of thousands of specimens, from all over the world—have been identified and catalogued on the Web by researchers at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Their efforts, which began with an expedition to hunt the vast ant populations of Madagascar, confronted the scientists with the problem of how to chart and organize their discoveries in a simple, accessible but effective way.

"We discovered almost 500 new species of ants in Madagascar, and were overwhelmed with the task of making specimen labels, sending out ant loans to specialists, and keeping track of detailed field records for each species," recalls Harvard entomologist Gary Alpert.

Alpert and his colleagues agreed that the development of an online database would help them with their project, but weren't sure which database application would best fit their needs: one that was relational, expandable, cost-effective, and intuitive. MS Access was considered, but lacked the flexibility needed for online deployment. Other proprietary tools designed especially for scientific use were also examined, but it would take years to tailor the database to fit their requirements. In addition, they didn't want to rely on a team of developers to add or modify tasks, nor pay thousands of dollars in licensing fees. After careful consideration, a decision was made to use the database software application FileMaker Pro from FileMaker Inc.

Alpert's colleague, entomologist and computer expert Dr. Piotr Naskrecki, developed a comprehensive database documenting thousands of specimens of grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets—complete with audio files of their songs—using FileMaker Pro. The application offered the combination of flexibility, Web-capability, and ease of use Dr. Alpert was looking for in a database application. Realizing the similarity of the two projects, museum curators Prof. Brian Farrell and Prof. Edward O. Wilson brought in Dr. Naskrecki to work with Dr. Alpert on the challenge of preparing a similar system for documenting the ants.

The database developed by Alpert contains over 25,000 individual records documenting Madagascar ants. "We now are running digital images of insects and text directly from our microscope onto a database-driven Web site for the world to see," says Alpert. In the field, FileMaker Mobile is being used to record information on handheld computers to eliminate the hassle of paper records. The process has resulted in the database being carefully organized, allowing users to search by species, geographic location, or by many other scientific classifications. In addition to the information gathered out in the field, an ant bibliography has been imported into the database, providing references to the literature that's been published for that particular specimen.

Alpert and his colleagues are able to continuously update and add new specimens without relying on a team of developers. Because of the intuitiveness of FileMaker Pro, they've been able to rapidly input information from the Harvard Museum of Zoology insect collection, and expect to complete the project years ahead of schedule. Using an application that has expanded as the project has expanded, accommodating all their needs, has allowed Dr. Alpert to build an entire infrastructure for ant research.

For more information, contact Dr. Gary Alpert at [email protected].

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