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Colwell's database helps track thousands
of rain forest species
March 2, 1998

Robert K. Colwell was planning a project in the forests of Costa Rica when he realized how cumbersome and time consuming it would be to keep track manually of the tens of thousands of specimens he and his colleagues would soon discover. Colwell and biologists from 12 universities are racing against time to find and catalogue the rain forest's incredible insect diversity before deforestation destroys these species. Efficiency is at a premium.

"We need better ways to use human resources more efficiently,'' he says. "It's my goal to have someone spend as little time as possible in front of a computer when that person could be in the field or in front of a microscope.

Enter Biota, a biodiversity database manager Colwell developed to help other biologists and ecologists gather data on specimens and species. It helps keep researchers in the field - and at the right places in the field - at the right time. First published in December 1996 by Sinauer Associates, the nation's leading publisher in ecology and evolutionary biology, the software now holds information on the ecology of 23 countries on six continents.

For his efforts, Colwell has been selected one of the first six recipients of the Chancellor's Information Technology Awards.

Colwell's work has received particular attention because La Selva, or ''The Forest,'' the field station in Costa Rica where he decided to create his software, is one of the most studied areas in the world. UConn was a charter member of the consortium that operates La Selva, joining in 1963. Like other tropical forests, La Selva may have tens of thousands of unknown species. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Colwell and his colleagues have selected 20 focal groups of insects, mites and spiders to study as the first step in making a complete inventory.

Biota was one of five finalists for a Smithsonian-Computerworld Award for innovative uses of information technology. It has received enthusiastic reviews in a number of national publications.

Richard Veilleux