Conserving Texas Biodiversity: Status, Trends, and Conservation Planning for Fishes of Greatest Conservation Need

Cohen, Adam E.
Garrett, Gary P.
Casarez, Melissa J.
Hendrickson, Dean A.
Labay, Benjamin J.
Urban, Tomislav
Gentle, John
Wylie, Dennis
Walling, David
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The primary aim of this grant was to work with Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD), Texas Advanced Computing Center (University of Texas at Austin), and other relevant collaborators to (1) utilize Fishes of Texas Project (FoTX) data to aid in conservation of Texas fishes, (2) conduct field surveys in areas of limited data and of conservation interest, and (3) further develop the FoTX database and website as a research and management tool. While much of our work was focused on Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), almost everything we did has been applied to all species, or affects the data for all species in some way. Our efforts here demonstrate the value of reliable and verifiable specimen data to conservation and serve as a baseline upon which to build a conservation program. The FoTX data have taken many years to fully develop, largely funded by State Wildlife Grant funds, and that work will continue to evolve, but this report documents how the data have now been used to develop species distribution models and conservation priority areas that are now the foundation of aquatic resource conservation prioritization and management in Texas. Our data were also used by TPWD staff to update the Texas Natural Diversity Database, which was previously depauperate for fish data, and to develop state and global conservation rankings for fishes using NatureServe’s standard methodology. Using the FoTX data we also developed recommendations for updating TPWD’s SGCN list, which if implemented will inform conservation in Texas for many years. We expanded the scope of FoTX to include a larger geography, into Texas’ neighboring states, thus reducing biases caused by our previous political boundary that lacked a biogeographical basis, and to include many new records from new types of complementary data sources, especially agency databases, that together with the museum specimen data provide a more thorough and unbiased dataset for understanding temporal and spatial trends in fish biogeography in Texas. We also developed and integrated tools into the website such as improved checklists and tools for accessing occurrence data held in digitized documents. One of the features most requested by our data users were native ranges for all Texas fish species, which we recently produced and can be viewed in our mapping tab. These native ranges, when viewed alongside occurrence data, allow users to understand trends in shifting distributions over time. We focused another effort explicitly at understanding range changes through time and have produced dynamic graphs, which when fully implemented will update automatically when the underlying data are changed, depicting latitudinal and longitudinal changes over time and general range size changes through time. In addition to this, we were active in the field collecting fishes, focusing on locations where data are lacking or there were other conservation related reasons for collecting. This effort has largely been in coordination with TPWD staff, who have been heavily involved with many of the activities in this project. The collecting effort has resulted in a large number of new specimens and tissue samples deposited and permanently housed in the University of Texas Biodiversity Collections (Texas Natural History Collections) and represents a model for how long term collections and data archiving and management can be achieved. These data are the newest in FoTX and represent the modern data point upon which conservation actions can be effectively implemented. The funding provided for this project has allowed us to continue to grow and diversify, moving away from focusing solely on improving the data themselves, but also on applying those data in diverse ways that maximize their value for conservation. The project has inspired a Herps of Texas Project (HoTX, currently funded by TPWD) and we agreed to allow use of our database schema and website structure as a template to build their project. Getting that project to a similar state as FoTX should be much faster and require far less funding than has been devoted to FoTX. Any improvements to HoTX could also likely be applied to improve FoTX. Our hope is that other projects, focusing on various taxa (e.g. mussels), continue to follow in our footsteps allowing mutual benefit and eventually query interfaces that allow users to access entire ecological communities.