Geographic information systems, global positioning systems, and access to the Internet are changing the way botanists do field work. In a few years, access to collection records, species descriptions, and the latest regulatory documents may be keystrokes away for users of computer networks. For people working in the front lines of documentation and conservation of biodiversity, rapid access to information can be critical. Within the United States, more than two thousand species of plants, or about ten percent of the total flora, have been proposed for Federal protection since the 1973 enactment of the Endangered Species Act. Government agencies, public and private academic institutions, and private research institutes have all become repositories of information about rare species. Even though a number of agencies are distributing information via World Wide Web sites, the effort to establish a federation of databases for continental-scale documentation of biodiversity remains under development. The National Biological Service is developing a reference list of existing databases and their meta-data standards. Continental-scale information is provided by the Flora of North America project, a multi-institutional, bi-national project which provides electronic access to biodiversity information. Using a hierarchal system of classification, the Flora links current and historical names of plants to names of specialists, morphological descriptions, geographic distributions, and ecology, and provides references to related research. A geographic information system provides a spatial link to Utah bibliographies and collection data and is scheduled for linkages to the Flora of North America database in 1996. Examples of how this system can work are presented, showing how the digitized Atlas of Utah Plants, a geo-referenced database of collection information distributed through the internet, and data from site-specific studies can be nested within a state-level database. The layering of site-specific and state level information within the Utah database, with provisions for continental-scale linkages to the Flora of North America, provides an example of the way natural history information can be managed at local, regional, and continental levels.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/leila_shultz/87/