An Australian coral, Catalaphyllia jardinei, on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Ed Lovell

An Australian coral, Catalaphyllia jardinei, on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Ed Lovell

The ALA is excited to announce a new project to incorporate data on Australian coral, in collaboration with Dr. J. E. N. ‘Charlie’ Veron. Dr Veron’s data will include species and location records for corals in all Australian waters as well as photos. Additional information on habitat, abundance and species characteristics will also be made available through the ALA website. The taxonomic coverage is comprehensive at species level.

Charlie Veron is best known as the author of the three volume Corals of the World. He is also the senior author of the major electronic products Coral ID and Coral Geographic. He is the author of 100 scientific articles and the former Chief Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. He has described 20% of all coral species of the world and now concentrates on conservation and the effects of climate change on coral reefs.

The ALA expects to make these datasets available by about September 2011.

Native solomon's seal, Drymophilla Cyanocarpa. Photo courtesy of The Unique Flora of Tasmania.

Native Solomon's Seal, Drymophila cyanocarpa.
Photo: The Unique Flora of Tasmania.

The ALA has recently established agreements to share data and/or photos from:

  • Russell Knightley Media
  • The Unique Flora of Tasmania Website
  • Australian Succulents Website
  • Fungi Foray Group of Victoria website
  • Marine Life Society of South Australia
  • Butterfly House website
  • Find-A-Spider

By Lynne Sealie, Atlas of Living Australia
Australia’s biological collections – do they really matter or are they an interesting pursuit for people with a passion for preserving dead plants and animals?

Documented collecting in Australia began when Joseph Banks visited Australia as part of Captain Cook’s expedition in 1770. Following Banks, Australia’s scientists and natural historians built the foundations of Australia’s collections of algae, fish, insects, plants, mammals, birds, fungi and microorganisms.

Stag Beetles, Lamprima spp. Photo Carl Bento © Australian Museum

Stag Beetles, Lamprima spp. Photo Carl Bento © Australian Museum

The importance of biological collections to conservation is huge, particularly in Australia’s variable climate. Firstly, we need to know what species actually exist. Of Australia’s estimated 570,000 living species, three-quarters are yet to be identified and remain something of a mystery.

Coupled with needing to know what species actually exist in Australia, if we don’t know precisely where species occur, it’s impossible to monitor any changes to animal and plant life or make informed decisions about managing biodiversity and landscapes.

Saving the day

Biological collections have saved the day countless times. A fungal collection saved USA wheat exports by enabling scientists to distinguish between a harmless and a pest fungus. The strain of penicillin that spared many lives in World War Two was sourced from a fungus collection in the USA.

Hundred-year-old tuna from a museum collection have told us about levels of mercury pollution in the past. Similarly, lichens have told us about changes in air quality. Seed banks protect our food supply by allowing scientists to screen crops for varieties that are resistant to disease. Seed banks even insure important plants against catastrophes such as nuclear war.

Last year, specimens up to 160 years old held in collections at CSIRO and Australian museums allowed a tiny population of ground parrots in Western Australia to be recognised as a separate species from its slightly less endangered eastern Australian cousins. The 110 survivors of this critically endangered species can now be monitored.

Collections the key to solving frog deaths mystery

Fleay's barred frog, Myxophyes fleayi. Endangered species, south-east Queensland. Photo courtesy of Bruce Thomson. © Bruce Thomson.

Fleay’s barred frog, Myxophyes fleayi. Endangered species, south-east Queensland. Photo courtesy of Bruce Thomson. © Bruce Thomson.

Declines in frog populations began to be observed in Australia during the 1970s but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Australian scientists identified the cause: a fatal fungus. Described as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, the fungus causes the disease chytridiomycosis, a skin infection.

But was this newly-identified fungus the cause of worldwide frog declines, even in pristine habitats, or might a toxin or environmental change be responsible?

Specimens from biological collections revealed that the fungus first appeared in frog populations in Australia and the Americas immediately prior to their declines and disappearances. In Australia the epidemic began in southeast Queensland in the late 1970s, spreading north and south along the coast. Combined with evidence of chytridiomycosis causing rapid death of frogs at the time of declines in Australia and overseas, the evidence from frog specimens in biological collections has helped show the fungus is indeed to blame.

Frogs collected in 1938 in South Africa show infection with the fungus, suggesting a point of origin. Its global spread in recent decades has caused the decline or extinction of hundreds of species of frogs.

Where are the collections?

Australia’s biological collections are found in many museums, herbaria and zoos, universities, government departments and CSIRO, where they are curated and studied by dedicated scientists and taxonomists.

Across the country, millions of specimens (and bits of specimens) are pinned, dried, preserved in alcohol, preserved on slides, frozen and stored along with photographs, drawings and the records associated with each specimen. For example, The Australian National Insect Collection has more than 12 million specimens of Australian insects, mites, spiders, worms and centipedes. The Australian National Herbarium in Canberra has more than 1.4 million plant specimens, including some of Banks’ original specimens.

The Atlas of Living Australia is working in partnership with museums and herbaria to link up information and photos about specimens in collections with observation records, identification tools, mapping tools, citizen science projects, biodiversity literature, species pages and more. The ALA website highlights information about 141 Australian Natural History Collections and the specimens found within them.

Map of Australian natural history collections
Australia’s natural history collections are a vast treasure-house of specimens, documenting the country’s rich biodiversity and providing us with essential information on the characteristics, genetics, distribution and ecology of each species. The ALA provides a map and a list of these collections, along with information about each collection and an overview of the specimen data available for each collection through the Atlas.

About the Atlas

The Atlas of Living Australia is a national collaboration between CSIRO, the Australian Government and Australia’s museums, herbaria and other biological collections. The Atlas also collaborates with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), the Encyclopedia of Life and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology are working on a DataONE project to investigate the affects of climate change on bird migration in the USA. The Atlas of Living Australia is an overseas partner of DataONE.

By combining a database of bird sightings (contributed by birdwatchers) with satellite data and supercomputing, scientists can analyse bird species distribution and migration patterns. See the excellent slide presentation by Steve Kelling, Director of Information Science at Cornell’s ornithology laboratory.
“We’re trying to address a really important question with regard to climate change: How might climate change influence the migration patterns of birds?” said Bob Cook, a distinguished research scientist at ORNL involved with the effort. “The approach we’re taking here is we’re trying to bring together as much environmental data as we can to try to understand what influences the bird migration.”
Bird sightings are taken from eBird, an online database that gathers bird observations from citizen scientists. eBird, run jointly by Cornell University and the National Audubon Society, passes each observation record through a two tiered
data verification system. Last year, 22,136 bird watchers submitted 18,214, 480 observations to eBird.

Via eBird “we have really good information on the location where observations were made,” Steve Kelling, Director of Information Science at Cornell’s ornithology lab, said. “We can link those with other kinds of environmental observations, like land cover, type of climate, temperature, elevation and human demographic information.”
A NASA satellite sensor, MODIS — short for “Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer”, provides the land cover information, including vegetation density index, or “greenness” of the local area; rainfall; temperature; snow cover; as well as the start of spring greening and autumn, two important environmental cues for bird migration.
This huge amount of data can only be analysed on supercomputers, provided by TeraGrid, a National Science Foundation-administered network of supercomputers.
The investigators can pull specific data generated by NASA’s MODIS satellite sensor, link it to field observations from eBird, and conduct more complex analyses using supercomputers, such as modeling how variations in vegetation linked to climate change can affect bird migration.

Eventually, the scientists would like to develop models that can forecast how future climate shifts might affect bird populations.
“We’d like to be able to shift the greening index to occur two weeks earlier or two weeks later and see if that influences the model’s predictions of when birds will arrive at certain latitudes,” Kelling said.
Climate change could produce a mismatch between a bird species’ cue to migrate or nest and the availability of food, he noted, a phenomenon that’s been observed with some species in Europe.
Several recent reports — including two by the Interior Department and one from the National Audubon Society — have found evidence that climate change is already altering bird habitat and migration patterns in the United States. For further information, contact: Morgan McCorkle, mccorkleml@ornl.gov

With the recent growth of internet and mobile-based applications, it’s easier than ever for naturalists to discover information and record field observations of Australian birds.

By using a new web-based ‘Citizen Science’ application developed by the Atlas of Living Australia, Birds Australia volunteers can report their sightings and contribute photos to whichever project they are participating in, and then see and edit their own records. Visit birdsaustralia.ala.org.au to sign up.

Using Birds Australia’s Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo Recovery Project as the pilot, these new web-based tools have made it possible to gather, share and analyse species data, making a valuable contribution to the recovery project. Since the successful pilot last year, Birds Australia are using the application on more volunteer projects, to streamline data collection and integration.

Read more at http://www.ala.org.au/tools-services/citizen-science/

By Lynne Sealie, Atlas of Living Australia
The ALA’s new blog is a quick way to catch up on the latest developments and tools in the Atlas project, whether it’s enhanced mapping tools or innovative ways of analysing data for research. The Atlas community is also using the new blog to discuss broader issues around biodiversity information and imaging.

Comments and examples are very welcome and should be sent to Lynne Sealie.

By Lynne Sealie, Atlas of Living Australia
The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) is collaborating with the Greater Eastern Ranges Initiative (GER) to increase the use of ALA tools by GER partners in their project activities. The GER Initiative is a continent-scale corridor concept to improve the conservation and community well being of people and places along the Great Eastern Ranges of Australia (http://www.greateasternranges.org.au).

Great Eastern Ranges initiative activities

Great Eastern Ranges initiative activities


The work focuses on five priority regions:

  • Border Ranges (NSW and south-east Qld)
  • Hunter (NSW)
  • Southern Highlands (NSW)
  • Kosciusko to Coast (NSW & ACT)
  • Slopes to Summit (NSW and central-north Victoria).

The GER Initiative exemplifies the challenges of using and managing environmental data. This data is used at multiple scales by diverse users who are seeking information that has been scattered across many government agencies and research institutions in four States (QLD, NSW, ACT and Victoria).

Over 100 organisations are already involved in the wider GER Initiative, representing a broad range of potential users of ALA tools and services.

In early March, ALA and GER representatives attended a two-day workshop to analyse the environmental information and data collection needs of GER partners, and to investigate how ALA tools and data might suit their needs.

Providing ‘citizen science’ data capture and analysis tools for GER partners is a high priority. Data capture needs to include on-ground activities associated with specific places and associated species. The ALA-GER workshop provided valuable feedback to ALA about current and planned data management tools and identified specific projects within the GER initiative that could immediately derive value from current Atlas capabilities.

The participants developed a short list of possible actions in the closing section of the workshop. The GER Initiative and the ALA are currently developing the project management plan.

ALA-GER workshop group

ALA-GER workshop group