Calling all citizen scientists

Calling all citizen scientists

Two boys and a lady looking at long grass.

Why not get outdoors this November and help improve Australia’s biodiversity knowledge by joining a citizen science event? Credit: Sydney Olympic Park Authority

With summer almost here, now is the perfect time to get out of the house and enjoy Australia’s great outdoors. And what better way to do it than by joining one of the citizen science events that are happening across the country this November! Not only will you be out enjoying nature, but you’ll be making a valuable contribution to Australia’s biodiversity knowledge as well, with recorded sightings being fed into the Atlas of Living Australia(ALA).

Events include the Mimosa Rocks BioBlitz, which is taking place on the 7th and 8th of November; the World Parks Congress BioBlitz, which will be held in Sydney on Sunday November 16th; and the National Koala Count, which will run from the 7th to 17th of November.

The picturesque Mimosa Rocks National Park is located on the NSW south coast and is home to an amazing array of flora and fauna, including Potaroos, Glossy Black-cockatoos, orchids, and cycads to name just a few. The Mimosa Rocks BioBlitz will include 43 surveys hosted by expert scientists and naturalists. For more information, including what surveys are happening when and how to register, please visit www.alcw.org.au.

Large moth sitting on a person's hand

Just one of the beautiful creatures you might discover. Credit: Libby Hepburn

The World Parks Congress (WPC) BioBlitz is happening as part of PlanetFest, and, with the help of families and nature lovers, aims to capture a snapshot of the biodiversity at Sydney Olympic Park. Experts will take participants on guided nature surveys where they’ll go hunting for birds, insects, plants, frogs and water bugs. There will be hands on displays in the BioBlitz marquee, providing the opportunity to learn more about BioBlitz events and how they assist protected area managers to involve the public in scientific surveys. For more information and to register for the event, please visit http://wpcbioblitz.eventbrite.com.au.

Both the Mimosa Rocks and WPC BioBlitz events are using the international product, iNaturalist, to register sightings. These records will be incorporated into the ALA on a regular basis.

Two koalas sitting on a branch

Join the fun of the National Koala Count and help us better understand these furry friends.

And for those who aren’t in NSW, why not take part in the National Koala Count, which is open to participants across Australia. A freely-available, GPS-enabled smartphone app, BioTag, has been developed especially for the event by the ALA. The app allows participants to easily record their koala sightings anywhere across the country. BioTag is available for both android and Apple mobile devices and can be downloaded from Google play and iTunes, just search for BioTag. People who do not own a smartphone or tablet can enter their sightings directly into the National Parks Association’s Data Portal. To get involved, simply register at www.koalacount.org.au, download BioTag, or log onto the Data Portal, and you are ready to start counting!

By participating in any (or all!) of these events you will be helping to build a more comprehensive picture of the numbers and locations of Australian plant and animal species across the landscape, which is highly important for the effective management of our precious and unique biodiversity.

Over 50 delegates from the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) conference now have a better understanding of the data and tools provided by the Atlas of Living Australia thanks to a ½ day workshop run by Lee Belbin at last week’s ESA conference in Alice Springs. The workshop aimed to familiarize delegates with the key tools, data and access options available through the Atlas, with particular focus on the Spatial Portal. Topics covered included:

Rocky landscape near Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

Alice Springs provided a magnificent backdrop for the ESA conference.

  • An outline of Atlas data, including species, areas, layers and facets
  • The research interface (i.e. Spatial Portal)
  • The tools of the Atlas and how to use them
  • Importing and exporting data and results (including ALA4R library)
  • Other Atlas resources: case studies, tutorials, blog, web services, FAQs etc.

The workshop also provided an ideal opportunity to identify and discuss gaps in the Atlas, and for the Atlas team to gain useful feedback from the research community.

The popularity of the optional workshop was very encouraging for the Atlas team, as it showed the keen interest in the site by the ecological research community. Anyone interested in learning how to use the advanced features of the Atlas Spatial Portal is very welcome to contact us.

DigiVol is a collaboration between the Australian Museum and the Atlas of Living Australia that was initially an experimental foray into crowd-sourcing. At the time, the notion that there were online volunteers willing to help natural history collections capture their data seemed rather far-fetched.

An Australian Museum staff member inspects a tray of shells.

Credit: Melissa Graf © Australian Museum

It was definitely a risk: crowd-sourcing was in its infancy and there were no other museums providing online volunteers with an opportunity to help digitise their natural history collections. But now, DigiVol has not only become a means for Australia’s museums to tackle the enormous task of digitising their collections, but institutions like the Smithsonian, New York Botanic Gardens, and Kew Gardens have also chosen DigiVol to host their own virtual expeditions to digitise their collections.

As further proof of DigiVol’s success, we recently recorded two impressive milestones. Our volunteers at DigiVol Online have now completed over 100,000 transcription tasks, with some of our most prolific volunteers completing over 10,000 transcription tasks each. Also, in just two short years, DigiVol Lab volunteers at the Australian Museum have created over 70,000 images of the Museum’s very large Malacology (think molluscs, such as snails, slugs, clams, octopus and squid) collection. These milestones represent a monumental contribution to digitising the collections of museums and herbaria from Australia and around the world.

If you would like to learn more about DigiVol and these great achievements, check out the Australian Museum’s recent blog on the topic. Or if you’d like to get involved simply head to www.volunteer.ala.org.au. Happy transcribing!

CSIRO’s new book, Biodiversity: Science and Solutions for Australia, is jam-packed with the latest scientific knowledge about Australia’s biodiversity, so of course the Atlas of Living Australia is a key feature.

Front cover of CSIRO's new book 'Biodiversity: Science and Solutions for Australia'The book, which is available free from www.csiro.au/biodiversitybook, describes the ancient origins and unique features of Australia’s plants, animals and ecosystems, and looks at how they are currently tracking. It highlights indigenous perspectives on biodiversity and describes how Australia’s biodiversity interacts with agriculture, the resources sector, cities and with our changing global environment. The book also identifies practical solutions for managing Australia’s globally unique natural assets, including the invaluable role of the ALA.

A number of case studies throughout the book demonstrate the use of the ALA. One case study highlights how the ALA is being used to predict future trends in Australian biodiversity by providing information on the location and conservation status of Australia’s species. Others describe how the ALA is guiding revegetation under a changing climate, and how it is assisting in the design of Australia’s National Reserve System. Lastly, the ALA’s ‘Explore your area’ function provides a great example of how readers of the book can get to know the biodiversity in their neighbourhood.

The ALA is also a key part of the interactive eBook version of the book. Every species mentioned in the book links to the relevant species page on the ALA, greatly increasing the amount of information available to readers with a simple click on the screen. The eBook also contains links to videos with the book’s authors, animations, articles and further reading items.

For your free copy of the book, head to www.csiro.au/biodiversitybook.

Australia’s Virtual Herbarium: 5 million records and counting

(re-published from the original available at http://avh.chah.org.au/index.php/news/)

An Australian online resource, which is proving invaluable for scientific research and conservation efforts here and overseas, reached a significant milestone this week.

Australia’s Virtual Herbarium (AVH, http://avh.chah.org.au/) – one of the world’s largest repositories of specimen-based botanical information – now contains over 5 million records.

“This milestone represents a mammoth collaborative effort from Australian herbaria, who have worked together for over 25 years to make the information associated with herbarium specimens easy to share and reuse by anyone, anywhere in the world”, said Kevin Thiele, Chair of the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria.

AVH brings together specimen data from many of Australia’s herbaria – specialised museums that house collections of dried plants, algae and fungi – and makes it freely available on the web, providing the most complete and up-to-date picture of Australia’s botanical diversity available. Combining these data sets and providing easy access to them expedites research and allows scientists to undertake large-scale research projects previously not possible.

AVH is delivered through the extensive infrastructure provided by the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA, http://ala.org.au/). Through the ALA, AVH data is linked to a large and growing number of environmental data sets, facilitating research that leads to a deeper understanding of Australia’s biodiversity.

AVH makes Australia uniquely placed to be a testing ground for new research methods. Recent research by Brent Mishler, a biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues at the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research in Canberra, used AVH data to develop and test methods for identifying areas of high genetic diversity, which may be in need of greater conservation protection.

“Australia presents the best current opportunity for studying large-scale patterns of diversity because of the nearly complete digitisation of herbarium collections by Australia’s Virtual Herbarium. These new landscape-scale methods are not feasible in the US until we have more herbarium data available”, said Mishler.

Using Australian acacias as an example, their research identified biologically important, but currently unprotected, areas in Western Australia and confirmed the significance of the world heritage listed Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland. “We now have a richer view of biodiversity that takes into account the number of species, their rarity in the landscape and the rarity of their close relatives”, Mishler said.

AVH data has also been applied to conservation efforts in other parts of the world. Researchers in South Africa have used herbarium specimen data to model the distribution of potentially weedy Australian species – including eucalypts, casuarinas and acacias – outside Australia and predict the likelihood that they will become invasive. “AVH data has been absolutely crucial for much of this work”, said David Richardson, Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University.

The combined collections of Australian herbaria are estimated to exceed 7 million specimens and are expanding all the time. “Our herbaria are active research collections that are always growing. They contain specimens from the earliest European explorations of Australia to the most recent botanical expeditions. New specimens are added daily as botanists continue to investigate our native and naturalised flora”, said Thiele. This ongoing collecting and databasing makes AVH the most up-to-date reference data set for Australian botanical diversity.

The ALA is a partnership of Australian herbaria, museums, CSIRO, government agencies and other biological collections. The ALA is supported by the Australian Government through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and the Education Investment Fund (EIF) Super Science initiative.

Further information

Kevin Thiele
Chair, Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria
kevin.thiele@dec.wa.gov.au
0400 127 709

 

Fiona Brown
Communications Advisor, Atlas of Living Australia
fiona.brown@csiro.au
0403 509 864

 

Research links

Further information on the research by Mishler and colleagues is available at the Berkeley News Center: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/07/18/big-data-guides-conservation-efforts/, and the published research is available on the Nature Communications website: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2014/140718/ncomms5473/full/ncomms5473.html.

David Richardson’s work is described in the journal Diversity and Distributions: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1472-4642.2011.00824.x/abstract

Other examples of research utilising AVH can be provided on request.

 Images

Please contact Alison Vaughan (alison.vaughan@rbg.vic.gov.au, + 61 3 9252 2448) for image files.

Using AVH data on Australia’s acacias, researchers have identified areas of high genetic diversity where improved conservation efforts might preserve rare and endangered species. Image: Andrew Thornhill.

AVH map showing the distribution of the fungus Banksiamyces (red dots) and its host Banksia (blue dots), based on label data from specimens held in Australian herbaria. Image: Australia’s Virtual Herbarium (2014).

Banksiamyces macrocarpus, growing on cones of the Hairpin Banksia, Banksia spinulosa. Image: Geoff Lay CC BY-SA 3.0.

A herbarium specimen from which information has been digitised and made available in AVH for people to access anywhere in the world. This specimen of Banksia serrata, collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander at Botany Bay in 1770, is held at the National Herbarium of Victoria at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. Image: Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

 

Foundations for the future: a long-term plan for Australian ecosystem science was launched by the Chief Scientist of Australia Prof Ian Chubb AC last week in Canberra. The final document has arisen from the proposals developed through many ‘town hall workshops’ across the country, and these proposals also form the basis for its implementation. The Plan identifies six equal priority areas for action over the coming years:
  • Delivering maximum impact for Australia: enhancing relationships between scientists and end-users
  • Supporting long-term research
  • Enabling ecosystem surveillance
  • Making the most of data resources*
  • Inspiring a generation: empowering the public with knowledge and opportunities
  • Facilitating coordination, collaboration and leadership

*The PRIORITY Making the most of data resources is most relevant to the Atlas of Living Australia-

“Sustained infrastructure and capacity for consistent collection, publication and archiving of ecosystem science data sets and meta-data in standard, easily accessible formats in publicly accessible websites. Australia needs sustained infrastructure and capacity-building  to maintain and facilitate the publication of and access to ecosystem science data. We can get better value from our collective data resources by properly describing and storing data in ways that enable discovery, access and re-use. Significant gains have been made in recent years, but there is currently no coordinated national strategy for collecting, storing and accessing core ecosystem science data across terrestrial, aquatic and atmospheric domains. Moving Australian ecosystem science to a position of open access to both historical and current data can enable research communities to build time series at a scale well beyond that which they could achieve individually. Synthesis, analysis and modelling of collective data will help to deliver essential outputs for government, industry and society.”

You can listen to Prof Chubb talking about it on Radio National at: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/drive/national-plan-to-protect-ecosystems-launched/5599308

With the 2014 ALA Science Symposium now fading into memory I wanted to record a few thoughts about this year’s event.

The focus of the previous (2013) ALA Symposium was the achievements of the project and our wider partner community.  This year we shifted some of the focus to where we are going, what we are currently working on, and what you can expect to see soon.  There was still room for some reflection, with the panels providing a great opportunity for conversations as a group about where we want to head.

We had a full program, with many stimulating talks and a couple of chances for lively discussion. Copies of the presentations can be found HERE, and many thanks to the authors who have made them available.

We have had nothing but positive feedback on the symposium – and most particularly on the quality and enthusiasm of the various participants.  For me one of the main successes of the Symposium was seeing how the Atlas community is coming together and is excited about our shared future.  As stimulating as the presentations and discussions were, the sense of excitement I saw in the room during the breaks was even more impressive.  Everywhere there were lively discussions, interested people getting more information from presenters, and various networks being formed to develop and progress some of the emerging ideas.

I would like to thank everyone who helped make the 2014 Atlas of Living Australia Science Symposium such a success.  This includes presenters, moderators, panellists, the Atlas staff who worked so hard at the organisation – but also all the participants who contributed through attending and creating such a lively atmosphere.  This high level of community engagement is compelling evidence of a strong future for the Atlas.

Looking forward to seeing everyone at our next Symposium!

John La Salle

Help raise money for the Homeless

This Thursday, June 19, The Atlas of Living Australia Director John La Salle will be participating in Vinnie’s CEO Sleepout to “not only raise awareness about homelessness but vital funds to help break the cycle of homelessness in our community”.

To paraphrase from the CEO Sleepout website:
During this event “Australian CEO’s and community leaders experience homeless life for one night in winter.  The discomfort of sleeping on the streets is a fragment of the larger reality we hope to impart upon influential leaders of the community as part of the Vinnies CEO Sleepout.  With their help, and yours, we can fight the issue of homelessness together”

This is a extremely worthy cause, and gives the Atlas a little bit of publicity and recognition. John would be most grateful for any help and support – and remember that donations, no matter how small, will add up to support a very worthy cause.

You can donate to support his effort at the following url:

http://www.ceosleepout.org.au/ceos/act-ceos/john-la-salle

Remember – donations are tax deductible, and a receipt will be sent to you immediately upon donating.

Thanks for much for any support – and feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.

 

Event:       Atlas of Living Australia Science Symposium
When: Wednesday 11 June 2014, 9:00am – 7:30pm
Thursday 12 June 2014, 9:00am – 5:00pm
Where: Australian Academy of Science,
Gordon Street, Canberra

 

 

 

 

 

Event information and registration can be found at:

http://seek.hosting.exacttarget.com/EventManagement/EventPage.aspx?ispbk=clear&SUBID=-1&JOBID=20198297&MID=84905

The Atlas of Living Australia reached a major milestone over the Australia Day Long Weekend, clocking up one billion downloads.

The Atlas provides free, online access to over 41 million records of Australia”s biodiversity, with each record having been downloaded an average of 25 times.

“Reaching a billion downloads shows us the value of data sharing: capture it once, make it freely available and share it many times,” says John La Salle, Director of the Atlas.

Download statistics from the ALA showing 1 billion downloads

Screen shot of the Atlas dashboard on 26 January. Metrics around Atlas content and usage are available through the Atlas dashboard <http://dashboard.ala.org.au>

“We have 690 data sets shared through the Atlas, contributed by museums, biological collections, individual collectors and community groups. These contributions enable the Atlas to deliver records of Australia’s biodiversity to scientists, policy makers, environmental managers and anyone interested in our unique flora and fauna”, he says.

The records available through the Atlas are made up of specimens, observations made in the field, molecular data, literature, maps, sound recordings and photographs. They support research, environmental monitoring, conservation, planning, education and biosecurity.

Over half of the billion downloads so far are directly supporting scientific research.

As part of research into refuges for biodiversity as climates change, the Australian National University’s Dan Rosauer looked at the diversity of lizards in eastern Australia’s rainforests.

“Using the Atlas, I was able download records of relevant groups of lizards across eastern Australia,” Dan says. “The records were primarily what are known as vouchered specimens held in museum collections. It took me around half an hour, compared with the weeks and months I spent getting hold of similar records when I was researching frogs as part of my PhD around eight years ago.

Hypsilurus Peters

Licence: CC-BY-SA-3.0, Source: Wikipedia, Author: Zoharby

“The Atlas is great because it lets us focus on the research question, instead of searching for and managing data. “And when we have data to share we know others will be able put it to good use.”

Reaching one billion downloads represents a major increase in usage of the Atlas, with an average of over 60 million records per month downloaded over the last six months. It shows that the Atlas is being used by an increasingly wide stakeholder community for a variety of research and applied outcomes.

“This is truly a remarkable achievement in data sharing,” says Ross Wilkinson from the Australian National Data Service. “The Atlas is an example of data re-use on a grand scale and shows the value of government investment in collaborative research infrastructure”.

Inspiring uses of Atlas can be seen among the Spatial Portal Case Studies, <http://www.ala.org.au/faq/spatial-portal/spatial-portal-case-studies/> including how to find the best location in Australia to produce your favourite wine, and how to choose a windfarm site that minimises harm to local bird and bat populations.

The Atlas of Living Australia is a partnership between CSIRO, Australia’s museums and herbaria, biological collections, research organisations, universities and government departments and is built on open source data and infrastructure.

Save the date, the Atlas of Living Australia’s annual Science Symposium <http://www.ala.org.au/blogs-news/save-the-date-atlas-of-living-australia-science-symposium-june-2014/> will be held on 11-12 June 2014 in Canberra.