Beauty from nature: art of the Scott sisters

An exhibition featuring illustrations of butterflies, moths, caterpillars and plants by Harriet and Helena Scott, two of 19th century Australia’s most prominent natural history artists will be held at the Australian Museum in Sydney on 3 September – 27 November 2011. Highlights of the exhibition are 60 watercolour paintings created between 1846 and 1851 for their father A.W. Scott’s landmark publication Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations.

The Scott sisters’ work has been invaluable to generations of scientists. Harriet and Helena Scott were among the first to illustrate the life histories and immature stages of Australian moths and butterflies. They were meticulous and understood the biology of their subjects in great detail. Scientific illustrations play an important role in conveying subtle and important features of organisms.

Even today in a world of inexpensive digital photographs, drawings and paintings are able to illustrate some features that a camera will miss. A typical Scott Lepidoptera illustration would show moths or butterflies as adults, their host plant, larval stage and cocoon, with technical accuracy, at the same time subtly emphasising those parts of the organism of special interest.

In conjunction with the Australian Museum Archives, some of the works of the Scott sisters will soon be accessible online through the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA). Once the illustrations have been checked against modern taxonomy, the ALA will be including images of the Scott sisters’ scientific paintings in the galleries of ALA species pages.

In addition, the Australian Museum has photographed the two editions of Lepidoptera by A W Scott. In digital form they will be made freely accessible through the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). BHL already holds a copy of The Snakes of Australia, by Gerhard Krefft, illustrated by Harriet and Helena Scott.

There will also be an opportunity for people at home to be involved. Original notebooks of the Scott sisters have been photographed, and in a few weeks time we will be asking for help to transcribe them. From your computer you will be able to see and read exactly what Helena and Harriet wrote 150 years ago, and take the opportunity to contribute a little time to make those historical documents more widely accessible.

Beauty from Nature: art of the Scott sisters exhibition is suitable for art, history, science and nature lovers of all ages.

The recent addition of 1.2 million records from the Canberra Ornithologists Group (COG) Garden Bird Surveys data set brings the grand total of Atlas records to just over 25 million! We have occurrence records – specimens, sightings, surveys – together with images, links to videos and species profile fact sheets.

The Canberra Ornithologists Group (COG) has been diligently compiling garden bird surveys for 30 years. Each week, enthusiastic bird-watchers from around Canberra and local districts record the maximum number of each species of bird seen in a 100 metre radius of their house or office.

If you are lucky enough to see a dozen Spotted Pardalotes one day, and then six the next, but no more for the rest of the week, then you would record 12 Spotted Pardalotes for the week. It’s that easy. Even this fearless blogger has taken part in the Gardens Bird Survey.

Lewin's Honeyeater

A local rarity – a Lewin’s Honeyeater recorded in my backyard in the COG Gardens Bird Survey in 2008. This species of bird had not been observed in the gardens survey since 1992.


Atlas Data Set Explorer

How do we find all the 280+ data sets the Atlas currently holds?

Follow this link and bookmark it to discover the Atlas data sets:

The data sets displayed on the page can be refined to facet (or filter) the results set. Click one or more options to reduce the selection. A free text search on the data set names is also available, e.g. type in “Garden”.

The Content Type (not shown in the image below) summarises the kind of data found in the data set. Keywords like: Habitat, Conservation management, Lifecycle can be chosen.

Data set pages screenshot

In the next few months, the Atlas website will change to prominently feature the Data Set Explorer with a link from the home page and the navigation menus.

Even more data coming soon!

Look out for historic atlas data coming from Birds Australia and their latest update of bird observations.

Also last year’s SA Flora and Fauna data from the South Australian Department of Environment and Natural Resources is due soon.


GBIF and ALA help map plants used in Aboriginal medicine

The innovative use of data accessible through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) may help to identify areas of high cultural value, based on plants used in traditional medicine by Aboriginal people in Australia.

The Customary Medicinal Knowledgebase (CMKb), based at Macquarie University, is teaming up with the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), which hosts GBIF’s Australian node, to integrate medicinal knowledge with other information on Australian biodiversity.

A recent study modelled suitable ecological niches for more than 400 plant species that are of medicinal importance, using data accessed through the GBIF portal and Australia’s Virtual Herbarium (AVH), one of the main resources contributing data to ALA.

The study, combining traditional knowledge with state-of-the-art ecological niche modelling technologies, was conducted by Dr Jitendra Gaikwad, Dr Peter Wilson and Prof Shoba Ranganathan (UNESCO Chair of Biodiversity Informatics) from Macquarie University, and published in the journal Ecological Modelling.

The outcome was a map of potential “bio-cultural diversity hotspots”, areas suitable for the occurrence of multiple species known to be used in traditional medicine. Jitendra Gaikwad said the GBIF data portal was very useful in obtaining information about the distribution of 414 plant species, used in the research.

“Many of the species in our analysis occur globally and data at that scale, obtained through the GBIF portal, projected onto the Australian scale, helped us identify areas suitable for multiple species,” said Gaikwad.

“Many plants brought into Australia by early settlers have become an integral part of Aboriginal traditional knowledge. Global data on these plants is essential, and we obtained this from GBIF,” he added.

“For the Aboriginal people, their connection with the land is a matter of survival, emotion and culture – it is not just a piece of land for them. So let’s say a mining industry identifies an area that is inhabited by an Aboriginal community.

“This methodology allows us to evaluate the cultural value of the land. We have used medicinal value, but we can use other socio-economic, traditional knowledge and biodiversity conservation aspects as well. The next logical step would be to select an area and validate the distribution of the species and the cultural value in the field.

“But before that, we need to have active participation of Aboriginal communities to validate the results,” Gaikwad concluded.

The agreement between Macquarie University and the Atlas of Living Australia will:

  • Set up a “mirror site” of the Customary Medicinal Knowledgebase at the ALA, to support more efficient, updated delivery of data services
  • Integrate seamlessly the public domain data from CMKb such as species information, medicinal uses and phytochemical information with the ALA to enable large-scale analyses
  • Develop a web interface for displaying CMKb data on ALA
  • Develop a web interface for ecological modeling for medicinal plants, using freely available software and ALA web services.

The Director of ALA, Donald Hobern, said the latest study in Ecological Modelling was of great interest.

“It is an exciting and novel use of multiple heterogeneous data sets to explore the linkages between phylogeny (the study of the evolutionary relatedness of life forms), ecology, chemistry and human use of biodiversity,” Hobern said.

The director of GBIF, Dr Nicholas King, added: “It is very encouraging to see such creative and novel use being made of data accessible through the GBIF network. It shows the great value of publishing biodiversity data online using agreed international standards, and it emphasizes the importance of the global investment in data mobilization made by GBIF participants and partners.”

For more information

Tim Hirsch, GBIF Secretariat

Prof Shoba Ranganathan
Macquarie University, Australia

Lynne Sealie
Atlas of Living Australia (ALA)

More information

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) was set up by governments in 2001 to encourage free and open access to biodiversity data, via the Internet. Its current participants include 57 national governments and 47 international organizations and economies. Some 300 million primary biodiversity records (records of the occurrence of named organisms) have been mobilized via the GBIF data portal (, from more than 9,000 data sets held by over 300 data publishers. The data are used in a variety of scientific and policy applications, including predicting the spread of invasive alien species, projecting the impacts of climate change, maintaining the genetic diversity of crops and identifying priority areas for conservation.

The ALA is diving deeper into the marine realm with more than 900 new images of Australian coral species from ‘Charlie’ Veron. To see this amazing collection, go to and type veron into the search box. Most of the photos were taken in Australia but some of the rarer species were photographed in neighbouring countries. Data coming soon includes species and location records for corals in all Australian waters. Additional information on habitat, distribution ranges and species characteristics will also be made available through the ALA website. The taxonomic coverage is comprehensive at species level.

The photos are from John “Charlie” Veron, credited in research as J. E. N. Veron. Charlie 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, 100 scientific articles and the former Chief Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

He has discovered and described about 20% of all coral species of the world and has worked in all the major coral reef regions of the world, participating in 66 expeditions and spending 7,000 hours scuba diving. He has been the recipient of the Darwin Medal, the Silver Jubilee Pin of the Australian Marine Sciences Association, the Australasian Science Prize, the Whitley Medal and received special mention in the Eureka Awards.

Charlie now concentrates on conservation and the effects of climate change on coral reefs. His latest book (2008) A Reef in Time: the Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End (Harvard University Press) is a synthesis of many sciences for a popular readership.

Veron has criticised global warming skeptics like Ian Plimer, saying of Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth: “Every original statement Plimer makes in the book on coral and coral reefs is incorrect, and that “[Plimer] serve[s] up diagrams from no acknowledged source, diagrams known to be obsolete and diagrams that combine bits of science with bits of fiction.”

For further information see key words on these subjects and the “Coral Triangle Initiative”, a major conservation program launched in Bali in December 2007.