The Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria (CHAH) is the peak body representing all major herbaria in Australia and New Zealand. Together, CHAH herbaria contribute over 4 million specimen records to the ALA, representing all native and naturalised plants, algae and fungi. Although these are numerically a minority of the total number of ALA plant records, they form the authoritative core of the ALA. Herbarium records are of very high quality, as each is vouchered against a permanently maintained specimen in a herbarium; the vouchers allow the records to be kept up-to-date in the face of changing taxonomy and understanding of our biodiversity.
As well as maintaining the specimens in herbaria and their associated records, herbarium staff play a key role in understanding Australia’s plant, algal and fungal biodiversity. Taxonomists and systematic botanists at herbaria study the collections to determine what species, native and naturalised, occur in Australia, provide the names that we all use to catalogue, study and help conserve those species, and conduct research to uncover their relationships and evolutionary histories.
Taxonomists address the most fundamental of questions – “what’s what”, a question that underpins all other basic questions such as “what’s where” and “why”? Importantly, the work that herbarium taxonomists do continually improves the value and relevance of the collections: perhaps uniquely among Australia’s nationally significant scientific infrastructure, collections such those in herbaria are “instruments that get sharper with use”.
In addition to its work helping coordinate herbarium activities throughout Australasia, ensuring high quality standards in all herbarium work areas, and promoting the value of herbaria and taxonomic research, two special CHAH projects provide critical services to the ALA:
The Australian Plant Census (APC). The APC is an ambitious project to produce a single, authoritative, agreed checklist of all vascular plants (flowering plants, conifers, cycads and ferns) in Australia, the first such continent-wide checklist anywhere in the world. The importance of the APC cannot be overstated – only with an agreed set of names is it possible to communicate information about organisms accurately and precisely. Other CHAH projects under the umbrella of the National Species Lists (NSL) maintain and provide to the ALA similarly authoritative checklists for marine and freshwater algae, mosses and liverworts, and fungi.
Australia’s Virtual Herbarium (AVH). The AVH (http://avh.chah.org.au) is a specific-purpose portal powered by the ALA that provides a single point of access to the specimen-based information held in all Australian herbaria, collectively over 4M specimens. The AVH is used by CHAH herbaria to maintain the currency of specimens and their records and to conduct the taxonomic research that underpins our understanding of Australia’s biodiversity.
CHAH, representing all Australian herbaria, is a founding partner in the ALA. We recognise the importance of sharing biodiversity knowledge and contributing to a better understanding of the plants, algae and fungi that provide so much to living Australia.