Just one click to identify Australian species

By Natalie Muller 9 June 2011
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Australian wildlife enthusiasts are putting our native species on the map, all with the click of a mouse.

DON HOBERN REMEMBERS spending much of his childhood looking at beetles and moths without knowing how to identify what he was looking at. What he needed was a good book – one with pictures, descriptions and species distribution maps.

Now a trained computer programmer, Don is using his information technology skills to further his interest in natural history. He is leading a project that aims to make Australian biology collections available to the public via the web.

Don is the inaugural director of the Atlas of Living Australia, an online treasure trove of data about Australia’s native plants and animals. “The biggest problem most people have is understanding the wildlife around them and not knowing how to identify them,” he says.

The interactive encyclopaedia, which acts as both a Yellow Pages of Australian species and a social networking site for naturalists, is still a work in progress. But Don hopes it will be a handy resource for experts and policy makers, as well as for kids, eco-tourists and amateur naturalists.

So far the atlas features downloadable distribution charts, identification tools, images, scientific literature and data sets that provide as complete a picture as possible about each species. Eventually, DNA barcoding will also be added.

The atlas was launched late last year and already contains more than 23 million records from museums and data collections around the country. But digitising Australia’s wildlife records is no small task.

That’s one of the reasons why the atlas team is encouraging the public to upload their own field notes, sightings and photographs to the encyclopaedia’s citizen science portal.

Citizen science

For years, dedicated community groups have played an important role in collecting field data in the name of science. By throwing online tools into the mix, data sharing between experts and enthusiastic volunteers has been revolutionised. ClimateWatch, RabbitScan, Birdata, and FungiMap are just some examples of networks that are now using online applications to share their information via the atlas’s portal.

Dr John Hooper, head of the biodiversity and geosciences programs at the Queensland Museum, says the Atlas is a real benchmark for science.

“People these days are impatient, they’d much rather go to the web, so this offers them the option to go online and put these images up,” he says. “The idea is to pick up all the really keen people and nurture an interaction with these guys.”

Last month in Brisbane, John launched the atlas’s latest citizen science web portal, Wild Backyards. He is hoping Queenslanders will get involved in documenting wildlife in their own suburbs.

“Interest in science is declining so we’re trying to get people into it,” he says. “We’re using the technology they love, but they’re doing something that can contribute to their appreciation of the environment around them.”

In other parts of the world, particularly in the US and Europe, the use of web portals and sophisticated applications for mobile devices, such as iPhones, has created burgeoning online communities of wildlife buffs who share information with each other.
“We don’t have those luxuries in Australia,” Don says. “There are a lot of unknown species, but we want to change that.”

Mapping the species

Nearly 75 per cent of Australia’s estimated 570,000 native species are unknown, but the atlas team is optimistic their encyclopaedia will help shrink this huge gap in knowledge.

As recently as 2005, the Queensland Museum found more than 300 new species in Brisbane’s urban bush. John hopes that with the help of Wild Backyards and an enthusiastic community, more will come to light.

“It’s a huge task,” he says. “That’s why the atlas is so important, to find out what is known and what isn’t.”

Pinning down new species and building data about known species could also prove vital for conservation in a period of climate change.

“The ability to predict [what will happen to native species] is going to be very important as we try and protect Australia’s biodiversity into the future,” Don says.  

Detailed online records can allow researchers to track changes in species distribution over time to learn how climate affects wildlife.

The Atlas of Living Australia is a collaboration involving more than 60 biological collections from the CSIRO, Museums and Herbaria, Federal and State departments, universities and microbial collections.