Biodiversity conservation research: Australia's priorities

Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council and Biological Diversity Advisory Committee
Commonwealth of Australia, 2001
ISBN 0 6425 4742 4

A. What is Australia's biodiversity?

Where does it occur, when and why?

The term 'biodiversity' refers to all the components of biological life, its diversity and interactions. It includes plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and other micro-organisms as well as the ecosystems and processes of which they are a part. Its diversity is found in distinctive populations and genetic differences. Its richness is expressed in the unique and complex ecological communities found across Australia on land, in the soil, fresh water, estuaries and the sea.

Identifying species

Research to date has concentrated on particular groups within Australia's biodiversity. We have identified more than 90 per cent of our mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs and some 70 per cent of our flowering plants, conifers, ferns and other vascular plants.

Some groups have been relatively neglected, particularly organisms that are small or are difficult to access. These include the invertebrates such as insects, crustacea, spiders and worms (possibly 20-40 per cent named); the non-vascular plants such as mosses, lichens, seaweeds and other algae; and the fungi (5 per cent named), bacteria and protozoa. Freshwater, estuarine and marine organisms tend to be poorly known. In order to undertake this research it will be necessary to recruit and train specialist taxonomists.

Mapping ecological communities

Further information is needed about our biodiversity if we are to fully understand what we have and how to conserve it. From the work of taxonomists and ecologists, we build up our knowledge of each ecological community (or assemblage 2) based on the distribution of species, their habitat preferences, seasonal changes, predator-prey interactions and competitive and cooperative relationships (see Section B). The continent of Australia, our external territories and marine waters extend from the tropics to the Antarctic – it is a vast region compared to the scientific resources available to study our biodiversity. We have a great deal to learn even about familiar components of our flora and fauna.

Assumptions about patterns of biodiversity need to be challenged. For example, it might be expected that changes in ecological communities could be predicted by observing changes in the landscape and that changes in the distribution of larger animals, invertebrates and soil micro-organisms would parallel changes in vegetation. Initial research 3 suggests instead that ecological communities are far more diverse and unique. Biological surveys need to include observations of a wide range of plants, animals and micro-organisms 4 so that we have the information necessary to identify and manage a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of reserves for conservation (see priority 10) and to engage in integrated natural resource planning and management in land and marine areas (Section E).

Ecological communities are being mapped at a coarse bioregional and sub-regional scale as part of the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA ) and Interim Marine and Coastal Regionalisation for Australia (IMCRA ) programs. Further work is needed to identify ecosystems at a finer scale, fully characterise them and document changes over time in response to natural cycles such as the seasons and events such as storms, floods and fires.

Threatened 5 species and ecological communities and habitats critical to their survival need to be identified as required under State and Commonwealth 6 legislation.

Monitoring change

In order to detect threats to biodiversity, we need techniques that indicate significant changes in biodiversity. Direct measures of biodiversity condition and extent are more reliable but require more resources. As total inventories of biodiversity are impractical for the foreseeable future, indirect indicators need to be used as well.

The 1998 report, Environmental Indicators for National State of the Environment Reporting: Biodiversity, sets out some 65 potential biodiversity indicators. Additional indicators of biodiversity are suggested in other volumes in the series: more than 40 in the volume Estuaries and the Sea and a score in Inland Waters and in The Land. The authors of these volumes stressed that further research was needed to develop the methodology and determine baseline biodiversity data for most of the proposed indicators 7. The more recent ANZECC publication, Core Environmental Indicators for Reporting on the State of the Environment (2000), selects 13 core biodiversity indicators. When these were chosen, the methodology was fully established for only three of the indicators.

Indicators need to be sensitive to changes in biodiversity of all types and not only to the plant species that dominate vegetation 8. Where possible, the methodology for indicators should be developed to be able to detect significant changes in habitat fragments as well as across catchments and bioregions.

Changes to Australia's biodiversity would, ideally, be tracked from around 1750 before European settlers arrived in Botany Bay. Historical records need to be interpreted in the light of more recent biological surveys and changing taxonomy to determine probable baseline data for each direct measure and indicator of biodiversity change.

Collections

Collections of preserved and living specimens of plants, animals and micro-organisms are a high quality resource and a valuable national asset 9. They allow scientists to return to the original samples to make further observations, obtain genetic material, germinate seeds where these are still viable and culture micro-organisms. Early collections can, for instance, be used to help establish baseline information about pre-1750 ecosystems. It is important that the collections are used actively in biodiversity research, that information about the specimens is kept up to date and maintained in accessible databases and that the specimens are maintained on a secure basis.

Information on biodiversity

Existing raw data and information about biodiversity must be organised if it is to be accessed, understood and interpreted by a wide range of users. Interactive software that guides the user in identifying species adds value to basic taxonomic information by providing illustrations, altering the decision path based on the information available to the user and the choices already made, and by providing a range of information on and photographs of the species once it is identified. Virtual collections of high quality images assist in identification and the images and associated information can be sent anywhere in the world. The Virtual Australian Herbarium (VAH) accesses data maintained by separate herbaria, so that a request for information on a species results in a single integrated display of the occurrence of that species across Australia and facilitates access to the relevant databases. The National Land and Water Resources Audit will assist in data integration, as it is to develop a national information system of compatible and readily accessible data on land and water resources, including some vegetation data.

Biodiversity data and information needs to be organised, stored and linked so that it can be readily retrieved for a range of reporting areas as required. For instance, data needs to be able to be generated for local shires, catchments and bioregions.

To maximise availability and usage by researchers, land and marine area management decision makers and the public, information held in databases, taxonomic keys, ecosystem modelling tools and land management tools need to be made publicly available on the internet. This information should be able to be accessed in a user friendly manner and, wherever possible, be available free of charge.

Priority research

1. Identifying Australia's ecosystems and ecological communities

Identify, map and characterise native ecosystems and ecological communities across Australia in all environments including land, fresh water, estuarine and marine areas.

Highest priority research

Define and map ecosystems and ecological communities that are:

  • threatened or may be threatened;
  • poorly understood such as fresh water, estuarine, littoral, inshore and marine ecosystems; and/or
  • being considered for inclusion in protected areas or coverage by other conservation mechanisms.

Identify and describe the ecological communities in soils in a range of natural and managed ecosystems where changing soil condition may be causing loss of native biodiversity.

Research of national importance

  • Undertake strategic quantitative biological field surveys of plants, animals and selected groups of micro-organisms.
  • Interpret the definition of 'ecological community' in Australian legislation 10 and determine how threatened communities should be mapped.
  • Map ecosystems, habitats, bio-physical characteristics and ecological communities.
  • Monitor and document changes over time in response to natural cycles and events (see priority 3).
  • Identify factors that affect the occurrence of species and ecological communities.
  • In cooperation with the owners of the traditional knowledge, record and preserve knowledge held by Indigenous peoples concerning ecological communities and their conservation.

Application

To provide the basis for:

  • integrating natural resource management decisions and regional biodiversity planning;
  • detecting ecosystem decline and the presence of threatening processes;
  • determining the impact on biodiversity of human activities such as land-use changes and industry development;
  • reporting on the State of the Environment; and
  • selecting and managing protected areas to conserve ecosystems on the Australian continent, in its marine waters and its external territories.

Comments

Identification and mapping of ecosystems is well under way in many areas.

The definition of 'ecological community' under Commonwealth and State legislation will need to be considered and compared to scientific views before ecological communities can be comprehensively identified and mapped.

Related research

Concurrent:

(2) identify key species in ecosystems and ecological communities

Follow up:

(4) make data and information accessible
(3) monitor changes in ecosystems and ecological communities
(5) identify ecosystem processes

Relevant policy commitments and legislation

National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity: Objectives 1.1, 1.8, 4.1.5 and 4.1.8

Convention on Biological Diversity: Articles 7(a), 7(b) and 8(j) and Annex 1

Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999: Sections 171, 207A, 274 and 282

Priority research

2. Identifying Australia's species

List and characterise native species 11 and record their distribution and habitat.

Highest priority research

Identify, characterise and record the distribution and habitat of native species that:

  • are or may be threatened;
  • occur in habitats that:
    • are or may be critical 12 to the survival of threatened species and ecological communities;
    • have a high proportion of endemic species;
    • are poorly understood eg marine, estuarine, fresh water and soil ecosystems; and
    • are in poorly known taxonomic groups, such as invertebrates, non-vascular plants, fungi, bacteria and other micro-organisms 13.

Research of national importance

  • Where necessary, develop and validate traditional and new identification technologies such as rapid biodiversity assessment and molecular biology techniques, to identify and characterise species.
  • Identify the habitat and biophysical characteristics that affect the distribution of species.
  • In cooperation with the owners of the traditional knowledge, record and preserve knowledge held by Indigenous peoples concerning species, their distribution, habitat and conservation.

Application

To provide the basis for:

  • identifying and mapping ecosystems and ecological communities, and understanding ecosystem processes and health;
  • investigating the potential of species to contribute to economic wealth through bioprospecting;
  • assessing the conservation status of species and reporting on the State of the Environment;
  • detecting ecosystem decline and the presence of threatening processes and determining the impact on biodiversity of human activities such as land use changes and industry development; and
  • developing management strategies for species conservation.

Comments

The identification and characterisation of Australian species in poorly known groups will, in many cases, require additional specialist taxonomists to be trained.

Related research

Concurrent:

(1) identify and map ecosystems and ecological communities

Follow up:

(4) make data and information accessible
(3) monitor changes in the distribution of species
(5) identify the ecosystem function of key species

Relevant policy commitments and legislation

National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity: Objectives 1.1, 1.8, 4.1.2, 4.1.4(e), 4.1.5, 4.1.6 and 4.1.8

Convention on Biological Diversity: Articles 7(a), 7(b) and 8(j) and Annex 1

Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999: Sections 171, 207A, 274 and 282

Priority research

3. Monitoring changes in Australia's biodiversity

Monitor changes in the condition and extent of native biodiversity and the delivery of ecosystem services.

Highest priority research

Develop and validate methods for direct measures and indicators to monitor the distribution and abundance of species, the condition and extent of ecological communities and ecosystem health.

  • Adapt existing methods to apply to a range of scales from habitat fragments to catchments and bioregions.
  • Validate the indicators through targeted biological surveys.

Research of national importance

  • Determine baseline data establishing, wherever possible, the pre-1750 pattern of biodiversity.
  • Monitor changes in the condition and extent of native biodiversity, the delivery of ecosystem services and changes in managed production ecosystems 14.
  • Observe the relationship between changes in biodiversity pattern with natural cycles and events and human activities.

Application

To provide the basis for:

  • reporting on biodiversity condition as part of the state of the environment;
  • understanding ecosystem processes and health;
  • detecting ecosystem decline, the presence of threatening processes and the recovery of threatened species, ecological communities and ecosystem health;
  • monitoring outcomes of specific management actions to achieve accountability, inform adaptive management and develop ecologically sustainable production practices; and
  • assessing the effectiveness of the system of land, fresh water, estuarine and marine reserves in meeting conservation objectives.

Comments

Direct measures of biodiversity condition would, in general, be preferable to indirect indicators. However, total inventories of biodiversity are impractical for the foreseeable future. All methods need to be validated.

Related research

Prerequisite:

(1), (2) and (4) observe or access historical baseline data on biodiversity

Concurrent:

(1) map ecosystems and ecological communities

Follow up:

(4) make data and information accessible
(8) identify and investigate threatening processes
(9) determine the conservation status of species and ecological communities.

Relevant policy commitments and legislation

National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity: Objectives 1.1 and 4.1.7

Convention on Biological Diversity: Articles 7(a) and 7(b) and Annex 1

Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999: Sections 171-174

Priority research

4. Developing biodiversity data and information systems

Develop and link biological information systems that make comprehensive biodiversity and related physical 15 and biophysical data and information readily available to users.

Highest priority research

Establish mechanisms to upgrade, update and fill gaps in critical information systems, including national datasets, containing biodiversity and related physical and biophysical data.

Review, organise, store and link biodiversity data and information so that it can be readily retrieved for a range of reporting areas including local shires, catchments and bioregions.

Ensure that information about threatened species and ecological communities listed under Commonwealth and State legislation is publicly available.

Research of national importance

  • Organise and store the information to be useful to catchment and regional management authorities, government at all levels, researchers and the community.
  • Make the information accessible on the internet and, wherever possible, publicly available without charge.

Application

To provide the basis for:

  • planning by governments, catchment and regional authorities, industry and the community;
  • predictive modelling of species distribution, ecosystem processes, threatening processes and the effect of management options; and
  • evaluating the effectiveness of land, fresh water and marine area management.

Comments

Ongoing monitoring and reporting ensures that data and information remain up to date.

Related research

Prerequisite:

(1), (2) and (3) information on ecosystems, ecological communities and species (5) and (6) information on ecosystem function, processes and services
(8) and (9) information on threats and conservation status of species

Follow up:

(10) identify conservation reserves
(11) assess and prevent risks from human activities
(12) develop predictive models
(15) develop educational materials

Relevant policy commitments and legislation

National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity: Objectives 4.1.1 and 4.1.9

Convention on Biological Diversity: Articles 7(d) and 17

Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999: State of the Environment reporting - Section 516B

Footnotes

2. In this paper, references to 'ecological communities' can mean 'ecological assemblages'. The term 'assemblage' recognises that the way plants, animals and micro-organisms associate together is dynamic, changing across landscapes and with time.

3. References: McKenzie NL et al 1991; McKenzie NL et al. 2000; Ferrier S and Watson G 1996.

4. Micro-organisms include bacteria, protozoa and many of the fungi and algae.

5. See definitions in Appendix 3.

6. See sections 178, 181 and 207A of the Commonwealth EPBC Act.

7. Refer volumes: Biodiversity pages 59-60, Estuaries and the Sea pages 71-73, Inland Waters pages 59-65 and The Land pages 103-104.

8. Land sensing data in areas of northern Australia show relatively sustained tree cover but fail to detect the significant loss of understorey and associated animal biodiversity. Areas along rivers are particularly badly damaged by stock and feral animals in the dry season.

9. Extensive collections are held in herbaria, museums, botanic gardens, zoos and other facilities. Australia has many microbial culture collections containing over 64 000 different microbes (World Federation for Culture Collections, 1997). In 1994, there were over 33 400 plant taxa in living collections in eight Australian botanic gardens (Australia: State of the Environment 1996, Chapter 9 Natural and Cultural Heritage, page 29).

10. For example, the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

11. Species or higher taxon as practicable.

12. Register of critical habitat: see Section 207A EPBC Act

13. (a) Archaea bacteria which breakdown methane, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming;
(b) nitrogen-fixing micro-organisms which increase soil fertility.

14. Managed production ecosystems include agricultural, forestry and aquaculture ecosystems managed to increase particular forms of productivity. Native ecosystems are also highly productive and deliver a wide range of ecosystem services as well as marketable products.

15. Physical data includes: climate, vegetation extent, geomorphology features such as surficial geology and soils, and nutrient cycling. Ecosystem data should include cyclic and intermittent events such as fires.