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

Executive summary

The true value of biodiversity to our society is far greater than most people would ever imagine. We now know that we have been taking for granted the many services maintained by natural and managed ecosystems: the provision of fresh water and fertile soil, pollination of our agricultural crops, pest control, flood mitigation and breakdown of pollutants. Our biodiversity provides fish and timber, plants and animals for breeding programs, and genetic material for biotechnology applications. We recognise the intrinsic value of our biodiversity. A great proportion of our tourists are attracted to Australia to see our unique wildlife in landscapes made beautiful by rich natural ecosystems.

In seeking to provide for Australia's growing population and development 1, we have damaged vast areas of Australia. Dryland salinity, soil acidification, toxic algal blooms, soil erosion, siltation, reduced estuarine productivity 2 and declining fish catches are symptoms of ecosystem dysfunction. Unsustainable management practices are impacting on industry productivity and native biodiversity. We now recognise the need to plan for biodiversity and ecosystem service conservation in local areas and across catchments and bioregions. This involves the dual activities of protection of habitat and maintenance of the processes that drive ecosystem function.

The research priorities identified in this report will assist Australians to become better natural resource managers, able to repair the damage as much as is possible and to maintain productive natural and managed ecosystems into the future.

In 1999, the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC ) Standing Committee on Conservation recognised that there was no system in place for identifying areas of biodiversity conservation research that have national priority. A working group of the Biological Diversity Advisory Council was formed to develop a framework that could guide research and funding bodies throughout Australia. The Council produced a discussion paper which was disseminated for public comment in August and September 2000 to stakeholders including research institutions, industry, non-government conservation organisations and government agencies involved in natural resource management. The report was finalised by the newly formed statutory Biological Diversity Advisory Committee.

Fifteen key areas of biodiversity research have been identified. Recommendations are made within each area for research of national importance, much of which needs to be supported on an ongoing basis to complete the work. Areas identified as highest priority research represent key knowledge gaps in our ability to manage and protect Australia's biodiversity resources and the processes that enable ecosystems to be healthy. The application of the recommended research is outlined, as are relevant policy commitments and legislative requirements.

This report provides an explanatory background to the identified biodiversity research priorities, addressing a series of questions:

  • What is Australia's biodiversity? Where does it occur, when and why?
  • How does our biodiversity function?
  • What is the value of our biodiversity?
  • What is changing and why?
  • What are the risks and the management options?

Some management actions and institutional changes required to conserve our biodiversity have been outlined and a set of principles are suggested for assessing the relative merit of biodiversity research proposals.

What is Australia's biodiversity? Where does our biodiversity occur, when and why?

The term biodiversity refers to all the components of biological life, its diversity and interactions. This includes ecosystems and the processes that drive their functioning as healthy systems. Living species comprise plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and other micro-organisms. The richness of our biodiversity is expressed in the unique and complex ecological communities found across Australia on land, in the soil, fresh water, estuaries and the sea. While biological surveys have been undertaken across Australia there are still many gaps in our knowledge and much we do not know about even our more familiar flora and fauna. We need, therefore, to take a strategic approach to researching the multiple knowledge gaps to enable us to manage and protect our ecosystems.

Research of national importance

Recognising that the gaps in our knowledge of Australia's biodiversity are greater than the resources available to fill them, undertake strategic field surveys to document patterns in species composition across Australia's landscapes and marine waters for plants and animals and selected groups of micro-organisms.

From this, identify native species and map ecological communities as a basis for determining management requirements. Ensure the surveys include habitats and species that are less studied and those that are important for conservation. Develop direct measures and indicators of change in biodiversity in native ecosystems and managed production ecosystems. Recognising the power of information, organise and integrate data and information and make it publicly available on the internet to encourage widespread use by researchers, catchment and marine area management authorities, government and the community.

Highest priority research

  1. As a basis for management, identify and map ecological communities and ecosystems that may be threatened, need to be included in a protected area or are poorly understood such as fresh water, estuarine, coastal and marine ecological communities 3. Interpret the definition of ecological community in legislation and determine how threatened communities should be mapped. 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.
  2. As a basis for understanding ecosystem processes and health and for assessing the conservation status of biodiversity, identify native species that may be threatened, occur in poorly understood ecosystems (see priority 1) or in poorly understood taxonomic groups such as invertebrates, non-vascular plants, fungi, bacteria and other micro-organisms.
  3. As a framework for conservation action, develop and validate methods for direct measures and indicators to monitor changes in biodiversity in order to detect ecosystem decline, the recovery of threatened species and ecological communities, the outcomes of conservation management actions and the effectiveness of the system of conservation reserves.
  4. As a basis for planning and evaluating the effectiveness of management, develop biodiversity data and information systems so that the information can be retrieved for a range of reporting areas including local shires, catchments and bioregions. Update and fill gaps in critical information systems including national data sets containing biodiversity and related physical and biophysical data.

How does our biodiversity function?

Ecosystem processes purify water, build fertile soils, pollinate plants, control pests, reduce flood damage and break down pollutants. These processes include the interactions between biophysical and ecological processes, predators and prey, and herbivores and the plants they consume. We need a better understanding of environmental processes so that we can anticipate the effects of human activity on ecosystems, predict the consequences of ecosystem decline on our commercial and other activities and, as a result, develop improved methods of natural resource management.

Research of national importance

To provide a basis for maintaining ecosystem services and managing key habitats, investigate ecosystem processes across a range of scales from micro-habitats to bioregions. Identify the ecosystem function of key species. From this better understanding of processes, develop predictive modelling techniques (see priority 12) that allow us to include biodiversity objectives in planning and management (see priority 13).

Highest priority research

  1. To underpin integrated natural resource management and to provide the basis for valuing ecosystem services, undertake comprehensive research into ecosystem processes in threatened habitats and selected catchments.

Investigate the ecosystem function of critical species and groups where changes in their function may cause ecosystems to be threatened. For instance, in key areas where changes in soil condition are causing loss of native biodiversity, investigate the function of soil organisms.

What is the value of our biodiversity?

If we are to make informed land-use and land management decisions, it is essential that we have a true cost accounting of the economic, environmental and social value of biodiversity based on a comprehensive identification of the value of ecosystem services. This makes the gains, losses and trade-offs implicit in decision-making more transparent.

Research of national importance

Comprehensively determine the environmental, social and economic value of biodiversity components and ecosystem services. Compare short, medium and long term valuations. Develop predictive modelling tools (see priority 12) to make transparent the interactions between processes, changes over time and the trade-offs required when different management and planning decisions are made (see priority 13). Develop financial and other incentive structures and institutional arrangements that foster biodiversity conservation and restoration. Investigate the socio-economic and environmental consequences and effectiveness of these incentives.

Highest priority research

  1. As a basis for valuing the maintenance of ecosystem services compared to other land-use activities, develop methods for estimating the environmental, social and economic value of ecosystem services on farms, in local areas, across catchments and in marine protected areas. Develop methods for estimating the environmental, social and economic value of components of biodiversity.
  2. As a means of achieving integrated land and marine resource management, investigate incentives that are applicable to local government and foster biodiversity conservation and restoration. Develop economic tools, such as biodiversity credits, to support market-based incentives for biodiversity conservation.

What is changing and why?

The impact of human activities is bringing environmental change at a speed beyond the adaptive ability of most species and ecosystems. Action is needed urgently to conserve species and ecosystems before they are lost or damaged, to restore ecosystems to the extent that may be possible and to prevent further damage. The work needs to be based on the best scientific information available and undertaken strategically to ensure resources are used to the greatest possible effect.

Research of national importance

Identify threatening processes in land, fresh water, estuarine and marine ecosystems. Determine the conservation status of plant and animal species and ecological communities.

Highest priority research

  1. In local areas and on a regional basis, determine and investigate the factors that present the most significant threat to ecosystems and remnant habitat. For example, investigate habitat fragmentation caused by land clearing, the establishment of new benthic trawl grounds and marine industry activity.
  2. Determine the conservation status of species and of ecological communities which may be threatened, or have commercial value and need to be included in a representative system of conservation reserves. Identify habitat that is critical to the survival of listed threatened species and ecological communities.

What are the risks and the management options?

The potential risks include loss of genetic diversity within species, extinction of threatened species, damage to the integrity of ecosystems so that decline is inevitable, impairment of critical ecosystem processes such as groundwater discharge that would prevent dryland salinity, loss of ecosystem services such as pollination, and irreversible damage to habitats such as draining coastal wetlands that act as fish hatcheries.

Where risks arise from proposed human activities, these can be assessed in advance and prevented or controlled as appropriate. Management strategies and techniques need to be tailored to the particular risks and the environment, and to be monitored and adapted as we learn more. Modelling can assist us to estimate risks and predict effective management approaches.

Research of national importance

Identify systems of conservation reserves that comprehensively and adequately represent ecosystems in all environments. Conduct risk assessments to identify the potential impacts of human activities. Develop a range of models to predict: where species and ecological communities could be expected to occur across landscapes, the value of ecosystem services, the probable effects of human activities and other threatening processes on native and managed production ecosystems, and protective management strategies. Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of management strategies and on-ground practices so that these can be adapted. Develop and evaluate ecologically sustainable management strategies and techniques for industries. Develop scientifically based educational materials.

Highest priority research

  1. Identify a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of conservation reserves for marine, estuarine and fresh water ecosystems. Develop methods for selecting these reserves. Identify the impacts of industries on the proposed reserves and vice versa.
  2. In local areas and on a regional basis, assess the risks from and develop management strategies for the activities that present the most significant threat to ecosystems and remnant habitat. For example, investigate risks from introduced weeds, feral animals, pests and diseases. As part of the risk analysis conducted prior to permitting the introduction of new organisms to Australia, identify potential impacts on native ecological communities and ecosystem services. Identify species already present in Australia which have the potential to become invasive and determine if eradication or early control measures are warranted.
  3. Based on knowledge and understanding of ecosystem processes, threats and the conservation status of species and ecological communities (see priorities 5, 8 and 9), develop predictive modelling techniques to indicate the threshold conditions below which the viability of populations, species, ecological communities and ecosystem processes become subject to continuing decline and require intervention for maintenance or restoration. Use these models as a basis for determining the impact of human activities and required protective management.
  4. In selected catchments and farms, develop planning techniques for identifying management options to retain and restore biodiversity. Identify the economic, social and environmental benefits of each option, implementation costs, and the long term consequences and costs of not implementing the options.
  5. Develop ecologically sustainable management strategies and techniques for agriculture, pastoralism and aquaculture. Investigate how ecosystem processes and ecologically valuable native biodiversity can be maintained within multiple-use landscapes and marine areas.
  6. As a tool to increase awareness of the value of ecosystem services, develop scientifically based educational materials to convey our knowledge of biodiversity, ecosystem services, biophysical processes, the effects of human activities and the full economic, environmental and social value of biodiversity. Make these available in forms suitable for use by private land holders, industry, catchment and marine management authorities, government at all levels and the community. Develop sophisticated modelling tools to support decision-making.

Management action and institutional change

We need to plan for biodiversity and ecosystem service conservation on farms, in local areas and across bioregions. Our knowledge of biodiversity and its role in maintaining ecosystem processes needs to be interpreted, made available in a range of suitable forms and actively presented to private land holders, industry, catchment and marine management authorities, government at all levels and the community.


Establish best practice integrated natural resource planning across Australia, taking into account the full economic, social and environmental value of services provided by native ecosystems. Implement ecologically sustainable management techniques in agricultural and other primary production industries, ensuring that ecosystem processes are maintained. Restore soils and waterways throughout Australia. Complete the establishment of and maintain a system of conservation reserves that protects representative Australian native ecosystems including those in marine and estuarine environments. Institute a comprehensive series of financial and other incentives to encourage rational natural resource management decision-making, taking into account the full value of biodiversity conservation.

Criteria for deciding on the merit of biodiversity research proposals

Faced with the task of deciding which biodiversity research to support among many proposals, criteria need to be developed in accordance with the basic principles below.

Suggested principles

  • The research would obtain information, generate understanding or clarify management options on a biodiversity issue that is of national importance.
  • Application of the results would lead to improvement in the way we conserve or restore biodiversity and ecosystem services.
  • The proposed research method is practical, uses appropriate experimental design, is cost-effective relative to the likely benefits of the research, and is ethical and acceptable to stakeholders.

The way forward...implementation

The Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council strongly encourages research institutions and funding bodies throughout Australia to implement the recommendations in this report. By undertaking and funding the nationally important and highest priority research, we will position ourselves to sustainably use and effectively conserve Australia's unique biodiversity into the future.


1. Australia's biodiversity and ecological processes support our own population of 19 million, food exports which feed another 30 million people overseas and wool exports which clothe 250 million.

2. For instance, the NSW oyster industry, previously a multi-million dollar industry is dependent on estuary health and has declined severely and oyster aquaculture can now be supported in less than a quarter of NSW estuaries.

3. Poorly known terrestrial ecosystems in Australia include our fresh water ecosystems such as riverine, flood plain, permanent and ephemeral wetland, mound spring and other ground water and ground water dependent ecosystems as well as naturally saline lakes and marshes.