National Vegetation Information System Taxonomic Review

National Vegetation Information System
Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004

Appendix A: Improving the comparability and consistency of native vegetation information across Australia

Project to Assess Taxonomic Issues in the National Vegetation Information System (NVIS): Project Summary

Introduction

Floristic data will be a key input to resolving the equivalence of NVIS vegetation descriptions. Environment Australia is funding this project to assess taxonomic issues in NVIS and to develop options for the establishment of measures, systems and processes for the continuous improvement of floristic data in NVIS. The report will be for consideration by NVIS collaborators.

Project Aims

  1. To assess the extent of taxonomic and nomenclatural issues in NVIS and recommend changes;
  2. To develop and test measures of taxonomic and nomenclatural data quality in the NVIS database;
  3. To provide advice and options on protocols and procedures for the continuous improvement of taxonomic data in NVIS; and
  4. Provide guidance material for incorporation in future NVIS manuals.

Rationale

The Australian Native Vegetation Assessment 2001 identified the need to address edge matching and equivalence issues arising from the compilation of disparate vegetation datasets. The Executive Steering Committee for Australian Vegetation Information (ESCAVI) has recognised its high priority through its endorsement of the Commonwealth NVIS Business Plan and recent annual Environment Australia workplans.

Over the last 2 years, NVIS collaborators have addressed attribute consistency and structural issues in the NVIS (2000) database. NVIS now has a standardised terminology for comparison of vegetation descriptions.

In addressing equivalence between vegetation types, key inputs to understand include the floristic composition, vegetation structure, remote sensing sources and the methods used to classify and map vegetation types. With respect to floristic composition, it is now timely to understand the various species concepts used by vegetation mappers at the time of data collection. Some species names may need to be standardised to ensure comparability between vegetation types from different datasets.

A recent review of NVIS species names in relation to the Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database indicated that approximately 5% of the 3600 species names used in NVIS to be non-current. In any particular case, this is probably the result of one or more of the following reasons:

  • Spelling errors and other nomenclatural inconsistencies;
  • Old vegetation survey data, using outdated species concepts;
  • Differing species concepts between vegetation surveyors; and
  • Observer differences in their ability to identify plant specimens.

The above are similar issues to those being addressed in the development of the Australia's Virtual Herbarium (AVH), a consortium of State, Territory and Commonwealth herbaria. Through the AVH on-line query tool, a map of the distribution of each species will be generated from a distributed database of plant specimen data.

There would be considerable duplication of effort for NVIS collaborators to independently consider these issues for the species in NVIS. The challenge, in general, will be to ensure that the herbaria in each jurisdiction are able to meet the information needs of vegetation surveyors. In particular, there is a need to scope the options for beneficial interaction between the herbaria and NVIS, including the development of sustainable systems and processes to manage taxonomic issues in NVIS.

Whilst this project will only tackle one out of the five or six key aspects of equivalence, it is a very important component. It seems to be a relatively tractable and low-cost component, compared with (say) re-mapping vegetation, which may ultimately be necessary to fully resolve edge-matching issues. There may also be wider lessons to be learned for solving NVIS vegetation-equivalence from the way that the AVH is tackling species-equivalence.

Project Description

  1. Advise on solutions to any immediate taxonomic issues for circa 3,600 unique species in NVIS. Priority would be on, but not limited to, major/widespread groups such as: Eucalyptus, Acacia, Chenopodiaceae, Casuarinaceae, etc.

It is envisaged that the proposed changes would be presented to NVIS collaborators for adoption.

  1. Develop and test measures to periodically assess the quality of taxonomic data in NVIS overall and subdivided by State/Territory and major groups, for example: Extent and nature of taxonomic inconsistencies; and
    Extent of uncertainties to be solved by, say: (a) simple name change, (b) re-identification of voucher and (c) field visit.

It is envisaged that these measures could be applied to the re-supplied NVIS dataset, in the future — i.e. after completion of this project.

  1. Review the structure of taxonomic parts of the NVIS database and provide an options report for continuous improvement of taxonomic data in NVIS:
    • Review the measures developed in #2 and suggest a reporting frequency and thresholds for action;
    • Specify corrective actions that might be needed;
    • Examine the costs and benefits of identifying and recording infra-species for vegetation surveys;
    • Review the existing NVIS structure and content with respect to taxonomic data. Examine the role of separate jurisdictional lists (which typically hold many more species than are used in the NVIS vegetation descriptions) and how these should be maintained to support updates of NVIS descriptions;
    • Examine whether the Commonwealth needs to maintain a separate list of unresolved taxonomic issues between jurisdictions, to ensure the operational capability of NVIS; and
    • Review technical options for cooperative linkages between State and Territory survey agencies with national biodiversity information initiatives — such as: the Australia's Virtual Herbarium, SPRAT and NVIS.

The project report will focus on identifying issues and discussing the pros and cons of various possible solutions.

  1. Provide guidance material for incorporation in future NVIS Manuals:
    • Advise and provide details of current standards/best practice for databasing and interchange of species data, e.g. the Herbarium Information Standards and Protocols for Interchange of Data (HISPID)
    • Provide details of current standards and/or best practice for the taxonomic aspects of vegetation survey — especially the use of vouchers.

Deliverables

  1. Document proposed changes to each taxonomic record (in newly-created fields so that existing State/Territory data are not changed) in the NVIS development database, with clear comments as to reasons.
  2. A final report incorporating the items in the Project Description, above. The report would be for circulation to NVIS collaborators;
  3. Provide a briefing on the project to the NVIS collaborators at a national workshop and/or ESCAVI meeting, as appropriate.

Personnel

  • ERIN, EA — Matt Bolton, Leo Berzins & Simon Bennett
  • CPBR (Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research) — Anthony Whalen, Laurie Adams, Jessie Szigethy-Gyula, Brendan Lepschi & Jim Croft
  • State and Territory herbaria would be contacted by CPBR for advice on AVH and established linkages with vegetation mappers in each jurisdiction
  • State and Territory survey agencies may also be contacted for advice.

Timing

June 2003 to 31 October 2003.