The Atlas of Living Australia has grown into the most comprehensive dataset on Australian biodiversity. It includes data from collections of insects like these beetles.
The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) has just turned 10! Why is this important? It means we’ve been making Australian biodiversity information accessible to the world for a decade.
Since 2010, the ALA has grown into the most comprehensive dataset on Australian biodiversity. You can now access more than 91 million biodiversity occurrence records and more than 700 biodiversity datasets! These records and data come from our partners across museums, natural history collections, herbaria, universities, government and the community.
To celebrate the past decade, we take a look at ALA’s contribution to research and speak to both the inaugural and current ALA Directors.
ALA’s contribution to research
The ALA brings together biodiversity data, taxonomic information, spatial and historical information on species distributions and environmental data. These datasets are central to the research areas of ecology, conservation biology, environmental planning, ecological management and sustainability.
The ALA’s contribution to research in these fields has steadily increased over the last 10 years. More than 2300 scientific publications have now referenced the ALA. This research has resulted in great impact.
For example, researchers have used data from ALA to understand changes in platypus numbers over the last 150 years. They have used data to identify rare species thriving in Australian towns and cities and understand complex migration behaviour in insects that would otherwise go undetected. Images uploaded by our users are stored to build apps that can automatically identify Australian insects in the field.
ALA has also played a leadership role in developing the international Living Atlases community. The Living Atlases community was established by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) to help countries around the world develop biodiversity infrastructure based on the ALA’s open source platform. By developing this platform, we have helped establish 27 atlases internationally.
Our national biodiversity database turns 10! We’ve broken it down into some handy stats.
Our biodiversity database in the early days
Donald Hobern was the inaugural ALA Director. He played a pivotal role in shaping the ALA into what it is today. In the early days, he was very excited because the team were highly engaged and eager. Australia was the perfect candidate for a platform like the ALA.
“One of the real advantages we have in Australia is that the continent is so well defined and matches up perfectly with the country boundaries, politics, funding and public interest. Add in the uniqueness of the Australian biota and you have a really well-defined scope for something like the ALA,” Donald said.
“Doing something similar in Europe would have been much harder. Limiting our understanding of national biodiversity to the borders of the country would make little sense. So, in some ways, something like the ALA could not have developed as fast and as completely in other places.”
The future of ALA
The current ALA Director, Dr Andre Zerger, sees a bright future for the ALA. He said it will need to evolve over the next decade to address the emerging expectations of its users.
“With over 90 million biodiversity occurrence records and with over 75,000 registered users, the ALA value-proposition has been proved. This means our users now have new expectations of us,” Andre said.
“For instance, new technologies in advanced imaging and genetics produce valuable data of importance to our users. However, this type of data challenges the ALA information technology architecture,” he said.
Donald also shared his thoughts on the future of ALA.
“It’s inevitable that our sources of data will change in the coming years. We should see more and more data from genomic analysis of various kinds,” Donald said.
“DNA-based surveys will give us much more standardised and repeatable views of biodiversity that are difficult to survey today. Once field-based automated sequencing becomes a possibility, growing and improving libraries of DNA sequences will transform platforms like the ALA.
“Right now, our largest source of data is overwhelmingly from bird observations. In the future, I hope we’ll get good data on fungi, soil invertebrates and marine organisms. If we also add in what we can interpret from satellite imagery, we should be able to move to near-real-time monitoring of fluctuations and trends in biodiversity,” he said.
A biodiversity database can help in current times
Now, more than ever, it’s important we maintain this comprehensive, representative and usable biodiversity infrastructure. It has the power to improve our understanding of the impact of current and future bushfires on biodiversity. It can also help to design ecological restoration programs.
The ALA, through its contribution to the GBIF, can also provide data to better prepare and respond to pandemics. It can help scientists understand how zoonotic diseases could behave on a global scale. This helps Australia to efficiently and effectively deal with biosecurity risks that can impact both our environment and economy.
We’d like to thank all our partners who have made the ALA such a success. Thank you to the museums, collections, herbaria, research teams, governments, community groups and citizen scientists, for observing, recording, collecting, digitising, preserving and documenting our wonderful biodiversity.