Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Atlas of Living Australia: Where the woozle wasn't (and was)

I’ve been playing around with the Atlas of Living Australia to explore how useful it might be in undertaking biogeographic studies from the comfort of my frayed but functional ergonomic chair. The ALA is an interactive online database of Australia’s flora and fauna. Its data comes from a variety of sources, mostly museum and herbarium collections (supported by specimens), but also observations submitted by the public (sometimes supported by photographs). Because the usefulness of the Atlas depends on the comprehensiveness and accuracy of its data, some of the records are bound to be dodgy. The ALA is working on improving the quality of harvested data, although there isn’t a lot that can be done at that end about misidentifications. So, with that caveat, I had a wander through the database. Why not wander through it with me and see what you think.

I picked Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus lumholtzi) as a candidate and had a look at what the Atlas has to offer on this species.

Searching on the name gives some basic information on the taxon, including an illustration.

Overview provides a map of the distribution based on records. Depending on your requirements, this might be sufficient. If not, you can examine the records as a list or plotted on an interactive map. Overview also offers information about conservation status (symbols on right).

You can also get a full list of taxa with the native ones all dressed up for Australia Day.

The source of (some of) the records gives a rough indication of their reliability.

And their distribution through time would probably be useful for investigating migratory or seasonal species if there were enough data.

The datasets come with a number of filters by which you could sift data (continued over two images).

I sifted the Dendrolagus lumholtzi records by precision of locality — between 1 and 5 km. The map looked mostly reasonable, although there were a handful of potentially dodgy records.

Tarzali is a known spot for tree roos, so I checked out that record.

The data came from CSIRO's Australian National Wildlife Collection and had a registration number attached to it. According to the details on the pop up, the specimen came from Hogan's Road. Entirely plausible.

Somewhat less plausible is this record from west of Mareeba. I've switched to the satellite view to give you an idea of the country out that way. Not typical tree roo habitat.

When I looked at the details, it was obvious that the coordinates are wrong. This specimen came from woodland SW of Atherton.

A startling cluster of records — seven tree roos apparently from what's not quite the middle of nowhere, but somewhere near it. These data must be viewed as being Probably Not All That Reliable. Still, if I really were doing a study of tree roos, I'd shoot an email down to the SAM with rego numbers and find out the story. Dodgy coordinates? Fossil material? Escapees from a travelling marsupial circus?

It is also possible to sift out type material. This is the holotype for Dendrolagus lumholtzi. So, much fun to be had with a few clicks of the mouse.

You can have even more fun by looking up the records for your immediate vicinity. When I checked my address on the database, I was surprised to find only two species of frog recorded within 5 km. Obviously an underestimate, because I can hear three species calling as I type this, and I know there are several others around. So I know what I have to do — upload the data.

I haven't fully explored the Atlas. In fact, I haven't even scratched the surface. It even allows you to map distributions in relation to environmental variables such as climate factors and vegetation. Hours of entertainment.

I have yet to decide whether it will be sufficient for some office chair research (more businesslike than armchair research), but it does have a lot of potential. And did I mention the hours of entertainment?


magda and crew in australia said...

Yes you did mention the hours of entertainment Snail...
what a great find, even though there are dodgy bits...
Still provides the hours of entertainment and information as well, all rolled into one cybernet adventure.

Thanks heaps for sharing. Certainly will be a different explore... I usually gather snippets from different sources to then compile into hopefully coherent reading...

One place to sift through... wow!

Snail said...

I haven't even got close to exploring all the possibilities offered by the datasets! But I did start nagging my neighbours to collect and upload data. I should do the same myself.

magda and crew in australia said...

Hope you do Snail...
I haven't read all your Posts, but always love the amount of information included for reference. Your whole site is an amazing reference journey actually.

Dave Coulter said...

Whoa! A paper map can't do THAT!

Snail said...

Thanks, Magda. There's an awful lot of stuff out there!

Snail said...

Dave, that's true. But I'm holding onto my paper maps. Cold, dead hands and all that.

numbat said...

I hope I'm not gatecrashing but I enjoyed reading your posts and would like to add a comment.

Glad you enjoyed the Atlas site in all its richness. As you found, the Atlas has minimal information about some species and alot of information about many other species, such as Australian birds.

Personally, I like having paper maps, the web, digital cameras, iphones, ipads, historical old drawings, digital sound and video - more information about the living world. At least you don't have to recharge paper maps - batteries, cables...

And of course, new technology means many more people can access all this wonderful information.

As someone already said, the data sets are growing all the time. You're right, though, some of the data is 'dodgy', depending what you are using it for, but much of it is valid and detailed.

One way of addressing issues with data quality is to make sure that users can check the source of each piece of information and its validity, which is how the research and taxonomic people set the Atlas up.

The job of the Atlas is to aggregate biodiversity data, and if the Atlas can't get some data 100% perfect, at least the user can check for themselves whether the data is robust enough for their purposes.

The Atlas team spend alot of time and thought on constantly improving data quality, and have integrated about 52 in-system checks to identify and 'filter' erroneous data, but of course it's never going to be 100% foolproof.

All the best,
Lynne Sealie, Communications Manager for the Atlas.

Snail said...

Hi Lynne. Welcome! No, you're not gatecrashing at all and I'm delighted you dropped by. Thank you for your comments. It's a brilliant resource.

I'll be exploring the possibilities offered by ALA and associated projects and talking about them here. In particular, I'm interested in how the data can be used by non-professionals --- both individuals and smaller special interest groups --- who don't necessarily have direct access to collections. Haven't quite worked out how I'm going to approach it, yet, but I'm sure some coffee and chocolate with help me think!

laurak@forestwalkart said...

the more info the better...nice to find a site like that, where YOU the user can add to it all...have a part in the changes, the much to explore...

Snail said...

It's especially good to have all the record information available. There's a shedload of potential.