The challenge of discovering our plant and fungal species

There is so much we still don’t know about the native species of Australia and New Zealand. Best estimates suggest that we have yet to discover and name some 70% of the life around us.

The picture of plant life is probably the most complete – we believe we have found and described 90% of vascular plants (e.g. flowering plants, gymnosperms and ferns) – but even that implies that there may still be be several thousand plant species to be found.

But when it comes to fungi, we have described less than a quarter of the estimated 100,000 species.

Photo: Seaweed specimen in Charles Morrison Seaweed Scrapbook/University of Melbourne Herbarium

It is extremely important to better understand the biodiversity of native plants and fungi. Our native plants and fungi are a vital resource, including for food, medicine and material goods. This biodiversity is essential for:

  • ensuring food security through sustainable agriculture
  • develop new drugs
  • pathogen management of economically important species such as crops
  • and maintaining ecosystems that support other species.

But the challenge is not only to discover new species, to name and describe them. It is also about ensuring that data on these species – such as the habitats they occupy or the climatic conditions in which they grow – is freely available, so that the public, researchers and policy makers can exploit this what we know about them.

And this is where citizen scientists make a difference.

Australian herbariawhich are natural history collections of plants and fungi, such as the University of Melbourne Herbarium, collectively hold over eight million specimens of vascular plants, green and red algae, mosses and fungi.

The collection data associated with these specimens – which records where and when the samples were collected and who collected them, among other details – is key biodiversity data which is made public through the Australasian Virtual Herbarium online repository.

Australia’s herbaria are collectively home to over eight million specimens. Photo: Faculty of Science, University of Melbourne Herbarium

This data can be used for research, education, biodiversity monitoring, biosecurity and many other applications.

To date, only a fraction of the specimens in these collections have been fully digitized – including database, georeferencing and digital imagery – which is critical to making this data shareable and reusable. It’s a huge undertaking – and citizen scientists are crucial.

Citizen science initiatives engage diverse local communities in documenting local biodiversity and curating biodiversity data based on collection. Their involvement harnesses local expertise, creates a global network of contributors to digitization efforts, and advances public understanding of biodiversity science.

For example, every semester at the University of Melbourne Herbarium, including throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a volunteer team of undergraduate and graduate students dedicate time each week to work on the conversation.

These students receive training in how herbarium specimens are prepared, curated, digitized, and used in scientific research as well as current biodiversity data management protocols.

Many student volunteers go on to graduate school, others take on curatorial roles in herbaria or museums, or take an interest in data management or bioinformatics.

Field work, as in the alpine vegetation of the Victorian Alps, is an important part of the effort to fully understand the biodiversity of our plants and fungi. Photo: Dr. Joanne Birch.

While discovering and developing their research interests and skills, they make a significant contribution to the curation of our collection.

In many ways, citizen scientists are the modern equivalents of the early 20th century “amateur botanists,” to whom modern botany is heavily indebted. One of these Australian “amateurs” was the “school professor botanist” Herbert Bennett Williamson, who, on his retirement, was the keeper of the Melbourne University herbarium between 1929 and 1931.

Throughout his career as a professional teacher (1875-1925), HB Williamson traveled around Victoria, observing native flora, describing many species and collecting over 6,000 specimens donated to national and international herbaria – which are now accessible to researchers around the world.

In Australia, iNaturalist is a popular platform where citizen scientists contribute biodiversity data, with over 27,000 users. The scope of iNaturalist initiatives varies enormously, from local or species-specific initiatives – such as the FungiSight which focuses on Australasian fungi – to global initiatives, such as the Great Southern Bioblitz 2021 which is engaged with over 6,000 people.

These community science initiatives provide data at spatial and temporal scales not possible from individuals or small teams of collectors.

The curated, research-grade data from these repositories provides a rich source of observational data, documenting where species are found and the ecosystems of which they are a part.

Botany is indebted to “amateurs” like HB Williamson (pictured circa 1915) – the forerunners of today’s citizen scientists. Photo: State Library of Victoria

They also provide valuable opportunities for citizen scientists to observe and connect with local biodiversity and the data generated is increasingly integrated into ecological, systematic and conservation-oriented research.

Along with large-scale digitization initiatives, museums and herbaria often hire citizen scientists to transcribe historical collection labels, many of which are handwritten, to convert them into digital format.

Digitizing specimen data enables fascinating and lasting connections – connecting plant collectors, the specimens they have collected, and scientific research based on those specimens.

A testament to the enduring value of these resources, herbarium specimens collected by HB Williamson between 1882 and 1931 have been incorporated into research and cited in five publications in 2022, according to records captured in the Bionomia online repository.

Across the country, the valuable assets of our natural history collections are studied and curated by scientists, curators and citizen scientists. These efforts ensure that the specimens at the heart of this important research infrastructure are well preserved and available for research and discovery in perpetuity.

This month, the University of Melbourne Herbarium is hosting its sixth Citizen Science Expedition, across the DIGIVOL platform, to transcribe data labels for a set of Eucalyptus (Myrtaceae) specimens. The Australian Museum and Atlas of Living Australia based on the DIGIVOL platform, has so far involved 11,461 citizen scientists in deciphering biodiversity data who have collectively completed approximately 4.7 million tasks.

The importance of the botanical work of HB Williamson is the subject of an exhibition entitled “From the Murray to the Sea” currently accessible online at University of Melbourne Herbarium.

Headband: “Velvet Foot” (Flammulina velutipes) mushrooms, Victoria, Australia/Getty Images