Improved tools and technical advances are becoming more available, sophisticated and cost-effective for biodiversity assessment, monitoring and management (see Box BIO20). The following are increasingly being taken up for a multitude of biodiversity monitoring requirements:
advances in satellite telemetry, transponders, lightweight transmitters, remote cameras and remote audio devices
enhanced capability to store, analyse and present large datasets
developments to cost-effectively generate large-scale databases.
The past 5 years has seen a series of rapid improvements in genomic techniques that are useful for environmental studies, and that will hopefully lead to better SoE reporting. For instance, DNA barcoding methods have begun to be applied to natural history collections and biological surveys. Genetic barcoding has been fully integrated into Australia’s largest species discovery project, Bush Blitz. Barcoding of pooled environmental samples (‘metabarcoding’) has been used routinely to evaluate diversity in soil communities for many years, and Australian researchers are now among the world leaders in cataloguing and interpreting soil microbial diversity using genetic methods (e.g. see Biome of Australia Soil Environments project).
Significant advances during the past 3–5 years have led to powerful, cost-effective methods to assess genetic diversity. These improved tools now allow us to rapidly generate large-scale genomic databases that begin to quantify the vast numbers of cryptic organisms that previously have remained unknown to humanity, yet play fundamental roles in maintaining ecological systems. Understanding this rich data source will provide much more information on the ecological roles fulfilled by these cryptic species. This will enable new scientific approaches to biodiversity management, such as incorporating genetic and evolutionary processes into threatened species recovery, and allow targeted responses for adaptation. The ability to understand the functional attributes of particular genes could lead to the selection of the best set of individuals adapted for the future.
Box BIO20 The Bitterns in Rice Project—a crowdfunded satellite tracking program
The Bitterns in Rice Project is a grassroots conservation initiative centred on irrigation farms in the Riverina district of New South Wales. It is a collaboration between the Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia, BirdLife Australia and a wide range of other organisations, with major funding provided by Riverina Local Land Services. The project aims to identify the best ways that rice farmers can help to conserve the globally endangered Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), a poorly known, cryptic waterbird.
Research since 2012 has identified that, in most years, a breeding population of between 500 and 1000 bitterns—at least one quarter of the global population—arrives in the rice crops around 2 months after sowing. A crowd funded satellite tracking program began in 2015 to discover where the birds go after the rice has been harvested. Funding from irrigation companies, industry groups, individual rice growers, wetland conservation organisations, birdwatching clubs and individual bird lovers was used to purchase 10 satellite transmitters and pay for the associated data download costs.
Importantly, the project built a network of followers with a strong sense of ownership and involvement in the plight of the bitterns. The first bittern to be tracked was ‘Robbie’, named by the Coleambally Irrigation Cooperative after a keen supporter of the project. They had bought the naming rights during the crowdfunding campaign. Nine days after the harness was attached in April 2015, Robbie dispersed from his soon-to-be-harvested rice crop to Pick Swamp on the South Australian coast. He then spent 4 months at the recently restored Long Swamp just across the border in Victoria. He returned to the Riverina in September, but most wetlands were dry, and he was too early for the rice season, so he wetland-hopped his way back to Pick Swamp and Long Swamp. His 323-day journey stitched together seemingly disparate wetlands, and created unlikely connections between people restoring wetlands in South Australia and Victoria, and rice farmers in southern New South Wales.
A photo of an Australasian bittern in some long grass.
Cresswell ID, Murphy H (2016). Biodiversity: New technologies, solutions and innovations. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/biodiversity/topic/2016/new-technologies-solutions-and-innovations, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65ac828812
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