We are digitising our natural history collections to support biodiversity discovery, quarantine, heritage and innovation.

Collections of international significance

Australia is host to more than half a million species of plants and animals. Three quarters of them can be found nowhere else on earth. Our biodiversity is both a treasure to behold and an economically valuable resource.

A 3D reconstruction of an Amycterine Ground Weevil (Gagatophorus draco) generated from an optical scanning rig.  © Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

CSIRO's natural history collections contain more than 15 million specimens dating back to 1780. The specimens represent all major biological groups and cover the entire Australian continent and marine zones, from native and introduced plants to terrestrial vertebrates, invertebrates, fish, algae and tree seeds.

The collections contribute to national and international biological knowledge and underpin a significant part of Australia's taxonomic, genetic and ecological research.

Digitising our natural history collections

CSIRO's collections have long been an invaluable resource for research in Australia and internationally. We are now focussing on digitising them to increase access for researchers and the general public.

[Music plays and an image appears of bee specimens underneath a glass cover and the camera scrolls up the collection specimens and the CSIRO logo appears]

[Text appears over the specimens: Digitising the National Research Collections Australia]

[Image changes to show a hand changing a camera lens and then the image changes to show a hand working with a pair of tweezers]

[Image changes to show a hand reaching into a one of six specimen buckets in an esky and bringing out a type of sea creature and the camera zooms in on the creature]

[Images move through of a male walking down a corridor and opening a drawer, bee specimens in the drawer and two females working on insect collections]

Simon Checksfield: The National Research Collections Australia at CSIRO houses about 15 million plus biological specimens.

[Image changes to show Simon Checksfield talking to the camera and text appears: Simon Checksfield, National Research Collections Australia]

The grand purpose in digitising our collections is to unlock the information in the physical world and release it into the digital world.

[Image changes to show a female working on a specimen and then the camera zooms in on the specimen she is working on and then the image changes to show the female working on a computer]

At the Australian National Insect Collection, we are going through a project currently to digitise our bee collection.

[Image changes to show a bee specimen with label information next to it]

Citizen Scientists are helping us with our transcription of the label information of the bee images we are taking.

[Image changes to show a side view of a bee specimen and then the image changes to show Nicole Fisher talking to the camera and text appears: Nicole Fisher, National Research Collections Australia]

Nicole Fisher: We are digitising the collection so that we can secure our data that’s associated with the specimens and then get it online available for other researchers to use.

[Image changes to show Simon Checksfield talking to the camera and then the image changes to show employees working on specimen collections and then the camera zooms in on the specimens]

Simon Checksfield: Pollination is critical to the food supply chain and understanding how the bees fit into that and understanding the problems that the global bee community is facing is very critical.

[Music plays and image changes to show people on the deck of a research boat and then the image changes to show people on the boat working with specimens in tubs]

[Image changes to show John Pogonoski talking to the camera and displaying a fish species and text appears: John Pogonoski, Australian National Fish Collection]

John Pogonoski: This is one of five species of fish that came up from 4,000 metres deep earlier today off Newcastle in New South Wales.

[Camera zooms in on the fish specimen he is holding and then the camera zooms out to show John holding the fish specimen and talking to the camera]

It’s a species of gelatinous cusk eel. I’m not sure what species it is yet but when we get it back to the collections we can do x-rays and determine that.

[Images flash through of researchers working on a bench with marine specimens and then the image changes to show a view looking down on the specimens]

Simon Checksfield: FishMap is a great example of digitisation having an industry impact.

[Image changes to show the FishMap webpages displaying an Australian map and a species of fish]

FishMap lets people find out about fish species distribution in Australia’s oceans.

[Image changes to show Brendan Lepschi seated at a desk looking at a specimen on a page and then the camera zooms in on the specimen]

Brendan Lepschi: We’re digitising all the type specimens at the Australian National Herbarium.

[Image changes to show Brendan talking to the camera and text appears: Brendan Lepschi, Australian National Herbarium]

Our plant specimens are used for research in taxonomy, biodiversity, conversation and biosecurity.

[Image changes to show a specimen page of a daisy and then the image changes to show a profile view of Brendan’s face]

The specimen images are available worldwide for researchers to use.

[Image changes to show the daisy specimen and then the image changes to show Brendan talking to the camera]

This specimen is a daisy and it’s part of a group that’s widespread in tropical America and is weedy in Australia.

[Image changes to show information on the Atlas of Living Australia webpage and various information on the site scrolls through]

We’re making data available through the Atlas of Living Australia and also through Australia’s virtual herbarium. The data’s publicly available. It’s free and anyone, anywhere can use that data.

[Music plays and images move through of a daisy head and then Dr Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn picking up seeds with tweezers and putting them in a petri dish]

Dr Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn: We are photographing seeds of weedy daisies.

[Image changes to show Dr Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn talking to the camera and then Alexander as he is working on a computer and text appears: Dr Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn, Australian National Herbarium]

The main risks of introducing new seeds are a, that a new species of weed establishes or that population of an existing weed gets strengthened by new genetic diversity.

[Image changes to show the online identification key on the computer screen and then an image of a seed appears on the screen superimposed over the information]

The photographs are going to be used to illustrate an online identification key. The key will be used to identify seeds that are being brought into the country accidentally on cargo.

[Images move through of a male looking into an open specimen drawer, the bee specimens in the drawer, the male taking out one of the small specimen boxes and Nicole talking to the camera]

Nicole Fisher: We’re already starting to see huge impacts where researchers have been able to use the data held within collections to better inform areas such as biosecurity, biodiversity and climate change.

[Image changes to show Simon talking to the camera and then the image changes to show specimens in a petri dish under a microscope and then a fish specimen in a jar]

Simon Checksfield: For us, the success of digitising is if someone does something with that information that we’ve never thought of before.

[Music plays and the image changes to show a female working with specimens and then the image changes to show a black screen and the CSIRO logo and text appears: Australia’s innovation catalyst]

Digitising the National Research Collections Australia

Digitisation has many benefits:

  • it allows us to share rich information to support biodiversity discovery, species identification and quarantine
  • it connects the Australian people with their cultural and biodiversity heritage
  • it unlocks the billion dollar value investment already made in the 15 million plus specimens in our collections by making them more readily available to the world for science, exploration and innovation.

Digitising more than 15 million specimens is a mammoth task. Specimens in the collections include insects, birds, eggs, mammal bones, algal cultures, plant specimens, seed banks, images, sound recordings, DNA samples and metadata - the information associated with each specimen about where and when it was collected.

You can get involved by becoming a NRCA digital volunteer.

Delivering the collections online

As we digitise our collections, we are making them available to the public and researchers through the Atlas of Living Australia . The Atlas is a state‐of‐the‐art biodiversity informatics portal that provides free, online access to a vast repository of information about Australia's unique biodiversity.

- Australian biological collections

Email NRCADigital@csiro.au

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