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What is Australia's Virtual Herbarium?

Australia's Virtual Herbarium (AVH) is an on-line botanical information resource accessible via the web. It provides immediate access to the wealth of data associated with scientific plant specimens in each Australian herbarium. Six million specimen records, of particular value in displaying geographic distribution, will be enhanced by images, descriptive text and identification tools.

The AVH is a collaborative project of the State, Commonwealth and Territory herbaria. It is being developed under the auspices of the Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria (CHAH), representing the major Australian collections.

map of herbaria locations

herbarium specimensAustralian herbaria house over six million specimens that date from the earliest days of European exploration and are a primary source of information on the classification and distribution of plants, algae and fungi. These specimens are the working tools of scientists who contribute to our knowledge and understanding of biodiversity and conservation through the discovery, classification and description of new species.

Every specimen held in an Australian herbarium is accompanied by information on where and when it was collected, by whom, its correct botanical name, and often information on associated species and ecological preferences. This seemingly simple information has great power when organised into a single distributed database system such as the AVH.

herb specimen label

Our herbaria hold an historical record of over two hundred years of changes to our vegetation - unparalleled data for conservation and revegetation work, and a permanent reference collection to monitor changes in plant names. It is the only plant information system based on scientifically verifiable voucher specimens, maintained by herbaria to ensure the currency of names as knowledge improves.

Since the mid 1970s Australian herbaria have been cooperatively digitising their data on plants, algae and fungi. "HISPID", a set of specimen data interchange standards developed by Australian herbaria, has now been adopted internationally.

How the AVH works

The AVH is accessed via the website of any participating herbarium. A gateway at each of these herbaria links to the databases of all the other herbaria, consolidating the combined data into a nation-wide view of the botanical information. Most data related to specimens will be stored by the custodial institution, and there will be some resources, such as the scientific names database (Australian Plant Names Index, APNI) which will be common to all.

AVH mapper

From the website of each participating herbarium, users will also be able to access regional botanical information and locally generated e-flora products.

Increasing knowledge of Australian plants

Australia's biodiversity is still in the discovery phase. Scientific names of plants, algae and fungi continue to change with new discoveries, and as knowledge of our species continues to increase. This still happens, even in the better known plant groups and less remote regions. Australia's Virtual Herbarium will highlight the gaps in our knowledge of the flora of this country.

Resources of Australian herbaria

Herbaria are research and information institutions developing botanical knowledge and providing information, underpinned by preserved collections.

More than 70% of the specimens housed in Australian herbaria have been databased, providing a comprehensive resource for:

Accurate descriptions of over 60% of Australia's vascular plant species have been compiled in the last 20 years, with many already available electronically and the remainder able to be readily scanned.

Each Herbarium maintains an authoritative Census of plants for its region in electronic form.

A growing resource of images (line drawings, colour photographs) is available, with only a small portion currently in digital form.

Computer tools have been developed for the interactive identification of some regional floras or of Australian plant families, genera and species for CD-ROM or the Web.

A long-term cooperative project

The vision of Australia's Virtual Herbarium is long-term, requiring commitment to the sourcing of data and making the information widely available. While some aspects of the project such as capturing the backlog of existing specimen data can be measured in years, the Virtual Herbarium itself is ongoing.

The Australian government herbaria are particularly suited to tackling this project, having actively maintained their collections for many decades. They have a long history of cooperation to meet the common goal of advancing knowledge of the plants, algae and fungi of this megadiverse continent. Increasingly, Australians now appreciate the tremendous importance of ecologically sustainable development, and the wise use of our natural resources.

Building an electronic Australian Flora

Flexible on-line search options allow you to customise the data you generate to suit your requirements. Flora of Australia on-line

Australian botanists have produced thousands of authoritative publications on plants, algae and fungi including scientific papers and floras and other semi-popular handbooks, founded on the cooperation and extensive resources of the Australian herbaria.

The Flora of Australia and Fungi of Australia, published by the Australian Biological Resources Study in cooperation with the Australian herbaria and botanists, are key projects in the long tradition of Australia-wide research in plant classification. These internationally recognised publications are underpinned by collection data, information outputs, such as regional floras and e-floras held by the Australian herbaria.

The ease of computer storage of data and information, and the World Wide Web, can provide sophisticated remote access to these data. It is ideally suited to projecting this important knowledge to a wider client base.

Wattle CD keyAustralia's Virtual Herbarium provides the opportunity to deliver descriptions of the flora dynamically linked to data and information from across the continent, and distributed on-line as an electronic Australian Flora - a one-stop source of current information on the plants, algae and fungi of the entire Australian continent. New observations can be released with minimal delay as they are confirmed and recorded in the database.


Some major AVH stakeholder groups

Some of the benefits of the AVH to major stakeholders

Spatial applicatiion of AVH data and environmental stratification for population sampling. Australian National Herbarium Murray Darling Basin research.

The future for the AVH

The partners of the project have mapped out the workplan and development for implementation of the AVH, including:

National Herbarium of New South Wales
Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney Herbarium of the Northern Territory
Parks & Wildlife Commission NT Australian National Herbarium
Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research Queensland Herbarium
Environmental Protection Agency Western Australian Herbarium
Conservation and Land Management Tasmanian Herbarium
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery National Herbarium of Victoria
Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne State Herbarium of South Australia
Plant Biodiversity Centre Australian Biological Resources Study Australian Government
Updated 13 March, 2012