Alpine Bioscan

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by Kate C
Publish date
19 November 2013
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Nearly 30 museum scientists, staff and associates left Melbourne Museum early yesterday morning, headed for the Alpine National Park. They’re embarking on the next major Parks Bioscan – a program of intensive biodiversity surveys that MV performs, in partnership with Parks Victoria, of some of the state’s most wildlife-rich national parks. Volunteers from 4WD Victoria are providing additional help with access to the more remote and rugged parts of this cold and mountainous area.

Scientists at Bairnsdale sign Lunch stop at Bairnsdale for the MV scientists on the trip up the the Alpine National Park.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

As the team was packing up last week, I talked with Dr Karen Rowe about the gear the crews are taking into the field – namely nine iPads that will be used to collect data about the observations, samples and specimens taken by our experts.

iPad data collection system Karen's iPad ready to collect field data.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Using iPads will allow the scientists and collection managers to upload the data directly into the museum’s collection database, EMu. This replaces the time-honoured tradition of recording data with pens and paper… followed by hours of painstaking transcription. Almost inevitably, transcription errors, bad handwriting, rain-sodden paper and other data disasters affect information brought back from the field this way.

The tablets have other benefits, too: an on-board GPS means that every observation is linked with a location, and the data collected for each location is standardised across the scientific disciplines. They also link to topographical maps, vegetation maps, and other useful field tools like the iPad’s camera and audio recording functions. In the case of alpine frogs, there are species that can only be distinguished by their calls so audio recording is vital to correct identification.

But why do the scientists collect all this data? Surely a biodiversity survey is just a big checklist of species? Karen explained that if you collect a specimen (or make an observation) without recording all the other information about that collection event, you "might as well have not collected the critter. We have a lot of specimens in the museum that have no provenance or location data. It’s useful as an exercise to help you understand that particular species but not the context in which it lives." Careful notes about the exact location (under a rock, up a tree), time of day (dawn, midday), and other factors help to flesh out the ecology and behaviour of a species.

"Particularly in areas that are hard to get to – and Sulawesi is a prime example – a lot of the species listed in the IUCN Red List are data deficient," continued Karen. "We don’t know anything about them or the habitats they’re in." Without that information, biologists can’t be sure of the scarcity of the species; a little-known tree-dwelling rat could seem extinct if you’re only looking for them on the ground.

The iPad will also help the museum photographers to attach species information to photographs taken in the field, which makes the images much more useful for research and reporting what we’ve found. Plus, teams can make accurate observations about animals outside their field of expertise – the entomologists can record the calls of birds, for example – for verification by the ornithologists later. That means a more thorough survey of the region.

Of course, in case of technical malfunction, Karen has a backup plan: the folders, clipboards and data sheets of yore. They’re charmingly labelled ‘Old fashioned iPads’ and to be used only in case of emergency.

box of field notebooks Old-school: the back-up field notebooks packed and ready to to to the Alps Bioscan.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

In addition to traps and sampling equipment, these field scientists have packed gear for extreme weather, including four-season tents, sleeping bags, thermal underwear and more. And of course, the field gear most important for maintaining morale after 12-hour days in hilly wilderness: comfort snacks!

  Supplies for the biodiversity survey Field supplies packed up for the Alps Bioscan. Left: bait for the mammal traps include cat food and vanilla essence. Right: while the bush rats are drawn to fishy and floral scents, the scientists prefer chocolate.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

If you live in the Victorian Alps, come along to our Science at the Pub event at the end of the Bioscan at Omeo's Golden Age Hotel, Friday 29 November 6:30 PM. Meet the scientists and see what they've found in the park.

Links:

Parks Victoria media release about the Alps Bioscan

Wild: Victorian Alps

MV Blog posts from the 2011 Prom Bioscan and 2012 Grampians Bioscan

Comments (4)

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Don Cavey 22 November, 2013 01:31
This is very interesting and I hope to follow it. I wish the Research Scientists good luck and safe travels. Updates will be appreciated!
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John Parish 25 November, 2013 08:36
Great work in the first week and good luck for the rest of the work this week.
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Wayne Hevey 3 December, 2013 13:53
Fantastic event all round with great commaraderie between all parties fostering tremendous learning experiences as well as excellent communication opportunities.
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Lara Yachou-Wos 4 December, 2013 13:17
Sounds fantastic! I hope the iPads work for you - will be so much easier if they do! Good luck.
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