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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 21(4) March - May 2013, p 11-13

Building a South Australian database of biological life histories and disturbance responses

Doug Bickerton1*, Michelle Waycott1,2, Ainsley Calladine3 and Roman Urban1
1 Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, 2 Adelaide University; 3 State Herbarium of South Australia;
*Corresponding author Email: doug.bickerton@sa.gov.au

An example of the score cards used to record flowering and fruiting data on herbarium vouchers

Herbarium records of flowering times for Spyridium coactilifolium (dark grey= buds/flowers; light grey= fruiting)


In the wake of the Victorian bushfires, there has been a demand by the South Australian public for regular fuel load reduction, including many stands of native vegetation. The Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) now has annual prescribed burn targets, and our fire planners and ecologists, wishing to take advantage of this opportunity to maximise ecological benefits, began discussions with our Nature Conservation Branch on ways to collate and utilise biological life history information and guide fire management.

Currently Park managers are working with fire, water and forestry agencies to plan and coordinate multi-hectare burns. Additionally, local government and transport agencies now have increased authority to slash or clear roadside vegetation with reduced vegetation clearance approval restrictions (unless EPBC-listed taxa are present). We saw a need for delivery of advice on threatened species management to a host of end-users, but we realised the paucity of knowledge on survivorship traits of South Australian species available to our own ecologists, as well as other agencies.

We also knew from experience that many plant species have flowering or germination triggers that are either not fire-related or additional to fire or smoke triggers; however apart from some well-studied taxa, this information was not being captured. Finally, we saw a benefit in expanding the database to include responses of threatened fauna, so we felt that, rather than limit ourselves to a fire response database, we should develop a database of life histories and disturbance responses for rare and threatened flora and fauna in South Australia, to be used by:

  • Fire ecologists and planners
  • Water and forestry agency environmental officers
  • Local government and transport agency road maintenance planners
  • Threatened species recovery officers
  • Landscape ecologists and revegetation practitioners
  • Environmental consultants.

Development of the database

In scoping the project, we identified our sound knowledge of threatened species distributions, and our large Herbarium record database, but also patchy species–specific monitoring data for many threatened species, and limited ecological data. When researching the vital attribute databases compiled interstate, we found some issues (similar to the Western Australian experience as noted in Shedley, 2011):

  • South Australian endemic taxa by default are not included in interstate databases
  • they are generally limited to fire response
  • they do not identify the variation in disturbance response that occurs across a species’ distribution, at different life stages or in different habitats
  • they are generally insensitive to the variation in response to differing fire regimes, i.e. intensity, duration, seasonal timing, length of time between fires
  • little data is available on seed bank dynamics (especially seed longevity and viability) and age to senescence
  • the fields required to populate fire response databases in particular are often complex and potentially confusing for many of our anticipated end-users, as well as many of the field experts that we wanted to help us build our brave new database.

Consequently we chose to conduct a pilot project, trialling a compilation of expert opinion and knowledge on threatened species from one South Australian region, and evaluate ways to combine and utilise the data. We chose to focus on the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges (AMLR) Natural Resources Management Region. This region is relatively small in comparison, but is the most densely populated, arguably the best resourced, and definitely the most studied in ecological terms, because of its proximity to three large Universities. And finally, because of the large population base, it is subject to the most political pressure for prescribed burns to be conducted.

In a complementary process, flowering and fruiting data sourced from herbarium vouchers and specimens was scored and used to verify expert opinion and fill gaps in knowledge. Seed biology data from the Seed Conservation Centre of SA was also used, and in some instances, information in Recovery Plans and selected ID reference books and field guides was sourced.

A matrix of attributes was developed, beginning by simplifying many of the standard fire response attributes, for the benefit of our volunteer field experts, and also adding many new ones such as the seed biology data. Finally, we added a “Comments” column for most fields, to allow us to capture as much detail as possible.

The Herbarium voucher and specimen search was conducted in the first half of 2012. In this search, specimens were viewed and evidence of buds, flowering or fruiting was recorded, along with voucher information on date and location of collection, habitat description and other relevant comments regarding recent fires or floods. The AMLR Region has 23 EPBC-listed and 230 State-listed rare or threatened plant taxa, and we included another 5 taxa highlighted as high priority for the region.

Expert workshops

Four expert knowledge workshops were then organised; loosely arranged in logical plant groups with respect to life history attributes:

  • trees and shrubs (mostly)
  • orchids
  • ferns and allies, grasses, sedges and rushes
  • other herbaceous plants (mostly).

A group of four to six experts attended each workshop. Attendees were sent a spreadsheet in advance and invited to study or fill in the spreadsheets, and bring along relevant field notes or reference books. Some reference information was also used by the project facilitators to populate some fields in preparation for the workshops.

The workshops were supported with a team of three to four people facilitating, recording and providing internet access to any spatial, herbarium, ID and other relevant reference information. The comments we recorded for each database field proved useful following the workshops, allowing us to correct for subjectivity in answers, or more importantly to change and adapt the fields as we progressed, giving them more relevance.

A report was subsequently compiled, including an analysis of the data identifying vital attribute clusters of life history traits, growth forms, flowering and fruiting times, as well as highlighting data gaps for key traits. By combining the flowering and fruiting data for key species, optimal prescribed burn times can be ascertained.

Future directions

In the next phase of the project, it is intended to add data from the following sources:

  • fire ecologists’ monitoring data
  • fire scar history data, cross-referenced with herbarium vouchers
  • research literature on species, genus or family traits and disturbance responses.

At a later stage, the intention is to include disturbance response information for fauna, and to expand to other regions. The database will be added to DEWNR’s Biological Databases of South Australia (BDBSA), to provide direct and automatic links to future changes in nomenclature, conservation status or distribution.

DEWNR’s Fire Management Branch is supportive of the outcomes of the pilot project report, and will assist in taking the project to the next phase. Other DEWNR staff wishing to utilise the Vital Attributes data will be given access to the relevant fields in the BDBSA; and select staff will be given authority to make updates. Active engagement with regional DEWNR staff would be most successfully achieved through a short series of workshops and presentations.

Once the database is linked to the BDBSA, other State agencies, local government, consultancies and private individuals will also be able to access the data on request via a website link, as is currently the case with other BDBSA data.


The Herbarium search was useful in providing or validating data on flowering and fruiting times, as well as locational and habitat information, and for many species, it was able to fill gaps in expert knowledge. While a useful source, the Herbarium search is slow and time-consuming. Since collectors often fail to record on the voucher the life stages of the specimen collected, each specimen must be viewed individually. The usefulness of the information relies on the quality and quantity of collections, which are not always representative. For example, many collections are made because of some unusual aspect in flowering season or location.

In general, a workshop environment provides the opportunity for participants to clarify the purpose of the workshop and misunderstandings about the process. Workshops allow a focus for participants without distractions, and a faster accumulation of data. Disagreement can be debated and consensus can be reached. Workshops can be adaptive; the lessons learnt can be used to change subsequent workshops, or even the current workshop mid-stream.

On the other hand the reliability and degree of subjectivity of workshop-sourced data is dependent on the experts available on the day. And the specificity of their knowledge is not always adaptable to the required outcomes. Finally, the data being recorded is usually observational, seldom empirical. Hence the need to validate the findings with secondary sources, e.g. herbarium vouchers, fire scar history, seed bank data etc.

The additional information recorded in the “Comments” column also allowed us to identify subjectivity, and make adjustments if necessary; which fortunately was rare. More importantly, our support team was able to lead and support the discussion, keep a check on the answers and probe for more detail to clarify a point.

In conclusion, it is important to recognise that the product that arises from this work is not a prescriptive tool in itself, rather a resource to inform decision making. It will not be a one-size-fits-all because compromises will still need to be made, but they will be informed compromises. For example, the optimal management regime for a threatened species will still at times be at odds with the perceived need for asset protection, but the final decision will be more suitable to both.


Shedley, E. (2011). Fire Responses of Threatened Flora in Western Australia. Final Report. State NRM Project 09029 – Emergency Recovery Actions for Highest Priority Threatened Flora. Department of Environment and Conservation, Western Australia