A million million slimy things…

I promised a follow up on the Lebbeus shrimp, but so far I’ve had no luck in locating the name of the beast. Next stop: contacting the discoverer, who I think may be a friend of a friend. (Scientific circles are about as small in Melbourne as artistic ones, it seems.)

While I’ve no name yet, I do have some other stuff to update you on, thanks to another dear friend, who sent me an email full of helpful insights. I was talking about the diversity of creatures in Australia and how we are lacking in enough taxonomists to name them all; turns out there’s been a recent report, “Numbers of Living Species in Australia and the World“, which shows it’s a bigger issue than I thought. Most of our mammals and reptiles aren’t found anywhere else, which means no-one else is going to find them; and we still have around 75% of our species to discover. That’s after three years in which we’ve already been finding new ones at around 18,000 new species a year!

How to share the data about all these new species is another problem entirely, but one that the Atlas of Living Australia has been set up to solve. A government project under the banner of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, the Atlas boasts an impressive line-up of supporters, including most of Australia’s prominent universities and museums. Eventually it will form an authoritative, freely accessible central database of Australian species, allowing anyone who’s interested to find out, well, pretty much anything about any kind of Australian flora or fauna. (Or protists, fungi and prokaryotes, come to that.) It’s also intended to be distributed and federated, meaning it won’t be reliant on a central database or technology, and on this score it’s already making use of open source and/or free software (its news site runs on WordPress – as does benmckenzie.com.au – and the page discussing other possible software tools is hosted by free wiki host pbwiki). Mind you, it’s described as a five-year project on its front page, and it still seems to be in an early stage; if we’re going to get those tens of thousands of species in there, we’d better get a move on before they’re all gone!

We might find out that they’re on the way out through users of ClimateWatch, a new initiative of the thirty year old EarthWatch Institute. Anyone – yes, that means you or I or even first user Julia Gillard, when she isn’t busy defending Australian racism while in the US – can create an account and start posting their observations of the wildlife in their area. Noticed the magpies arriving in your neighbourhood, heard frogs calling, or been observing an increase in cicada noises? Now you can put those bits of data somewhere they’ll do some good. It’s a very simple sign-up process, and even if you only contribute one bit of data, it’s bound to be of use to someone somewhere. (If you’re a birdwatcher, get yourself on there now!)

So, plenty of colour and movement in Australian taxonomy – and plenty of room for you to get involved!