Discoveries and disruptions: 2021 in AMRI
2021 was an unprecedented year for many: despite COVID-19 disruptions and restrictions, AMRI scientists discovered an unprecedented number of species, published at a new record, carried out fieldwork, and engaged with the public in our citizen science programs.
218 new species were described by AMRI scientists, senior fellows and associates
In the 2020-21 financial year, a new record number of species were described for the Australian Museum. The ‘worm’ team led by Dr Elena Kupriyanova documented the polychaete worms of eastern and southern Australia; our AM team described and named a new species of bat in honour of Mrs Mary Holt and the late Dr John Holt who funded our original research at Coolah Tops (Holt’s Long-eared bat (Nyctophilus holtorum)); and our Research Associate Graham Short and AM's Andrew Trevor-Jones described the stunning red wide-bodied pipefish – found right here in Sydney. Major discoveries were made by Professor Kristofer Helgen, as part of the team that described the new species of monkey, the Popa langur, and two new species of gigantic woolly flying squirrel from the Himalayas. Several frogs species were described in Australia and overseas by Dr Jodi Rowley and her team, including the Leaf-litter Frog (in Cambodia) pictured below. However many discoveries are not made in the field; unearthed in the AM collections was a previously undescribed species of trilobite, named Lycophron titan after the ancient pre-Olympian Greek gods, the ‘titans,’ which were known for their gigantic size. It is the largest trilobite ever found in Australia. This is only a snapshot of AMRI’s work in the last year!
Another record: our scientific publications
During 2020-21, AMRI staff, senior fellows and research associates published a total of 255 papers in international and national peer-reviewed scientific journals and books, largely based on the AM’s natural history collections, making it another record year of publications for the AM.
Some of the highlights from the past financial year come from the Records of the Australian Museum. Since 1851, we have published academic journals to report discoveries made in our collections. Our serial titles contain peer-reviewed research articles on animal taxonomy, archaeology and geology. We wanted to highlight two volumes in particular, including the compendium dedicated to the late Dr Ken Aplin and the edition dedicated to our Senior Fellow, Dr Robin Torrence. Dr Ken Aplin was an AM Research Associate, a world-renowned comparative anatomist, vertebrate systematist, palaeontologist, and zooarchaeologist and an extraordinary man; in 2020, a volume in honour of Dr Ken Aplin was released, celebrating the lives of creatures obscure, misunderstood, and wonderful. In 2021, a collection of 16 papers by 32 authors covering a diverse range of topics on archaeological materials and museum collections was published in honour of Dr Robin Torrence. Robin continues to be giant in her field and was celebrated earlier this year for all she has contributed to the field of archaeology.
Our fieldwork continues
Although there were significant travel restrictions in place, our fieldwork and expeditions continued. Most of the surveys were limited to domestic destinations, but also included work in Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island. Archaeologist Dr Amy Way spent a week on Norfolk Island, meeting with community and heritage groups and secured strong support for a future archaeological field program. Surveys of land snails on Lord Howe Island by Drs Frank Koehler and Isabel Hyman resulted in the discovery of rare endemic species, which were rescued and transported to Taronga Zoo for captive breeding.
AMRI scientists undertook several field surveys across eastern Australia to understand the impacts of the 2019-20 bushfires on species. More than 150 sites in eastern NSW were surveyed and around 1000 samples of land snails collected. Separate surveys of the forests of north-eastern NSW collected 20,000 beetles from 160 sites, uncovering four new species of dung beetle and evidence that flightless species suffered loss of diversity and numbers in burnt areas. The palaeontology team also undertook surveys of the Gunningbland and Parkes region of central NSW, and completed fieldwork out at Alice Springs.
Fieldwork in Sydney Harbour was also undertaken by Dr Joey DiBattista, gathering seawater samples for environmental DNA. Further fieldwork surveying fish occurred in the Tweed River, Hastings Point and Cook Island. We also had five AMRI scientists embark on the CSIRO research vesssel (RV) Investigator earlier this year, which explored the Indian Ocean Territories and its deep-sea marine life.
The power of citizen science
Engaging the public in national and international science projects is a core value for the AM. Our citizen science projects, run by the Australian Museum Centre for Citizen Science, are central to increasing scientific knowledge and contributing to critical data monitoring. Here we have highlighted three of our world-renowned, ground-breaking projects.
FrogID is the AM’s flagship citizen science project and is the most successful in Australia. Since its launch, FrogID citizen scientists have contributed over 534,000 verified frog records from 209 Australian frog species. More than 192,000 frog recordings across Australia were received in 2020-21, double the number reported last year. More than 12,600 people across Australia contributed to the growing dataset, an increase of over 70%. The 2020 FrogID Week saw more than 2000 participants record over 20,000 frog calls, representing 103 different species in a ten-day period. The work of FrogID is becoming increasingly important and relevant in helping scientists understand some of the environmental impacts of recent extreme weather events. For instance, when the public reported seeing sick and dead frogs across Eastern Australia, the AM held an urgent appeal to help save Australia's frogs. The goal of this appeal is to determine the cause of this event, recommend mitigation and conservation actions to Government, local councils and conservation groups; carry out targeted frog surveys to determine the impact of these sick and dead frogs; and mobilise the community to help save important species. FrogID data also helped support important AM fieldwork and research undertaken into the impact of the 2019-20 bushfires on Australia’s biodiversity.
DigiVol is the world’s first citizen science website for digitising museum collections, powered by citizen scientists – and just this month, DigiVol turned 10! This highly acclaimed program continues to be a pioneer in the field of digitisation, as a platform that digitises not only the AM collections but collections around the world. Check out the infographic below for a glimpse at some of DigiVol’s success.
This online initiative is hosted by arguably the largest citizen science platform in the world, iNaturalist. The innovation of the Australasian Fishes project is that uploaded fish photos with geospatial information are identified and/or validated by the community, with taxonomic experts in major museums around Australasia, as well as international scientists, available for consultation when species identity comes into question. These image identifications then become a permanent record for a specific animal, at a specific location, at a specific point in time. Now in its fourth year, this project gained 1260 new members during 2020-21 with more than 40,000 observations added this year. A recent study using data from the AM’s Australasian Fishes Project, revealed the top ten fish species recorded by citizen scientists and recommends how this data can contribute to effective conservation and ﬁsheries management.
Preservation and Conservation
In May 2021, the AM’s renovated lower ground Collection Care and Conservation (CC&C) laboratory space became fully operational. This dedicated centre of preservation and collection risk management delivers wide ranging expertise in high level conservation and preventive practices across the AM’s extensive collections. The renovation has delivered an open plan, flexible dry work area, a sophisticated wet work area, and an analytical area. Reinstated heritage windows now provide students and members of the public with a close-up, behind the scenes view of the inner workings of the lab and the AM’s back-of-house operations.
Several valuable collections were re-housed in improved storage facilities during 2020-21. Large herpetology specimens (such as turtles, crocodiles and snakes) that had previously been stored in plastic tanks were re-housed in new, stainless steel storage tanks. Storage for the AM’s entomology collections was also upgraded, with the installation of new, larger cabinets for dry specimens. Dry shell collection cabinets for the malacology collections were replaced with thousands of new specimen trays, while 175 large, mounted mammal specimens at the Museum’s Discovery Centre at Castle Hill were also rehoused in purpose built stillages. Two important rehousing projects for dry type specimens across the natural sciences collections were also completed this year, resulting in 4200 specimens being rehoused. A second rehousing project for the AM’s Tapa (bark) Pasifika cloth collection was also completed, resulting in 2000 cloths being transferred into new cabinets at the Rydalmere offsite storage facility.
To take a peek behind the scenes of CC&C, please watch our recent webinar below:
It's in our DNA
The Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG) continued to contribute to our understanding of taxonomy, biosecurity and wildlife conservation. ACWG provides support to AMRI scientists, and expert advice to government departments, the aviation industry and other industry partners. In a massive boost to the ACWG’s Frozen Tissue Collection, Professor Bill Sherwin from UNSW donated more than 11,000 vertebrate tissue and DNA samples accumulated throughout his 30 years of research – making it one of the largest and most significant donations of its kind. This year also saw ACWG offer its services to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – Australia, and Royal Caribbean in a ground-breaking conservation project known as Surrender Your Shell. This project is aimed at protecting the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle from the illegal tortoiseshell trade. ACWG’s staff and expertise in DNA technology have helped identify where the shell products have come from and pinpoint Hawksbill turtle populations to allow for targeted conservation efforts. To date, more than 178 items have been surrendered thanks to the program.
Lizard Island Research Station
The AM’s Lizard Island Research Station (LIRS) at the top of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland reopened in August 2020. The station’s five-month enforced closure due to COVID-19 meant that usage and activity was significantly lower this year than normal. Corals in the area began to bleach in early January 2021, but favourable weather patterns in early 2021 helped prevent a major bleaching event. However, each summer continues to pose significant threats to corals from heat stress as the underlying water temperature increases due to climate change. Only Australia-based researchers have been able to visit LIRS since the reopening, most of them already based in Queensland. A total of 37 research projects were conducted by teams from seven Australian institutions in addition to an Australian team acting for a UK/USA based project. Contributions to the scientific literature by researchers using the AM’s Lizard Island Research Station increased by 72 during the year.
Generous funding from LIRRF and donations from Minderoo went towards an upgraded solar power system which increased solar collection by 50%, with modelling predicting that solar will generate 95% of LIRS’s future electrical energy requirements.
An award winning year
It has been a big year for awards and events! For the 2020 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, the AMRI Medal was awarded to Collection Manager Mineralogy and Petrology and Group Manager, Geosciences and Archaeology, Ross Pogson. The AMRI Medal is presented to an individual staff member, senior fellow or team from the AMRI for outstanding science and communication of their research outcomes. Ross Pogson was recognised for his outstanding research and management of the Museum’s rock, mineral, meteorite and tektite collection. Our wonderful Dr Penny Berents was awarded the AMRI Medal during the 2021 AM Eureka Prizes, as an outstanding marine biologist with more than 40 years’ experience in research, museum policy and management.
The Australian Museum Foundation and AMRI awarded a number of visiting fellowships and awards this year, to scientists in a variety of fields from palaeontology to marine invertebrates - and some of our wonderful awardees have already delivered presentations in our great AMRI Online Seminar Series. AMRI students also delivered an update on their research and projects in this year's AMRI Student forum, the abstracts of which can be found here.
Our scientists participated in a number of programs throughout the year including: Early Birds: Autism and Sensory-Friendly Mornings, the IBM EdTech Youth Challenge, the Sydney Science Trail and more!
Meagan Warwick, AMRI Project and Communications Officer, Australian Museum.
Professor Kristofer Helgen, Chief Scientist and Director, AMRI.