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An ecological story

Predicting where particular plants and animals are likely to be found is one of the most important problems in ecology.

The ancient Greeks were the first to write about the role that climate plays in determining species distributions. However, it was not until the mid 1980s that an Australian scientist, Professor Michael Hutchinson, developed techniques for reliably estimating average climatic conditions for any location on Earth from standard point meteorological observations.

These techniques, now called ANUSPLIN, built on the then recent advances in thin plate smoothing spline methods by Professor Grace Wahba. They provided the basis for the development by Professor Henry Nix and Dr John Busby of the BIOCLIM package.

BIOCLIM uses latitude and longitude information for many individual locations within a species distribution. For every location it estimates monthly average values for maximum temperature, minimum temperature and precipitation. From these values it calculates important variables such as mean annual temperature, mean annual precipitation and mean maximum temperature of the hottest month.

The earliest version of BIOCLIM calculated just 12 variables and a later version used 19 variables, while the latest version calculates 35 variables. For each variable BIOCLIM calculates the range of climatically suitable conditions for a particular species. For example, for Shining Gum (Eucalyptus nitens) the range of mean maximum temperature of the hottest month is about 18-29oC, while the mean annual rainfall range is about 500-1700 mm. BIOCLIM then searches gridded climatic data to map areas which satisfy the particular range of suitable conditions for all the variables being used. For Shining Gum this would be mainly locations in south-eastern Australia.

Reuse of publically funded research data is an important aspect of BIOCLIM. The distributional data almost always comes largely from existing sources, such as herbarium and museum records as well as the results from previous ecological surveys. More than 50 million such records for more than 110,000 species are now freely available for anyone to analyse using the Atlas of Living Australia. More than 440 million records for about 1,500,000 species are also available from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

BIOCLIM was the first species distribution modelling package. It assists ecologists with a variety of tasks not only identifying climatically suitable locations for particular species, but also predicting invasion risks, identifying where rare species may be found and helping develop conservation plans. It has also helped to predict how species may be affected by climate change, certainly one of the most important challenges for humanity.

A package called MaxEnt released in 2006 has built on the BIOCLIM approach by analysing how particular species respond to particular variables, rather than just analysing simple ranges of suitable conditions. However, most analyses using MaxEnt still use a set of 19 estimated BIOCLIM variables that are available for locations across the whole world. These estimates, available from the WORLDCLIM web site, were developed using the programs developed by Professor Hutchinson.

Since 1984 more than 2500 scientific papers have been published using the species distribution modelling approach pioneered by BIOCLIM. It provides an outstanding example of how publicly-funded research has provided widely applicable benefits. It has and continues to provide a remarkable contribution of Australian science to help to sustainably manage the Earth's ecosystems, now and in the future within the complex environment of a changing climate.

As part of this contribution the ANUSPLIN software has underpinned the development of new continent-wide high resolution grids of monthly and daily climate variables for Australia. These grids are distributed for use by the general scientific community by the Ecosystem Modelling and Scaling Infrastructure facility (eMAST) of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN).

Story provided by Trevor Booth and Michael Hutchinson.

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