Bioinformatics Home MV Home


Student Projects

VCE Geography: Unit 3 Resources

VCE Geography: Unit 3 Resources

Managing our Natural Resources: Biodiversity
These projects are based on material that was prepared for and published in Place and Change, VCE Geography Units 1-4, Geography Teachers' Association of Victoria Inc., 1999.

What is Biodiversity?

All life on this planet depends, directly or indirectly, on interactions within ecosystems. These ecosystems involve complex webs of animals and plants living in particular places and attempting to adapt to changing environmental and physical conditions. The biodiversity of a particular ecosystem is a 'soup-mix' of all life forms present in that ecosystem.

There are four main reasons why biodiversity should be considered a natural resource worthy of management and preservation:

Ethical All species have a right to exist
Aesthetic Human experience is enriched by species diversity
Economic Species provide food, medicines and industrial products
Ecological Species provide life support systems on Earth including maintaining the quality of the atmosphere and maintaining and regulating climate, fresh water, soil formation, the cycling of nutrients and the disposal of wastes.

Biodiversity is the total range of genes, species and ecosystems in a region. In other words, it is the variety of all life forms. Of course, no species exists in isolation from other species, so displacing or placing pressure on one species will cause ripple effects on a wide range of other life forms.

Extinctions and Biodiversity

Extinctions have a dramatic impact on biodiversity. Although extinctions are part of the natural order, plant and animal species are currently being lost at an alarming rate, greater than the rate of evolution of new species. By the Year 2010, between 40,000 and 50,000 animal species will be lost annually. A similar number of plants will face extinction by 2045. The loss of one plant can result in the loss of many insects and other animals that depend on it.

By far the greatest cause of extinctions is the destruction of natural habitat for farming, settlement, fuel, industry and other uses. Other main causes are introduced species, pollution of soil, water and atmosphere, overfishing, over-hunting, trade in wildlife and global climate change. It is often the activities of people that are causing a reduction in biodiversity. What is the likely impact of an increasing human population on biodiversity?

Measuring Biodiversity

There are means of measuring or monitoring biodiversity that do not rely on assessing the status of every species. In reality, it is neither possible nor practicable to examine and measure every know species in every known ecosystem. Therefore, target, flagship or key indicator groups are selected to measure biodiversity. It is assumed that changes in biodiversity have occurred when changes in key indicator groups are detected. Useful key indicator groups include those that are easily observed, recognised and studied through collection or tagging.

Information on key indicator groups can be sourced in two ways. We can directly accumulate raw data from fieldwork or we can access raw data that has been collected and stored by others. Raw data from direct field work can paint a picture of current biodiversity, while stored raw data can create a window to the past that allows us to examine the effects that different environmental or physical conditions have had on biodiversity. The information base we create through the utilisation of stored raw data provides us with the knowledge and predictive skills to better manage biodiversity as a present and future resource.

The prime source of stored raw data on biodiversity is in the collections of museums, herbaria and other such institutions throughout the world. This raw data can be accessed manually or through recently developed computer based tools. One such tool is Museum Victoria's Bioinformatics web site. This software gives direct access to databases that store raw data on Victorian butterflies, frogs, snakes, mammals and lizards. It then converts the raw data into information that allows the user to investigate nomenclatural and spatial and temporal interactions for key indicator species and groups.

Introductory Activity: Raw Data to Information Base

How many times have you heard the phrases "If only I had known beforehand" or "In hindsight, I would have done it differently"? Well, quite often such information for informed decision-making is readily available but is embedded in raw data that first must be analysed and converted into a useable information base.

  1. In groups, develop a list of reasons why species can be considered as resources. Eg. Fairy Penguins at Phillip Island are a tourist attraction.
  2. Make a list of species and indicate why each should be considered a resource.
  3. What sorts of raw data would be useful in constructing an information base for the management of species?

Major Project 1: An Environmental Impact Study at Wilson's Promontory

Here is a project designed to demonstrate the value of sourcing stored raw data through the Internet and converting it into valuable information. It will involve both full class and assigned individual tasks.

The scenario is as follows: Commercial development of the Wilson's Promontory National Park is being considered and your company, Ecology Victoria, has been contracted to conduct an Environmental Impact Study on the faunal biodiversity of this area. The funding for the entire project, which includes staff and fieldwork time, is restricted to a three month period. As director of the company, you decide to use butterflies as your key indicator group and that the project will run from January to March.

You instruct your staff that the Environmental Impact Statement must include the following information:

  1. Produce a biodiversity checklist of the butterflies of Wilson's Promontory;
  2. Provide common and scientific names for each species;
  3. Plot state-wide spatial distribution patterns for each species;
  4. Detail an environmental statement for each species which includes the effects that rainfall, vegetation and altitude have on each species;
  5. Provide seasonality information on the adult flight periods of each species over a full 12 month period at Wilson's Promontory;
  6. Provide adult images of both sexes of each species;
  7. Provide food-plant information on each species;
  8. Provide information on any species with symbiotic relationships with ants;
  9. Assemble this information into a report. Include recommendations about the kinds of commercial development which should proceed (and should not proceed) at Wilson's Promontory.

Using the Bioinformatics Website

There is no need for you to spend three very busy months at Wilson's Promontory collecting raw data. (Sorry!) You will obtain much more complete information in a much shorter time from the knowledge base that already exists. The raw data from countless field trips by entomologists over many decades has been used to create the Butterflies Database on Museum Victoria's Bioinformatics website: Select 'Butterflies' from this site, and use the menu on the right to assemble the information that you need for your report.

If you need a little assistance to navigate the site, the following menu options relate to the 9 steps involved in producing the Environmental Impact Statement (above)

  1. Biodiversity checklist: Select When & Where - Date & Location -> Location
  2. Common and Scientific Names: Select Introduction - Name
  3. State-wide distribution: Select Distributions - Create Maps
  4. Effects of rainfall, vegetation and altitude: Select as (3) above
  5. Seasonality at Wilsons Promontory: Select When & Where - Date & Location
  6. Adult images: Select Images - Image Menu
  7. Food Plants: Select Ecological - Butterfly to Food Plant
  8. Ants: Select Ecological - Butterfly to Ant
  9. Report

Major Project 2: Butterflies of Your District

This project will enable you to research the butterflies that have been recorded in the district or suburb in which you live, by using the Bioinformatics website:

Once at the Bioinformatics site, click on 'Butterflies', then scroll down the right-hand menu until you reach When & Where: Date & Location. Click on this and scroll down to 'Location', which provides a menu of locations in Victoria. Find and highlight your district or suburb, then scroll down and click 'Submit Query' to create a list of recorded butterflies. This can be done as a class; your teacher can then allocate one (or more) butterfly species to each student to research.

For each species:

  1. Record the common name(s) and scientific name of the species, using either the list produced from the 'Date & Location' Search (above) or the Introduction: Name option.
  2. Plot its known Victorian distribution by returning to the Australian Butterflies - The Victorian Fauna page, then scrolling down to Distributions: Create Maps. Locate and highlight your species, then scroll down and click on Submit Search. This gives you access to distribution maps.
  3. Plot the monthly seasonality data for your species, using the When & Where: 'On the Wing' by Months option.
  4. By now, you should be familiar with the way the site works.

  5. Find and click on the 'Thumbnail' image of the species and print out the female and male adult images.
  6. Describe the distribution of your species.
  7. Compare your distribution pattern with a partner. What are the similarities and differences?
  8. Hypothesise reasons to explain the distribution pattern.
  9. Create and print overlays of rainfall, vegetation, altitude and biogeographic regions for each species.
  10. To what extent do each of the rainfall, vegetation, altitude and biogeographic regions show a spatial association with your species?
  11. Prepare a statement about the environment in which the species is generally found.
  12. Generate a graph to illustrate any change in the number of your species over time (frequencies) over each year and in the last 100 years by going back to the Australian Butterflies - The Victorian Fauna page and clicking on When & Where: 'On the Wing' by Decades. Highlight your species, then scroll down and click Submit Query.
  13. Describe the spatial change over time for your species.
  14. What factors might explain the change in frequencies of your species? Has there been extreme weather conditions such as droughts or floods, for example?
  15. Predict the future distribution of your species using the vegetation and rainfall overlay maps.
  16. Use the results of this activity to create an annotated visual display and exhibit this. Compare your results with other students' results.
  17. Join in class discussion which addresses:
    • How have butterfly sightings changed over time?
    • How can key-indicator species be used to monitor changes in an area?
    • What do the results of this task indicate about the change in biodiversity in your chosen area over time?
    • How can these results be used to predict changes in biodiversity in the future?
    • Species are crucial resources. In this task, you have used extensive databases in your research. In what ways can information be considered a resource?


© Museum Victoria Australia