Chapter 2 Museums and bird habitats in Victoria
The Committee visited various sites in and around Melbourne on
3 May 2012. The Committee inspected Melbourne Museum’s natural
history collections, research facilities, and exhibition spaces. The Committee
also received briefings from BirdLife Australia and inspected shorebird habitats
around Western Port.
The site inspections in Victoria provided the Committee with an
opportunity to consider the significance of migratory bird populations, the
threats to shorebird habitats, and the possible effects of climate change. The
Committee also gathered evidence on the role of natural history museums in
collecting, storing and communicating information on biodiversity, and heard
about innovations in technology that will make it easier to engage the
community in issues of biodiversity.
The Melbourne Museum is home to Australia’s second largest museum
collection, with over 15 million objects dating back to 1857. It has more
visitors and research staff than any other Australian museum.
The Committee inspected Melbourne Museum’s extensive natural history collection
and research facilities, and received briefings from senior staff. The visit
gave the Committee the opportunity to inspect the Museum’s private collections
of marine and terrestrial invertebrates, mammals, birds, and bird eggs (oology),
as well as the Museum’s tissue bank. In the public area, the Committee was
shown through the Science and Life Gallery, which highlighted the key role of
both static and interactive exhibits in educating the community about
Australia’s unique biodiversity.
Throughout its visit, the Committee met with and received briefings from
the following representatives from Melbourne Museum:
- Dr Robin Hirst, Director,
Collections, Research and Exhibitions; and
- Dr Mark Norman, Head
The Committee also met with other Museum staff during the visit,
- Dr Jane Melville, Senior
Curator, Terrestrial Vertebrates;
- Dr Timothy O’Hara, Deputy
Head of Sciences—Marine;
- Ms Wendy Roberts,
Reef Watch Co-ordinator; and
- Dr Joanna Sumner,
Manager, Genetic Resources.
Issues of particular interest to the inquiry which were examined during
the visit included the role of museums in providing essential research and
monitoring services for biodiversity conservation, and the capacity of museums
to engage with the public through citizen science programs, new technologies,
and public exhibits.
Figure 2.1 Members inspecting a marine specimen
collection at Melbourne Museum
courtesy of committee secretariat
BirdLife Australia is a not-for-profit, non-government organisation
dedicated to the conservation of native birds. It seeks to do this through the
study and management of birds and their habitats, and through the education and
engagement of members of the public. BirdLife Australia was
formed in 2012 through the merger of Birds Australia and Bird Observation and
Conservation Australia, established in 1901 and 1905 respectively.
During its visit to Victoria, the Committee visited the offices of
BirdLife Australia and received briefings on the existing threats to bird
species and how these were likely to be affected by climate changes. Accompanied
by representatives of BirdLife Australia, the Committee travelled to Hastings,
on Western Port, where it inspected salt marsh communities affected by
development pressures around Warringine Park. The Committee also visited Koo
Wee Rup lookout, which provided an appropriate backdrop for further discussions
on issues affecting the area’s significant shorebird populations.
During its visit to BirdLife Australia offices and Western Port Bay, the
Committee received briefings from:
- Dr Graeme Hamilton,
Chief Executive Officer, BirdLife Australia;
- Dr Jenny Lau, Head of
Conservation, BirdLife Australia;
- Dr Birgita Hansen,
Research Fellow, University of Ballarat; and
- Mr Ken Gosbell,
Member, Australasian Wader Studies Group.
During the briefings, the Committee received the following documents
from BirdLife Australia representatives:
- The State of
Australia’s Birds 2007: Birds in a Changing Climate, Birds Australia,
Important Bird Areas: Key Sites for Bird Conservation, Birds Australia,
- Improving Our
Understanding of Waterbirds in Western Port, Central Coastal Board,
Melbourne, August 2011.
- Dramatic Declines
of Australia’s Migratory Shorebirds—Indicative Data, BirdLife Australia,
- ‘Birds in the Red’, Decision
Point, 59, May 2012, pp. 8–9.
- Stilt: The Journal
for the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, 60, October 2011.
- Birds and Climate
Change, briefing notes, BirdLife Australia.
- Central Coast Board
brochure titled: Shorebirds in Western Port.
- BirdLife Australia
brochures titled: Discover Birdlife; Your Support Makes a Huge
Difference; Your Time Matters to Us; and Protecting Our Beach‑nesting
BirdLife Australia provided the Committee with an overview of the
threats facing Australia’s bird populations, in addition to observed and
anticipated effects of the changing climate. The Committee was specifically
informed about the threats facing shorebirds in the Western Port area, where
sea level rises threatened to swamp much of the existing habitat used for
feeding and roosting. The Committee also heard about the impact on migratory
shorebirds of industrial developments taking place in feeding grounds overseas.
Issues explored in Victoria
The Committee’s site inspection activities focused on the role of
natural history museums in collecting and disseminating information on
Australia’s biodiversity, and the impacts of climate change on shorebirds and
their habitats. Briefings with representatives of Melbourne Museum and BirdLife
Australia highlighted the evolving role for new technologies in effectively
engaging the public on issues relating to biodiversity and climate change. The
role of collaboration and cooperation—both within Australia and
internationally—was also raised during the course of the Committee’s site
inspections. These are discussed in further detail below.
Biodiversity research and monitoring: a role for museums
Natural history museums have an important role to play in biodiversity
research and monitoring. During its inspection of the Melbourne Museum, the Committee
heard about the invaluable resources that museum collections provide for
important biological research. Museums also have an important role in species
identification and distribution monitoring.
As noted earlier, the Melbourne Museum collection of over 15 million
items includes examples of rare and extinct species, and specimens collected
from populations that are now locally extinct. The Committee heard that gene
technology has enabled new types of research to be carried out on collection
specimens. DNA technology, for example, has enabled comparisons between the
genetic composition of locally extinct species with current populations, and
has made it possible for the Museum to identify the source of previously
unknown specimens. The Museum’s tissue bank, in which animal tissues such as
hearts, livers and feathers are frozen for future research, is also
contributing to the Museum’s research capacity. Similarly, field notebooks in
the Museum’s collection can be used by scientists to replicate past experiments,
thereby allowing an assessment of changes in biodiversity over time.
Like many other public museums, the Melbourne Museum’s collections are
available for use by researchers from all over the world. The Committee was
informed that most research at the Museum is undertaken by visiting researchers
from other institutions, supplementing research carried out by directly
employed staff. Current areas of research include: taxonomy, systematics,
community ecology, phylogeny, and biogeography, in both marine and terrestrial
biosciences; and conservation and resource management.
Members of the public are able to draw on the expertise of the researchers by
sending in specimens or photographs to the Museum’s Discovery Centre for
Melbourne Museum contributes to many collaborative research projects and
programs. For example, the Museum
is a partner in the National Environmental Research Program’s Marine
Biodiversity Hub, a Commonwealth Government initiative that provides
‘scientific information and advice to support decision making in the marine
environment’. The Museum’s researchers
also contributed to the global Census of Marine Life, a 10-year project
completed in 2010 which involved 2700 scientists from more than 80 countries.
The census aimed to assess the diversity, distribution and abundance of the
world’s marine species, and created a baseline against which to measure changes
to marine environments. The census also led to the discovery and formal
description of more than 1200 new species.
The Committee also heard that Museum experts provide advice to the Australian
Quarantine and Inspection Service, and contributed to the proposed development
of a national system for dealing with marine pests.
The Committee recognises and appreciates the important work that natural
history museums do to provide governments, the scientific community, and the
general public with a better understanding of biodiversity issues. The
Melbourne Museum’s collections and research facilities greatly exceed the relatively
small amount that can be put on public display at any one time, a fact clearly
demonstrated to the Committee throughout the site inspection.
During the course of the inquiry, participants have commented on the
need for reliable baseline data to enable the effective monitoring of changes
in biodiversity over time. Such data are necessary for an adaptive approach to
be taken to biodiversity management. The Committee’s visit to Melbourne Museum
highlighted the important role of natural history museums in carrying out
research to establish this baseline data and monitor changes over time.
Natural history museums need to be adequately funded in light of the
important identification, research and monitoring work they carry out. The
Committee heard about instances where funding for equipment had been secured,
without funding for salaries to ensure the equipment could be operated. The
Committee is also aware that museums may need to look increasingly to private
and philanthropic sources of funding. A balance needs to be struck with respect
to funding for natural history museums, taking into account competing demands
on finite government resources, as well as acknowledging the public good
delivered by such museums.
In the absence of a national natural history museum, state-based museums,
including Melbourne Museum, have largely operated independently. The Committee
acknowledges the role of the Council of Australasian Museum Directors, an
association for leaders of national, state and regional museums in Australia
and New Zealand, and Museums Australia, the national advocacy and professional
body for the museum sector. The extent of cooperation and collaboration through
these bodies is, however, limited. The Committee believes there is an
increasing need for greater coordination between Australia’s state-based
museums in research and information-sharing, particularly in light of the
national scale of threats to Australia’s biodiversity associated with climate
change. The Online Zoological Collections of Australian
Museums (OZCAM, discussed below) and the Atlas
of Living Australia (a central online repository of data about Australia’s
species) are welcome initiatives towards this end, and the Committee supports the
development of further collaborative projects in the future. Increased
coordination could reduce unnecessary duplication in research and increase the
efficiency and effectiveness of museums’ efforts.
New technologies for community engagement
At the Melbourne Museum, the Committee was briefed on several electronic
tools being used to better engage the community in biodiversity issues and the
work of the museum. The Committee observed camera and computer equipment that
is being used to convert collection specimens into digital format, making them
accessible in more ways than was previously possible, such as through the
The Field Guide to Victorian Fauna is an example of a smart phone and
tablet application that has been developed by the Museum. It contains detailed
descriptions and high quality images of over 700 animal species found in
Victoria. The Museum plans to add
more species and update descriptions on an ongoing basis, and the Committee
heard that there are also plans to expand the application to cover fauna from
all across Australia.
The OZCAM is a collaborative project in which the digital records of
nine Australian natural history museums are being made available online. This
aggregation of museum records means that data is available to researchers and
members of the public Australia-wide, beyond the geographic regions covered by
individual museums. The OZCAM has also contributed data to the Atlas of Living
Australia, and to significant international initiatives such as the Global Biodiversity
Information Facility and the Ocean Biogeographic Information System.
The Committee was impressed by the range and quality of interactive
exhibits at ‘Wild’, a current exhibition in the Science and Life Gallery of the
Melbourne Museum’s public area. The exhibition features more than 750 preserved
animals from around the world, a sample of the Museum’s
vast zoological collection. The Committee inspected moveable touch screen
devices that present images and video of each species, supplemented by information
on conservation and the impacts of climate change and human activity. The
Committee also inspected an interactive ‘touch table’ display that illustrates
the migration of red-necked stints from Victoria to their breeding grounds in
Siberia, highlighting the importance of adequate food supplies and habitat
along the migration path to ensure the birds successfully make the journey. The
Committee heard that the Museum aims to get the general public, particularly
young people, interested in and excited about species, and therefore to improve
their appreciation and understanding of the importance of biodiversity.
Figure 2.2 Members inspecting interactive devices in
Melbourne Museum’s Wild exhibition
courtesy of committee secretariat
The Committee observed visiting school children and families actively
engaging with Melbourne Museum’s biodiversity-related exhibitions. The
interactive nature of the exhibitions provided visitors with an immersive
experience and the Committee was pleased to see the level of visitor engagement
with various exhibits.
The Committee notes the exciting opportunities offered by information
technologies to enhance connections to young people in particular, to stimulate
their interest in biodiversity, to encourage an appreciation of the value of
biodiversity, and to perhaps inspire careers in the natural sciences. New
information technologies also have the potential to improve collaboration in
the science community, both nationally and internationally, and open up the
information held by museums to a whole new audience, including citizen
The Committee’s meetings with representatives from both Melbourne Museum
and BirdLife Australia highlighted the contributions of community volunteers in
gathering data on biodiversity. Furthermore, the Committee was advised that the
involvement of these ‘citizen scientists’ helps research and conservation
organisations engage sections of the community in issues relating to biodiversity
and climate change.
Under the Museum Victoria banner, Melbourne Museum coordinates and
participates in several programs that draw on input from citizen scientists.
For example, Reef Watch Victoria is a not-for-profit project run in partnership
with the Museum that ‘encourages divers and snorkelers to monitor marine
life at their favourite dive sites’. Volunteer divers are
provided with reef monitoring kits to help monitor and report on seasonal
changes in species, special natural events, pest species, and illegal
activities. The project aims to develop local knowledge about marine habitats
and species, enhance the extent to which the community values the marine
environment, and contribute to better management and conservation policies.
Survey data, once validated, are made available to others through the project’s
The Committee was informed that Museum Victoria is also looking at
establishing the Victorian node of the Range Extension Database and Mapping
Project (REDMAP). The REDMAP, initiated in Tasmania, is a citizen science
project in which members of the public, particularly fishermen, are invited to
report observations of marine species that are found outside their known
distribution area. Sightings are verified by experts, where possible, and the data
enable observations about how biodiversity is changing over time, including the
shifting of species’ ranges. The information collected is mapped and displayed
on the REDMAP website. At a public hearing in
Hobart in January, the Committee was informed that REDMAP is in the process of
being expanded nationally, with the national launch expected in late 2012.
BirdLife Australia depends on its network of thousands of amateur birdwatchers
to monitor the abundance and distribution of bird species around Australia.
Volunteer birdwatchers take part in regular bird surveys and contribute their
data to the Atlas of Australian Birds—one of the few long-term Australian programs
for monitoring biodiversity and one of BirdLife Australia’s most important
projects. As at May 2012, there were 13 381 registered contributors, known as
Atlassers, of whom 3872 were classified as ‘active’.
BirdLife Australia informed the Committee about the Action Plan for
Australian Birds 2010, which follows earlier action plans in 1990 and 2000.
The 2010 plan ‘analyses the status of all the species and subspecies of
Australia’s birds to determine their risk of extinction’ and identified 238 threatened
or extinct bird taxa. The Committee heard that
BirdLife Australia is using the data to identify the most vulnerable species
and inform conservation programs, by monitoring current bird distributions, predicting
vulnerabilities to climate change, and anticipating range changes.
The Committee notes that citizen science is increasingly being
recognised as a way of tapping into the local expertise of amateur scientists
and the broader community. The Committee is pleased that citizen science
initiatives are being embraced by some of the key organisations involved in
biodiversity conservation. With appropriate quality controls in place, citizen
science can contribute to a more detailed understanding of Australia’s biological
diversity, and related changes over time.
In addition to generating valuable data, citizen science delivers the
benefit of increasing the community’s awareness of biodiversity issues and
engagement in conservation efforts. Citizen science initiatives have the
capacity to form a vital link between the community, scientists, and decision-makers.
Climate change and other threats to Australian birds
BirdLife Australia advised the Committee that birds are good indicators
of environmental health, due to their relative prominence in ecosystems. The
Committee was provided with an overview of the major threats to Australian bird
populations and their habitats, including: land clearing and habitat
fragmentation; altered fire regimes; over-extraction of water from rivers; loss
of wetlands; feral predation; grazing; and fishing practices. BirdLife
Australia expects climate change to exacerbate these threats, as well as introduce
Aside from interactions with these existing threats, the Committee heard
that climate change itself is expected to have, and is already having, direct impacts
on many bird species. The most notable effects to date have been changes to the
distribution of bird species, changes which have been observed in the absence
of any other known threatening processes. In response to shifting food sources
due to temperature increases, many birds appear to have extended their ranges
further south in general, and upslope in alpine areas. The Committee was
advised that the cumulative loss of bird habitat over many decades,
particularly in southeastern and southwestern Australia, has impaired the
ability of birds to adapt to the direct effects of climate change.
At a public hearing in Melbourne on 4 May 2012, BirdLife Australia told
the Committee that birds are particularly vulnerable to extreme heatwaves,
which are predicted to increase in frequency and severity due to climate
change. The Committee was also informed that birds are particularly sensitive
to changes in habitat and food availability resulting from climate change.
The Committee was informed about the significance of migratory
shorebirds, bird species that make annual round trip migrations between
breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere and non-breeding areas in the
south. Under various international agreements, Australia has an obligation to
protect migratory birds and their habitats. Western Port, southeast
of Melbourne, is one of Victoria’s most important sites for migratory
shorebirds. It is recognised as a wetland of international significance under
the Ramsar Convention, and is regularly used by
around 20 000 birds, including around 10 000 shorebirds and 10 000 waterfowl.
During its visit, the Committee learned there are four major threats to
the birds of Western Port:
- Disturbance, particularly
to roosting sites, by humans, pets, and watercraft;
- habitat loss,
particularly due to development and erosion;
- predation by feral
animals, including cats, foxes, and black rats; and
- climate change.
With respect to climate change, sea level rises are expected to have a
significant impact on intertidal foraging sites and high tide roosting sites in
Western Port. Under a sea level rise of 0.8 metres, as projected for 2100 under
some climate change scenarios, the Committee heard that more than 90 per cent
of existing high tide roosting sites would be inundated. While some adaptation
may be possible under natural conditions, in many sites coastal development and
artificial levee banks will prevent opportunities for the shoreline to shift in
response to sea level rises. At Hastings, the Committee examined the succession
of different vegetation types in the intertidal zone, from mangroves through to
narrow strips of saltmarsh, grasslands, and tea trees, all set immediately
against a road and housing development. It was apparent that with even a
relatively modest sea level rise, shorebird foraging in the area would be
Figure 2.3 Photograph of remnant coastal wetland in Western Port illustrating
the potential pressures on habitat from nearby development
courtesy of committee secretariat
BirdLife Australia has initiated several projects to help improve the
resilience of bird populations to climate change. These include:
- Shorebirds 2020,
which aims to raise community awareness of the importance of tidal ecosystems,
improve information gathering and seek protection for critical shorebird areas
threatened by human development;
- Woodland Birds for
Biodiversity, which aims to ‘improve on-ground management and protection of
woodland habitat’; revegetate and restore habitat to improve its connectivity
and magnitude; and monitor the impacts of climate change on woodland birds; and
Birds, which focuses on improving the management of nesting sites,
encouraging change in the behaviour of beach users, and modelling the impacts
of sea level rises on relevant habitats.
The Committee notes the vulnerability of bird species in particular to
the effects of climate change—both in isolation and when combined with the range
of existing stressors on birds and their habitats.
The Committee recognises the complexities associated with efforts to
conserve bird habitats, particularly where shorebird habitats face additional
pressures due to coastal developments. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomes efforts
to protect key bird habitats and to build the resilience of birds to climate
change impacts. Indeed, the Committee is aware of recent research suggesting
that revegetation efforts can improve bird-related biodiversity in woodland
International cooperation on migratory birds
As noted above, Western Port is home to many migratory shorebirds,
including the red‑necked stint, the eastern curlew, the curlew sandpiper,
the great knot, and the red knot. Many of these bird species breed in the
Arctic during the northern summer then migrate up to 12 000 kilometres to spend
the annual non-breeding season in southern Australia’s inter-tidal wetlands. The
Committee was informed that over 30 years’ worth of data collected regularly by
volunteers at sites around Western Port suggest a concerning trend, with nearly
all migratory shorebird species declining in numbers. Species that have seen
particularly dramatic declines include the eastern curlew, the curlew sandpiper
and the red knot.
The major route taken by these birds during their migration from the
Arctic to southern Australia is known as the East Asian–Australasian Flyway.
The Committee was advised that the absence of changes to Australian shorebird
sites in recent years suggested that the species declines were attributable to
changes outside Australia.
The Committee was informed that the loss of habitat in East and South
East Asia is suspected to be the primary cause of the declines in Australia’s
migratory shorebird numbers. Tidal mudflats around the Yellow Sea are key stop-over
sites for many birds on the East Asian‑Australasian Flyway, and access to
adequate food sources in these areas is essential for birds to continue
travelling the long distance to their Arctic breeding grounds. The Committee
heard that between 50 and 60 per cent of the tidal zone around the Yellow
Sea has been reclaimed, and BirdLife Australia provided several examples of recent
large scale industrial developments on sites which were once important feeding
It was suggested that, although Australia has bilateral agreements in
place with the governments of Japan, China and the Republic of Korea for the
protection of migratory birds, the agreements have not been entirely effective in preventing
the destruction of key stop-over habitats.
Given that climate change is expected to provide an even more
challenging set of circumstances for bird species, the Committee considers
there would be benefits in mitigating other pressures on migratory birds
wherever possible. The Committee therefore notes concerns about the adequacy of
international agreements for the protection of migratory bird habitats and will
consider this matter carefully in the context of its inquiry.
Having received evidence from other museums at public hearings held
earlier in the inquiry process, the Committee was pleased to have the
opportunity to visit a natural history museum in Melbourne. Highlights of the
visit included seeing firsthand the scope of the Melbourne Museum’s collections
and research facilities, and hearing about how technological advances are
changing the way in which the museum conducts its research and engages with
visitors and the general public.
Noting the importance of birds as key indicators of environmental
health, the Committee appreciated the opportunity to inspect key shorebird
habitat in Western Port. The site inspection highlighted the vulnerability of
birds to existing threats and the anticipated effects of climate change.
The Committee wishes to record its thanks to Melbourne Museum and
BirdLife Australia, whose representatives provided invaluable assistance and
information throughout the Committee’s site inspections in Victoria.