Taxonomy provides a way to communicate information about species and their context in nature. Australia is estimated to be home to 600,000 species of flora and fauna, yet 70% remain unnamed. At the current rate, it will take 400 years to identify them all. New technologies such as genetic sequencing, artificial intelligence and supercomputing can help speed up the process before extinctions make it impossible.
As a custodian species of the planet’s ecosystems, we have become disconnected from our responsibilities, attending to the patterns that build the complex web of life. Our activities and waste products are disrupting ecosystems, impacting the reproductive success of other animals. Pharmaceutical waste can persist even in the most remote places on the planet, including Antarctica. But it’s not all bad news, particularly if we pay attention to where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.
‘Plate tectonics’ describes fragments of the Earth’s outer shell that move against, over, and under one another at their boundaries, slowly changing the shape and location of our continents and oceans. The theory revolutionised the Earth sciences field by providing an understanding of how mountains are built, volcanoes erupt, and earthquakes are triggered. But while the theory is now a given, this hard-won scientific consensus represents an historic moment in living memory.
Seals were harvested heavily in south-eastern Australia in the 1800’s, reducing thriving colonies of five seal species to a single species. Today, citizen scientists from every continent participate in the annual SealSpotter Challenge, using footage from drones flying over Seal Rocks to count the number of pups. This count enables scientists like Dr Rebecca McIntosh and Ross Holmberg to analyse seal population data faster and more accurately so that they can see how the population is fairing over time.
Being on the front lines, Professors Michael Toole and Deb Williamson have to navigate not only the changing situation and constant influx of information, but also the media. Michael was not prepared for the media storm – since April 2020, he has had 520 media engagements with news outlets around the world. Similarly, every study on COVID testing published by Deb’s team has been picked up by the media and she has sometimes felt ambushed.