The ‘Atlas of Living Australia’ comes to life

By on 9 August, 2017

Justine Rogers and Yugul Mangi Ranger Maritza Roberts collecting plants in eastern Arnhem Land. The remoteness of the area means there is little documented data to inform land management, despite thousands of years of local knowledge. Credit: Dr Emilie Ens.


In a new project designed to document species and share traditional Aboriginal names and knowledge of plants and animals, Aboriginal community members of Arnhem Land are leading the way in sharing biodiversity knowledge.

The Yirralka, Numbirindi and Yugul Mangi Rangers of eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory are working with Macquarie University scientists to develop new tools for biodiversity assessment that can be applied across Australia.

The data collected will then be analysed, communicated and recorded in the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), a national biodiversity open data service hosted by CSIRO. Currently users can use the database to perform location-based or species-based searches. As of August 2017, there are 73 million data entries comprising 119,095 species of flora and fauna. The ALA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia License, and as a result has seen a huge 1.4 million data downloads.

By adding the local knowledge of Aboriginal custodians to ALA, users of the data will have access to unique insights for how we understand and manage the Australian environment. The challenge is recording and sharing this information to support good land management decisions.

A location-based search in ALA returned 449 species within a 5km radius of Sunny Corner in regional NSW.


This is part of the reason the ALA project was recently awarded an Inspiring Australia Citizen Science Grant to support community participation in scientific research projects that have a national impact.

To share this vital Aboriginal knowledge and support the language and biodiversity of the region, Aboriginal citizens of eastern Arnhem Land communities (Laynhapuy Homelands, Numbulwar and Ngukurr) will trap, observe, identify and record flora and fauna using a combination of Western and Aboriginal science. Data that is approved by Traditional Owners, including in Aboriginal languages, will then be entered in the ALA, making it available for everyone to access.

Yirralka Miyalk Ranger Djuranbil found some tree orchids. Credit: Dr Emilie Ens

Dr Emilie Ens, a Macquarie University scientist co-leading this project with Traditional Owners, is working with Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land to develop research projects that incorporates local Aboriginal knowledge and Western Science.

“This project is not just about citizens collecting data but about being integrally involved in all stages of biodiversity research to empower community decision-making about remote land management,” said Dr Ens.

For users wishing to use the data, the ALA also includes a spatial portal, which allows users to perform advanced queries and to download the data.

This work forms part of ALA’s Indigenous Ecological Knowledge program, which is making the ALA more relevant and useful for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In partnership with Indigenous communities working on country, the ALA is exploring the role that information management platforms play in bridging the boundaries between traditional and contemporary Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and western science.

CSIRO’s hope is to give prominence to Aboriginal content in the ALA and to enable a greater understanding of Australia’s biodiversity.

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