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What is new?
Software development and data transfer
Data Observations
Taxonomy and Nomenclature used

The release of Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants Edition 6 (RFK6) represents another significant milestone in the development of this information system for identifying and learning about plants in Australian tropical rainforests. Each edition of the system since 1971 has made significant advances in the coverage of plant groups, the numbers of species included, the effectiveness of the identification system, and in the utilisation of current technology. The aim of this new edition is to make identifications possible and easier, and make taxonomic information accessible to the wider scientific community and the population as a whole.

The development of RFK6 has been marked by major changes in the project, most significantly the retirement of the creator and developer for over 45 years, Dr Bernie Hyland; Dr Trevor Whiffin who pioneered the use of computers in plant identification; the technical officers Bruce Gray and Rebel Elick; and also of David Christophel.

Another major change during the development of RFK6, was the relocation in 2007-08 of the Australian National Herbarium – Atherton, from Atherton to a new facility in Cairns as part of the Australian Tropical Herbarium (ATH).  The new joint venture between CSIRO, James Cook University and the Qld Department of Environment and Resource Management is now hosting the ongoing development of the Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants.

What is new?

Some significant goals were set in the development of Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants Edition 6, primarily to include all the remaining flowering plant life forms not yet included in the system; and to deliver the system for use freely over the internet.

Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants Edition 6 includes 2553 species in 175 families, and has attempted to include all flowering plant species present in rainforest of northern Australia in the following life forms: trees, shrubs, vines, forbs, grasses and sedges, epiphytes, palms and pandans. Some species are not yet included, primarily due to lack of specimens for coding features. Several new features have been added in response to user feedback and to facilitate the identification of the additional life forms.

The number of images in the system continues to increase, now with over 11,000. Most images included in the key were gathered by CSIRO staff as part of this long-running research project; others have generously allowed the use of images from their private collections: Stan Breeden, Bill Cooper, Andrew Ford, Penny Goulter, Mick Godwin, Bruce Gray, Barry Jago, Garry Sankowsky, Andrew Small, Geoff Stocker and Heather Windsor.

All rainforest orchids are included in a dedicated orchid module (Australian Tropical Rainforest Orchids) now also delivered online. The need for a separate module was due to the unique morphology of the Orchidaceae family and the distinct set of features required for effective identification to species level. Nine species of orchid have been included within RFK6, mainly terrestrial species that reach more than one metre in height, or climbers.

Similarly, the ferns are currently under development as a separate module, Australian Tropical Rainforest Ferns. Again, the unique morphology, terminology and features required for effective identification of ferns have dictated that a stand-alone module be developed.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest significance in regards to new and novel features, is the delivery of the identification and  information system in the widely familiar Lucid software package, and also running free on the internet. The desire to deploy the system over the internet has been one of the main drivers for the need to transfer the identification key component to Lucid.

Software development and data transfer

The Centre for Biological Information Technology (CBIT) located at the University of Queensland, initially developed the Lucid software package in 2000 for the purposes of knowledge management and interactive identification tools.

One of the unique features of the extensive dataset behind Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants compared with other interactive identification systems, is that data observations are vouchered by specimens in the herbarium. The need to retain this specimen-based coding during the conversion to Lucid software required programming modifications be conducted by the CBIT team, in particular Matt Taylor and Damian Barnier. Previous editions of Lucid accommodated coding entered and managed at the taxon level.  The recent modifications enable entry of coding for multiple specimens within a taxon. During deployment of the key the coded data at specimen level is aggregated together to form the coding for the taxon used in the interactive identification key.

Trevor Whiffin provided assistance in preparing and compiling the coding data from the previous software system for conversion to Lucid, and conducted numerous verification tests on the transferred data.


A more detailed description of the history of Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants is available. It is worth reiterating several key points here.

The first two generations of the identification system were card keys, published in 1971 and 1982.  Each subsequent edition in 1993, 2000 and 2003 utilised current computer technology to deliver the best identification system possible with the most information in the form of images and descriptions. At each step in this history, the increased demands for numbers of taxa, features and images to illustrate taxa, has partly been dictated by the technology available.  Efforts have been made to keep up-to-date with changes and upgrades in technology, which have been deployed to enhance Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants as a useful tool

Data Observations

Collection, preservation, careful dissection and observation of specimens is of great importance now, as it has been throughout the history of this project.  The use of voucher specimens preserved in an herbarium where all specimens are databased is vital to a large and complex project such as this one.  This project will never supplant the work of the individual taxonomist revising particular groups.  We need taxonomic treatments to define species limits, to elucidate species relationships and to sort out and present the nomenclature in a logical and clear manner so that the literature pertaining to a particular species can be accessed.

Although the specimens and information in the Australian Tropical Herbarium, previously part of Australian National Herbarium - Atherton, were generally sufficient to document the distribution of plants in northern Australia, we are grateful for additional information from the Queensland Herbarium, the Northern Territory Herbarium and the Western Australian Herbarium. Also we acknowledge Australia’s Virtual Herbarium for the capability to conduct queries of specimens in all Australian herbaria at once to assist in production of species distribution maps [].

Taxonomy and Nomenclature used

Application of modern family classifications and familial placement of genera has been implemented for this edition. The aim, as always, is to bring a natural order to the arrangement of species within their genera, and in turn of the genera within their families. Users familiar with previous editions of this system will see updates in the form of numerous taxonomic and nomenclature changes. The changes are a result of a significant amount of taxonomic research, nationally and internationally. Of particular note has been the use of DNA to inform modern classification that reflects evolutionary relationships more effectively. Morphology-based classifications have largely been resilient and sustained, but the addition of DNA to the toolbox has enabled more confident classifications based on common ancestors rather than similar morphology in many groups, and as a result there have been numerous unifications or splits of either families or genera.

Examples of family unifications include: Tiliaceae, Sterculiaceae and Bombacaceae included in Malvaceae; Myrsinaceae included in Primulaceae; and Asclepiadaceae included in Apocynaceae. Examples of family splits include Euphorbiaceae, from which Phyllanthaceae, Picrodendraceae and Putranjivaceae have been recognised.

At the generic level, perhaps the most notable unification impacting on rainforest groups has been the adoption of an expanded Syzygium inclusive of Acmena, Acmenosperma, Piliocalyx and Waterhousea amongst others. This change is in some circles considered to be contentious, nevertheless that taxonomy has been accepted for this edition.

The Australian Plant Census (APC) and the Australian Plant Name Index (APNI) is acknowledged for providing the nomenclatural basis of Australian plant names (APNI) and an agreed list of names to be used for all plants in Australia (APC).

Edition 6 of Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants includes an index of alphabetical listing of taxa which will assist in tracking some of the name changes.


Once again, we are indebted to a large number of people for help and encouragement over many years.  Many of these individuals and organisations are listed in the Acknowledgements section, and for those that are not listed, your contribution is greatly appreciated.

Great thanks are given to our colleagues in the Tropical Forest Research Centre at Atherton, the Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research (now the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research) in Canberra, and the Australian Tropical Herbarium in Cairns who assisted in numerous ways.

We gratefully welcome any suggestions for further taxonomic additions, supplementary information on distribution and images (preferably supported by voucher specimens), corrections and improvements.


Frank Zich, Australian Tropical Herbarium and CSIRO Plant Industry
Judy West, CSIRO Plant Industry and Commonwealth Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities