Database catalogues Australia's "invisible forest"

Mixed marine diatoms – transmission electron microscopy. Image by Dr Penny Ajani

Mixed marine diatoms – transmission electron microscopy. Image by Dr Penny Ajani

In summary: 
  • A database of 3.5 million records on Australian phytoplankton is now available thanks to a unique collaboration, with some of the records going back to 1844
  • Phytoplankton communities sustain ocean ecosystems and the database provides a baseline to better understand these marine microalgae in a changing world

In an unparalleled collaboration, phytoplankton experts from around Australia, including those from University of Technology Sydney, have come together for the first time to establish the Australian Phytoplankton Database (APD).  

Published this week in Scientific Data (a Nature publication) the database, comprising 3.5 million records extending from 1844 to the present day, will help answer some basic questions about microalgae in our coastal oceans – how many species do we have, how many are toxic and how will they perform in a warmer world?

"Establishing a link between climate change and trends in phytoplankton is challenging and requires the collection of suitably long term data," says co-author Dr Penny Ajani from the UTS Climate Change Cluster (C3) Seafood Safety research team.

"Phytoplankton are largely unseen to most people, yet they are responsible for 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe and power our marine ecosystems. These microscopic marine microalgae are an 'invisible forest' yet they drive the productivity of our fisheries and aquaculture and even underpin the health of our coral reefs, so it's vital to better understand their ecology and abundance."

Dr Ajani said that the downside to some microalgae was the formation of blooms and the production of deadly toxins, with one bloom in Tasmania in 2012, caused by a toxic dinoflagellate alga Alexandrium tamarense, resulting in an economic loss of $23million.

"We still have very little idea of why they produce such complex and toxic chemicals so this collaboration has the potential to better protect Australia's important aquaculture industries."

Painstakingly gathered from the literature, active and retired researchers, consultancies, archives and databases, the APD is a national initiative led by CSIRO Oceans and Atmospheric Division researcher Dr Claire Davies. The database provides a baseline for all future work and will be invaluable for global climate change studies including ocean ecosystem modelling.

The Australian Phytoplankton Database is available through the Australian Ocean Data Network (AODN) portal. This portal is the main repository for marine data in Australia. The Phytoplankton Database will be maintained in the CSIRO data centre and can be updated with new records, which will automatically upload to the AODN.

Publication details:
"A database of marine phytoplankton abundance, biomass and species composition in Australian waters" by Claire Davies, Alex Coughlan, Gustaaf Hallegraeff, Penelope Ajani et al (Paper #SDATA-15-00180B) Published in Scientific Data, a Nature publication, 21st June 2016.