Knowing what species occur where, when and why is foundational to ecology, a sub-discipline of biology which explores interactions among organisms and their environment. Our undergraduate unit, Ecology (BIOL227), requires students to design independent research projects that investigate ecological concepts. These projects typically mean that students need to sample and identify different organisms. This is, however, no mean feat. Although students have guidebooks to help them with this task, there are around 2500 plant and more than 300 bird species in the Sydney region alone. And as for those spineless minibeasts, the invertebrates, many have never been formally described, hence identification aids are often generic. While some students take to the task of identifying organisms like ducks to water, others become tangled in a web of confusion. They shy away from research projects that answer meaningful questions, lose interest, and disengage.


Our solution was to develop interactive, simplified and location-specific species identification guides. With funding from the Macquarie University Strategic Priority Grants Scheme our team of herbarium staff, and under- and post-graduate students from several departments, developed a set of resources to identify three taxa groups that students frequently sample – plants, birds and invertebrates.

Our Mobile Field Herbarium contains a complete collection of pressed specimens and laminated images of all woody plants found in Macquarie University’s Ecology Reserve. Many herbs have also been included, as have key species from Stanwell Tops – the location of our annual Ecology fieldtrip. Stored within two boxes, this herbarium can be transported into the field to enable students to compare their identification with a definitive guide.

Interactive ebook

Our interactive ebook, Birds of Stanwell Tops, provides students with a resource to rapidly identify the 52 species we have seen over previous years. Developed by two former Ecology students, this ebook groups the bird species into a number of categories based on colour and size. By hyperlinking to a category student’s can view the key characteristics of each species, as well as colour images and descriptions of their habitat.

It was our invertebrate identification tool that took us out of our comfort zone of natural history collections into the world of IT programming and application design. We enlisted two groups of IT PACE students (ISYS358) and challenged them to build a working prototype of an invertebrate identification app (aptly named Spineless). These students wrangled with SQL databases and HTML 5 code and successfully developed a pilot app. The foundation for Spineless were the hundreds of invertebrates we sampled from Stanwell Tops. With the expertise of undergraduate and HDR entomologists, the specimens were identified to different taxonomic levels, their traits recorded in a database, and high resolution microscopy photographs were taken. While Spineless was a pilot, we are currently planning the next version along with an ebook containing the microscopy photos.

Actinotus helianthi © Alison Downing

Our ID resources were successfully trialled in our unit last year, and will now be rolled out to other units taught in the Department of Biological Sciences, and with schools through our outreach activities. The feedback from colleagues has been inspiring, with our fellow botanists finding the mobile herbarium to be great use to students, enabling them to readily confirm species identifications. Students also found the mobile herbarium and ebooks very useful for distinguishing features of different species, and, in the words of one, helping to “alleviate that insecurity when identifying…different organisms”.

If you’d like to discuss any of this with us (Katherine McClellan and Linda Beaumont), please email us or post a comment below.

There will be six grants of up to $6000 each for learning and teaching innovation projects led by Science and Engineering this year. The project money will be available by 1 July 2019 and must be spent within this calendar year. Staff from other faculties can apply for a grant if there is an FSE staff member leading the project.

Email FSE L&T your approx. 500 word outline for the project, including project title, cost, outputs, expected impact (number of students involved, impact on learning, innovation that can be applied in other areas, etc) by 5pm Monday 29 April 2019. The FSE L&T team are happy to talk with you about ideas and scope. Drop us a line!

Posted by Katherine McClellan


  1. The picture of a beetle: *Coleoptera
    Family: Tenebrionidae?


  2. Yes. Australian Beetles. John L Lawrence and E. B. Britton (1994) pp140.


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