A Welcome Key to Rain Forest Secrets

Article excerpt

Identifying plants through the use of traditional dichotomous keys is something most mortals do their best to avoid. It's a refined form of torture: the clues are often so cryptic that most of us give up in disgust; one false move and you can say goodbye to an accurate identification.

The world has waited for an easier way, and at last it has arrived. Developed by CSIRO's Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research in collaboration with other institutions and with the Rainforest Cooperative Research Centre, Australian Tropical Rain Forest Trees and Shrubs is a computer-based, interactive system on CD-ROM that almost anyone can handle. It uses simple characters such as the colour of flowers, the texture of bark and the shape of leaves to provide accurate and fast identification of some 1733 tree and shrub species in the tropical rain forests of northern Australia.

`It's deliberately designed so it can be used by anyone with a fairly small amount of botanical knowledge,' says one of the key's authors, Dr Trevor Whiffin, of La Trobe University. `It's surprising how easily someone with relatively little knowledge, either of botany or of the Australian tropical rain forest flora, can get up to speed and identify plants quickly and accurately.'

The system is based on a card system first developed by CSIRO's Bernie Hyland and his colleagues in 1971, who made use of and added to the high-quality plant material held at CSIRO's herbarium in Atherton. It has been continuously improved and expanded since then, with the first computer-based version released in 1993. This current version is the most comprehensive to date and also the most user-friendly, with a Windows interface and some extraordinary and beautiful photographs, illustrations and x-ray images of leaf venation. …