Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants - Online edition

About Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants

The release of Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants Edition 8 (RFK8) 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. As always, the aim of this new edition is to enable as many people as possible to simply and accurately identify and learn about plants in Australia’s tropical rainforests.

What is new?

The main goal for Edition 8 of Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants was to move to a mobile application platform that is available both online and downloadable to electronic devices. The coverage of the key includes the rainforests of the whole of the Australian tropics. A second goal was to continue adding taxa from regions already covered that had not been included in previous editions primarily due to lack of specimens for coding, and to update the nomenclature and distribution information for all taxa as required.

Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants Edition 8 includes 2762 taxa in 176 families and 48 new name changes. All flowering plant species are included - trees, shrubs, vines, forbs, grasses and sedges, epiphytes, palms and pandans – except most orchids which are treated in a separate key (see below), and a few other species for which specimens suitable for coding features are lacking.

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 RFK8, mainly terrestrial species that reach more than one metre in height, or climbers.

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

The number of images in the key continues to increase, now numbering over 14,000. Most of images were gathered by CSIRO staff as part of this long-running research project. Significant numbers of new images have been provided by various photographers listed in the Acknowledgements section, most notably Garry Sankowsky, Steve Pearson, John Dowe and Russell Barrett. All donors of images for this project are gratefully acknowledged.


A detailed description of the history of Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants is elsewhere, but 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 (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. In 2010 the system went online for the first time. At each step in this history, the ability to deliver on increased demands for numbers of taxa, features and images has partly been determined 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

This large and complex key was entirely built using preserved specimens held in public collections institutions that were carefully dissected, observed, interpreted and scored by trained botanists. Over 19,100 individual specimens were examined and scored for over 730 character states to construct a data matrix containing nearly 14 million cells, each cell entry representing a scientific observation made by a trained professional based on specimens in expertly curated public collections. The investment in this project cannot be overstated.

The great majority of these data was derived from specimens and information in the Australian Tropical Herbarium, previously part of Australian National Herbarium – Atherton. Additional information, particularly for Central Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia was supplied by the Queensland Herbarium, the Northern Territory Herbarium and the Western Australian Herbarium. We acknowledge the value of Australasia’s Virtual Herbarium to this project in providing the capability to conduct queries of specimens in all Australian herbaria at once to assist in discovering new species records, and producing species distribution maps.

While the compilation of observations has been the work of botanists engaged in this project, the taxonomic concepts applied in the key are mostly those developed by individual taxonomists specialising in particular groups. The taxonomic opinions of these scientists, published and unpublished, are critical to the project in defining species limits, relationships and nomenclature used in the key.

Taxonomy and Nomenclature used

The adoption of modern family classifications and plant names continues in 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.

Changes to plant names are carefully considered, and adopted where necessary to ensure names and classifications best achieve the main goal of taxonomy. This goal is to provide a system that acts as an efficient information storage and retrieval device, provides stability of names, and is predictive (i.e. allows the properties of an entity to be predicted based on its position in the classification). It is now widely recognised that classifications built on evolutionary relationships – the genealogy, or phylogeny, of life – are best able to achieve this goal. There is only one genealogy of life, therefore a classification built upon it should be uncontroversial. However our knowledge is imperfect and subject to revision in the light of new research.

Most name changes in recent years have resulted from genetic studies that have greatly improved our knowledge of the phylogeny. Morphology-based classifications have largely been resilient, but the addition of DNA to the taxonomists’ toolbox has provided much stronger evidence of evolutionary relationships in many groups that conflicts with previous ideas, and as a result there have been numerous unifications or splits of families and genera.

Sometimes changes are required to bring names into compliance with the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants (ICN). It is critical that botanical nomenclature be rules-based to maximise stability and minimise confusion. Without rules, new names could be created and used without governance, nomenclatural chaos would ensue, and the role of plant names as effective communication devices would be undermined.

Examples of family changes in Edition 6 (2010) included: Tiliaceae, Sterculiaceae and Bombacaceae included in Malvaceae; Myrsinaceae included in Primulaceae; and Asclepiadaceae included in Apocynaceae. Examples of family splits included Euphorbiaceae, from which Phyllanthaceae, Picrodendraceae and Putranjivaceae were recognised.

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).


This project has been influenced by many people who have provided help, feedback and encouragement over many years. Many of these individuals and organisations are listed in the Acknowledgements section, and many more made contributions in smaller but no less important ways. To all, our thanks and appreciation.

The key is a dynamic resource, as it must be to remain maximally useful in the context of increasing knowledge. 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 National Research Collections Australia
Darren Crayn, Australian Tropical Herbarium

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