TERN Australia Soil & Herbarium Collection Brochure
1. TERN Australia Soil and
Identifying new species diversity in
golden everlasting paper daisies
Golden everlasting paper daisies
occur across Australia in virtually
all habitats, except harsh desert.
Once considered one species,
TERN plant voucher samples and
tissue samples were instrumental to
research by the NSW Government,
which has identified that there are
in fact 11 similar looking species.
Realising the existence of species
and where they occur is essential
to their effective management;
otherwise there is the potential for
entire species, with important local
adaptations, to decline or become
extinct undetected. Specimen
collections such as TERN’s help
discover this cryptic species diversity.
The collection also enables scientists
to go back to samples of species
which have been revised to re-identify
them. This ensures species lists
from TERN sites can always be
kept accurate, something which
is impossible for surveys which
simply record species in the
field without taking a sample.
Supporting the discovery of new
Biological compounds found in soil,
called secondary metabolites, have
previously led to the discovery of
important medicines and agricultural
chemicals. The TERN soil sample
collection is the only one in the world
where every sample is linked to detailed
environmental data, and the only one
covering an entire continent. This
combination allowed scientists from
Rockefeller University in New York to
use TERN biological soil samples to
determine strategies to maximise the
discovery of secondary metabolites
based on latitude and environmental
conditions. This new knowledge is
expected to be instrumental to the
discovery of future medicines.
Re-evaluating carbon in dryland
A global analysis of the distribution of
forests and woodlands across dryland
ecosystems using TERN data has
increased current estimates of global
forest cover by nearly 10%. The work
is a direct result of TERN’s on-going
collaborations with the United Nation’s
Food and Agriculture Organization
through their Global Forest Survey,
which uses TERN data for crucial
on-ground verification of satellite-based
analyses. The results have drastically
improved the accuracy of global models
of terrestrial carbon sinks and carbon
inventories submitted under international
climate conventions including the
UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.
Identification of species in new areas
In Tasmania, TERN plant samples
identified a weedy grass (Koeleria
mactantha) which was last seen in the
state around 200 years ago. The record
has alerted regional managers to the
re-emergence of the weed which is
naturalised in New South Wales
and the ACT.
In Northern Australia, the red-flowering
kurrajong, a small native tree, was not
previously known to occur in Kakadu
National Park, with previous sightings in
the park misidentified. TERN vegetation
samples collected in Kakadu in 2021
have now been identified and verified
as red-flowering Kurrajong, thus
extending the known range of the
species into a new area.
It is always important to know which
species exist where, but this is especially
true for national parks. Knowing what
species are and are not present helps
with the development of management
strategies to protect them.
The Terrestrial Ecosystem Research
Network (TERN) is Australia’s land
ecosystem observatory and is enabled
by the Australian Government’s
National Collaborative Research
Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).
TERN acknowledges the traditional
custodians of the lands upon which
we study and work and pay respect
to their elders past and present.
For collection enquiries contact
The TERN Australia Soil and
Herbarium Collection has over
150,000 vegetation and soil samples
collected from over 900 sites across
the continent and which represent
every major ecosystem.
Due to the growth of the national
collection, it has moved to new
purpose-built facilities at The
University of Adelaide Waite Campus,
which were jointly funded by the
Australian Government through the
National Collaborative Research
Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS),
The University of Adelaide and the
South Australian Government.
The collection is nationally and
internationally unique as all samples
can be linked to other soil and
plant samples and detailed
environmental context data from
sample locations. This provides a
comprehensive understanding of
the condition of hundreds of
Australian ecosystems, how they
are changing, and how different
parts of the environment interact.
Thousands of samples are
borrowed by scientists from
Australia and overseas each year to
support research in environmental
science, agriculture and even
At a glance
2. What is the collection
The TERN Australia Soil and Herbarium
Collection contains over 150,000
vegetation and soil samples collected
over the past 12 years from over 900
sites across the continent and which
represent every major ecosystem.
The collection is rapidly growing,
but currently contains:
• 55,000 Plant voucher specimens
of vascular plant species present
(i.e. everything more complex than
algae, or mosses and similar). Such
specimens are used for species
identification. The collection
contains 5,804 plant species
which represents one quarter
of Australia’s plant species.
• 70,000 Plant tissue samples,
particularly from dominant
species at survey sites, matched
to a voucher specimen. Tissue
samples can be used for genetic,
molecular, and isotopic analyses.
• 22,000 500g Soil samples for
physical and chemical analyses.
Supported by information on
soil classification, bulk density,
pH and salinity.
• 10,000 Samples of top-layer soil,
for DNA analysis to determine
species present. These are
called metagenomic samples.
One of the most unique and nationally
valuable things about this collection
is that rather than just providing
individual standalone sample records
like traditional reference herbariums,
for each sample in the TERN collection
scientists can access comprehensive
environmental information about
the 100m x 100m plot sites where
they were collected, and also find
every other sample collected at
the site. Sites are also resampled
roughly every three to ten years,
depending on the speed of
ecological change at the site.
This combination of detailed contextual
data and repeat sampling allows real
understand the conditions of the
environment where samples were
collected and how they are changing.
It also enables scientists to undertake
complex multi-disciplinary studies
about how different parts of the
environment relate to each other.
In this way, they can find connections
between short and long-term weather
patterns, soils, soil microbes, the
variety and numbers of different
plants, leaf litter, soil carbon, moisture,
vegetation structure and biomass
and other aspects of biodiversity.
Demand for the samples
Every year scientists from around
Australia and the globe borrow
thousands of samples from the
collection to further their research.
They work in a huge variety of fields
including environmental fields,
agriculture, microbiology and even
the development of pharmaceuticals.
For example, soils are one of the
main places that scientists look to
discover new biological products that
can underpin the development of
new antibiotics and even agricultural
chemicals. See the case study box
on supporting the discovery of new
medicines and other examples of how
the TERN collection is having impact.
The TERN Herbarium Collection is
internationally recognised and part of
Index Herbariorum – a global network
of herbaria. TERN also provides samples
to state herbariums where they
have gaps in their collections.
Another important use of the collection
is the calibration and validation of
national data sets that are derived from
modelling or satellite data. This includes
nationally comprehensive datasets on
soils, landscapes, vegetation structure,
biomass, carbon, and plant communities.
These data sets are in turn used to
support environmental reporting and
decision making, such as State of the
Environment reporting and agricultural
assessments, and can also help to
meet emerging demands such as
natural capital accounting, and
industry sustainability reporting.
About the facility
The TERN Australia Soil and Herbarium
Collection facility is located at the Waite
Campus of The University of Adelaide.
The University of Adelaide is a key
TERN operating partner.
The new purpose-built facility was
opened in Dec 2022 by the National
Soils Advocate The Hon Penny Wensley
AC, after the collection outgrew
previous infrastructure. As new samples
are added to the collection each year,
the facility has been sized to meet the
needs of the collection until 2030. The
facility includes standard storage areas,
climate-controlled storage for perishable
samples and sample processing areas.
The on-going operation of the facility is
undertaken by The University of Adelaide,
with funding from NCRIS through TERN.
12 staff are involved in the on-going
collection, processing and management
of the samples. In addition, volunteers
contribute around 5000 hours per year
participating in collecting field work
(though numbers have reduced since
COVID); many are students for whom
the trips provide valuable scientific
field experience to compliment
environmental science degrees.
Enhanced service for
the scientific community
The upgraded facilities will also support
increased service and products for
the scientific community.
One of these will be the scanning of
vegetation voucher samples. The freely
available high-resolution images will
allow scientists to make better decisions
about which samples to loan and,
in some cases, use the digital
image for their research.
Vegetation sample records and scans
will increasingly flow through to
major national and international data
aggregators, such the Atlas of Living
Australia and the Global Biodiversity
Information Facility, to enhance the
visibility and accessibility of samples
by the scientific community, as well as
other interested community members.
TERN also collaborates with other
herbaria to ensure the specimens
collected have the highest scientific
and collection value.
Another new addition is a spectrometer
for scanning soil samples. This
instrument measures reflected
electromagnetic radiation at 2,500
separate wavelengths, giving an
indication of soil properties including
mineral composition. Many soil samples
have already been scanned and the
remainder will be will soon be scanned
and the data made freely available.
The types of samples collected and
made available is being expanded to
include additional faunal biodiversity
measures. While ants, which are
valuable ecological indicator species,
have been collected at some sites
historically, TERN is developing new
rapid and efficient ant sampling
methods, which could allow ants
to be routinely collected at all sites.
TERN works closely with numerous
NGO conservation groups, and
is open to strengthen these
collaborations, such as through
joint collecting trips and targeted