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Putting pollen to work

Palaeoecologists reconstruct environmental landscapes from mankind’s early history or even further back by dredging up and analysing microscopic remains such as seeds, bones or pollen.

ANU College of Asia and Pacific (CAP) Professor Simon Haberle specialises in working with pollen and spores to recreate what the environments of Australia and other Pacific areas would have looked like in the past. One tool he relied on was CAP’s large spore collection of Australasian native plant species that were stored on glass slides for analysis under a microscope.

“It is a beautiful collection but it originates from the 1950s-1960s and is in need of constant maintenance. Originally it didn’t have much impact beyond what we did with it here at the university,” he said. “We found that by digitising it and putting it online, we’ve created a whole new realm of possibilities for research.”

Now the database, the Australasian Pollen and Spore Atlas, has expanded beyond palaeoecology and has been used to assist in forensic studies at crime scenes. Beekeepers are keen to use it to determine the geographic origins of various kinds of honey. But perhaps Haberle’s best known by-product has been the Canberra Pollen Count and Forecast, which monitors pollen in the air around Canberra and uses smartphone technology to alert people to times and localised places of high pollen counts.

These are various offshoots of Haberle’s main research area, which is analysing pollen, charcoal, tree rings and coral to study how ecologies have changed over time and the effects that man has had on them. His research covers many parts the southern hemisphere, with an emphasis on Australia, including analysing charcoal to determine how Aboriginals modified their burning regimes over time in response to changing environments.

His most recent project is working as a chief investigator on the Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, a collaboration of researchers from eight universities who are rewriting Australia’s natural and human history dating back from 130,000 years ago.

Geneticists, anthropologists, zoologists, climate modellers, geochronologists and archaeologists will combine efforts to focus on certain archaeological digs to extract various types of information. They will combine the information into one large narrative, which will incorporate the Aboriginal perspective throughout.

“That’s actually a big aspect of it: Let’s help to change how Australians think about Australian history,” Haberle said. “This work will be fed directly into primary and secondary school curricula as well.”

Haberle’s research often involves collecting spores dating back tens of thousands of years by taking core samples, which he dubs wet sentiment samples that often are taken from lake beds or bogs – environments that help preserve spore remains. One sediment core can trap spores from more than 100 different species of grass and trees, he said.

That’s why the Australasian Pollen and Spore Atlas is vital to his work.

The database holds information on more than 15,000 species and can be searched by name, collection location or physical attributes. It has grown to become the largest spore collection in the southern hemisphere, and its range covers Australia, the Pacific Islands, and southern Asia, including tropical parts of China and India. And users continue to add to the collection.

“As soon as we got it online and people heard about it, they started using it,” Haberle said.  “It’s a fully searchable and integrated system designed to be very flexible and user friendly.”

Through his work in managing pollen data, Haberle helped start the Canberra Pollen Count and Forecast, which provides information to consumers about times and locations of pollen flare-ups. He later worked with the Australian Pollen Allergen Partnership – which is building pollen monitoring centres in Australia’s largest cities – and a phone app called AirRater that monitors air pollution, temperature and pollen counts in the ACT.

A separate use that has arisen for the pollen index is from beekeepers who are concerned that some honey labelled “Made in Australia” could be actually be contaminated with imported honey. This could lead to a research project that uses pollen to determine where honey is sourced.

“I never imagined I’d collaborate with such a diverse range of industries and research specialists,” Haberle said. “It’s a great example that if you do put effort and resources into a collection and try modernise the use of it, then it can actually have multiple benefits and unexpected connections.”  

Research funded by: Australian Research Council LIEF grant

Related websites: Australasian Pollen and Spore Atlas
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage

Related research: Professor Simon Haberle


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team