In the new Biological Flora database, the species account listings also include links to other useful resources, one of which is the EcoFlora database. Dr Henry Ford manages the EcoFlora database, and tells us more about it below.
The Ecological Flora of the British Isles is a database constructed from a wide variety of sources initially by Dr Helen Peat and Professor Alastair Fitter at the University of York, with financial support from the British Ecological Society and the Natural Environment Research Council. It currently consists of data on 3257 species of higher plants that occur in the British Isles (of which 1972 species, including all the British Natives and many common introductions, have ecological traits entered), together with the bibliography of sources.
The original goal was to make available the wealth of data about plants that is either dispersed across publications in primary literature, in grey literature or even in some cases unpublished. One essential feature was that the source of each data item is given, so that users can check back if needed.
The data comprises information on taxonomy (family, genus, specific name, authority, and vernacular name, together with a synonomy), a suite of 189 ecological and morphological characteristics, vice-county distribution in Britain, European distribution by country, mycorrhizal associations, and associated phytophagous insects and fungi. Coverage varies greatly between species and among traits. The data set is therefore incomplete, and always will be, though new data are added all the time and are always welcome.
Where appropriate we now have links to the NBN and BSBI distribution maps, the accounts from the Biological Flora series in Journal of Ecology, FAO and CABI fact sheets, the Database of Insect Food Plants, and the UK Herbarium sheets. We have galleries of photographs for some 400 species, and descriptions for 1990 species
EcoFlora attracts about 1500 users a month from all over the world, with approximately 50 requests a month from the TRY plant traits database, for whom we were an early data supplier. We have recently had a PhD student and an MSc student working with the database as a primary research tool, the former focusing on the semantics and structure of trait databases, the latter on the relationship between trait data and potential climate change in plants.
This sounds impressive, and in many ways it is, but the database is only partly filled. There are great difficulties in collecting data of this type and inherent problems in its use, but there is one guiding principle: you cannot predict potentiality. This means that I do not second guess what data might be useful and therefore I accept any validated data and let the experimenters use what I have. There are also inherent problems in some of the data that is collected: for example data on germination is collected by a wide range of different methods, and searching within such data is a non-trivial task.
It surprises me that with such a long history of ecology in the British Isles we do not have comprehensive accounts of each species, something that I appreciate the Biological Flora published in Journal of Ecology has addressed and is addressing, although because of the much greater detail in BFBI accounts it will not cover the entire British flora for some 300 years at present publication rates.
It has occurred to me that as biology students need to become familiar with bibliographic databases, they may undertake a range of simple biological experiments in physiology, biochemistry, morphology and anatomy, dependent on the relevant courses they opt for. Could this not be done on a 2 or possibly three year programme whereby the student is given or selects a plant or an animal for study throughout his course, undertaking the bibliographic search for that species and the relevant morphology, physiology and biochemical experiments relevant to his course? Data would be collected for the database, but not determined by it. Over a relatively short period of time the database could become even more useful than it is at the moment.
Some eco-physiological experiments may require MSc and PhD work but there are many traits that can be measured in a more short term way. Simple stomata counts can provide relevant climate change data when we know that we have data going back to the early part of the last century for many species. Data sheets for submitting data are available from the website in a number of different formats but if your measured trait is not in our list please submit the data; we want researchers to submit data on species that they have been studying, whatever the trait.
Metrics collected from the TRY database give us some idea of what is fashionable to study at the moment, but the underlying principle of the database is that any measurable trait is suitable for collection as long as it is verifiable, collected in a manner that is repeatable. And of course it is made available to the world at no charge.
Henry Ford, Ecological Flora of the British Isles