A milestone for the Biological Flora: 300 accounts and counting

To mark the publication of our 300th Biological Flora of Britain and Ireland, the Editor, Tony Davy, reflects on the project’s progress and achievements over the past 81 years:

Hermaphroditic inflorescence of Knautia arvensis being visited by a Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax, Syprhidae). Photo: Sandra Varga.

Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis) is one of our most attractive and widespread European grassland flowers. Its floral biology and importance for our beleaguered pollinators, among many other interesting features, are highlighted by Sandra Varga and colleagues in their recent account in the Biological Flora of Britain and Ireland. The species is gynodioecious, with separate, dimorphic female and hermaphrodite individuals. It is frequently used in seed mixes to support pollinators, as its copious, sugar-rich nectar attracts a wide range of butterflies, bees, beetles and flies. There is even a solitary mining bee, Andrena hattorfiana, that feeds almost exclusively on its pollen (also feeding on pollen of a close relative, Scabiosa columbaria).

For the Biological Flora project, however, we can also count Knautia as something of a milestone. Its publication in the Journal of Ecology means that after 81 years we have reached number 300 in the British series (originally The Biological Flora of the British Isles and renamed only this year The Biological Flora of Britain and Ireland, in case you hadn’t noticed). The Biological Flora is one of the longest-running projects of the Journal of Ecology, not to mention the British Ecological Society itself, having been established in 1941. So, number 300 seems like a good moment to reflect more generally on the project’s progress and achievements.

I have briefly reviewed the origins and history of the BFBI previously but, as we are counting, perhaps this is the occasion for a more quantitative assessment. First, it must be said that 300 accounts do not actually represent 300 species. As ever there are complications: on the one hand, quite a few accounts have included multiple, related species; on the other hand, a few older accounts have been replaced by modern ones of the same species. Furthermore, we now also have the first two (independently numbered) accounts in the new International series. Taking all this into account, we can now claim coverage of some 363 different species, all in our (admittedly evolving) standard format.

The rate of publication of species over more than eight decades has fluctuated somewhat, with two peaks of activity in the 1950s and 2000s, respectively, and a distinct trough in the 1970s and 1980s. Bear in mind that we are less than a third of the way through the 2020s! The project has been around long enough to experience cyclical changes in fashion, although it is not entirely clear what has driven them.

Numbers of species covered in the Biological Flora series by decade, 1940-2030.

The original impetus was associated with a move from description to more experimentation in plant ecology. However, subsequently the development of ecology on a broad front, emphasising processes at population, community and ecosystems levels, would have understandably diverted attention from pursuing the original concept of ’autecology’. Not that we do not embrace all of these dimensions in accounts wherever relevant, of course. More recently, the power of physiological and molecular technologies has perhaps helped to re-assert the value of detailed studies of particular species and, especially, their evolution. We now have so much more to information to synthesise. Added to which, the imperatives of conservation in the face of global change should include understanding everything that we can about individual species, in the interests of not losing them.

All that said, the cumulative number of species covered over eight decades shows that overall progress has been remarkably consistent, with an average of 4.4 species each year.

Cumulative number of species covered in the Biological Flora series, 1941-2022. The red regression line represents an average rate of 4.4 species/year.

The early accounts were very thin by modern standards, some bordering on skeletal. In truth they were always intended as ‘interim’ reports to highlight gaps in knowledge. As the amount and accessibility of material for inclusion in accounts has mushroomed, so have their size, complexity and completeness. The surprisingly consistent rate of production therefore conceals a huge increase in the rate of information being published.

The contemporary relevance of the project is exemplified by recent accounts emphasising globally invasive species, others susceptible to changing threats from pathogens or pests, and those whose survival or range is otherwise likely to be affected by climate change. Clearly, we are never going include all plant species, not even just the few in Britain and Ireland. So I will desist from extrapolations from our current rate of production. Suffice it to say that international enthusiasm for the project has never been greater. We have the new international series – and a majority of contributing authors to both series is neither British nor Irish these days!

As I write, BFBI No. 301 dealing with the remarkable mycoheterotrophic orchid Neottia nidus-avis is already online. You can find all published accounts at the Biological Flora database. If you are interested in contributing an account of your remarkable species, contact Tony Davy, the Editor: a.davy@uea.ac.uk

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