Biological recording FAQ

The author recording flies on holiday in Dorset

What is biological recording?

Recording is a fun hobby that can get you out in your garden or any space near where you live and connect you with nature. MIllions of people across the country note down which wildlife they see using apps or werb-sites. The important thing is to record what you saw, when you saw it and where you saw it.

You can keep lists of what you have seen for your own personal interest but the data will also go to scientist researchers who can then use it to find out how common or rare different speciesd are; compare the information gathered in different years to see if species are emerging/arriving earlier and to plot the spread of invasive species. This kind of information is vital to inform conservationists and decision makers so that nature isn’t harmed by human activity.

Should I record?

Well, yeah of course you should! Get out there now! 🙂

But seriously, biological observations made by ordinary people like you or me, are the key data that all ecologists, researchers, government advisors and just about anyone interested in UK wildlife needs to assess rarity, distribution & phenology of species. Without the millions of observations made by members of the public we wouldn’t be able to tell how rare species are – whether they are declining or spreading, and we wouldn’t be able to advise decision makers on the potential impacts to the natural world of new roads, houses or industrial developments.

Which system should I use? iNaturalist, iRecord, MapMate, Living Record etc, etc.

It’s really up to you and what you feel most comfortable with but I would urge you to use systems that make data flow easier. By data flow I mean that most systems feed data down a chain of accumulators into a network that finally arrives at a central database where all the data can be compared and analysed. The more data of similar quality you can accumulate in one place, the more complex analysis you can do.

The National Biodiversity Network Atlas is the UK’s central master database of biological observations and iRecord feeds directly into it – and it can do this seemlessly because both systems share the same taxonomy – they both use the Natural History Museum’s UK Species Inventory for their name database. iNaturalist doesn’t use the UKSI but it does have an existign pipeline to feed data into iRecord. Other systems can send their data in too but if they don’t use the UKSI name database then at some point their data will have to be equivalenced … someone will have to decide which species in the UKSI is equivalent to the species names coming from the external database.

Boith iNaturalist & iRecord have websites and apps so you can enter data in the field or at home. Them both also have image recognition systems and can offer identifications if you don’t know what is in your photo. Anyway, the simplest way to decide is:

  • If you have a photo of your thing and you know exactly what it is then just enter your data into iRecord.
  • If you usualyl use iRecord because you usually know what you are lookign at but this time you don’t know what you are looking at then you can try the iRecord image recognition and then an expert verifier will usually confirm whether you were correct or not.
  • If you don’t know what you are looking at and you’d like the image recognition to have a go and then open up the confirmation to others like yourself – a mixture of experts and novices who can give their opinions – then try iNaturalist.

I personally use iNaturalist for all my moth records and for unknown things I see in the countryside where I can get clear photos. But if I need to input lists of records without photos or a mixture of photos and text then I tend to use iRecord. I don’t use any other systems.

How often should I record the same thing?

That’s really up to how much time you can spend on recording and how much you get out and observer, but in general the more you record, the better. You can record the same thing more than once on a walk and as a minimum I would record the same thing at different sites on the same day or every week.

The reason for this is that we need as much data as we can get – the more records, the greater granularity we can achieve when we look into the phenology & distribution of each species.

I just record the rare things or firsts – is that OK?

It’s better than nothing but I’d just say that if people only record the first thing they see then we get great clarity of when species emerge or appear in the countryside but we know much less about when they disappear. The arrival of the first swalllow is well documented each year … but when does the last one leave?

Also, if you only record rare things then it makes it harder for us to spot when common species are deckining and it makes it very difficult to assess how rare the rare ones are, relative to other species in their area. Is one species declining more than others? Or is the whole site becoming less biodiverse?

What about duplicates?

This is a bit of a red herring actually – duplicates don’t matter because there will always be dupicates and so any analysis must take that into account by deduplicating data anyway.

Let me demonstrate: if a group of 30 birders all stand on a beach and watch a rare migrant bird they will all likely enter a record for it. That means 30 records in various systems for the same individual bird in the same place on the same date but with different recorder names. Anyone plotting a distribution doesn’t actually care about how many records sit under the dot on the map … and if we did an analysis of how many individuals there were then we would undoubtedly de-duplicate by reducing all records for the same species on the same date and in the same place to 1 entry.

What geolocation accuracy do you need?

As you’d expect, I’d say as acurate as you can make it!

With the advent of phone apps for recording this is slightly less important because the app records to the most accurate position it can achieve from GPS but if you have your own records and they have a geo-location then we would say that anything less than a 6-figure Landranger map reference is fairly useless. We have had 4 figure and they are +/- 1km so it doesn’t really tell you where the thing is found – just that it exists, which isn’t very helpful.