What’s in a name?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the data ecologists collect moves through organisations and influences the decision-making process (see the chain of three posts starting with “The human ecosystem of environmental management“). And I’ve returned to that subject whilst preparing for a workshop in Cardiff where we are starting to put together an online Flora of the freshwater diatoms of Britain and Ireland. The project is being co-ordinated by Ingrid Jüttner of the National Museum of Wales, with financial support from the British Phycological Society.   It is a big task, because so many new species of diatom have been described over the past twenty years or so, and many existing species have been shuffled into different genera. The current situation is, frankly, bewildering for the frontline ecologists who have to analyse samples from around the country as part of ongoing assessments of river health.

The problem I’ve been addressing in my posts could be summarised as the ecology of information. An ecologist stands in a stream or (more likely) sits in a laboratory processing samples. S/he finds a preponderance of organisms that are indicative of a polluted river. How does that observation then move through the organisation and influence a decision on the management of that river?   My earlier posts considered this in very general terms; now I want to look in more detail at the issues concerning recording biological data, because the first step a frontline biologist takes after completing a survey or analysing a sample is to add the results to a computer database. But this is where the complications start.

Most of the identification literature written before about 1990 included a common species called Synedra ulna.   Since this time, however, there has been a dispute about the correct name of this species (summarised in the paper referenced below).   The widespread view now is that the correct name (albeit based on a rather pedantic interpretation of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature) is Ulnaria ulna.   The species is the same; only the name has changed. This debate was continuing as we put together the current UK assessment tool, DARLEQ, and we adopted a conservative position, sticking with the name Synedra ulna.

This means that the software associated with this tool, and the underlying databases operated by the environmental agencies, all included the name ‘Synedra ulna’ but not the name ‘Ulnaria ulna’. Fast forward a few years to our new diatom Flora where we follow current practice and use the name Ulnaria ulna. Analysts who use our Flora will then record this name, not Synedra ulna, in their notebooks but then run into a problem when they want to add this name to the database, because it is not in the list of names that they are offered.

This is one of the points where the practice of an academic researcher and a biologist in a large organisation such as the Environment Agency diverges. Like many researchers, I have a database where I store my records but this is a low-key affair that is stored on my desktop. It is easy for me to open the file where I store the name of species and add one or two more each time there is a change in our understanding. When a single database serves a large organisation with legal responsibilities, the system has to be very secure and protected against well-meaning individuals tinkering with the mechanisms. That makes it harder to keep up-to-date with taxonomic and nomenclatural changes; more so when budgets have been slashed across the public services.

The problem is further compounded because biologists have to download data from the main database (“BIOSYS”, in the case of the Environment Agency) in order to load it into the standalone package, “DARLEQ”, that calculates the diatom indices. Whatever changes are made to BIOSYS, therefore, need to be mirrored in DARLEQ, else the software will not pick up all the data when it calculates indices.   Finally, whatever happens in England also needs to be done in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as the environment is a responsibility of the devolved administrations whilst the UK as a whole still presents a unified front to Brussels.

In theory, there is a single “hub”, the National Biodiversity Network, which links all names to a code which can then be used in databases across all organisations to link biological data with site and sample information. However, the NBN still needs to be fed information on changes to particular groups of organisms by specialists and this is where the system has broken down.   It is a problem that I have touched on before: there is no single authority for the diatoms who can arbitrate on additions or changes to the diatom flora of Britain and Ireland.   The tradition of biological recording, often underpinned by enthusiastic amateurs around the country, simply does not exist for this group (though it is worth remembering that the current, somewhat dated, checklist was the product of Bernard Hartley, an amateur).

I’m hoping that one of the functions of the Flora project team will be to act as the de facto “authority” that can feed changes to the NBN and, through them, to the environmental agencies and others who use diatoms. I would go further: the online Flora will not, actually, fulfil its ambition of reducing errors during ecological assessments unless there is a pathway through which these changes can be disseminated to the database managers who are the custodians for all the ecological information that has been collected over the past 25 years or so.

This, then, is the ecology of information in practice. Just as a pure ecologist wants to understand the structure of an ecosystem, and how all the parts relate to one another, so applied ecologists also need to be aware of how data and information (the “energy” in our bureaucratic ecosystems) gets from the field notebooks of scientists to the managers tasked with making decisions about environmental regulation. To push my analogy just a little further, small changes in biological nomenclature have the potential to make data unpalatable to the computer programs that “graze” on the results of our hard work. It should not be a big deal, if handled wisely, but budget cuts mean that this cannot always be taken for granted.

Reference

Hartley, B. (1986). A check-list of the freshwater, brackish and marine diatoms of the British Isles and adjoining coastal waters. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 66: 531-610.

Williams, D.M. (2011). Synedra, Ulnaria: definitions and descriptions – a partial resolution. Diatom Research 26: 149-153.

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