Frequently asked questions
What is the Ecological Register?It's a public, non-profit academic repository for ecological survey data. It's hosted at Macquarie University and operated by John Alroy (firstname.lastname@example.org). It has a MySQL backend database and web-database integration software written in Perl. It was opened to the web on 1 January 2013.
What does it include?The database includes published scientific surveys that provide names of species and counts of individuals seen or collected in particular places. It does not include simple species occurrence records, which can be obtained from any number of other sites. Counts are required to accompany every single list of species. There are no limits with respect to geographic regions or taxonomic groups, so you can find information about plants and animals from all sorts of habitats and from around the world.
What is it for?Ecological count data (also called abundance distributions) are needed to calculate diversity estimates and descriptive statistics such as sampling-standardized richness, Shannon's H, Hurlbert's PIE, and Fisher's α. These statistics are used to understand how diversity relates to various factors such as climate, altitude, latitude, and disturbance (a central topic within the areas of biogeography and macroecology). Without quantifying these relationships we won't be able to predict the effects of global change on local ecological communities.
What can I do with the site?Right now, you can view references to scientific publications yielding the data and individual ecological samples. There is a map interface (see the links on the home page) and you can download customized subsets of the data. Because body mass is a key focus of the macroecological literature, I have added data and tools concerning mass (and other measures of size) that are integrated with the community-scale abundance data. Average mass values are displayed next to species names on the sample pages, and the primary data are reported on the species info pages.
Can I enter data?All data entered to this point have been assessed and keystroked under my direct supervision, which has allowed me to maintain very high standards of quality control. If you would like to enter data remotely, please contact me at email@example.com and we can discuss options.
Aren't there other databases like this one?To my knowledge, there are no other databases that provide abundance data for all groups on a global scale (although PREDICTS is working towards a similar goal). Most of the nominally related databases focus on individual taxonomic groups or geographic regions, such as AmphibiaWeb, FishBase, or the Atlas of Australia. These databases do provide a broad array of information, but they emphasize point occurrence records and include little or no abundance data in a quickly available and transparent format. The same thing goes for some important, global-scale mashup sites such as GBIF, the Map of Life, and Encylopedia of Life. There are a few data sets such as the Mammal Community Database and the Gentry forest surveys that do include abundances, but they are also quite focused. Finally, PREDICTS is focused on recently published data whereas the Register includes as much historical data as possible. Most of these projects are also very different because they either (a) include only very simple metadata about the surveys even when counts are given, (b) have no websites with integrated database backends, (c) don't allow volunteer data contributions, and/or (d) aren't being updated on a regular basis.
Who runs the database?I created it and oversee it. I own the domain name and hold copyright of the software and website design elements, and the site is hosted at my academic institution (Macquarie University). If at any point I am unable to continue working on the site, I will hand it over to another technically competent ecologist who is committed to making the data public.
What is the governance structure?Many similar databases have a management structure that includes something like a Director plus an Executive Committee. The Ecological Register has no analogous governance structure because it's merely a public data repository run directly by me. There are no finances to oversee, no group projects to coordinate, no legal issues to navigate, and no difficult policies to deliberate.
Can scientists actually own data?Yes, although all of the data on this site are openly available without conditions. I have decided to release the data even though I could retain copyright based on well-established law in most major countries. The reason is that the data records represent novel creative work on my part. By contrast, a simple list of data records directly copied from some other source (such as a phone book) can't be copyrighted. One exception to this rule is that the U.S. Federal Government holds copyright over intellectual property created by its employees in the course of their routine work. However, the National Science Foundation merely licenses works created by its grant awardees and does not hold copyright. In the case of the Ecological Register, the sample metadata are so complex and so structured that they do represent significant creative work. This explains why I could in principle provide data with restrictions, although I have chosen not to do so.
What are the advantages of relational databases?The computer science community is highly interested in data mining topics such as ontologies, workflows, and so forth because there are huge amounts of unstructured but deeply interrelated data sets on the web. However, I believe that relational databases are more efficient and reliable for the purpose of conducting large-scale ecological data analyses. There's minimal IT overhead, and in the case of these data there are no overlapping data sets open to the internet that really need to be integrated. I think it's best to focus on getting the data into a well-designed, structured format from the start.
Aren't you also involved in Fossilworks and the Paleobiology Database?I'm currently running Fossilworks, which is a portal to the PaleoDB that I created in 2013. I'm not involved in the PaleoDB's administration or IT operations. However, I founded the PaleoDB in 1998 (before its name change in 2000), created the website and software, managed the server and backend database, served as the main contact person, chaired its various governance committees, and contributed large amounts of data. I stepped back from all of these roles in 2013 once I created the Fossilworks and Ecological Register sites.
How does the Ecological Register relate to Fossilworks?The table structure, software, and website design are completely new and different. There is no exchange of data between the two sites and they are fully independent. However, there are some broad similarities in terms of the focus on published sample data.