Biological Recording 101: What is a biological record?

Recording wildlife became a popular pastime during Victorian times and, as a result, natural history societies began popping up around the country. As time and technology progressed, the activity of biological recording has adapted and there are now many recording schemes, methods of record submission and types of organisation. However, the first question that any biological recorder needs answered is what constitutes a biological record?

The Basics

In order for any biological record to be accepted it must have four basic components:

biological recordWho – The name of the recorder or determiner.

What – The name of the organism or group of organisms that you are recording.

Where – The location where the organism was observed.

When – The date the organism was observed.

Combining these four pieces of data produces a record of the presence of an organism at a specified time and place by a named individual, also known as a biological record.

Data Quality

The data quality of a biological record can be improved by ensuring the basic components are recorded at higher resolutions: the more specific the information, the higher the record quality. Examples for each of the basic components are given below

Who – Provide the full name of the recorder and/or determiner, as opposed to an organisation or institution name. This allows for any queries regarding the record to be directed to the correct individual.

What – The more specific the taxonomic classification, the better. For example, a record of a red squirrel is of higher quality than a record of a mammal. However, biological recorders should only classify organisms to a level they are confident is accurate.

Where – Provide the highest accurate geographic resolution you can. Using the UK Ordnance Survey system an 8 figure grid reference details that the organism occurred within a 10 m by 10 m square, whereas a 4 figure grid reference would only detail that the organism occurred within a 1 km by 1 km square.

When – As with location information, the finer the resolution the higher the data quality. Providing a specific date is more desirable than just the year of the record.


Additional Biological Record Information

The organisms on our planet differ greatly, some are fixed to a location while others are able to travel great distances. Some organisms are long lived and present year-round, while others have relatively short life cycles or inactive periods that render them difficult to record at certain types of year.

Different recording schemes will ask for different additional information to be included within the biological record dependent upon the ecology of the organism or the objectives of the scheme. Additional information also improves the data quality of the biological record and provides information that may help answer questions belonging to the fifth, and most important, component: why.

Example additional information fields could include habitat, abundance and life stage of the organism. These may or may not be compulsary information fields for acceptance of the biological record to a specific survey or recording scheme.

In summary, a biological record is a summary of four simple data components. Its data quality, and subsequent uses, can be improved by ensuring these components are recorded at the highest accurate resolution and by the addition of any other relevant information to the record.

Keiron Derek Brown

2nd January 2016

Published by KeironDerekBrown

A blog about biological recording in the UK from the scheme organiser for the National Earthworm Recording Scheme.

9 thoughts on “Biological Recording 101: What is a biological record?

  1. Keiron, nice introduction to recording. Now what do you do with the record? One record in isolation does not tell much does it? I assume that a database of sightings over time needs to be built up to get useful data?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That all depends on the record. Unfortunately there is no simple catch all answer to this question. One way you can submit your record, would be to enter it into iRecord ( I’ll be covering data flow, record submission and the organisations involved in future posts.


  2. Well done Keiron – a good clear account. I look forward to reading more and I’ll be telling all the other biological recorders who are part of Outer Hebrides Biological Recording to watch your blog.
    Getting more people to participate is important, but the first step is raising awareness about why biodiversity is important and the role that biological recorders play in helping to conserve our wildlife (and plant life).


  3. I agree – great job Keiron. Personally I think the main problem with recording in the UK, and we probably do it the best, is choosing where to record your data and what is the best scheme to use. There is a plethora of computer schemes out there from subscription to free ones and of course those bespoke/private ones used by local natural history societies and county records offices, not to mention the one we love to hate, i.e. the NBN. The likelihood of multiple records of the same things seems inevitable. The one I currently favour is iRecord but not everyone is convinced that it’s the way to go. Quite a few people it seems won’t have anything to do with records going on line – mainly a trust issue I suspect but I may be wrong. Getting verifiers isn’t easy I gather – these folk are surely vital to any recording scheme, but it could prove to be a lot of work. I admit that I don’t fully understand all the issues but my dream, and I’m naïve, is to have one scheme that everyone uses so that all data goes into a single database that we can all access for free at any time, although I doubt I’ll live to see it, and how would record offices make a living?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for your comments. I completely agree that the system is over-complicated and plan to cover the role of the different organisations involved and the different pathways for data flow. The NBN may be a work in progress but they are definitely getting there and I believe their role is vital for the future of UK recording. I’m a huge advocate of iRecord as it can act as that central submission pathway you (and many of us) desire. I run the National Earthworm Recording Scheme and encourage submission of all records through iRecord. This allows me to verify records through this platform. I strongly believe records should be openly available to all at full resolution (with the exception of sensitive records only). I’m not alone in this view and there are numerous recording schemes that have embraced iRecord. Local Environmental Records Centres still have relevance, but their role is changing from their historical role. It can’t be denied that some groups are better dealt with by national scheme organisers, while other groups can be managed better by LERCs, county recorders or local groups.


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