Global Register of Introduced and Invasive Species: some thoughts

This week the Global Register of Introduced and Invasive Species was launched. Here’s the blurb from the website:

GRIIS, hosted by ISPRA, has been developed with co-funding from the European Union through the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity within the framework of the Global Invasive Alien Species Information Partnership (GIASIPartnership). The GIASIPartnership has come together in order to assist Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and others, implement Article 8(h) and Target 9 of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets – “By 2020, invasive alien species and pathways are identified and prioritized, priority species are controlled or eradicated, and measures are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and establishment

The Guardian coverage ran with the subhead “New catalogue expected to stand alongside red list as an international means to fight extinction, by helping to stop biological invasions”.

Invasive and introduced species are one of the key threats to ecosystems, agriculture and aquaculture. Accidentally and deliberately introduced ‘alien’ species can have a huge effect on the places they are introduced into and they are extremely poorly monitored. We don’t so much know when they appear, we just notice when they are there or when they’ve become established. Invasive species can compete with natives, affect trophic systems, bring diseases and pathogens with them which can run riot in invaded ecosystems and if this wasn’t bad enough for nature there are a whole host of human impacts (which means we should care). The need for GRIIS is a burning one. There’s just one problem. GRIIS is currently not very good. Not very good at all.

Current Limitations

Have a play with the registry yourself and it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t a smart resource at all and I’m really struggling to think of who the users of the resource as it currently is might be. You can search for invasive and introduced species either by free text, by kingdom (suuuuuuuuuuper broad) or by country. Unfortunately, the free text search isn’t smart and isn’t linked to a taxonomic backbone. So if you want to find all the current invasive and introduced, ummmm let’s say cephalopods for example? You can’t. The search isn’t linked to any kind of back-end so you either have to search for every single species of cephalopod individually (could be tricky) or… well that’s it. You have to know what you’re looking for to find it. Let’s say we already know what we’re after, in this case the sandbird octopus, Octopus aegina, great! It comes back with two results one for Israel and one for Turkey. Then currently, there’s nothing else really to do aside from check the source for this entry. This source is then just a literature citation. Not a hyperlinked citation. A static citation. And that’s it. Alternatively, you may want to search by country and you come back with a huge list of every invasive species for that country. For the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland there are 1,969 species entries. Each entry lists the species name, taxon author, country, biological kingdom, system (terrestrial, marine etc.), the origin (alien seems to be the only entry), impact (yes or blank), whether this has been verified, the date of the listing and the source for the reference as previously mentioned. You can sort your 1,969 entries by any of these fields but that’s it. Now I don’t know about you but I’m not super au fait with thousands of species names but as the current resource stands, all you get is a species name and the biological kingdom it is a part of. Acanthocheilonema dracunculoides in the kingdom Animalia is one. Or how about Xylosandrus morigerus another animal? You can also search by kingdom or ecosystem but both of these just return a whopping number of records.

Searches can be combined and the entries could be downloaded as a PDF or CSV file to play with in the latter case.

I’m struggling to see the point in the resource, so much so, that I’m worried that I’m missing some obvious part of the site or search option. So who is this for? If you know what you’re looking for, Google will be more effective than an entry in this registry, and you probably don’t need to see the reference you’ll end up with. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, well I don’t know what you’d find here. How many brackish invasive animals have been described in Algeria? (none). How many invasive terrestrial protozoa are there in Bhutan? (also none).

The Emperor’s New Database

Now I’m deliberately being mean here. This resource has been put together by some of the biggest organisations in international collaboration, biodiversity and conservation and the hope is that this is the version that has just been pushed out of the door (after 12 years in development according to the about) to meet some internal deadline. It’s rough, ready and next to useless but a starting point in what will become a more useful resource. If this is the case, it isn’t evident from the site itself but how might it be improved if it really is going to be a landmark in bringing together critical information about invasive and introduced species? Here’s some ideas.

That taxonomy backbone though. Species names already refer to the GBIF taxonomic editor, I don’t understand why it doesn’t pull in more or allow smart searches. The IUCN is listed as a project supporter, why not just borrow the IUCN Red List tools which although clunky do allow some flexibility. I imagine most potential users will be wanting to find entries at a taxonomic resolution between species and kingdom.

Live links to published literature. So we get through to the entry for Octopus aegina and the source information is Galil, Bella S. (2007). Seeing Red: Alien species along the Mediterranean Coast of Israel. Aquatic Invasions. 2, 4: 281-312. What might we anticipate users will want to do with this information? Have a look at that reference perchance? Well to do that currently, you have to copy and paste that text into Google. Every single person who finds that link, if they want to use it, will have to select-copy-paste and search. Why not just link directly to the paper? Or buddy up with Google and link to a Google search? Or even, I dunno, host the paper on the site? I can imagine why this isn’t the case because of IP, copyright etc. etc. all important reasons to hamstring a potentially important resource like this.

Networked Data There are already a whole range of resources which have information about these important species from images to identification resources, fisheries management, population assessments, immediate hazards, risks, impacts etc. whose content could be linked to or brought in. Wikipedia, if you’re feeling saucy (although I doubt many of the non-animals will have a page). Tree of Life if you miss the 90’s aesthetic of the World Wide Web. Then there’s CITES, GBIF, IUCN, FaO resources (like this page). Tonnes of existing material about lists, identifications, legislation etc. AND THEY ALL HAVE THE SAME SPONSORS AND SUPPORTERS. A bit of code here and there and the flat resource as it stands might be of a bit of practical use just linking to existing resources.

Power of the Crowd Where are the opportunities for people to get involved and keep information up to date? Each country has a nominated editor or two but open up the registry for people to edit, submit and correct information like countless other resources do in general but also within biology. From biological recorders to taxonomy database editors there’s already a dedicated community who would likely pitch in.    

Maybe I’m expecting too much from what is essentially a registry but as the resource stands, it’s not going to help fight extinctions or stop biological invasions. On the front line of invasive and introduced species conservation, a wealth of ready, authoritative information is needed. It’s 2018 and I just can’t believe we’re still launching resources like this when big data, networked information and knowledge sharing are widely touted as changing the way our society is working. When it comes to invasive and introduced species, this should be an obvious area where resources should be focused to help identify and solve real world problems.

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