A database of Indian alien vascular flora

Author Achyut Kumar Banerjee introduces his team’s latest Data Article describing ILORA: a database for alien vascular flora in India.

India is a land of cultural, geological and biological diversity. Throughout its history, India has been invaded and occupied multiple times, and numerous plant species were introduced during this time. Botanical imperialism reached its zenith during British rule with the establishment of networks of botanical institutions facilitating the introduction of alien plant species with commercial values. Some of these introduced species eventually escaped cultivation to become invasive in the country.

The introduction of alien plant species, and the subsequent invasion of a subset of these species, remain equally, if not more, pertinent in modern times. In fact, emerging economies like India are facing the greatest threat of plant invasion, thanks to increasing globalization of trade and changing climate.

A need for an alien flora database

India has long recognized the threat of alien plant invasion to its endemic biodiversity. Scientific documentation of Indian alien flora started in the mid-20th century and continues to date with the recently published Indian version of the Global Register of Invasive and Introduced Species.

These checklists provide the identity of the alien species present in the country, but what about their characteristic features, especially those which help some of these aliens to become invasive?

This information would surely be of value as it would help us better understand aliens and take more proactive management measures. Such data, no doubt, is available for a few of the notorious invaders, but the information is scattered across a multitude of databases making it virtually inaccessible. There are global databases with information on a large number of species; however, they often lack the data resolution at the national or regional level.

This necessity inspired us to start making a database for the alien plant species in India. We chose variables that are important for invasion monitoring and curated data at their finest resolution available from both national and global resources. After one and a half years of hard work, the Indian Alien Flora Information (ILORA) database was born and eventually brought into light for wider applications through our recent publication in Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

ILORA – an overview

The three national level checklists of alien flora formed the basis of our database. After taxonomic standardization of the species names, we were left with 1,747 alien plant species. For each of these species, we collected data for 14 variables from published evidence (literature records and book chapters) and global databases. These variables include origin and invasion status, taxonomic information and general biology, introduction pathway and the earliest year recorded, biogeography (native and naturalized ranges), uses, market dynamics, occurrence records and distribution in the country, and the realized climatic niche.

We collected data from 22 different sources, and although we as a team have been diligent throughout the process, the vast amount of data needed quality check before integration in the database. Therefore we adopted a multi-step data validation process to minimize curator bias, avoid omission error and increase data accuracy.

Screenshot of query-based database search result. All data can be accessed through species- or variable-specific search criteria

Overall, 1,671 out of 1,747 species have information for one or more variables with the average data availability for invasive aliens being the highest among the three categories (invasive, naturalized and casual). Finally, all data files were made accessible through an online data repository and a dedicated website. We also created a portal for easy retrieval of data through a query-based search of the database.

How ILORA can be useful

With data records ranging from origin and invasion status; introduction pathway to socio-economic uses; and geographical distribution, ILORA is expected to assist the various stakeholders who are associated with alien plant invasion research and policymaking in India. Specifically, the data records can be incredibly useful to cater to the need for research quality data on alien plant species in India. The database can be of immense value for risk assessment, predictive modelling, and identification of emerging invasive species. For example, we found that ornamental use is the dominant introduction pathway in India and there is a high number of environmental uses of aliens across the country.

Interactive map showing the occurrences of an invasive alien in India. The states are coloured blue /red indicating absence/presence. Clicking on the white dot shows the location information along with its scientific and common names, family and invasion status

Without any international and domestic trading regulations in place for alien species in India to date, the database can be of particular use to support and guide a legal framework, implement site-specific management strategies and take proactive management measures.

Welcoming data submissions

ILORA, like any other alien species database, is dynamic and open for suggestions and future updates. For example, in-depth biogeographic knowledge from archival records may improve the resolution of the origin and invasion status of certain taxa. Curating occurrence records from other literature and herbaria may also improve the resolution of the occurrence-related variables of the database by many folds.

While we, as the developers, will work towards increasing the quantitative and qualitative enhancements of ILORA, we welcome contributions from the scientific community for further improvement of the data quality.

Users can submit data for all variables, which will be integrated into the database after thorough quality checks. All data will be associated with source information, as it is now in the current version, and ILORA will encourage users to refer back to the primary sources so that the content providers can get full credit and acknowledgement. This two-directional transfer of knowledge will increase database resolution and benefit the users.

Data flow chart
The framework for two-directional transfer of knowledge integrated in ILORA

Concluding remarks

We never intended to create another country-level checklist. Rather, our database contains information on selected variables that are important for invasion monitoring at their finest resolution available.

With the flexibility of accommodating new information, both from us and the users, ILORA envisages bridging the knowledge gaps, assist further research and most importantly, provide a nationwide collaborative platform for stakeholders associated with alien plant invasion in India.

Read the full Data Article: “ILORA: A database of alien vascular flora of India” in Issue 2:4 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

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