An introduction to biological recording

two people examining a tray of specimens collected from a pond

Biological recording is the scientific study of the location and spread of plants, animals and other living things. Anyone can make a biological record, regardless of their level of expertise.

We need as many people as possible to contribute to wildlife research and help improve outcomes for biodiversity.


Nature Recording Hub

Discover how to record the wildlife in your urban environment.

What is biological recording?

Did you know that every time you spot a bird, a butterfly, or a flower, you can contribute to valuable wildlife research? This is called biological recording - the scientific study of the location and spread of plants, animals and other living things.

The UK has a rich history of biological recording as people have been recording their observations of wildlife for hundreds of years.  

Anyone and everyone can make a biological record: from beginners to experts. Recording wildlife that you have seen is a really valuable way to contribute to the understanding of the natural world, particularly as we are in an era of rapid ecological change due to habitat loss and climate change. 

You can make a record even if you don’t know the exact species name of what you have seen. Sometimes, identifying the group or family that it belongs to (for example: a newt, rather than a great crested newt), or taking a good photograph, is enough.

If you are not sure how to identify something from a guide or book, you can ask for help from other naturalists online. There are many social media groups and pages, such as on Facebook and Twitter where you can post a photo and get feedback. For example, the NHM UK Biodiversity Facebook group has over 14,000 members who help each other with identifying wildlife.

It is important to record even common species you may see regularly. These are often under-recorded, and so changes in their abundance and distribution may not be noticeable until it’s too late. They can also be used as a baseline from which to monitor changes in other species and habitats. For example, declines in common birds or insects can indicate habitat loss, pollution, or climate change.

Two people photographing plants

Photos are a great way to help experts verify what you've found

How to make a biological record

A biological record is composed of four key components that you must submit: Who, What, Where and When. Often, you can also add additional information.

The four key parts of a biological record

🧍 Who?

Who is making the record? (your name or the name of the person you are submitting the record for) 

🔍 What?

What did you record? Include as much information as you can provide:

  • The species name, if you can identify it to species level. If not, just identifying it to the group or family (eg bat/newt) is still useful.

If you can, see if you can record this bonus information:

  • The number of organisms you recorded (abundance)
  • Sex
  • Life stage, such as adult/juvenile/larvae
  • Scientific name

A photo is one of the best ways to collect a lot of this information, or it can be used to ask experts for help with identification. 

⌚ When?

The date you recorded it, as well as the time of day if this information would be useful in relation to the species (such as nocturnal species).

🌐 Where?

 Exactly where did you record it?

  • Include a six or eight figure grid reference/what3words location if possible
  • You can also pinpoint the location on a map when you use some apps or websites to submit records
  • It may also be useful to record the habitat, microhabitat or environmental conditions

Additional information for a record

It is also sometimes useful to include some extra information around How you made your observations. This could include:

  • The way in which you recorded the species (for example if you used a moth trap or a pitfall trap)
  • The number of times you surveyed for the species
  • Recorder experience or the identification guide you used

The importance of these extra things will vary depending on the group you are recording. 

Most recording forms or apps you are likely to use will make sure you include these four or five key things automatically. However, if you are making records in a notebook or nature journal to be copied into an online form or app later, make sure you note these key things down. 

Where to send your biological records

Sharing your records is vital for scientists and conservationists to track trends and plan actions to support nature.

You can submit your records to national recording schemes, which are run by organisations such as the Bat Conservation Trust or RSPB. These schemes may involve surveys that are repeated every year over a specific period, such as the Big Garden Bird Watch or the New Year Plant Hunt. They may also accept records that are collected throughout the year, such as the Garden Butterfly Survey or the Living With Mammals Survey.

If you are recording wildlife casually and your records do not match any of these schemes, you can send them to your Local Environmental Records Centre (LERC), or upload them to a database using an app or website such as iRecord or iNaturalist. These tools can also help you to identify what you have recorded if you submit a photo.

For more information, see our article on How to share and explore wildlife records online.

Two people examining leaf litter

Monitoring wildlife can help you plan how to manage your community space

Pooling projects for your group or area

On iRecord you can set up ‘activities’ and on iNaturalist you can start projects for your community group or green space. This means you can gather records from many people for one place or project, so they are pooled in one place whilst also contributing to a national database. If you want to create a project for your community garden, park or just monitor the birds recorded on your street with your neighbours, this is a very useful feature. This can help you track local wildlife long-term and spot trends to inform management of the space.

Verification of your biological records

Once records have been sent to the relevant recording scheme or app, they will be checked by someone with relevant experience. This is called ‘verification’ and means that the record is either accepted or not accepted based on the information provided.

Verification is based on things like recorder experience, difficulty of identification and any good quality photos provided. If your record is not verified on iRecord or iNaturalist, it will not disappear and you will still be able to see it in your list of submitted records. It does not necessarily mean it is incorrect; just that not quite enough information was provided for the record to be used for research at a higher level. 

Accepted records are fed into national databases such as the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas. Organisations like the NBN will share the data with lots of different people and researchers to help paint a picture of the state of wildlife in the UK. Your records will therefore be contributing to meaningful research and conservation which can help to improve outcomes for nature - so thank you! 

Want to learn more about biological recording?