Some Rfishbase Updates

Ever since writing the rfishbase package I’ve been frustrated by the lack of a proper API from that would allow access to that wealth of information that is not exposed in the “Summary XML” files from which rfishbase extracts its content. Since writing the paper in Journal of Fish Biology, I continue to receive user requests asking if or how such-and-such a data element might be extracted. Usually this involves a disappointing boiler-plate reply about how the package is limited to the “Summary XML” data and that improved query potential must wait for a proper API from at some unspecified time.

I have been in touch with many of the folks at at various times looking for ways to address these issues. They have been in general keenly supportive of the idea, but I gather that they are largely overworked and under-resourced and as such, implementation of any of these steps has been very slow. Last October another rfishbase user contacted me, who works full time as a software developer. I put him in touch with the UBC team, and he is willing to volunteer the hours and expertise the FishBase development team lacks to help transform the database into a full API. I think this is a very promising development and a nice example of a community effort, but still faces the same fundamental challenges in getting things rolling. So, so far, no rfishbase version 2. (Actually in our semantic versioning it would be the less romantic version 0.3 or 0.4 or so, depending on how many CRAN submits we do before then and provided we don’t break any backwards compatibility)…

One of the more frequent requests involves accessing quantitative trophic level estimates provided for many species on the “Ecology” page, linked from the “Summary page”. The only way to access this data is by scraping the HTML.

Previously I’ve been reluctant to scrape the HTML directly for several reasons:

  • It is generally unrealiable/unverifiable. Without any metadata (rdfa or microdata/microformats could have helped…) in the HTML to signpost that we have the correct value, we are generally counting arbitrary header, div and span elements, followed by some Regular Expression matching, to find the element we want.
    This is error-prone and easily broken by any changes in the html pages either over time or between pages for different species.

  • Second, it puts a much greater load on the fishbase servers. Often we cannot even start by querying the page we want, (e.g. since URLs involve things like stock-ids that the end user will not know and I haven’t located a look-up table), so a single call may follow links through several pages before parsing the data it needs. Repeating such queries over many fish programmatically can create a rather substantial burst of traffic that could slow or crash the servers.

  • It’s slow. Making all the queries takes time, even for a computer. (Though caching, as we already do in rfishbase, could take care of much this).

  • It is potentially time consuming and annoying to code the scaping.

Okay, the last is just me being lazy. Since this particular query about trophic level was a common email request, and as the data was available from the “Ecology” page of a species in the form of an HTML Table, (and hence somewhat less fragile to robustly identify…), I thought I’d give it a try.

Here’s my approach (or see source code). We would follow the same query structure as getSize did 1, and execute several steps:

  1. Visit the Summary page of the requested fish
  2. Find it’s Ecology page
  3. Find the Trophic level table
  4. parse the table.

In code, that looks like this:

getTrophicLevel <- function( = NULL,
                            path = NULL,
                            from = c("diet composition", "individual food items"), 
                            unfished = FALSE,
                            justSE = FALSE,
                            justReference = FALSE){

  ids <- getIds( =, path=path)
  out <- sapply(ids, function(id){
    summaryPage <- getSummary(id)
    ecologyPage <- getEcology(summaryPage)
    tab <- readTrophicLevel(ecologyPage)
      parseTrophicLevel(tab, from=from, unfished=unfished,justSE=justSE, justReference=justReference)

Which has a whole bunch of options just to let the user control the format of the output / target value, since there are different numbers.

Each of the steps corresponds to it’s own function:

getIds <- function(, path=NULL){
  if(is.null( <- loadCache(path=path)
  ids <- sapply(, `[[`, 'id')
  species.names <- sapply(, `[[`, 'ScientificName')
  names(ids) <- gsub(" ", "_", species.names) # use underscores instead of spaces

getSummary <- function(id){ 
  # Grab and parse page matching id
  url <- paste0("", id)
  summaryPage <- htmlParse(url) 

getEcology <- function(summaryPage){
  link <- xpathApply(summaryPage, "//*[contains(@href, '/Ecology/FishEcologySummary.php')][1]", xmlAttrs)[[1]][["href"]]
  ecologyPage <- htmlParse(paste0("", gsub("\\.\\./", "", link)))

readTrophicLevel <- function(ecologyPage){ 
  tab <- readHTMLTable(ecologyPage)[[6]]

which are all nice and short and potentially self-explanatory. Extracting values from the table we isolate is done rather crudely at the moment and could no doubt be improved, but this is what I came up with:

parseTrophicLevel <- function(tab, 
                              from = c("diet composition", "individual food items"), 
                              unfished = FALSE,
                              justSE = FALSE,
                              justReference = FALSE){
  from <- match.arg(from)
    out <- as.character(tab[3,2])
    col <- 2
    adj <- 0
      col <- 4
      adj <- 1
    if(from == "diet composition")
      out <- as.numeric(as.character(tab[2,col+adj]))
    else if(from == "individual food items")
      out <- as.numeric(as.character(tab[4,col+adj]))

Most of these are internal functions of course, only the top getTrophicLevel is user-facing.
The use is straight forward:



or any of the various optional configurations, e.g.

getTrophicLevel([1:10], as_table=TRUE)

(which gives a list of tables matching these fish).

The astute reader might notice that with EcologyPage etc we have access to a lot more (tabular) data in this approach, which could be extended beyond that page as well, following the same template shown here. Just a matter of time and the other limitations discussed above.

So anyway, if you need the getTrophicLevel, it’s available now on the Github version and should be on CRAN in the near future. Meanwhile, I’d certainly welcome other requests (or better yet, forks and pull requests implementing additional data fields along these same lines).

  1. taking the list as an argument – potentially a weird choice but oh well, that’s what I did when I first wrote the rfishbase API so may as well keep it. A more natural choice taking scientific names as arguments directly, instead of needing to start with a which_fish query, should be added one day to the entire package API.