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popler is the R package to browse and query the popler data base. popler is a PostgreSQL data base that contains population-level datasets from the US long term ecological research (LTER) network. This package is currently only available on GitHub, but our ultimate goal is to submit it to CRAN. A detailed explanation on the structure of the popler online database is contained in the dratf of the manuscript presenting popler and in the dedicated vignette. The popler database is organized around four types of tables:

A. The tables containing information on population abundance. Population abundance can be of five types: count, biomass, cover, density, and at the individual-level.

B. A table containg to link each abundance value to the taxonomic units it refers to. In popler, “taxonomic unit” generally refers to a species.

C. The location of each “site”. With “site” we refers to the largest spatial replicate available for a dataset. Many datasets provide abundance data from more than one site.

D. Metadata information referring to each separate dataset.

Popler rationale

The package popler aims to facilitate finding, retrieving, and using time-series data of population abundance associated with the US LTER network. To find datasets, the functions in popler aid in understanding and browsing the metadata information referring to each dataset. To retrieve data, the function pplr_get_data() downloads single datasets or groups of datasets. These downloads share the same data structure. To use downloaded data, the package provides ancillary functions to consult and cite the original data sources, examine the temporal replication of each data set, and methods for a couple of dplyr verbs to assist with data manipulation.


# Install stable version once on CRAN (hopefully soon!)

# Install development version now
if(!require(devtools, quietly = TRUE)) {


All exported functions in the popler R package use the pplr_ prefix. Moreover, the functions use lazy and/or tidy evaluation, meaning you do not need to manually quote most inputs.

Finding datasets

Dictionary of variables

We suggest to start exploring the metadata variables describing each dataset in popler using pplr_dictionary(). This function works in two ways:

  1. It provides a general description of each metadata variable. This happens when this function is called without arguments; for example, when calling pplr_dictionary().
  2. It provides the possible values of its unquoted arguments. For example, when calling pplr_dictionary( proj_metadata_key ).

The output of pplr_dictionary() is a data frame showing a description of each metadata variable.

However, this function is more powerful when used with an argument. When pplr_dictionary() is provided with the name of a metadata variable, it returns the possible unique values of the variable. For example, providing datatype shows that popler contains five types of abundance data:

pplr_dictionary( datatype )

Additionally, the pplr_report_dictionary() function generates an Rmd file and renders it into html. This html contains both the meaning of variables, and their unique values.

Browsing popler

Once you are familiar with the meaning and content of popler’s metadata variables, pplr_browse() provides the metadata of the studies contained in popler. pplr_browse() also works with and without an input. Without input, the function produces a data frame including the metadata variables describing every study currently contained in the popler database. Note that this data frame is a tbl that inherits from the browse class. Inputs to pplr_browse() allow users to subset this data frame (e.g. duration_years > 5). When subsetting, the unique values provided by pplr_dictionary() are particularly useful. For more nuanced subsetting of available datasets, the keyword argument allows to subset variables using partial matching. Note that keyword will act primarily on information contained in the title of studies.

all_studies <- pplr_browse()

# do not quote logical expressions
long_studies <- pplr_browse(duration_years > 20) 

# keyword is quoted
parasite_studies <- pplr_browse(keyword = 'parasite') 

The default settings of both pplr_browse() and pplr_dictionary() report a subset of the metadata variables contained in popler. To report all variables, set full_tbl = TRUE.

#  vars are quoted
interesting_studies <- pplr_browse(vars = c('duration_years', 'lterid')) 

# Use full_tbl = TRUE to get a table with all possible variables
all_studies_and_vars <- pplr_browse(full_tbl = TRUE)
Reporting metadata

You can generate a human-readable report on metadata variables of the projects you subset using pplr_browse by providing the function with the argument report = TRUE . This argument uses rmarkdown to render the metadata into an html file, and opens it into your default browser. Alternatively, you can perform the same action described above by providing the browse object produced calling pplr_browse to the function pplr_report_metadata().

# generate metadata report for all studies
# alternatively
all_studies <- pplr_browse()

# generate metadata report for parasite studies
pplr_browse(keyword = 'parasite', report = TRUE)
parasite_studies <- pplr_browse(keyword = 'parasite') 
# alternatively

Retrieving data

Once you explored the metadata and decided which projects interest you, it’s time to actually download the data! pplr_get_data() connects to the data base via an API, and downloads the raw data based on the criteria supplied. Alternatively, if you’re happy with the projects represented in the browse object you created earlier, you can simply pass that object to pplr_get_data(). Note that if your browse object contains 5 rows, pplr_get_data() will download 5 separate datasets. All objects created with pplr_get_data() inherit from get_data and data.frame classes.

# create a browse object and use it to get data

penguins <- pplr_browse(lterid == 'PAL')

# unpack covariates as well

penguin_raw_data <- pplr_get_data(penguins, cov_unpack = TRUE)

# A very specific query

more_raw_data <- pplr_get_data((proj_metadata_key == 43 | 
                                proj_metadata_key == 25) & 
                                year < 1995 )

Using data

We provide three ancillary functions to facilitate the use of the objects downloaded through pplr_get_data().

First, pplr_metadata_url() opens up a webpage containing study details. Before doing scientific analyses, we urge the users to review the peculiarities of each dataset by vetting their online documentation. Importantly, pplr_metadata_url() also works on objects produced by pplr_browse.

Second, pplr_cov_unpack() transforms the data contained in the covariates column of each downloaded dataset into separate columns. This can or cannot be useful depending on the objectives of the user. Note: you can also transform covariates into a data frame directly through pplr_get_data() by providing the function with argument cov_unpack = TRUE.

Third, pplr_citation() produces a citation for each downloaded dataset.

Spatio-temporal replication

The datasets contained in popler present many heterogeneities, especially in terms of their spatio-temporal replication. Most studies present at least a few spatial replicates which were not sampled every year. Note that most datasets in popler present at least one additional replication level. These spatial replicates are denoted with numbered variables of the form spatial_replication_level_X, where X refers to the replication level which can go from 1 to 5. The names of these replication levels (e.g. plot, subplot, etc.) are contained in variable spatial_replication_level_x_label.

Once you download a dataset, you can examine the temporal replication of the largest spatial replicate (the site, or spatial_replication_level_1) using function pplr_site_rep_plot(). This function produces a plot showing whether or not a given site was sampled in a year.

# download and plot yearly spatial replication for dataset 1
kelp_df      <- pplr_get_data( proj_metadata_key == 1)
pplr_site_rep_plot( kelp_df )

Additionally, pplr_site_rep() produces either a logical vector for subsetting an existing get_data object or a summary table of temporal replication for a given spatial resolution. You can control the minimum frequency of sampling and the minimum duration of sampling using the freq and duration arguments, respectively. Additionally, you can choose the level of spatial replication to filter providing an integer between 1 and 5 to the rep_level argument. return_logical allows you to control what is returned by the function. TRUE returns a logical vector corresponding to rows of the get_data that correspond to spatial replicates that meet the criteria of replication specified in the function. FALSE returns a summary table describing the number of samples per year at the selected spatial resolution.

Data manipulation

popler supplies methods for a couple of dplyr verbs to assist with data manipulation. filter and mutate methods are available for objects of browse and get_data classes. Other dplyr verbs change the structure of the object too much for those classes to retain their meaning so they are not included in the package, but one can still use them for their own purposes.

penguins_98 <- filter(penguin_raw_data, year == 1998)

class(penguins_98) # classes are not stripped from objects

penguins_98_true <- mutate(penguins_98, penguins_are = 'Awesome')


Further information

Additional information on popler is contained in a manuscript, and in the vignettes associated with the R package.

The manuscript, currently in draft form, presents the popler database, the R package, and our recommendations on how to use them.

The R package contains three vignettes: one vignette illustrates the structure of the popler database, and two vignettes provide an introduction and a more detailed look at the intended workflow of the popler package.

In case these vignettes do not cover your particular use case, you still have questions, or you discover a bug, please don’t hesitate to create an issue.