Ecology is inherently cross-disciplinary, drawing together many types of information to address questions about the natural world. Finding and integrating relevant data to assist in these analyses is crucial, but is difficult owing to ambiguous terminology and the lack of sufficient information about datasets. Ontologies provide a formal mechanism for defining terms and their relationships, and can improve the location, interpretation and integration of data based on its inherent meaning. Ontologies have assisted other disciplines (e.g. molecular biology) in unifying and enriching descriptions of data, and ecology can benefit from similar approaches. We review ontology efforts in ecology, and describe how these can benefit research by enhancing the location and interpretation of relevant data for confronting crucial ecological questions.