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Online Encyclopedia Expands Its Content

August 24, 2009

A free online collaborative encyclopedia which aims to document all of the 1.8 million living species known to science has hit 170,000 entries so far and is helping research into many things, including aging, climate change, and the spread of insect pests.

In 2007, the website “Encyclopedia of Life” was first launched, anticipated to cost somewhere in the ballpark of $100 million. It is compiled from existing databases and from contributions from experts as well as non-experts across the globe. The aim is to build an “infinitely expandable” page for each species with video, sound, images, and graphics within 10 years.

“We’re picking up speed,” James Edwards, EOL Executive Director based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said Sunday.

Just last year, there were only 30,000 entries of living species.

Edwards says that the goal is for everyone from school-children to scientists to be able to use the EOL as a “field guide” or contribute a photograph or document an observation of an animal in an area where it had not previously been found. Such a finding could be an indication of climate change.

One thing in particular that scientists have been utilizing the Encyclopedia for is to examine human aging, by looking at the broad range of lifespans of related species.

A Latin American bat, Tadarida brasiliensis, has a much longer lifespan than mice relatives of comparable size, which could be because its body has a mechanism that limits damage to protein in its cells. There are also some butterfly species that feed on fruit and live longer than other related species.

“It’s working really nicely, the community of scientists working on aging have adopted the EOL,” Edwards told Reuters.

The encyclopedia has been trying to find a way to help fight pests like moths from the Balkans that have rapidly spread throughout Europe in the past 20 years. The moth attacks the leaves of horse chestnut trees and causes them to become brown by the middle of summer.

David Lees of the Natural History Museum in London and French agricultural research group INRA says that the moth, Cameraria ohridella, “is now more or less throughout Europe and poses a threat to ecosystems in Southeast Asia, North America and elsewhere – wherever the beautiful horse chestnut trees occur.”

According to the EOL, it would help “public recognition and awareness of such invasive species through detailed descriptions and maps, helping to slow their global spread and enable more rapid and effective remedial measures.”

The website was also trying to assist researchers discover how global warming could affect species, such as causing them to seek out cooler habitats.

One issue that many biologists often run in to is that when they study a particular species they do not know if their findings have broader applications, said James Hanken, director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and chair of the EOL Steering Committee.

“There are often studies of individual species — insects or frogs or bird — but people don’t have access to information about other species in the same area,” he told Reuters. “This holds back studies of climate change on biodiversity.”

The encyclopedia has many projects in the works, such as expanding with fossil species. It has even been working on regional versions that focus on life in Australia, the Netherlands, and China.

The EOL said that it garnered additional funding of $12.5 million from two private foundations that have previously contributed. Edwards said the project still needs more money.

The thing that makes it an even more difficult task is the fact that 20,000 new species are described every year, and there are approximately 100 million species on the planet.

Image Caption: Gulf flashlightfish (Phthanophaneron harveyi). Courtesy Gerald Allen – Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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