Encyclopedia Of Life Announces New And Expanded Data
September 6, 2011

Encyclopedia Of Life Announces New And Expanded Data


In the three years since the Encyclopedia of Life was first released online, the number of individual species of plants and animals listed has grown from 30,000 to an impressive 700,000, meaning that more than a third of all the planets 1.9 million species are now covered.

The Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) was launched online in February 2008 and has grown tremendously, seeking the help of citizen scientists from around the world in an ambitious attempt to catalog all the species of plant and animal on the planet.

Now, species fact files written by Natural History Museum (NHM) scientists have been added to the new look of the EoL website. The 365 Species of the day fact files were produced by museum experts for the 2010 UN´s International Year of Biodiversity.

Version 2 of the EoL, released this week, features more than 700,000 species pages with more than 600,000 still images and videos and 35 million pages of scanned literature -- created by the Biodiversity Heritage Library -- on more than 30 percent of all living things known to science.

The new version includes everything from Aardvark to Zono (a brightly colored fish found in Madagascar).

“We faced the challenge that, the more information you gather, the more difficult it could become to use,” said Erick Mata, executive director of EoL, in a telephone interview with Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent for Reuters. “We are asking for a platform that everybody can use and make it possible to put life into context.”

“EoL is the ultimate online field guide for citizen scientists,” Jennifer Preece, dean of the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, told The Guardian. “There are many online sites dedicated to specific groups of species such as insects, birds or mammals. Not since Noah, however, has there been an effort like this to bring all the world's species together.”

The site´s homepage shows a changing billboard assortment of species -- a flower, a bird, a worm, a fish, a tree and a shrub -- that can be clicked on for more information. Users can also type the species´ name into a search box to find results as well. The search feature will also work for vague queues, like baby animals or marsupials.

The site uses content from 180 partners to bring all the information together in one unique encyclopedia. The site also allows members to create their own collection of species.

“The virtual collections put life into meaningful contexts from scholarly ones such as Invasive Insects of North America or Endangered Birds of Ecuador to personal collections such as A Checklist of Trees in My Backyard. Only imagination and energy limit the possibilities,” Jesse Ausubel, VP of the Alfred P Sloan Foundation which helps fund the EoL, told The Guardian's Damian Carrington.

The directors of the EoL say they wish for the new site to become a reverse microscope -- effectively a “macroscope” -- which will help users understand large-style patterns. By amassing information for analysis, they say the EoL could help map vectors for human disease, reveal mysteries behind longevity, suggest substitute plant pollinators for a growing list of places where honeybees no longer provide that service, and foster strategies to slow the spread of invasive species, among other things.

Each page on the EoL is verified by experts and has species information such as physical descriptions, diseases, habitats, look-alikes and even DNA barcodes. The new version was developed in response to requests from people who use the site and create the pages. They are not only scientists and educators, but also people with an interest in nature but have no special scientific training, hence the term ℠citizen scientists´.

The EoL also includes more than 93,000 natural history books scanned at the Museum as part of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) project.

“The updated version of EOL offers a great, intuitive resource that brings unique access to content from the BHL,” explained Graham Higley, NHM´s Head of Library and Archives, in a press reelase. “Here at London´s Natural History Museum, we are partners in the BHL and have been working, as part of a Europe collaboration, to create a digital library from the collections of European natural history museums which in turn supports EOL.”

For each species identified by humans, the updated EoL aims to build one infinitely expandable webpage for each plant or animal, with text, images, video, sound and graphics. It is meant to be interactive so that any user -- from school students to professional biologists -- can find useful information in English, Spanish and Arabic. More languages will possibly be added at a later date.

Renowned Harvard University biologist Edward O Wilson, one of the driving forces behind the EoL, said the new site “opens EoL's vast and growing storehouse of knowledge to a much larger range of users, including medicine, biotechnology, ecology, and now increasingly the general public.”

The EoL still has more than a million pages in place awaiting content from partners and members to complete the 1.9-million known species list. But a recent estimate published in the online journal PLoS Biology in August puts the number of species thought to exist at nearly 9 million. That evidence suggests many more pages would be need to be added to the EoL in the future.

The EoL website exists with the help from a global community of more than 700 curators who review and approve content to be displayed. The initiative is supported by contributing institutions from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas.

The EoL is also supported by founding sponsors: the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Additional support comes from EoL members and donations from others around the world.


Image Caption: Glasswing - one of a few butterflies with transparent wings. The colors of most butterfly and moth wings are made up of tiny scales like overlapping tiles. This species emerges with no scales at all, except around its borders.


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