Website Makes Evolutionary Tree Of Life Digital And Interactive

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Evolutionary biologists have long envisioned creating a diagram, or tree of life, that would detail how different species have evolved from a common ancestry, but the task has been a daunting one for taxonomists who would need multiple reams of paper or computer screens to clearly show the evolutionary descent of each species.

A research associate at the Imperial College London, however, has risen to the challenge and created OneZoom, an interactive website that allows users to navigate different branches of evolution by clicking and zooming in on different aspects of a virtual tree of life.

James Rosindell, from the Imperial College´s Department of Life Sciences, and his partner Luke Harmon, a biologist at the University of Idaho, created the fractal-based tree in order to escape what they call the “paper paradigm,” a way of displaying data that is optimized for the printed page.

Inspired in part by Google Earth, users can zoom in on any point along the tree and see incrementally smaller groups of species. As the users attempt to single out one particular species, say humans, they pass though the various classes, orders and genera that the species belongs to at different points along the way.

“OneZoom gives you a natural way to explore large amounts of complex information like the tree of life,” explained Rosindell. “It’s intuitive because it’s similar to the way we explore the real world by moving towards interesting objects to see them in more detail.”

Traditionally, the tree of life is depicted as starting with a thick trunk that represents the first life on earth. The trunk then diverges into large branches for the many different categories of life, such as plants and animals. These large branches then split into smaller branches to represent groups such as reptiles, birds and mammals.

OneZoom replicates this traditional illustration with each branch leading to smaller branches and eventually to individual leafs that denote one particular species.

Rosindell has also decided to include other functionality within the OneZoom website. Color and animations reveal the different dates and timescales associated with each branch. Search functionality provides users the ability to quickly find the branch or species they are looking for and metadata allows additional information to be displayed at certain points on the tree.

Currently, OneZoom depicts only the tree of mammals, however, Rosindell says the project will be expanded in scale over the next few years, which should coincide with the work currently being performed by other researchers.

“After decades of study, scientists are probably only a year away from having a first draft of the complete tree of life. It would be a great shame if having built it we had no way to visualize it,” Rosindell added.

According to an article written by Rosindell and Harmon that appeared in the journal PLoS ONE, they also plan to increase the amount of detail that will be included in the OneZoom tree.

“We envisage putting ℠microdots´ on the branches of the tree, that when zoomed into, show fossil images and other evidence backing up the hypothesized evolutionary path of that branch,” they wrote.

“A richly annotated IFIG may help make the evidence, logic, and beauty of evolution easy to explore and understand in a way that is compelling and fun. “