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New encyclopaedia to bring life under a ‘macroscope’

February 29, 2008

BROOKLIN (Canada): Free, authoritative and online: 1.8 million species.

That is the ultimate goal of the Encyclopedia of Life project, which put its first 30,000 species on the Internet this week. This ambitious global project will provide the details of every known species — habitat, range, lifecycle, pictures and more — and archive everything online so anyone can access this important information about life on Earth.

From sharks to mushrooms to bacteria, the Encyclopedia of Life will provide scientifically verified information that will satisfy both a grade school child’s curiosity or enable a university researcher — or amateur naturalist — to make a scientific breakthrough, says James Edward, new executive director of the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) project headquartered in Washington at the Smithsonian Institution.

Each species page has a built in content slider that allows you to select how much information you want to see on the page. And there is plenty of detail, including links to at least one million pages of digitised scientific information that is normally only available in the big 10 natural history museums located in the developed world.

“Anyone can access this for free no matter where they are,” Edward said.

Anyone who can read English, that is. “We’re hoping to get translations into other languages,” he added.

In the near future, there will be regional editions of the EOL: EOL Columbia or EOL Netherlands, with all information in Spanish and Dutch and provided by local experts.

Unlike traditional encyclopaedias, EOL will be interactive and continually updated. Indeed, it has the potential to become a powerful investigative tool on its own. If the public participates, the EOL could become a global species monitoring system to track responses to climate change.

Around the world, species’ habitats are altering dramatically, forcing birds to migrate sooner, or becoming to dry or too hot to support certain plants. There is no chance the scientific community can keep pace with the speed and breadth of these changes. The only possible way is through observations by non-scientists who can check the EOL to see if that frog they saw this morning is in its normal habitat or has shifted its range.

“If someone in Ecuador sees a frog they’ve never seen before, they can quickly check the EOL to see if it’s endemic or from neighbouring countries. If not, then it may be a new species,” said James Hanken, director of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and chair of the EOL Steering Committee.

So many species are going extinct before they can even be identified, but the EOL will make it much easier to identify them, Hanken said.

“We can’t protect things (species/habitat) without knowing what is there,” he said.

In a few months’ time, species experts will be happy to receive information — pictures, videos, text — from the public about their observations. The EOL will have a form to complete which will be reviewed, checked and if warranted, incorporated into the EOL.

Right now Edward, Hanken and others would like people to tell them what they think about the EOL as it currently stands. Suggestions and ideas are welcome about anything from the page structure to the font colours, said Edwards.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the EOL is the notion that it is a macroscope — the opposite of the common microscope. As such, the EOL will offer the biggest picture yet of the Earth’s amazing biodiversity. It will make visible patterns previously unseen, illuminate relationships, and identify knowledge gaps.

It could map the distribution of human disease vectors, such as crows, mosquitoes and the West Nile virus. Life spans of related species could be compared to understand what truly governs longevity. With the mysterious, ongoing loss of honey bee populations, the EOL could point the way to alternative pollinators.

It will hopefully revolutionise teaching and learning of the life sciences. And such a revolution is urgently needed.

Better understanding of biodiversity — the sum total of living, interacting species — is critical to the survival of humans, who too often ignore the vital services that other species provide. There is no oxygen for us to breathe without plants. No plants also means no food. Trees clean water and air, regulate temperature and prevent flooding and much more. However, the world is in the midst of an extinction crisis with one species vanishing every three hours. And the rate is accelerating.

It will take a decade to complete the EOL and perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 existing species will have gone extinct before it’s complete. Up to 30 per cent of all species on Earth are likely to vanish by 2050 due to unsustainable human activities, according to the 2006 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

Scientists do not know how many species are “enough” to keep ecosystems that we depend on functioning. Recent research reported last November, shows that if a forest loses too many unique species, it can reduce the total number of plants in that forest by half.

It’s a sobering finding: some species are irreplaceable, but we don’t know what they are.

“We hope the EOL will spark a new generation of budding biologists and will help people develop a better appreciation of the natural world,” said Hanken.

—Dawn/IPS News Service