Life On Earth

The creators of an ambitious project -- called the Encyclopedia of Life -- hope to create an interactive archive of every living species on the planet

(That's 1.8 million varieties if you're counting)

May 11, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun reporter

Backed by prestigious organizations with millions of dollars, a group of scientists wants to use the vast reach of the Internet to produce the granddaddy of all biology books.

Over the next decade, they plan to create the Encyclopedia of Life, a Web site documenting all 1.8 million known species of organisms on Earth -- at an estimated cost of $100 million.

Each organism, from aardvark to zebra, will have its own Web page, with information ranging from photographs and videos to logs of recent sightings and scientific data about each creature's genetics, habitat and life cycle.

"It is incredibly ambitious," said Cyndy Parr, a biologist at University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab, who is familiar with the project. "What they are proposing isn't new, but their scope is really enormous."

The site is intended to provide one-stop-shopping for scientists, amateur naturalists and teachers, as well as to raise awareness of the planet's vast array of organisms -- many of which are threatened with extinction.

"The natural world is under a lot of pressure at the moment," said David Patterson, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., who is working on the online encyclopedia. "To understand this, we need to have information on what's going on around the world. This will provide one point of entry through the Internet."

The project got its name from a 2003 essay written by biologist Edward O. Wilson. The organizers received $12.5 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. That funding is expected to last 2 1/2 years. Officials hope to raise the rest from other philanthropies.

Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, Chicago's Field Museum, the Marine Biological Laboratory and several other large scientific organizations are participating.

They have begun digitally scanning scientific literature on various organisms from their natural history collections. They will combine that with material from amateur naturalists, scientists and organizations to form a "mashup." That's Web lingo for a program that funnels related information from multiple sources through one site.

The organizers hope to publish information on least 50,000 organisms by next summer, Patterson said.

Examples of how the pages might look and what information they will provide are available at the Encyclopedia of Life site (

The organizers want the Web site to be adjustable to the needs of the readers -- from children working on a school project to biologists looking for detailed scientific data.

Outside scientists said the encyclopedia could be a useful research tool -- if it maintains high standards.

"What I want to know is, can I trust the information?" said Jeffrey Shultz, an entomologist at the University of Maryland College of Chemical and Life Sciences.

To address that concern, the pages are expected to have some sections to which anyone can contribute -- similar to the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia -- and other sections with content verified and moderated by experts.

Access to original scientific papers that documented and classified living organisms -- work begun in large part by 18th-century naturalists -- might prove a particular draw for scientists.

"That information is scattered all over the world in different languages and different journals," Shultz said. "That would be valuable. Not so long ago there was nothing available digitally for anything done before the 1990s."

The site may also prove helpful in tracking species that spread from their native region and invade other ecosystems where they can wreak havoc. For example, the emerald ash borer, a beetle native to Asia, has killed millions of ash trees in Michigan and was recently discovered in Maryland.

"Probably the best way to keep track of it is for people to be able to identify it and then report it," he said.

Finding information on all 1.8 million species, however, is no small undertaking. "It's going to be there for the sexy species -- the polar bears and tigers," said Shultz, who studies spiders and scorpions. "But it's not going to be there for the vast majority of organisms."

For some obscure creatures, such as Choneteuthis tongaensis, a species of squid discovered last year near the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific, a brief description in an obscure journal is all that might be available. And many scientists estimate that 90 percent of Earth's creatures haven't been discovered.

Parr said highlighting those knowledge gaps could also be an important function of the proposed encyclopedia.

"When the public sees that it's not all solved," she said, "maybe they will be interested in becoming part of the discoveries. And the more we understand about those obscure species, the more likely we are to have an interest in conserving them."


from A to Z

Answers to the animal quiz

Yes, some of these were pretty tough, so if you got more than 20 right, go to the head of the class:

2. A. amoeba B. bald eagle C. crayfish (also known as crawfish and crawdad) D. dogwood tree E. ebola virus F. fruit bat (also known as a flying fox) G. grasshopper H. hosta I. ibis J. jackal K. kangaroo L. lemur M. mushroom (Shiitake pictured) N. nectarine O. oriole P. paramecium Q. quail R. roadrunner S. scorpion T. tobacco U. urchin (sea) V. Venus flytrap W. wasp X. x-ray fish Y. yak Z. zebra

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