Scientists Give Birth to the Encyclopedia of Life

MONTEREY, California, February 26, 2008 (ENS) – The initial 30,000 pages of a new online Encyclopedia of Life were revealed today as scientists assemble for the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference in Monterey, California, where the project was initiated last year.

Feedback on these first pages will shape the ultimate design and functionality of all 1.8 million pages of the encyclopedia, scheduled for completion by 2017. It will also help inform priorities for content development.

“It is exciting to anticipate the scientific chords we might hear once 1.8 million notes are brought together through this instrument,” says Jim Edwards, executive director of the Encyclopedia of Life, EOL, based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

The American burying beetle,
Nicrophorus americanus,
is listed as Critically
Endangered on the IUCN
Red List of Threatened
Species. (Photo by Doug
Backland courtesy EOL)

“Potential EOL users are professional and citizen scientists, teachers, students, media, environmental managers, families and artists,” Dr. Edwards said. “The site will link the public and scientific community in a collaborative way that’s without precedent in scale.”

The rapid progress to date was congratulated by Harvard Professor Emeritus E.O. Wilson, who articulated the need for a dynamic modern portrait of biodiversity in a widely read essay in 2003.

His letter in 2005 to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation resulted in a $10 million seed grant to start the Encyclopedia of Life, soon complemented by a further $2.5 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

“The launch of the Encyclopedia of Life will have a profound and creative effect in science,” says Wilson, a zoologist who is world renowned for his work on ants.

Maldives anemonefish, Amphiprion
nigripes, has not been evaluated
by the IUCN. (Photo by J.E.
Randall courtesy EOL)

“It aims not only to summarize all that we know of Earth’s life forms, but also to accelerate the discovery of the vast array that remain unknown,” he said. “This great effort promises to lay out new directions for research in every branch of biology.”

The basic design of the Encyclopedia of Life species pages that debuted today originated with the Technology, Entertainment and Design, TED, Conference and Professor Wilson.

In March 2007 Wilson was one of the recipients of a TED prize for his work in documenting and understanding the world’s biodiversity. In his acceptance speech, Wilson asked TED attendees to help him develop an encyclopedia of life.

Avenue A | Razorfish, an innovative web design firm, took up the challenge and helped to create an award winning video and the basic template for Encyclopedia of Life species pages.

Intended as a tool for scientists and policymakers and a resource for anyone interested in the living world, the Encyclopedia of Life is being developed by a unique collaboration between scientists and the general public.

Starting later this year, the public will be able to contribute text, videos, images, and other information about a species. The best of this information will be incorporated into the encyclopedia’s authenticated pages.

The Yellow-billed spoonbill, Platalea
flavipes, is classed by the IUCN as
a Species of Least Concern.
(Photo courtesy EOL)

“There are very many species for which we do not have high quality images or text. Think of these pages as invitations to contribute to EOL,” says Dr. Edwards.

The encyclopedia will be a microscope in reverse, or a “macroscope,” helping users to discern large-scale patterns in biodiversity, promising knowledge comparable in impact to that gained after the microscope’s invention in the 1600s.

It is intended as a resource for helping to conserve the species already known and to identify millions of additional species that have not yet been described or named, scientists say.

It will be the ultimate online field guide, complete with links to DNA barcoding and other information of interest and use to everyone from professional scientists to birdwatchers and gardeners.

By making it easy to compare and contrast information about life on Earth, the encyclopedia has the potential to:

* Trace the relation between changes in animal and plant populations and climate
* Map the distribution of human disease vectors, such as crows, mosquitoes and the West Nile virus
* Compare life spans of related species – a prelude to lab research into reasons for human aging
* Support inspections of ballast water for invasive species, assisted by links to molecular DNA barcode reference information
* Assist field research and dramatically shorten the time required to authenticate or describe new mammals, birds, bugs, plants, bacteria and other species discovered by scientists anywhere in the world
* Revolutionize teaching and learning of the life sciences for all ages
* Contribute to timely and informed environmental management decisions by professionals and citizen environmental managers alike.

“The Encyclopedia of Life can raise our sights and expand our view of life on Earth,” said Jonathan Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “What was once viewed by many as ‘wishful thinking’ is now entirely possible and underway.”

Red fox, Vulpes vulpes, is considered
a species of Least Concern. (Photo
by Lisa Haggblom courtesy EOL)

“While it will take 10 years to assemble at least basal information on all 1.8 million known species, the EOL will be a functional, organized, highly valuable resource in three to five years,” says Professor James Hanken, director of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, who also chairs the Encyclopedia of Life Steering Committee.

“The cooperation between the many world-leading biodiversity and technology institutions partnered in this project is both unprecedented and exciting,” he said.

“At its launch last May, we said the EOL can be done,” says Jesse Ausubel of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “The remarkable progress made in the few months since has fostered confidence it will be done. The EOL canvas now has a million sketch lines and we have painted a small corner in full color. We look forward to public reviews that will shape the final product.”

The public can participate on the Encyclopedia of Life website. Click here [].

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