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"Encyclopedia of Life" to Catalog All Species on Earth

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 9, 2007
 
Scientists announced plans today to put descriptions, pictures, video, and sounds of the world's estimated 1.8 million named species on the Internet for free.

The effort, called the Encyclopedia of Life, will standardize the presentation of "information about the plants and animals and microorganisms that share this planet with us," said James Edwards, the project's executive director.

The information will be accessible to scientists, policymakers, educators, and the general public, who have all clamored for the encyclopedia for years, Edwards said.

Peter Raven is president of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, which is participating in the project. He said information about species today is widely scattered in scientific literature, museum collections, and databases.

"No one can really get it together in an edited form and know what's going on, and without that, there's no hope of using it for all the purposes where it could be applied," he said.

(Raven chairs the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Scientists hope to use the Web-based encyclopedia to spur conservation efforts and expedite the cataloging of recently discovered species.

The nonprofit project is expected to take about ten years and is being supported with 12.5 million U.S. dollars in grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Mash-Up

The encyclopedia will be assembled using aggregation, or "mash-up," technology, which draws on information from different sources and integrates it into a single experience, Edwards said.

(Read related story: "'Neogeography' Blends Blogs With Online Maps" [April 25, 2006].)

For the project, agents will collect all the information about a particular species from the Web and assemble it into a draft species page.

Scientists will then review, edit, and authenticate the information. A species expert will sign each page.

"We think providing a place where you get a known quantity—where you know that what you're looking for or [what] you're getting relates to organisms and is also authoritative information—will be a big boon for tons of people," Edwards said.

For example, the encyclopedia will provide information on species names, conservation status, and where the organisms currently reside.

Project participants are particularly excited about the potential for the encyclopedia to aid the conservation of known species.

Raven said the collected, organized species information can "point the way to solid information about what they are and where they are and, by doing that, help indicate the most effective steps that can be taken to deal with them in any way or conserve them."

Since the encyclopedia will be Web-based, Edwards added, the species information will be able to be updated regularly, which will allow people to see how species respond to changes over time, like whether populations are expanding or decreasing.

The encyclopedia will also help focus efforts to discover and catalog the estimated ten million species—not counting bacteria—that await scientific recognition.

Verifying that a species is indeed unknown and distinct from its relatives is the most arduous task of describing a new species, Edwards noted, especially for people in developing countries who lack access to libraries.

"Digitizing this information, making it freely available on the Web, will really enable these scientists in developing countries to be able to make descriptions of new species," he said.

"And we know it's the developing world—it's in the tropical parts of the world—that most of the still-to-be-discovered species probably reside."

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