An unprecedented worldwide effort to document every living species on Earth has been launched by scientists.
Over the next 10 years, researchers will gather every scrap of information that exists on the planet’s 1.8 million known species of animals, plants and other organisms to build up an enormous Encyclopedia of Life. When completed, it will be made available freely to anyone with an internet connection, as the most comprehensive repository of life as we know it.
The encyclopedia will describe every aspect of every species from aardvark to zorilla, an African skunk-like mammal. Among the records will be descriptions of habitats, prey and predators, genetic make-up and diseases carried, and assessments of populations around the world.
A complete archive has been a long-held dream among biologists who believe it will revolutionise their work. It will make life easier for taxonomists charged with assigning names to 5 million to 100 million distinct but so far nameless species.
Others will use it to identify potentially dangerous invasive species.
“Bringing this critical mass of information together, and for people to have it at their fingertips wherever they are in the world, will create a fantastic resource for understanding our ecosystems,” said Jim Edwards, executive director of the project. “This will be an enormously powerful tool for professional scientists, the general public, educators, schoolkids, and citizen scientists.”
The project has been launched by a consortium including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the Field Museum in Chicago and Harvard University. The Natural History Museum in London and Royal Botanic Garden at Kew are to make vast collections of historic records available through the encyclopedia.
One of the world’s most prominent evolutionary biologists, Edward O Wilson at Harvard University, outlined proposals for an encyclopedia of life at a science conference this year, noting that “our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is even discovered”.
He added: “What excites me is that since I first put forward this idea, science has advanced, technology has moved forward. Today, the practicalities of making this encyclopedia real are within reach as never before.”
Researchers plan to create software programmes called “bots” that will trawl the internet for information on every living species. The details will then be checked by experts and turned into basic web pages for each of the 1.8 million species. Further teams will add images, videos, genetic sequences and other information to each web page. The encyclopedia is being set up at eol.org. It is expected to have a final price tag of $100m (£50m).
Graham Higley at the Natural History Museum said the institute intends to make information from its 1m books and 250,000 research papers available through the encyclopedia.
“This is a visionary aspiration of the library. We have arguably the largest collection in the world, in arguably the most expensive city, and that makes it difficult for visitors, so we’ve been looking for some while at how we can make it available more broadly,” he said. “If you look at the literature, a vast percentage of new species were recorded prior to 1900, and much of that material is only available in the west, so if you’re working in Brazil or Costa Rica, or Argentina, you won’t be able to see this any other way.”
The environment secretary, David Miliband, yesterday described the encyclopedia as a “unique endeavour. What could be more appropriate for a world that is more and more connected, where issues of climate change, issues of biodiversity, join us together over national and natural boundaries,” he said. Guardian News and Media Limited