‘Encyclopaedia of Life’ to document 1.8 million species


Washington : The world's 1.8 million named species are currently documented in a hodgepodge of books, websites, scientific associations and libraries – accumulated over the 300 years since the scientific system of genus and species identification was invented.

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But with Wednesday's launch of the 'Encyclopaedia of Life' (EOL), the information will become available over the next 10 years to the world via the Internet, with a web page for each species, according to the network of sponsors of www.eol.com.

Molecular information, when available, video, sound, location maps and other multimedia information will also be posted.

The project is expected to provide valuable biodiversity and conservation information "to anyone, anywhere, at anytime," said James Edwards, who has been appointed as executive director of EOL.

Edwards was previously executive secretary of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

"Nobody really knows" the exact number of species, said Edwards in a telephone interview. "Nobody's ever kept a count or tried to pull together all the information."

Key organisations are involved in the project, including Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Washington's Smithsonian Institution and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has become a full partner in the "leap for all life," as the project is referred to, and discussions were underway with leaders of the new Atlas of Living Australia, the sponsors said.

"Even five years ago, we could not create such a resource, but advances in technology for searching, annotating and visualising information now permit us, indeed mandate us, to build the 'Encyclopaedia of Life'," Edwards said.

The project is backed by $12.5 million in US private foundation grants.

"Technology is allowing science to grasp the immense complexity of life on this planet," said Jonathan Fenton, president of the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation that is supplying $10 million.

Edwards hopes that the website will make the work of scientists easier in identifying the estimated eight to 10 million species on Earth that scientists believe remain to be discovered.

Eol.com will also expand the reach of science to "people in developing countries who don't have access to good libraries," who Edwards hopes will become involved in the search for new species.

"We expect this to be a big tent to make data from several different biodiversity projects… really a communications project," he said.