Wednesday, April 18, 2007

E.O. Wilson's TED Wish: The Encyclopedia Of Life

E.O. Wilson is a professor and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard. His TED Wish (check out the video in flash or Quicktime HD):

I wish that we will work together to help create the key tool that we need to inspire preservation of Earth's biodiversity: the Encyclopedia of Life.
I like this idea a lot. Why is this needed?

As he laid out in his Encyclopedia of Life paper:
Most people are surprised to learn that most of biodiversity is still entirely unknown. They assume that taxonomy all but wound down generations ago, so that today each new species discovered is a newsworthy event. The truth is that we do not know how many species of organisms exist on Earth even to the nearest order of magnitude. Those formally diagnosed and given Latinized scientific names are thought to number somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8 million, with no exact accounting having yet been made from the taxonomic literature. Estimates of the full number, known plus unknown, vacillate wildly according to method. As summarized in the Global Biodiversity Assessment (1995), they range from an improbable 3.6 million at the low end to an equally improbable 100 million or more at the high end. The commonest order-of-magnitude guess is ten million.
I know I was certainly surprised when I first looked into it. I assumed that most of the species had been found and named, not that scientists don't even have a good guess how many total species there are.

So what is the plan?
  • Join the efforts of key institutions around the world who have begun building momentum to make this happen.
  • Build an encyclopedia that lives on the Internet, with an ever-evolving page for every species.
  • Ensure that its content does not duplicate existing efforts, but instead incorporates them through linking.
  • Open the encyclopedia to allow the contribution of thousands of scientists and free access to anyone.
  • Make the world aware of the importance of this initiative to inspire preservation of earth's bio-diversity.
I think that sounds good. There are two similar projects that I have found on the internet, hopefully they will be integrated with this project. The first is the All Species Foundation, but it doesn't appear to be active anymore. The second is the Catalogue of Life which appears to be making progress as they recently announced their 1 millionth species cataloged:
The 10-year project, which began in 2001, plans to cover all estimated 1.75 million known species by 2011. It has so far involved a worldwide collaboration of 3000 biologists, and links about 50 databases that relate to different groups of organisms from the six kingdoms of life. Information on each species – including their common and scientific names, and geographic distribution – is validated by experts before being added, a big advantage compared to other lists available on the Internet.
I also hope that they collect and display estimated population size of each species, or as I call it a species census. The Census of Marine Life has some good data for that, hopefully it will be linked in.

One thing that he doesn't explicitly mention, that I think would be very beneficial is to wikitize this project. By that I mean allow volunteers to be active participants in the discovery of the species and in the displaying of the information. is a great example of how scientists and amateur bird watchers can work together to collect data. Hopefully they can take advantage of the volunteers that are creating the software and entering the data on the Wiki Species project.

I think lots of people would be willing to volunteer their time to go and discover new species. Especially if they get the chance to name that species after themselves, a hero (though they should think twice before naming a hero after a beetle), or even sell the naming rights to the highest bidder. For the millions of species of insects and other small creatures that haven't been found, there is ample opportunity for volunteers to discover their own species. I know I would want to try my hand at it.

I really like his Encyclopedia of Life wish and am excited to hear how it turns out when he reports on it next year.

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