Encyclopedia of Life Goes Live

The Encyclopedia of Life aims to feature all 1.8 million known species by 2017.© Encyclopedia of Life

The dream of famed biologist E.O. Wilson—to put together and freely share a comprehensive database of every species of plant and wildlife known to man—has finally come true (at least in part). With Wilson as their inspiration, a diverse group of partners have come together on the nonprofit project, dubbed the Encyclopedia of Life. As of last week’s launch, some 30,000 plant and wildlife species have been catalogued, with hundreds of thousands more to be added in the coming months. According to organizers, the project—designed to be used by everyone from scientists to average readers—has the potential "to greatly enhance our understanding of the world’s diminishing biodiversity." It could, they said, have an impact on human knowledge comparable to that which followed the invention of the microscope in the 17th century.

The immense amount of information in the free online encyclopedia is being culled from a variety of sources, including several existing specialized databases (such as AmphibiaWeb and FishBase). "The thing that makes the encyclopedia possible now, when it would not have been possible five years ago, is that there are many online resources that have been developed which we can draw upon," said James Edwards, the project’s executive director. "Second, information technology has reached a point where you can pool bits of information from different sources and present them in the way that, for example, Google News does… we’re using the same kind of approach."

While most of the current 30,000 species listings on the site are relatively rudimentary, EOL has developed full-flown multimedia pages for a dozen or so species. Less than two percent of the known species are online, but Edwards thinks his system will feature all 1.8 million by 2017.

Sources: EOL; BBC