A research team composed of researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and Yale University recently released a public demonstration of their Map of Life, a database that stores the geographic locations of the world's species. The demonstration version contains about 25,000 different species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish to date, but the goal is to have a complete record for every living organism on Earth.
Such a database may not sound novel at first. For example, doesn't Wikipedia already have information about every animal and plant you could think of? What makes the Map of Life special is its user interface. Imagine using Google Maps, but instead of getting directions to your travel destination, you can set a search radius and find the kinds of animals that live there. This list is organized by species, with information on whether or not the species is endangered. Clicking on the species name links to its Wikipedia page, where more extensive information can be found.
If you're looking for a specific animal, like the Greater Roadrunner pictured left, Map of Life will display the creature's resident habitat as well as its breeding location and migratory passage, if applicable. In addition to these broad spectra of information, which paint the map in different colors, specific points of observation are marked with red dots. Clicking on each of these points tells when and where the sighting occured, in addition to citing the observer source. The different layers can be toggled and customized to show as many or few as necessary; the map can even display layers from multiple organisms simultaneously. Below is an image of the Map of Life at work, in this case displaying information on the Greater Roadrunner.
The functionality of this database makes it especially powerful. It compiles information from museums, regional checklists, national parks, and recorded observations (both professional and amateur) into one comprehensive resource. This is especially useful for researchers who are trying to follow trends in organisms, and have to stitch together all the records by hand. Walter Jetz, co-creator and conservation biologist, encountered this massive task in his own field: “I remember thinking, ‘This is silly. I’m doing this on my own, knowing others are doing it too’,” This realization was a large inspiration for the project: with Map of Life, researchers can find all the information in one place, and add their own observations and findings with ease. In a University of Colorado article, Jetz comments on the present and future status of the tool:
“It puts at your fingertips the geographic diversity of life. Ultimately, the hope is for this literally to include hundreds of thousands of animals and plants, and show how much or indeed how little we know of their whereabouts.”
The Map of Life is made possible by the financial support from the Encyclopedia of Life, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, and the National Science Foundation. The University of Colorado ranks 26th in total NSF funding, and spent a total of $383 million on research and development last year.
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