Published: Wednesday, 15 December 2021 20:52
The interactive tree of life explorer OneZoom maps the connections between 2.2 million living species, the closest thing yet to a single view of all species known to science. It allows users to zoom in to any species and explore its relationships with others, in a seamless visualization on a single web page. It also includes images of over 85,000 species, plus, where known, their vulnerability to extinction.
Described in a paper in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, OneZoom was developed by Dr. James Rosindell of Imperial College London and Dr. Yan Wong from the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford.
“By developing new algorithms for visualization and data processing, and combining them with ‘big data’ gathered from multiple sources, we’ve created something beautiful,” Dr. Wong said.
“It allows people to find their favorite living things, be they golden moles or giant sequoias, and see how evolutionary history connects them together to create a giant tree of all life on Earth.”
“We have worked hard to make the tree easy to explore for everyone, and we also hope to send a powerful message: that much of our biodiversity is under threat,” Dr. Rosindell said.
The ‘leaves’ representing each species on the tree are color coded depending on their risk of extinction: green for not threatened, red for threatened, and black for recently extinct.
However, most of the leaves on the tree are gray, meaning they have not been evaluated, or scientists don’t have enough data to know their extinction risk.
Even among the species described by science, only a tiny fraction have been studied or have a known risk of extinction.
“It’s extraordinary how much research there is still to be done,” Dr. Wong said.
“Building the OneZoom tree of life was only possible through sophisticated methods to gather and combine existing data — it would have been impossible to curate all this by hand.”
The OneZoom explorer is configured to work with touchscreens, and the developers have made the software free to download and use by educational organizations such as museums and zoos.
“Two million species can feel like a number too big to visualize, and no museum or zoo can hold all of them!” Dr. Rosindell said.
“But our tool can help represent all Earth’s species and allow visitors to connect with their plight.”
“We hope that now this project is complete and available, many venues will be interested in using it to complement their existing displays.”
The researchers also set up a OneZoom charity with the aim of using their tree of life to advance the education of the public in the subjects of evolution, biodiversity and conservation of the variety of life on Earth.
Uniquely, to support this charity, each leaf on the tree is available for sponsorship, allowing anyone to ‘adopt’ a species and enabling OneZoom to continue their mission.
The team also integrated the tree with data from the Wikipedia project to reveal the ‘popularity’ of every species, based on how often their Wikipedia page is viewed.
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, humans come out on top, but it has swapped places a few times with the second most popular: the gray wolf — the ‘species’ that includes all domestic dogs,” Dr. Wong said.
Yan Wong & James Rosindell. Dynamic visualisation of million-tip trees: The OneZoom project. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, published online December 13, 2021; doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.13766
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