Filling In the Blanks on a Map of Life


Have you ever longed for a Google map of koala bears? Bald eagles? Red pandas?

A team of researchers from Yale and the University Colorado at Boulder have made it happen. This month they released a demo version of a Web-based “Map of Life” intended to eventually reflect the distribution of all plant and animal life on earth.

The tool is constantly growing and evolving, but at present it maps the known distribution of over 25,000 different species of terrestrial vertebrates and North American freshwater fish, based on over 200 years of data from field guides, museums, citizen scientists and groups like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund.

The demo version allows users to search by species, viewing a map of all known distributions, or to view a list of all species records within 50 to 1,000 kilometers (30 to 620 miles) of any specific spot on the map.

“The idea for this project really dates back to my days as a Ph.D. student,” said Walter Jetz, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale. “As I was running around forests in Africa, I came to the realization that I couldn’t really understand the patterns of species distribution I was seeing without going to broader and broader scales — all of Africa, all of the world.”

What sets the Map of Life apart from other global biodiversity databases is that it pulls together all sorts of different data sources and classifies each by its limitations and advantages, allowing the various data sets to complement, critique and inform one another.

The applications for such a compilation are vast. Aside from being an educational tool, it helps expose holes in distribution data sets so that future biodiversity research can focus on more specific targets. It’s also a resource for making better decisions on land management and conservation and a potential means of studying disease transmission in wildlife populations.

The project’s organizers say that the involvement of the scientific community and amateurs will be vital if the project is to gain traction.

“There is so much data in scientists’ drawers and computers that could help fill in our knowledge gaps,” Dr Jetz said. “We need to mobilize this data — together it creates something that is much greater than the sum of its parts.”

As a scientist who tracks global changes, “I am really frustrated that there isn’t more data from 10 or 20 years ago,” he said. “If we had that, we would have a much better handle on how biodiversity has already responded to human impacts like land use and climate change.”

If the project continues to grow, Dr. Jetz added, it could be an invaluable resource five or 10 years down the road.