For zoology students and researchers, finding information about a million different plant and animal species has become easier than ever imagined.
In 2007, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, the Marine Biological Laboratory, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Smithsonian Institution launched the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL). Their goal with launching EOL was (and is) to bring information about life on Earth into the hands of those that need it. The portal is intended for both scholars and high school students alike, allowing them to find information that can often be hard to come by.
The EOL recently added its one millionth web page, representing a little over half of the 1.8 million plant and animal species that have been identified and named by scientists around the world. There are wide ranging estimates as to the actual number of species on the earth, from 3 million to 100 million.
James Hanken, Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard and director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, chaired the EOL Steering Committee for its first three years, and is pleased with the progress it has made. “In some cases, it can be difficult to determine if information on a particular species even exists,” he says. “Even if they know a scientific paper exists on a species, researchers may not be able to access it.”
Hanken went on to say that their intention for EOL is to serve as a portal which aggregates this material, and makes it easy for researchers to find the information they need.” It can be very difficult for researchers to find information about certain species, especially those about which not much is known. The goal of EOL is to put even the smallest tidbits of information about every named species in one place, making it easier to find.
EOL recently received a $1 million grant from the Sloan Foundation, which will be a big boon to the portal. Some of the money will be used to help the EOL committee organize the data on the sites so that it is more structured and searchable. They will be adding more filters and searchable terms so that scientists can more easily navigate the site.
The grant will also support efforts by professors who allow their students to add to the sites. In one of Hanken’s classes, his students were allowed to write two species pages for EOL in lieu of writing a term paper. These pages will be added to EOL, and Hanken hopes that this trend will continue. According to Hanken, “the sky is the limit in terms of the kind of activities, both formally and informally, that we can deliver to users.”