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BDI researcher Yan Wong has helped complete an online, readily searchable ‘family tree’ for all living species on earth

Image taken from the Tree of Life

An online ‘Tree of Life’, first started more than ten years ago, now contains over 2.2 million species, making it virtually complete. The interface, called OneZoom, was created to engage the public in evolution, biodiversity and species protection, by allowing visitors to explore evolutionary relationships in a completely new way. The name comes from the fact that all the information is contained on one page, so that users only have to zoom in or out to reveal further detail. Individual species are represented by leaves, which are joined at branch points showing their last common ancestor.

Dr Yan Wong (BDI) has been involved with the project since 2013. ‘We wanted something that would seamlessly integrate all information about living species, whilst being easy for the user to navigate’ he said. ‘To use maps as an analogy, if you had to look up each species individually, it would be like having a bookcase full of printed maps. OneZoom, on the other hand, is like a ‘Google Earth for biology’: it provides a complete overview where you can zoom in or out to specific areas.’

The inspiration for the project came to Dr James Rosindell (Imperial College London) after a visit with his colleague Professor Luke Harmon (University of Idaho, Moscow) in 2011 to Down House, former home of famous naturalist Charles Darwin. Dr Rosindell started working on the project in his spare time, launching the first version in October 2012 (containing 5,000 mammals). Since then, the project has grown dramatically, and the site has now attracted over one and a half million users so far.

Over time, as more and more entries were added, Yan’s expertise in evolution and computer science played a crucial role in extending the visualisation to encompass millions of species.

‘To give an idea of how much information there is, when the smallest leaf on our tree is shown at a readable size, the rest of the tree occupies an area more than 60 times wider than the solar system’ - Yan Wong

Using an approach from mathematics known as ‘fractal geometry’, this huge map can be easily explored. ‘We compress the basic tree, and then overlay the graphics onto it as the visitor explores’, he explained. ‘Showing it all at once requires far too much processing power and memory for a home computer, but our approach means that OneZoom can be accessed by anyone, even via a Smartphone.’

The latest version (OneZoom 3.6, aka ‘Musical Furry Lobster’) launched this week and contains 2,235,076 species (with 105,344 images). Dr Wong’s bioinformatic algorithms match these to their relevant Wikipedia pages, allowing users to readily access more information. The tree can simply be explored through zooming in/out and clicking; alternatively, users can search directly for the common ancestor of two or more species, or create their own trees using their own images. Colour codes indicate how vulnerable each species is to extinction, or highlight each species’ popularity (based on the average monthly visits to the species’ Wikipedia page).

People in a museum interacting with the tree of life

OneZoom has proved particularly popular with educators, and has been used by students of all ages in classrooms, lecture theatres and home learning environments. ‘It’s great fun to blow people’s minds by showing them the sheer depth and diversity of life on earth’ added Dr Wong, ‘But visualising the tree like this also serves a vital purpose, highlighting the importance of conserving all these amazing creatures’

Although the tree is virtually complete for all living species that are known to science, the team intend to refine it further through adding prehistoric species and possibly even viruses. Dr Wong hopes OneZoom will be widely adopted by museums, zoos, and gardens to visualise the complete diversity of life alongside their collections.

You can access OneZoom via its website, and keep up to date by following the project on Twitter: @OneZoomTree