2 March 2008

Citizen Scientists And The Web Of Life

By Rusty Rockets

As our awareness of humanity's negative impact on the Earth's ecosystems increases, researchers have attempted to pool together their knowledge to try and get a big picture view of the possible consequences. Unfortunately, the multitude of diverse research fields and enormous, isolated databases makes piecing together such a comprehensive perspective difficult, if not impossible. But now, online technologies and greater interconnectedness has allowed scientists to collaborate on an unprecedented online project called the Encyclopedia Of Life (EOL), which will eventually contain entries for all 1.8 million known species - and any new ones that may pop up.

The invention of the microscope in the early 1600s was to finally unveil the microscopic world and the many species of microorganisms that it contained. The microscope revolutionized biology, medicine, and many other fields besides, as it allowed researchers to see how microorganisms behaved and interacted with one another and larger organisms like humans and other animals. But while we have the ability to observe many species in our macro world, researchers enjoy only limited success in trying to create a complete picture of the Earth's biodiversity. Some thought that the answer to this problem was to create a dynamic, centralized source of information that could be easily accessed and updated: an online mega-encyclopedia. But it was clear from the outset that such an encyclopedia would involve a project of immense magnitude, with many claiming such a project impossible.

But contrary to the naysayers' cries of "it can't be done," this week (February 27) marked the unveiling of the first 30,000 pages of the ambitious EOL project, at the esteemed (so they say) Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference in Monterey, California. The EOL is a collaboration between some of the world's leading biodiversity and technology institutions, the Catalogue of Life and Tree of Life projects, and contributions made by the general public. Unlike Wikipedia (where the roaming Gypsy elephant population is said to have tripled over a 6-month period) the vetting process regarding public submissions to EOL is a lot more stringent.

A fair amount of the credit for getting the project even this far must go to Harvard's E. O. Wilson, University Professor Emeritus, who in 2003 expressed in an essay the need for a dynamic overview of the Earth's biodiversity. During his award acceptance speech at the 2007 TED - for his previous work in documenting the world's biodiversity - Wilson also made an appeal for backers to finance an ambitious web-based encyclopedia of life. But it is said that Wilson's greatest fund raising triumph resulted from a 2005 letter he wrote to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which secured a whopping 10 million dollar seed grant. This seemed to get the ball rolling, as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation put up a further 2.5 million dollar stake soon after.

Construction of the EOL began in 2007, will cost millions of dollars to complete, and should be finished by 2017. Its creators bill it as a resource for anyone with a love of nature, but the EOL will really pay dividends when used by scientists and policymakers to make comparative assessments and identify trends and patterns of life on Earth. It's claimed that the EOL will allow researchers to map vectors of human disease, grant insights into longevity, improve strategies to better manage invasive species, and propose alternative plant pollinators in the increasing number of regions abandoned by honeybees. "This great effort promises to lay out new directions for research in every branch of biology," said professor Wilson.

"The launch of the Encyclopedia of Life will have a profound and creative effect in science," continues Wilson. "It aims not only to summarize all that we know of Earth's life forms, but also to accelerate the discovery of the vast array that remain unknown."

Wilson's comments reflect the fact that in biology change is the norm rather than the exception, and there are a plethora of examples to illustrate this point. This week, a British-led team of scientists discovered Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) living and feeding at a depth of 3,000 meters around the Antarctic Peninsula. Up until recently, scientists believed that these krill lived only in the upper regions of the ocean, so scientists now have to entirely rethink their understanding of the principal food source for squid, fish, whales, and seals. "The new findings revise significantly our understanding of the depth distribution and ecology of Antarctic krill," says Professor Andrew Clarke, of the British Antarctic Survey. "It was a surprise to observe actively-feeding adult krill, including females that were apparently ready to spawn, close to the seabed in deep water."

That the movements of tiny krill can have such a profound impact on larger creatures' feeding patterns underscores how our fragile ecosystems rely upon interlinked food chains. This is exemplified in another article published this week, in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, which warns of the imminent demise of the Chevroned Butterflyfish (Chaetodon trifascialis). "The irony is that these butterflyfish are widespread around the world, and you'd have thought their chances of survival were pretty good," says Dr Morgan Pratchett of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University.

How is it that such a prevalent species of fish is suddenly faced with extinction? It has to do with the fact that the only source of food that they'll eat is a particular type of coral, and that coral is degrading due to human over-exploitation, pollution, and climate change, according to the ARC. "They only eat one sort of coral - Acropora hyacinthus - and when that runs out, the fish just disappear from the reef," says Pratchett. Of course, the question most people would ask is: if faced with starvation, wouldn't the fish just eat something else? If Pratchett's feeding experiments involving other types of coral are anything to go by, the answer is no.

"We call these kinds of fish obligate specialists. It means they have a very strong dietary preference for one sort of food, and when that is no longer available, they go into decline. We still don't have a satisfactory scientific explanation for this, as it seems like rather a risky tactic in evolutionary terms - but it must confer some advantage provided enough of its preferred food is available," explains Pratchett.

Now imagine discoveries such as those mentioned above regularly uploaded to the EOL, and you'll begin to get some inkling of how invaluable this encyclopedic resource will be. With the advent of new species, changes in their environment and behavior, a new urgency to understand and protect Earth's biodiversity, the EOL could present researchers with a complete and up-to-date overview of life on Earth. And researchers and policymakers will in turn be able to make decisions based upon their observations of patterns and trends made more obvious by the EOL's comprehensive coverage of life on Earth.

Above all, the EOL will be a fundamental resource in helping to conserve known species, and to discover and protect as yet unknown ones by highlighting trends in biodiversity. But there are any number of applications, in addition to those already mentioned, that the EOL could be used for. These may include: comparing the life spans of related species to further understand human aging; tracing relations between variations in animals, plants, and climate; reduce species authentication times in the field; inform environmental management decisions; and totally transform how the life sciences are both taught and learned.

But the full range of applications at our disposal are limited at this point, as the content on the 30,000 species pages - though verified by experts - are not fully fleshed out as yet. As it stands, there currently exist only 2-dozen multimedia-rich, expertly verified exemplar pages of well-known species. There are also presently 1-million "placeholder" template pages that provide species scientific and common names, partial information on taxonomic positions, and geographic distribution. Gradually these placeholders will be filled with content by scientists and "citizen scientists" alike from a range of diverse and scattered sources - such as databases, books, journals, libraries, and museums - which will all be validated by expert content editors. "The site will link the public and scientific community in a collaborative way that's without precedent in scale," says Jim Edwards, Executive Director of the EOL. "There are very many species for which we do not have high quality images or text. Think of these pages as invitations to contribute to EOL," says Dr. Edwards.

Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology Director Professor James Hanken says that we won't have to wait the full ten-years before we get some satisfaction from the EOL. "While it will take 10 years to assemble at least basal information on all 1.8 million known species, the EOL will be a functional, organized, highly valuable resource in three to five years."

Later this year, the general public will be able to start uploading text, video, and images to the EOL, giving citizen scientists everywhere a chance to contribute to the most detailed record of life on Earth ever created.

The Encyclopedia Of Life
Into The Shadows - Searching For Alien Life On Earth
Birds Ain't Doing It, Bees Ain't Doing It, And Biodiversity Is The Victim
Going Gaga Over Gaia