Website aims to describe every living creature
The eye of a European Green Toad, Bufo viridis
January 10th, 2012
03:56 PM ET

Website aims to describe every living creature

By Sally Holland, CNN

Washington (CNN) - Thirty years ago, many students began their school science projects with a visit to the World Book Encyclopedia, the 22-volume set found in many homes and most school libraries covering topics from A to Z.

Now, the Encyclopedia of Life website provides students with much more information on living beings than those 22 volumes could ever hold.

"Knowledge of all biodiversity is scattered all around the world in databases and drawers and people's heads," Encyclopedia of Life director Bob Corrigan said. "If it flies, crawls, grows, spores, if it is life, we want to have one place to bring it all together."

The Encyclopedia of Life, found at, is less than 5 years old but is approaching 1 million species pages that include everything from the names of animals (the Atlantic cod has more than 100 of them in the English language) to information about their habitats (the common wasp's natural habitat is grasslands and woodlands, but it easily adapts to urban habitats) to reproduction habits (the eggs of the longnose sawshark hatch before the young are released from the mother's body).

The site also includes fungi like Armillaria solidipes, the largest living organism in the world, which has been growing for an estimated 2,400 years.

There are around 1.9 million identified living beings in the world, and scientists believe somewhere between 3 million and 10 million are yet to be discovered.

The Web curators take the validity of the information seriously by marking it as "trusted," "untrusted" or "not reviewed."

Bob Corrigan and Erick Mata have the lofty goal of describing every living creature on the Encyclopedia of Life web page

Bob Corrigan and Erick Mata have the lofty goal of describing every living creature on the Encyclopedia of Life web page

"There was an article about pika. The first sentence described it as a rodent, and it's not a rodent," Corrigan said. The article was marked as "untrusted" until a new version was posted saying the pika was "rodent-like."

There are about 30 full-time Encyclopedia of Life employees, but hundreds of other scientists volunteer their time and knowledge by adding and confirming the content.

"You can go to Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, and find a wonderful set of descriptions written by scholars and by thoughtful people, not joebanana546," Corrigan said.

When the site came online, its target audience was professional scientists. This past fall, EOL was reworked to appeal to citizen scientists, the general public and students.

Middle school science teacher Jeff Danielian has incorporated the Encyclopedia of Life into his Providence, Rhode Island, classroom. His students choose a plant or animal to research and go to the site for their preliminary information. Then, the students create their own online collections of similar creatures.

Arizona Queen of the Night, Peniocereus greggii

Arizona Queen of the Night, Peniocereus greggii

"Some of the information is over their heads," he admits, but the students do gain an appreciation for the amount of research that scientists put into each species.

Danielian also uses the site for a classroom discussion of the validity of information on the Internet.

"The fact that we say whether something is ‘trusted’ or is ‘not reviewed’ is an incredible teaching opportunity for a teacher," said Marie Studer of Harvard University, who is also the learning and education director of the Encyclopedia of Life.

The site includes videos and pictures of many of the creatures, and includes descriptions in English, Spanish and Arabic.

Dr. Erick Mata, executive director of EOL, says its main accomplishment has been breaking down the barriers that previously made it impossible to find the information in a single place.

"We want to reinvigorate the joy of discovery of the natural world," Studer said.

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soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Stephen Thorpe

    didn't take long to find another badly misidentified "trusted" image on EoL:

    January 15, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  2. Stephen Thorpe

    as for validity of information, see this EoL page, for example:
    the images are tagged as "trusted", but they are of completely the wrong kind of psocopteran (they are Liposcelis sp., not Trogium). Nobody seems to be in any hurry to fix this ...

    January 11, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Bob Corrigan

      There are many opinions out there – if you believe something is mis-identified, leave a message on the EOL taxon page and/or a message on the EOL "contact us" page. It may be a disagreement with the content partner providing the data, which is a dialogue we facilitate. If you would like to become an EOL curator, let us know and you can contribute your opinions too.

      January 13, 2012 at 9:08 am |
      • Stephen Thorpe

        as you can see on the EOL page, I *did" leave a message on the taxon page 4 months ago, but there does not appear to be any process for such comments to be acted upon. It is worrying that EOL has tagged this image ID as "trusted", as, clearly, nobody who knows the slightest thing about Psocoptera has ever looked at it ... and that is not "opinion", but fact ...

        January 13, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
      • Stephen Thorpe

        after some pushing by me, EoL have now corrected the misidentification ... so time to look for another one!

        January 14, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  3. Fry


    January 10, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Bob Corrigan

      No wonder I couldn't pull my eyes away from it. Good catch.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  4. Stephen Thorpe

    Nice advertising for EoL, but there are several other initiatives with the very same goal, such as Wikispecies (a sister project of Wikipedia). Each initative has its own pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, so it would be unwise not to consider them all equally...

    January 10, 2012 at 4:42 pm |