Picture: American Burying Beetle

Following in the footsteps of Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Life is a free, online resource to which anyone can contribute. Its aim is to digitalize all the information about every species known to man and make it available online. Users can upload text, photographs, images and videos and the accuracy of all information that is “posted” will be verified by a group of curators.

If the format is not ground shattering, the implications of this ambitious project certainly are. For a start there are something like 1.8 million recorded species, which means a lot of entries and a lot of verification. Critics say that there are too many controversies in biological nomenclature and that the EoL will simply add to the confusion. Others claim that, like Wikipedia, the EoL will fail to become a trusted source of information. Still more huff and puff over the impossibility of providing web entries for every single species (nb: there are over 350 thousand species of beetle alone).

I, on the other hand, think that the EoL could well lead to a conservation revolution. Only a decade ago the idea of creating a publication that collected all the knowledge that scientists, conservationists, biologists and amateur naturalists from across the world have about life on our planet was unimaginable. Today not only do we have the technology, we also believe in it. What incredible potential lies in the sharing of this information? What opportunities for partnerships between people who share a passion for discovering and protecting biodiversity? And how wonderful that you and I may be able, for free, to loose ourselves for a while among the pages of the world’s most amazing encyclopedia to date.

The truth, of course, is that conservationists are running a race against time and humanity. The vast majority of organisms on earth remain unknown to science. Let me repeat that because it may not have sunk in: we know nothing about virtually all of the life forms on this planet. According to conservation guru and passionate naturalist E.O. Wilson, a handful of soil contains more than 4 million life forms and of these 4 million, we can name only a fraction. What are these species doing? We don’t actually know. But the answer may well be the key to our existence.

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7 August 2009, ore 12.32

Morris liked that.