"Imagine you had the world's most amazing field guide."
When it's finished, the Map of Life will show the location of every known plant and animal on the planet.
“Imagine if you had the world's most amazing field guide,” says Robert Guralnick, a biodiversity scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder who’s working on the project. “When you go to the national parks or out exploring, you had at your fingertips something that was not just a static book but the world's most amazing field guide that changed and that you could contribute to.”
That is the goal of this project, an ambition that Guralnick’s website calls “simple and profound.” The beta version of the map just launched, with information about almost 25,000 species. The final version will includes tens of thousands more: There are more than a million species that scientists have named and documented, and potentially millions more still unknown.
The information available about the species' locations is not as detailed as it could be, though. “Where geography was 150 years... that's kind of what we're doing today in the world of biodiversity,” Guralnick says. Whereas today anyone can zoom in on a digital map and see details at the neighborhood level, the finest-grained biodiversity data is orders of magnitude more difficult to capture. Different sources of data about a species also provide different types of information. “Some are really good at telling you where species are not,” Guralnick says. “Some of them are really good at telling you where species are.”
The Map of Life grew out of the idea that combining all those different types of data would provide a more detailed picture. When a user searches for a species—the pika (pictured above), for instance—the Map of Life shows point-observation data (museum specimen or field observations), ranges drawn by species experts, and regional checklist data displaying the maximum extent of the species’ range. A search for the American pika produces the map below, with green for the expert maps, grey for the regional checklists, and points for the field observations.
The team behind the project, led by Yale professor Walter Jetz, also is planning to create a mobile app for the map, which would generate a list of species based on the user’s location. They’re also looking for users to contribute to the project, helping to flag areas where the different data sets contradict each other, for instance.
Ultimately, the Map of Life could document the changes in biodiversity across the globe. “The idea behind the Map of Life isn't just about geographical distributions,” Guralnick says. “It's about the environment—climate change and landscape change.” It's important to understand how these changes are impacting species: A recent study found that biodiversity loss can affect the productivity of ecosystems on the same scale as pollution. Right now, scientists and land managers don’t have information about biodiversity on the scale that people actually live in. Putting all of the data into one place could help change that.
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service