The Loom

Wikipedia of Life?

My latest story for the New York Times is up: it’s a sneak peek at the Encyclopedia of Life–a web site that will ultimately contain detailed pages about all 1.8 million known species. Right now it’s just a demo site, but on Thursday, there will be thousands of pages up, each with details on a different species. Will it reach its goal? As I point out in the article, previous attempts have failed. Their remnants are littered across the Web, such as the All-Species Foundation. But the scientists behind the Encyclopedia of Life have a lot of tools, like wikis and text-mining, that their predecessors lacked. Check it out on Thursday and come back here to tell me what you think.

Update, Tuesday 11 am: I just got an email newsletter from EOL saying the new version is now live. But at the moment, the site is down due to heavy traffic.


  1. #1 Deepak
    February 25, 2008


    Thanks for the heads up. Can’t wait. I keep visiting every few weeks wondering when the pages would be up. I presume that he’s going to unveil the site at TED.

  2. #2 Alex
    February 26, 2008

    They don’t need to provide Wikis to get the EoL to work. They need to actually support the people who provide content.

  3. #3 luca
    February 26, 2008

    Wow, until now I was using Wikipedia for the same sake… I’ll keep checking it…

    May be I’ll get to read at least one thousandth of the pages in my life!

  4. #4 John Travis
    February 26, 2008

    Carl–hear from Frank Bisby yet? As he will strongly note, EoL doesn’t itself compile a species list or catalog the world’s organisms. It fleshes out the information on species identified by others. EoL draws on Bisby’s Catalogue of Life and other projetcs, which arguably have done as much as the EoL newcomers. I think he makes a good argument these efforts should not be ignored in the EoL coverage, though space reasons means they often are.

  5. #5 David Bradley
    February 26, 2008

    New species are emerging all the time (through evolution, obviously) but others are going extinct even as I type. So…will that figure of 1.8 million rise or fall or stay pretty static?

    They just discovered a new mammal recently so it should be 1,800,001 anyway (I jest…)


  6. #6 John Conway
    February 26, 2008

    One big problem this project’s going to face is that the Wikipedia is already the “Wikipedia of life”. Splitting the sorts of editors who would be interested in this sort of thing across to massive overlapping projects probably won’t work. I’d be very happy to be proved wrong though, of course.

  7. #7 Carl Zimmer
    February 26, 2008

    Akex [2]: Agreed–I mentioned that need for support in the article.

    John [4]: Didn’t hear from Bisby, but EoL certainly doesn’t hide the fact that it depends greatly on existing databases–they’ve formed partnerships with lots of them. It is true that I didn’t have room to get into that aspect of the project–things must be cut…

    David [5]: The hope is that new species get posted to EoL as they’re published in the literature. Extinct ones, too.

    John [6]: So will this be a wiki war? We’ll see. EoL’s species pages are different from Wikipedia’s in some significant ways, including the ability to automatically generate lots of open-access scientific literature on the species.

  8. #8 Alex
    February 26, 2008

    Carl- Indeed. I’ve been monitoring media coverage of EoL this morning. Your story is easily the most thoughtful and the only one that really delves behind the press releases.

  9. #9 uncle noel
    February 27, 2008

    db: Charismatic megafauna constitute a miniscule percentage. Most will probably be extinct in the wild in 100 years. But there’s this: “Beetles are a group of insects which have the largest number of species… Estimates put the total number of species, described and undescribed, at between 5 and 8 million.” – Wikipedia

  10. #10 4u1e
    March 4, 2008

    “One big problem this project’s going to face is that the Wikipedia is already the “Wikipedia of life”.” John Conway

    Split effort is a risk. Since Wikipedia is really meant to be a general knowledge encyclopedia, there’s the possibility of transwiki-ing relevant in-depth material from Wikipedia to EoL, if it’s in the right kind of format (and provided EoL is under a GFDL or similar license). Mind you, that would leave Wikipedia even more biased towards pop culture, which is probably not a good thing.

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