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August 24, 2009

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Encyclopedia aims for line on all flora and fauna

AN online encyclopedia aiming to describe every type of animal and plant on the planet has reached 170,000 entries and is helping research into aging, climate change and even the spread of insect pests.

The Encyclopedia of Life (, a project likely to cost US$100 million launched in 2007, says it wants to describe all the 1.8 million known species from apples to zebras within a decade.

"We're picking up speed," James Edwards, the EOL executive director based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said yesterday of the 170,000 entries with content in a common format vetted by experts. A year ago, it had 30,000 entries.

He said everyone from scientists to schoolchildren could use the EOL as a "field guide" or contribute a photograph or an observation of an animal in an area where it was not found before, in some cases a sign of a changing climate.

The encyclopedia is aiding scientists who look at human aging by examining the widely differing life spans of related species.

A Latin American bat lives far longer than mice relatives of a similar size, perhaps because its body has a mechanism that limits damage to protein in its cells. And some butterflies that feed on fruit live longer than related species.

The encyclopedia is seeking to help combat pests such as moths from the Balkans that have spread fast across Europe in the past two decades. They attack the leaves of horse chestnut trees.

The moth "is now more or less throughout Europe and poses a threat to ecosystems in Southeast Asia, North America and elsewhere, wherever the beautiful horse chestnut trees occur," said David Lees of the Natural History Museum in London.

A problem for many biologists is that they often study just one species so do not know if their findings apply more widely, according to James Hanken, director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and chair of the EOL Steering Committee.

"There are often studies of individual species - insects or frogs or birds - but people don't have access to information about other species in the same area," he told Reuters. "This holds back studies of climate change on biodiversity."

Among other projects, the encyclopedia is aiming to expand with fossil species and is working on regional versions focused on life in China, Australia or the Netherlands.

One problem is that 20,000 new species are described every year and estimates of the number of species on the planet range up to 100 million.


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