The “Google Map of the biodiversity“: it is with this striking – and ambitious – analogy that Dr. Martin Freiberg, curator of the Botanical Garden at the University of Leipzig and member of the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), presents the online tool “LifeGate” he created, currently available in German and English.
Street point, or even region on this map, resulting from an approach that is not geographical but “taxonomic”. The principle is simple: species of animals, plants and micro-organisms are placed in relation to each other on the basis of their degree of evolutionary kinship.
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Thus, when the user searches or zooms in on a specific species – for example, the manatee (an aquatic mammal), he observes the photo of this animal, brushing against that of its closest relative, the dugong.
Lines of color separate the different degrees of taxa, from the most precise – namely the species – to the broadest, that is to say the kingdom (animal, vegetable, bacterial and fungal), passing through the gender, family, order, class and phylum. We thus notice that the dugong is much more closely related to the elephant, although terrestrial, than to cetaceans!
The study of kinship between species, or “phylogeny”, is based both on the comparison of anatomical and morphological characters as well as on genetic analysis.
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Initially a simple educational tool for his students, Martin Freiberg finally decided to make his interactive map accessible to everyone – which required no less than 14 years of programming and technical development.
“I wanted to build LifeGate in a way that all species were of equal value, and the incredible diversity of species could be truly experienced and understood.“, he explains in a press release.
If representations of the kinship between living beings (called “phylogenetic trees”) already exist for a certain number of groups, for example birds, amphibians or even orchids, no diagram has so far grouped the whole world known alive – at least, not in such detail, says the researcher.
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The particularity of this tool lies above all in the use of photos to illustrate the diversity of life. “Images are more memorable than simple numbers and make the topic of biodiversity more accessible. This is why the card also fascinates amateurs and the general public“, assures the German researcher.
While some 420,000 photos are already available (out of a database that contains a total of 12 million), some species do not yet have any images to represent them.
The platform being collaborative, everyone can add to fill in the gaps. More than 6,000 Internet users have already contributed by sharing their photos for free. A contribution which should also allow, in the long term, to visualize animals, plants and microbes from different angles.
The architect of this titanic project even goes so far as to imagine, in the future, possible virtual “journeys” exploring food chains, or even the links between flowers and their pollinators. However, this will require recruiting new programmers and raising funds.
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