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Map Of Life: Putting Every Living Thing In Its Place

We have incredibly accurate maps of almost every geological feature, but we often have no idea what kind of animals live where. An ambitious biological cartography project aims to change that.

Map Of Life: Putting Every Living Thing In Its Place
Patryck Kosmider/Shutterstock

We have mapped out the world in extraordinary detail. We know the Earth’s geography down to the millimeter in some places, yet we have only the roughest sketch of our planet’s biology. Our maps of species’ distribution, not to mention their movements, appear as indistinct blobs without any of the accuracy or precision we expect in other cartography.

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That will change with the new online “Map of Life” pinpointing the location of the world’s biosphere. This geography of life on Earth, a precise road map for the world’s millions of species, aims to make finding–and hopefully conserving–the world’s biodiversity more effective. Geographic data on the distribution of species will be vital for smart decisions about “land management, health, climate change and biodiversity conservation,” report the scientists behind the effort publishing in the journal, Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Scientists do know the locations of millions of species, but they are scattered in disparate databases and range maps that have never been organized, or made easily accessible. To remedy that, researchers have released the first version of their Map of Life that contains the location of most known terrestrial vertebrate species (and North American freshwater fish) mapped to within 50 to 1,000-kilometers. Later this year, the map will expand to include plants, trees, and selected invertebrates. Ultimately, anyone can flag and edit data, update datasets, and provide feedback.

It will be monumental undertaking. In a paper published last year in Nature, scientists estimates 8.7 million eukaryotic species on our planet (plus or minus) 1.3 million. That means we only know of about 15% of land species and 10% of marine species (once you include microbial life, the number becomes truly astronomical). The rest remain undiscovered, despite the identification of 18,000 new ones each year .

As we enter what may be one of Earth’s largest extinction events in 540 million years, the knowledge of what we are losing–and what can be saved–may decide the fates of millions of creatures.

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)

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