Knowledge Networking of Biodiversity Information
A multi-disciplinary team of scientists based at the
University of Kansas has been harnessing the computing power of thousands of linked
PCs to map and analyze the distribution of about 1.7 million animal and plant
species throughout the globe.
of the main aims of the project, called Lifemapper, was "to provide seamless,
transparent, and instant, on-the-Web integration of collection-based
biodiversity information from databases in natural history museums and other
biocollection institutions around the world," according to Professor Leonard
Krishtalka at the university's Biodiversity Research Center.
Another aim of the National Science Foundation-supported
effort, he says, was "to use Lifemapper to take that information, combine it
with environmental information of variety of kindsclimate, terrain and so
forthand produce ecological niche models of every species of plant or
animal that's represented in these collections, and archive those models for
predictive modeling of environmental phenomena."
Krishtalka says he and his colleagues associated with
Lifemapper are using the data for "asking what-if questionschanging climate,
invasive species, emerging diseases."
For example, he notes, "we were able to predict the spread
of West Nile Virus with mosquitoes and birds across the U.S. landscape. We're
doing the same thing now with Chartesus Disease, while predicting the spread of
Sudden Oak Death. We're also predicting the effects of global climate change on
a variety of plants and animals, both those that are at risk and those that are
Overall, Professor Krishtalka says, "we're taking 300 years
of information about animals and plants of the planet, gathered during 300
years of the biological exploration of the earth, and turning it into very
powerful predictive knowledge of possible environmental phenomena, given
different scenarios of change. For example, we can theoretically take every
single species for which we have a record, produce a predictive ecological
niche model of that species, and then archive that and when necessary overlay
it on any piece of geography, outside its native range, to predict whether it
can invade. If it does, will it survive? And if it does, in which areas will it
survive? Is it a dangerous organism? Here are the places you need to provide
interdiction. If it is not a dangerous organism, then we can let it go."
"This would apply to invasive species, emerging diseases,
and potential bioterrorism agents, as well as helping answer a lot of
theoretical questions in environmental biology and ecology. So this is a very,
very valuable tool that brings real science to environmental policy," says
Krishtalka, who is also director of the University of Kansas Natural History
Lifemapper's Web site,
www.lifemapper.org, operates by making
use of a downloadable screen saver program that utilizes the computing power of
thousands of PCs while they are not being otherwise employed. The screen saver,
patterned after that used for the SETI at Home program to search for
extraterrestrial life, automatically goes out and grabs the biodiversity
information associated with a particular animal or plant species in the
collections of the institutions that are part of the Lifemapper network.
The program shows which institutions worldwide are
contributing their data to a particular species model and which climate layers
are being brought in to use the predictive model. Finally it produces the
predictive map that's archived at the University of Kansas, and it goes on to
the next species.
Krishtalka observes that "theoretically, if we get enough
people downloading this screen saver, which is free, and running it, we could
compute and archive predictive ecological niche models for a million species in
a few months and then do it all over again as new data added to the information
for a species, so that the models are continuously refined and updated,
archived, and made ready to be used for research and for educational purposes."
A multi-disciplinary group of scientists is involved with
Lifemapper. They have expertise across systematics, phylogenetics,
biogeography, computer science, survey and inventory conservation, and other
fields. Other people who have been hired for the project include specialists in
Web-based programming and GIS databases.
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