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Lifemapper Web site

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.

Image of map from LifemapperOne 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 kinds—climate, terrain and so forth—and 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 questions—changing 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 not."

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 Museum.

Image of logo from Lifemapper Web siteLifemapper'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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