Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Building an international encyclopedia of life

Volume 6 Number 2 - October 2009

Marie Studer

French: L’Encyclopédie de la vie

Spanish: Enciclopedia de la vida



The Encyclopedia of Life (EOL; was established to make comprehensive, authenticated information about the world’s biodiversity freely available over the Internet.  EOL’s portal includes more than 160,000 authenticated species pages, another 1.4 million base pages and links to 13 million pages of digitized biodiversity literature.  The features available on the website make participation open to everyone.  Users, including learners, educators, scientists and members of the public can contribute photos and videos via the EOL Flickr Group, apply tags to images and provide comments on the content. 

In addition, Regional EOLs are a key feature. They typically serve species pages for the flora and fauna from a specific geographic area, using the language of the region and making this valuable information much more accessible.

The EOL provides an engaging and informative learning platform where learners and others can work together to help build this global resource and learn about biological diversity worldwide.

A Biological moonshot

The Encyclopedia of Life has been called a ‘biological moonshot’ for its vision to create a centralized Web portal with a page for every living organism on Earth – and for succeeding in demonstrating proof of concept with the project well underway since the site went live in February 2008.  ‘Like flying to the moon, making one encyclopedia of all life is an old idea that technology might finally make possible.’ (Milius, 2008)   

As its user base grows, EOL continues to engage people everywhere with a greater number of enhanced species pages and is developing a comprehensive set of knowledge tools to navigate and mine EOL’s increasingly rich content.  This development brings new applications of EOL for many different end-users, from educators and students to conservation scientists and the general public. 

The latest version of EOL’s portal was unveiled in early 2009.  In addition to new features, it now serves more than 160,000 authenticated species pages covering a greater breadth of biodiversity.   While there are approximately 1.8 million known and named species today, scientists estimate another 10 to 30 million species yet to be discovered and named, and eventually added to EOL.  Because of the enormous nature of the project and the desire to have international participation and knowledge in constructing the EOL, the project has focused on building participatory and collaborative web tools for diverse audiences of all ages to contribute to this global resource.

Information, images, videos and other content coming in from various audiences is differentiated, so the end-users know the source of the information and whether or not it has been authenticated by the scientific community.  If a user chooses to see ‘all’ information, they will notice that on each species page unauthenticated material is distinguished from authenticated with a yellow background for photos and text. Users can choose whether to view unauthenticated content by using the slider on any species page or through the preferences menu on the top.  

Learning while building

The EOL can be incorporated into learning activities across ages and skill sets, while at the same time the learners are contributing to this global biodiversity initiative. 

It can be used as a reliable reference for a wide range of information about species, including but not limited to life history, molecular biology and genetics and current conservation status and threats.  All content and multi-media resources provided through EOL are either in the public domain or are served under a Creative Commons License (see  In nearly all cases, material available through EOL can be freely used by anyone, although in some instances you will need to contact the data partner if you wish to re-use the material for commercial purposes. These freely available resources can help increase learners’ knowledge and understanding of particular species, and provide exposure to various analytical methodologies and the process of scientific discovery.  The EOL gives access to an ever-expanding repository of information, including primary literature through our partnership with the Biodiversity Heritage Library ( 

Through the participatory possibilities, such as uploading images and videos, and commenting and tagging data objects, EOL can serve as an interactive platform to better engage audiences to learn about biodiversity and to hone twenty-first-century skills.  

Users are invited to join the EOL Flickr Group and post photos and videos to be served on the species pages ( are currently more than 1,300 members from around the world and more than 32,000 images and 300 videos posted.  In addition to posting to the Flickr Group, users can also help identify images with the correct species names. This matching of images will allow the display of the photos on corresponding species pages and help add content to EOL.

The EOL Education group has also begun an initiative in which university students write species page descriptions under the direction of their professors.  To date, positive responses have been received about this activity from both students and professors, with indications that contributing to a global endeavour such as EOL is highly motivating (  A pilot project focusing on fungi was developed with our content partner Mushroom Observer and more than 100 pages have been written by students.

Around the world:  making regional and global resources accessible

EOL continues to cultivate global partnerships by developing regional versions, a key feature of EOL outreach. They will typically serve species pages for the flora and fauna of a specific geographic area, using the languages of the region.  Encyclopedia of Life is in various stages of discussion and development with representatives of countries wishing to establish their own EOLs, including The Netherlands, Central America and China. 

Naturalis, the National Museum of Natural History in the Netherlands, is partnered
with EOL to create the first regional version.  It will serve species pages on more than
35,000 native species of Dutch flora and fauna in the Dutch language. Hundreds
of scientists at Naturalis and partner organizations are compiling species information, images and trend graphs into the Dutch Species Catalogue. This information will also be shared through the central EOL portal in English (

Costa Rica’s national biodiversity institute, INBio, is taking the initial steps to start an education-based regional EOL for Central America. INBio is exploring how their programme, Cyberhives (Cibercolmenas in Spanish), can be expanded for use in other Central American countries.  Cyberhives is a methodology based on virtual communities of learning. It promotes the innovative use of science and information technology in the classroom, in Costa Rica’s wild protected areas and in cyberspace to generate experiences and projects that stimulate students to learn and build knowledge about their local biodiversity (

In June 2009, EOL representatives signed a Memorandum of Understanding with
members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who expressed their enthusiastic desire to work with EOL and engage in exchange visits of personnel.  They are developing a Chinese regional EOL to serve information and literature about Chinese species. They are also planning to host a full EOL mirror site for Asia and translate the entire EOL into Chinese. They have begun significant high-quality digitizing of Chinese language biodiversity literature and are taking steps to join the Biodiversity Heritage Library consortium.

EOL will continue to expand its global partnerships, which will increase its ability to deliver and receive biodiversity information and allow learning and educational activities worldwide.  

Scanning and digitization:  accessing biodiversity literature

Accessibility to primary literature and accurate, detailed images are critical to support educational activities across informal and formal science learning audiences.  Biodiversity literature and images are made possible through EOL from the collections of the contributing libraries of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  More than 400,000 EOL species pages are linked to portions of these numerous texts. 

BHL Europe has been funded by the European Commission to digitize and assemble biodiversity literature from several European libraries. This partner project will add significant biodiversity content and continue to make EOL more relevant on a global scale.

Celebrating the International Year of Biodiversity

EOL looks forward to collaborating with institutions and individuals around the world to celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity.  Through multiple efforts, EOL resources and tools to participate and access biodiversity content will continue to grow.  Please let us know about how you use EOL in your learning activities or what you need in order to get started.   

Please contact us at or post a comment on our forum ( under the Education section.


Milius, S., 2008. Biological Moonshot: Realizing the dream of a web page for every living thing, Science News 173(5).


L’Encyclopédie de la vie (EOL; a été réalisée afin de rendre librement disponibles sur Internet des informations complètes et authentifiées sur la biodiversité mondiale.  Le portail de l’Encyclopédie de la vie compte plus de 160,000 pages d’espèces authentifiées, ainsi que 1,4 millions de pages modèles et de liens vers 13 millions de pages de documents informatisés sur la biodiversité.  Les caractéristiques disponibles sur le portail de l’EOL permettent la participation de tous.  Les utilisateurs, notamment les étudiants, enseignants, scientifiques et le grand public, peuvent fournir des photos et vidéos par le biais de l’EOL Flickr Group, ajouter des étiquettes aux images et apporter des commentaires sur le contenu. 

De plus, un élément clé de l’EOL est l’existence d’EOL régionales. Elles gèrent généralement les pages d’espèces concernant la faune et la flore d’une zone géographique spécifique, dans les langues utilisées dans cette région, rendant ainsi ces informations beaucoup plus accessibles.

L’EOL propose une plateforme d’apprentissage engageante et instructive, où les étudiants et bien d’autres pourront travailler ensemble afin de contribuer à construire cette ressource internationale et diffuser d’avantage les connaissances sur la diversité biologique à travers le monde.


La enciclopedia de la vida (EOL; es una iniciativa para hacer mas entendible y de manera mas exacta, autentica, la información acerca de la biodiversidad mundial. Esta se encuentra de manera gratuita en la Internet.  La pagina portal de la enciclopedia de la vida incluye mas de 160,000 especies, todas de ellas corroboradas y otro tanto de 1.4 millones de paginas base, con las que se encuentran ligas con unos 13 millones de literatura y bibliografía digitalizada de biodiversidad. La flexibilidad de EOL es tal que permite la participación de todo usuario, estos incluyen educadores, científicos, estudiantes y publico en general que deseen participar y contribuir con fotografías, videos a través del grupo EOL Flickr, quienes proveen la conexión a las imágenes y comentarios del contenido de las mismas. 

Existen también los portales regionales de la EOL cuentan con paginas de especies de la flora y fauna local de una área geográfica especifica, la información es en el idioma local, haciendo mas valiosa la información y mucho mas accesible a un publico regional. Asimismo los portales regionales son una llave para entrar a la  EOL global.

La EOL proporciona una manera interactiva y entretenida de información para el aprendizaje, donde los aprendices y otros usuarios pueden trabajar unidos para ayudar al engrandecimiento [enriquecimiento] de este recurso global para el conocimiento de la biodiversidad biológica mundial.

Marie Studer
Encyclopedia of Life
Education and Outreach Director
Harvard University
Museum of Comparative Zoology
26 Oxford Street
Cambridge, MA 02138