After 14 Years, the Google Maps of Biodiversity has Launched – Laboratory Equipment

LifeGate shows the full diversity of life at a glance. Users can zoom in at any given area until they reach the species level. Credit: Martin Freiberg/LifeGate
If you want to find the name of a good steakhouse in the town you are visiting, you would pull up Google Maps. If you want to find the name of the closet relative of red fox, you would pull up LifeGate. At least, that’s how creator Martin Freiberg sees it.
“In the future, every online search for animals, plants or bacteria will start with LifeGate,” said Freiberg. “It should become the Google Maps of biodiversity.”
LifeGate is a new interactive map, but it is taxonomic one rather than geographic: when you zoom in, you see photos of a species’ closest relative. When you zoom out, you see which taxon the species you are looking at belongs to, and which other groups it is related to.
Freiberg, curator of the botanical garden at Leipzig University and member of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), began working on LifeGate in 2008 as a teaching/studying tool for his students.
“Pictures are more memorable than mere numbers and make the topic of biodiversity more accessible,” said Freiberg. “This is why the map also fascinates amateurs and laypeople. Not only biologists go to the zoo.”
Biologists describe the phylogenetic evolution and relationships of living organisms in so-called phylogenies. Only modern phylogenies already based on DNA analyses have found a place in LifeGate. Such representations are usually limited to individual groups of species and show only birds or frogs, only begonias, orchids or only butterflies, for example. However, Freiberg has brought the phylogenies together—in painstaking detail—so that the relationship positions of all species can be shown at the same time. This includes Homo sapiens, represented by a photo of Freiberg and his young daughter, that can be found in the Mammalia class, primates order, Hominidae (great apes) family, Homo genus.
“Because LifeGate is not restricted to any one group, this is the first time that relationships between species can be represented,” he says. “I wanted to construct LifeGate in such a way that all species are of equal value, and that the incredible diversity of species can really be experienced and understood.”
While LifeGate displays the full diversity of life in a single interactive map, it is still a work in progress. It currently houses 2.6 million known species with 420,000 photos already live. But, the underlying database contains 12 million photos from over 6,000 citizens from all over the world. Right now, there are a lot of photos of some species, but none of others. That’s likely to change as new images are being added to the map every day.
With the right support in programming, project management, and continued financing, Freiberg says he has even more planned for LifeGate in the future. He envisions allowing users to choose different photo views for each species, such as the eyes or ears, or looking from the side. This would also include photos of droppings, footprints and more.  
At its core, LifeGate is a teaching tool, so classroom lessons and even virtual “trips” are also possible future avenues. The possibilities seem endless when access to 2.6 million species in the animal kingdom is only a click away.
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