From Aardvarks to Zorillas: The mammoth project to document all 1.8 million species known to man

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When it is finished, it will list every form of life known to man: from aardvark to zorilla. Yesterday that unprecedented project – to compile a database of every known species – took its first virtual steps with the publication of the first chapter of the Encyclopaedia of Life.

The online encyclopaedia is an ambitious attempt to describe all animals and plants in one place. The first 30,000 entries went live yesterday in what is being described as a "macroscopic" view of life on Earth.

Just as the invention of the microscope revolutionised the understanding of minute life forms, it is hoped that the Encyclopaedia of Life will give scientists and the public a powerful tool for understanding the wider context and immense diversity of the living world.

The first pages represent the earliest stage in what will eventually become a huge library of digital information on the estimated 1.8 million species of named animals, plants and fungi. Scientists hope to complete the project by 2017.

It will be the first time that people around the world will have access to a central source of scientifically verified information on all known species, whether it be the beautiful butterflyfish of tropical coral reefs, or the poisonous mushrooms of northern boreal forests.

The scientists behind the project say the power of the database lies in its ability to cross-reference information, to make comparisons and to yield patterns in

the data that would otherwise remain invisible to even the most seasoned experts.

The Encyclopaedia of Life would, for instance, be able to help to map the living carriers of human diseases, reveal the mysteries about why some animals live so much longer than others, suggest alternative ways for pollinating valuable crops where honeybees are in decline, and come up with new ways of battling against invasive species.

"It is exciting to anticipate the scientific chords we might hear once 1.8 million notes are brought together through this instrument," said Jim Edwards, the director of the Encyclopaedia of Life. "Potential EOL users are professional and citizen scientists, teachers, students, media, environmental managers, families and artists. The site will link the public and scientific community in a collaborative way that's without precedent in scale," said Dr Edwards.

The idea for the online encyclopaedia came from the veteran Harvard zoologist Edward O Wilson, who gave a lecture last year in which he said that the world needed a tool to help to preserve the threatened biodiversity of the planet.

"Our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is even discovered. The launch of the Encyclopaedia of Life will have a profound and creative effect in science," Professor Wilson said.

"It aims not only to summarise all that we know of Earth's life forms, but also to accelerate the discovery of the vast array that remain unknown. This great effort promises to lay out new directions for research in every branch of biology," he added.

The project is the result of a collaboration between the world's greatest biological research centres, such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Field Museum in Chicago and the Natural History Museum in London, which supplied information on the 70 million animal and plant specimens in its vast collection.

About two dozen of the 30,000 pages of the encyclopaedia that went live yesterday contain the full, multimedia information – text, graphics, pictures, videos and sound – that the scientists hope will one day be available for each of the 1.8 million entries. As new species are discovered, their descriptions will be added.