Connecting the Address Book to the Family Tree for the Earth’s Vertebrates

Professor Walter Jetz hopes to give the world a clearer picture of the vivid diversity of life, and a combined $4.1 million in recent funding from the National Science Foundation will help him achieve this goal. Two of his projects, VertLife and Map of Life, aim to synthesize discoveries from ecology and evolutionary sciences and will be accessible from the same online platform. Both projects pinpoint the location of species—one on the tree of life, and the other on a map of the Earth.

The VertLife program is a new NSF-funded project. Having previously worked on completing a tree of life for birds, Jetz now aims to complete the phylogenetic tree for all 33,000 vertebrate species on Earth, using parallel sequencing genetic methods.

The goal of the Map of Life is to map out the distribution of the world’s terrestrial species at a high precision. The project is unifying the efforts of scientists around the world. The team seeks out studies on a fine grain—for instance, the birds of one protected marsh in Iraq—then uploads the species data and a map of the study region to the website. The Map of Life aims to provide a refined understanding of species distribution crucial for effective conservation. At the World Parks Congress in Australia in mid-November, Jetz unveiled a new protection status tool that shows whether species are being protected where they actually reside. The project will also serve as an educational tool for students learning about biodiversity.

The data from the VertLife project will be accessible from the Map of Life website. For each species, users will be able to see where it lives, distinctive traits, and where it is on the tree of life. “We’re trying to complete the understanding of the variation in life,” said Jetz. “We’re addressing different dimensions.”