By Raphael Rosen, EOL Collaborator, and Breen Byrnes, EOL Public Information Officer
Wouldn't it be great if you could have information about all species at your fingertips? Based on ideas set forth by the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson, the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), online at www.eol.org, helps make knowledge of all of Earth's living species as accessible and understandable as possible. Want to find out where Army Ants live? Interested in the migration habits of the Baltimore Oriole? EOL has the answers.
In fact, EOL has a lot of answers. The site currently has information about more than one million species. Each organism on the site has its own taxon page, a place where all of its data is gathered. On each page you can browse through multimedia, maps, and detailed anatomical data. EOL is truly the world at one's fingertips.
To help amass its piles of biological info, EOL has enlisted the assistance of Rubenstein Fellows, promising scientists who work to improve the reach and breadth of EOL. Fellows receive partial funding for up to one year to bring biodiversity research, databases, and media into the Encyclopedia of Life. The fellows program is made possible through a generous donation by David M. Rubenstein to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
This year, one of the 16 fellows is based at the National Museum of Natural History and originally hails from Marília, a town about 300 miles west of São Paulo, Brazil. Fernando Jerep began his science career studying fish. He was particularly interested in characids, a family of tiny freshwater fish sometimes known as tetras. These fish live throughout the Americas, and their ranks include 1,125 species.
Jerep's love of fish began when he was a child. "My first pet was a fish and that instilled in me a desire to become an amateur aquarist," Jerep says. His interest in characids in particular began during his undergraduate studies at Brazil's Universidade Estadual de Londrine. He found that, though small – they range in size from 20mm (.78 inch) to 150mm (6 inches) – characids show fascinating adaptations to their various environments as well as hugely varied shapes and anatomies. Some characids thrive in environments with lots of oxygen, enriched by the pounding of rapids. Some live in more stagnant waters. In fact, the species that live in the latter may develop special bumps on their lips to help them draw as much oxygen from the water as they can. In other species, the females store sperm from the males inside their ovaries without fertilizing their eggs. Why these fish would do so is still not understood. Some characids – members of the subfamily Stevardiinae– have areas of tissue and scales on their caudal fins (underneath and towards the back of the fish) that scientists believe might release pheromones during reproduction. The variety is enough to keep a fish specialist occupied for a lifetime.
As a Rubenstein Fellow, Jerep's overarching mission is to make information about 400 characid species more accessible to the public. He plans to collect information about the fish from research articles, journals, books, and magazines. He will also translate research from Spanish- and Portuguese-language publications into English. And by adding photos and video to the taxon pages, he hopes to inspire other people to add their own, too.
But the Encyclopedia of Life website is not the only place where budding naturalists can share their photos and videos. EOL has an active Flickr group, now with 3,000 members and over 100,000 items. A quick scan through the images reveals stunning close-ups of ladybugs, detailed shots of Costa Rican flowers, and candid photos of feeding parrots. The contributors themselves live throughout the world, including locations in Australia and Europe. It's never been easier to share your passion for the natural world.
And for those, like Fernando Jerep, who are fascinated by South American freshwater fish, just wait. A bounty of information is on its way.