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App puts world's biodiversity in the palm of your hand

Check out local wildlife wherever you are in the world with a new app that says what species of animals and plants might be nearby

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | May 17, 2015 | Higher education

The free Map of Life app dispenses with bulky field guides by allowing users to access a vast global database of species and their ranges, based on their location.

Building on the Map of Life website, which provides a database of everything from bumblebees to trees, the app tells users in an instant which sets of species are likely to be found in their vicinity. Photos and text help users identify and learn more about what they see. The app also helps users create personal lists of observations and contribute those observations to scientific research and conservation efforts. 

“The app puts a significant proportion of our global knowledge about biodiversity in the palm of your hand, and allows you to discover and connect with biodiversity in a place, wherever you are,” said guiding force behind the Map of Life Professor Walter Jetz, a Senior Scientist in the Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and Environment group at Imperial College London and an associate professor at Yale University.

“This vast information, personalized for where we are, can change the way we identify and learn about the things we see when traveling, hiking in the woods, or stepping in our own back yard.” 

Instead of sifting through hundreds of pages in a printed field guide, naturalists get a digital guide that is already tailored to their location. With a novel modelling and mapping platform covering tens of thousands of species — everything from mammals and birds to plants, amphibians, reptiles, arthropod groups, and fish — Map of Life presents localised species information via maps, photographs, and detailed information.

Thanks to a recording feature, citizen scientists everywhere can log their bird encounters and dragonfly sightings directly into the app and add to the biodiversity data available to scientists around the world. 

“Think of a field guide that continues to improve the more we all use it and add to it. That is the beauty of this mobile application, and its great strength,” said Rob Guralnick, associate curator at the University of Florida and the project’s co-leader. “Built from 100 years of knowledge about where species are found, we hope to accelerate our ability to completely close the many gaps in our biodiversity knowledge.” 

Indeed, making it easier and more globally streamlined for citizen scientists to contribute information is one of the key motivations behind creating the app. “The world is changing rapidly and species continue to disappear before we even knew where they occurred, what role they had, and how we could conserve them,” said Professor Jetz, who is involved in several global science initiatives for advancing biodiversity monitoring. 

“Too much of our knowledge is limited to too few places and species,” said Professor Jetz. “Helping people everywhere to identify and then record biodiversity carries the potential to hugely extend the geographic and taxonomic reach of measuring the pulse of life.”

The Map of Life app is available in six languages for iPhone and Android smartphones, and can be downloaded from https://mol.org/mobile. 

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