Who’s zooming who? Frogs, fractals and the tree of life

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As ecologists assemble ever larger parts of the tree of life, whose evolutionary branches connect the millions of species on Earth, they need better ways of presenting and organising information. Now, biologist Dr James Rosindell of Imperial College London has developed a revolutionary way of visualising the tree of life. He will demonstrate his new software, which could evolve into a biological equivalent of Google Earth, at this week’s British Ecological Society Annual Meeting at the University of Birmingham.

Who's zooming who? Frogs, fractals and the tree of life
A biologist has developed a revolutionary way of visualising the tree of life [Credit: OneZoom, copyright James Rosindell]

Inspired by fractals — the beautiful, repeating and infinitely complex patterns commonly found in nature — OneZoom will help ecologists solve the problem of how to present vast amounts of information. And by doing so in an attractive, accessible fashion it could also inspire members of the public.

Developed with Dr Luke Harmon of the University of Idaho, OneZoom is based on the simple idea that all life of Earth can be contained on one page, where users access the information by simply zooming in and out of different areas. According to Dr Rosindell: “It’s very much like exploring a map, zooming in on areas of interest to provide further details. By using the zooming concept the amount of information that can be placed on the page is limitless.”

To ensure there are interesting things to see at different scales of zoom, Dr Rosindell used fractal-based algorithms similar to those used to produce detailed zoomable images that — like the Mandelbrot set — resemble plants and trees. “The only difference is now these are more than just pretty pictures that are fun to explore, they also become goldmines of information,” he explains.

Taking this approach solves the problems associated with existing methods, says Dr Rosindell: “These are four-fold: we can’t display very large trees; we can’t use our intuition easily when looking at large tree diagrams; there are limited ways to add information about species and their common ancestors on the tree; and the tree visualisations tend not to be beautiful. It’s easy to overlook beauty in data visualisation, but making things beautiful and enticing is important if we want the public to get interested in science.”

As well as allowing the tree of life to be visualised in an intuitive, beautiful and fun fashion, OneZoom could open up new and interactive ways of publishing scientific results, he predicts: “I call these IFIGs — interactive fractal inspired graphs — and I think interactive graphs will become commonplace in scientific work.”

Rosindell’s ultimate aim is a biological equivalent of Google Earth. International collaborations already exist to collect the data, but they need visualisation tools like OneZoom to bring them to life. “My dream is to create the ‘Google Maps of biology’: a single page built around the tree of life with all described species, living and extinct, plus photos, maps and information on evolutionary paths. And it’s something I want to make available for free on the web as well as in apps, educational packages and customisable displays at zoos, museums and science centres.”

Dr James Rosindell will present OneZoom on December 18, 2012 to the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting at the University of Birmingham.

Source: British Ecological Society (BES) [December 18, 2012]

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