Sound and vision blog

24 January 2014

Beautiful Science: exploring the diversity of life on Earth

The songs and calls of 100 species have been specially selected for the British Library’s upcoming exhibition Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight. Taken from the Library’s extensive collection of natural sounds, these recordings have been incorporated into a rather fab bit of phylogenetic software – welcome everyone to OneZoom.

This tree of life explorer helps users discover and visualise the evolutionary relationships between species in an easy to access way. Working much like a map, the explorer lets you zoom into particular areas of curiosity and in so doing so reveals interesting and sometimes surprising branches in our planet’s evolutionary history. Did you know that elephants and hyraxes are basically first cousins? You will once you’ve had a look at OneZoom.




As you zoom ever deeper into the tree, families, genera and eventually species are gradually revealed. Each species is represented by a leaf on the tree; each leaf is then colour-coded to reflect the current conservation status of that animal. Now, for the first time, some of these leaves also carry with them the typical vocalisation of the species they represent. Here are just some of the birds, mammals and amphibians that made the final cut:

Western Lowland Gorilla

Gorilla gorilla gorilla, recorded by Nerissa Chao in Mikongo Conservation Area, Lope National Park, Gabon, 2002

Manx Shearwater

Puffinus puffinus, recorded by Alan Burbidge, Skokholm, Wales, 1998

Humpback Whale

Megaptera novaeangliae, recorded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Caribbean Sea, 2000

Common Toad

Bufo bufo, recorded by Eric & May Nobles, Radnor, Wales, 1989

Crested Bellbird

Oreoica gutturalis, recorded by Vicki Powys, Northern Territory, Australia, 1993

OneZoom is the brainchild of Dr James Rosindell, a biodiversity theorist based at Imperial College London who, together with Dr Luke Harmon from the University of Idaho, came up with the initial concept.

The idea of representing relationships between organisms, both living and extinct, in the form of a tree gained popularity within the scientific community during the 19th century. The great naturalist, Charles Darwin, used this concept to express the diversification of species from a common ancester in his seminal work 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection'. The German biologist Ernst Haeckel produced several trees of life that reflected refinements in his research into the phylogenetic history of life.

Darwin's tree of life published in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859)

Tree of life featured in Ernst Haeckel's The Evolution of Man (1879)

The evolutionary illustrations of Darwin and particularly Haeckel are beautiful visualisations of data that reflect the scientific knowledge of the time. The level of information available however is defined by the medium on which they are presented. The future lies with phylogenetic trees, such as OneZoom, that exist beyond the page, allowing an unprecedented level of exploration and understanding of how life on Earth evolved.

Beautiful Science runs from 20 February to 26 May, 2014, is sponsored by Winton Capital Management, and is free to the public.



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