Biodiversity, the Tree of Life, and Science Communication

  • James RosindellEmail author
  • Yan Wong


The usual approach to organising human knowledge in any field is to invent an intuitive, often hierarchical system of classification. Perhaps uniquely to natural history, humans did not so much invent such a system as discover one: the tree of life. This now iconic object has utility, not only in biodiversity research but also in conservation and science communication. For example, engagement in conservation requires highlighting the scale of biodiversity and what we stand to lose; this can be communicated very effectively by showing people the complete tree of life. Here we discuss the challenges involved in making the complete tree of life accessible to a broad audience. The first challenge relates to data curation, which is marred by the lack of a universally recognised database of species names. Different species can have the same name, different names can refer to the same species, and spelling errors are rife. The second challenge is tree visualisation. While many visualisation methods already exist, few are able to represent the complete tree of life. We argue that scaling up any method to the extent necessary for showing the whole tree of life is bound to expose inescapable trade-offs in the prominence given to each aspect of the underlying data. For example, should topology or species richness be prioritised when displaying clades that contain an insignificant proportion of species but which occupy a prominent position in the tree topology? We conclude with an optimistic outlook for using the tree of life in science communication.



We would like to thank Dan Faith and Rosa Scherson for inviting us to write this chapter and for editing the volume as a whole; Alexandra Freeman for comments on the text; Luke Harmon for his role in supporting the OneZoom project and non-profit organisation from inception; many photographers and illustrators for providing public domain material used in OneZoom imagery within this chapter; Chris Jenord and Damian Belson from the Ancestor’s Trail team for their work on that project and for granting permission to use the trail map in Fig. 3.1; Josh Wolfe for the use of his maze generation software under an MIT licence to create a maze base for Fig. 3.2, the complete puzzle is also available under a Creative Commons Attribution licence – Version 3.0 – and is attributable to James Rosindell and OneZoom; David R. Maddison for the left panel of Fig. 3.3 downloaded from and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence – Version 3.0; Remco Bouckaert for granting permission to use the image from DensiTree as the right panel of our Fig. 3.3; the One Tree, One Planet team (Doug Soltis, Pam Soltis, Rob Guralnick and Naziha Mestaoui) for permitting us to use a screenshot of their projection project and for using OneZoom as part of that work; the University of Florida for their support of the One Tree, One Planet project; T. Michael Keesey (vectorization) and Tony Hisgett (photography) for the PhyloPic image of a chimpanzee in Fig. 3.9, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence; and Rod Page for his thought-provoking comments on the OneZoom software both as a reviewer and since initial publication. This work was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council via an Independent Research Fellowship NE/L011611/1 grant to James Rosindell.

Maze of Life Solution

The solution to the problem in Fig. 3.1: human, does not fit anywhere (trick question); olympic torrent salamander, 3; tardigrade, 6; chocolate chip starfish, 5; Pacific dampwood termite, 1; house mouse louse, 2; blue-black spider wasp, 4; and cactus sea squirt, 7.

URLs for Resources Mentioned

Ancestor’s Trail



Encyclopedia of life




OneZoom code (GitHub)

Open Tree of Life

Tree of Life Web Project

WikiProject Taxonomy



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.OneZoom, onezoom.orgLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of Life SciencesImperial College LondonAscotUK
  3. 3.Big Data Institute, Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery, University of OxfordOxfordUK

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