So, as everyone talks about big data and everyone’s putting together large structured databases: How do you actually USE this abundance of information? How do you MAKE SENSE of it?

Over the past few years, biologists and evolution theorists have gathered highly complex databases about biodiversity on Earth – not just now, but throughout the history of our planet: humans, animals and plants as well as microbes and bacteria. Currently, around 2 million species are known to biologists – and some scientists expect there might be many more out there.

Enhanced with data about when each species has evolved (given in Million Years Ago – Mya) and descriptions of the hierarchical structures between species, this information forms an almost unmanageable body of data.

The “tree of life” is a well established metaphor for organising this information – with the root symbolising the single cell organisms that were the common ancestors for all forms of life, and the limbs branching out as more diverse species evolved.


Over the past years, there have been various projects for visualising this sort of databases. However, many of them are either not very intuitive or lack the possibility to include additional data. James Rosindell, a biodiversity theorist currently affiliated with the Imperial College of London, has now created a browser for large ‘tree of life’-datasets based on fractal geometry: OneZoom. His idea was to represent all levels of information in one infinite space:

The key concept of our solution is that all the data is on one page so
that all the user has to do is zoom to reveal it — hence the name OneZoom.

(Screenshot OneZoom showing the depth of zoom levels)

James Rosindell points out that exploring the tree by zooming in and out is not only very easy to understand but also efficient in bridging the extreme disparity between the overall complexity and the elaborate levels of detailed information to be shown in the tree of life.

Every node and leaf in this tree contains meta information, most of the times containing even the link to external resources (like an article on Wikipedia). The colour coding of branches and leaves refers to the conservation status according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

(Screenshot showing the three default visualisations of the tree that OneZoom offers)

Currently, OneZoom has only partial trees loaded onto their website, but hopefully someone will take up the challenge soon and feed the software with a complete ‘tree of life’-dataset. Take a look at the project here.