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The Open Tree of Life’s education and outreach site

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A little known side element to the Open Tree of Life project is the “Edu Tree of Life,” an interactive educational experience to engage the public. Nearing completion, our goal with this website has been to educate young students as well as the general public on topics surrounding evolution and phylogenetic trees. Our approach is to visually inform and engage users with colorful and entertaining animation, interactive features, and contextualization of facts and figures.

Our educational site is composed of three unique, interactive views of the ToL:

1) A “Big Picture” tree provides a zoomed-out timeline perspective of life’s history on earth and explains key elements of the tree of life using a stylized, graphic visualization. This ‘macro’ view presents the evolutionary history of Earth, starting from the creation of our planet and spanning all the way to present day. As the user moves up the timeline, the tree ‘grows’ in front of them revealing historical information; each new screen also offers a detailed explanation of one of several core concepts surrounding evolution. Video explanations containing animations live narrators explain each of these core concepts. Along with the videos, ‘pop-up’ information boxes also offer information.

Key elements:

  • A macro View
  • Key Concepts
  • Timeline of Life
  • Chaptered Format/Parallax Scrolling
  • Videos and Animation

The core concepts we explore are:

  • The Origin of Life
  • The Three Domains of Life
  • Common Ancestors
  • Extinction
  • Biodiversity
  • Lateral/Horizontal Gene Transfer & Genes

2) The page titled ““Categorizing Life on Earth” is a mid-sized view of life, a data-driven interactive tree with a focus on the groupings of species (clades). This Tree uses a sampling of data to illustrate hierarchy with a familiar ‘tree’ structure that employs branching lines of evolution. It pulls images from Phylopic and data from EOL for descriptions. A user can expand and contract nodes to view clades they find interesting. Still to come: we are exploring ways to illustrate LGT and are working on connecting nodes back via their common ancestry, so that clicking any two nodes will show you a visualization of how those species are connected through the whole tree of life.

Key elements:

  • Mid-sized view of major clades
  • Data-driven interactive
  • Shows Common Ancestry, Phylogeny and Clades
  • Species groupings ending in Clades

3) The “Explore Species” page is our ‘micro view’ of species on Earth. This interactive spinning wheel allows a user to select any of about 180 species to learn about. The 180 species were chosen as exemplary based on many factors: some were chosen for their relative familiarity with the general public, but many were chosen due to specific scientific breakthroughs associated with them. Many were the first species within their field of study to be gene-sequenced, some are keystone species with important evolutionary relatives, and others have strange or unique characteristics worthy of mention.

The information offered for each species includes an image (when available), scientific and common names, the major domain within which the species resides, and then a brief description of the species. This was achieved using the Encyclopedia of Life’s online API, which allowed us to pull information and other resources off of their site to show on ours. As a way of opening an educational portal between the two, any species you click on in the Wheel of Life can also be visited on its parent page at the Encyclopedia of Life, where much more information about all species can be found. We hope that this partnership will prove very fruitful for bringing in casual interest and turning it into a burning passion for evolutionary science and history. Even if we only end up with a few more zoologists, we’ll be happy.

Key elements:

  • Micro View
  • Exemplary/representative species
  • Connects to EoL API, a gateway for further learning
  • Catalogue of interesting species.­­
  • Some info on Major Domains.
  • Fun, introductory look into species and their connections.

We welcome your comments. —John Allison and Karl Gude

Quiz time!

Dear Colleagues,

Put on your quiz hats! We need some good questions!

As our team works to build an Open Tree of Life for professionals we are also working on a educational version of the tree for the everyone else, meaning educators, students, and the public in general.This public site will have a FUN QUIZ to test people’s knowledge of evolution, and we need questions for it!


• Sponges fall within which major group on the tree of life? (animal, plant, bacteria)
• Which are mushrooms more closely related to: (animals, red algae or plants?)
• How many origins of life were there on Earth? (1, 2, 3)
• Which organisms represent the greatest biomass on Earth?
(bacteria and archaea, mammals, fish)
• How many major groups of organisms are represented in a ham sandwich? (1, 2, 3)
• Genes (i.e. portions of genomes) yield the same estimate for the ToL? (Yes, No, Sometimes)
• The top 10 infectious agents on earth appear where on the tree? (bacteria only, in both bacteria and eukaryotes, in both bacterial and archaea)
• Each gene sequenced and analyzed yields the very same answer for the ToL? (Yes, No, Sometimes)You can submit up to three questions with this form, but feel free to submit more by starting a new one!

What data should we collect about the input trees for the tree of life?

The absence of a formal reporting standard for phylogenetic analyses is a major impediment for digital access and reuse of published gene trees and species trees.  Efforts are underway to develop a standard for Minimal Information About Phylogenetic Analyses (MIAPA).  An important part of this process is community input on metadata – what is important for use and evaluation, and what is reasonable to expect from producers of trees?

Results from this survey will inform two efforts: the collection of digital phylogenetic data for Open Tree of Life and the development of a minimum information standard for reporting phylogenetic analyses (MIAPA,  If you have any questions, please contact Karen Cranston, National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (

Please add your opinion here

What are your favorite species?

Dear Colleagues,

We need your help creating a list of exemplar species from across the tree of life for our public tree!

As our team works to build an open tree of life for the systematics community, we are also working on a educational version of the tree for the public . Our goal is to depict about 200 better-known (i.e. phylogenetically or otherwise important in some way (pathogen, food source, etc.) species from all three domains of life. The intended audience of this effort includes educators, students, and the public in general.

Please click this link to vote for your 5 best exemplars.

And please join the OpenTree conversation through our websiteemail, and Twitter (opentreeoflife).Thank you!

Here are the slides used by biologist and leader of our Open Tree of Life project, Dr Karen Cranston (from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center at Duke University), at the recent 2012 Evolution meetings in Ottawa, Canada. They offer a great overview of the project.

Open Tree of Life @Evolution 2012

View more presentations from Karen Cranston

Audio interview: What is the Tree of Life project?

The incredibly wonderful thing about audio is that you can continue doing what you’re doing while listening and learning. Here, biologist and leader of our Open Tree of Life project, Dr Karen Cranston (from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center at Duke University), explains our evolutionary  to Bryan Crump from Radio New Zealand. The Open Tree of Life is the first real attempt to draw a single tree of life (as envisioned by evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin) that includes every known species on Earth.

Link to audio

(about 20 minutes)

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