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A screen grab from the Mammal Tree on OneZoom.org
A screen grab from the Mammal Tree on OneZoom.org

Holy Crap! It’s not often I find something on the internet that really excites me. (Go ahead, insert internet porn joke here.) But today I did.

For years I’ve fantasized about ways to visualize the family of life on our planet. Ways to show people the complex relationships between all living things and how it all fits together. Today I decided to take a look and see if anyone else was giving it a try. To my amazement, I found something very similar to what I’ve imagined. It’s called OneZoom (onezoom.org). And from the moment I opened it up, I was hooked.

The humble nature of the website and its creators belies the mind-blowing power of what they have accomplished. Just 18 months ago the project went live and in that short time they have mapped over 22,000 animal species and 31,000 plant species into their interactive tree.

I spent hours today discovering bizarre relationships between species that I would never have guessed diverged from the same branch (the pronhorn and the giraffe? hippos and whales?) The power of this seemingly simple diagram is that all these thousands of species appear in a single image (thanks to the magic of fractals). One simply navigates the image like a map online. Scroll up to zoom in, scroll down to zoom out. Click and drag to move around. Suddenly you’re realizing what a tiny little branch we primates occupy on the grand tree of living things!

There are some really cool options like the ability to change the shape of the tree, the level of detail, labeling with common names or latin names, and the color scheme (representing time of divergence or even conservation threat level.) And once you zoom in you you’ll find a wealth of information in both the nodes and the “leaves” for each species, including links to other info sites. There’s a super cool animation that shows the branches growing over time, displaying how many millions of years ago each divergence occurred. Plus there are some great little tutorial videos to get you started.

On top of all that, you can embed personalized interactive animations directly into your site. For example, here’s where to find the Little Penguin (click here to see a photo of a Little Penguin) on the tree of all living things!

I’d just like to give a huge thanks and a high five to the creators James Rosindell and Luke Harmon.

And in case you guys are looking for your next project, here’s my ultimate tree of life visualization fantasy. I’d like to devise a viewer where you can push an animal along the tree and it will morph depending on the direction you choose (whether into the future or the past) and it will show all intermittent forms between the primeval single-celled organism and modern day species. Of course I’d like to throw in all the extinct species as well. Let me know when you’re ready to get started on it OK?

Go to OneZoom now and start exploring your extended family.