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Growing the Tree of Life

The idea of a Tree of Life has been around for thousands of years – the presentation of animals and plants as leaves and branches on one organism.

The Assyrians had one, so did the ancient Greeks and the Vikings. The Bible makes reference to one on numerous occasions. Charles Darwin famously drew one up. Heck, Aretha Franklin even sang about one.

Doug and Pam Soltis, professors at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, reckoned the time was ripe for a new one. Over time , industrial civilisation somewhat killed the concept of all life being linked; scientists, meanwhile, generally looked only at the branches – for butterflies, for birds, for insects etc.

“What has been missing is the connections between these groups,” Pam Soltis said in a chat with Future Earth at the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

With funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation,  the Soltis’s have now put everything together – including 2.3 million known species – on one tree. It is by no means comprehensive: there are millions of unnamed species out there, particularly in bacteria. But this is likely to be as close as one can get to a linked-up view of the Earth’s biodiversity.

“If we consider that we are part of the tree of life it should give us a different perspective of our place … and perhaps our responsibility,” she said.

This new Tree of Life is getting the modern touch. First, there is an interactive version aimed primarily at scientists  at It is here that the full depth of the research can be seen.

For a more, general audience, however, try where a pictorial version can be explored. It was created from the Soltis’s work by James Rosindell, a reader in biodiversity theory at Imperial College, London.

Then there are the multimedia presentations. An animated film – TreeTender at — seeks to explain the Tree (and biodiversity in general) in a way that will particularly appeal to younger viewers. It seeks to explain the value of biodiversity to humans – for medicine, food, etc.

One Tree, One Planet, meanwhile, seeks to art, music, video and the Tree in one presentation

And, of course, there is the One Tree One Planet app that brings much of it altogether on a mobile phone.

“The Tree of Life is an ancient concept. We have always had a view of our species being a leaf on a tree with other species,” Doug Soltis said. A new generation needs to know this.

“We hope they use (our work) in the classroom,” he said.