Interactive Tree of Life Zooms In On Evolutionary History

From protozoans to people, there is a lot of life on this planet, and it’s all connected to a common ancestor from which everything descends. It’s hard to imagine, let alone visualize, all of the commonalities and shared heritage of all of that life. But now you can do it with fractals.

A new website launching today lets you explore all of the evolutionary tree of life, zooming in and out like you would use an online map. It’s called OneZoom and it’s built on a fractal pattern that repeats the same branching form, no matter how expanded or collapsed your view. James Rosindell, a professor in the department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, conceived the idea and programmed OneZoom in collaboration with Luke Harmon, a biologist at the University of Idaho.

The project was somewhat of a happy accident, Rosindell said in an interview. Fascinated by fractals, the evolutionary biologist wanted to use a fractal zooming interface to display large and complex data sets, but it took a collaboration with Harmon to decide on the tree of life as his subject.
A tree is an apt metaphor for the history of life (among many other things) because it starts with a clearly defined beginning, offering both a timeline and a vast canopy of interconnected information. In a tree of life, the trunk generally represents the first life on Earth, and then it splits into boughs and branches for different kingdoms, like plants and animals. Those split into smaller branches, say for fish, mammals, birds and so on; and those break down into smaller and smaller twigs, representing families and groups, and finally leaves representing species. But try putting all of that information on a single tree, and it’s impossible, Rosindell said. It wouldn’t fit on a single page, neither a plant-derived one nor a digital one.