Page last updated at 14:12 GMT, Monday, 1 June 2009 15:12 UK

Help wanted to write book of life

Insects on display, BBC
The project aims to catalogue local species of flora and fauna

A virtual book of all life on Earth is being created by UK and US scientists.

The online reference work will create a detailed world map of flora and fauna and track changes in biodiversity.

The database, dubbed a "macroscopic observatory", will be populated with data about local species gathered by members of the public.

Early elements of the giant database, such as automatic species identification systems, are already under construction.

Field guide

Over time the database will log shifts in species and other data such as changes in the density of forests and when plants first flower.

The backers of the idea hope that the vast, virtual book of life will eventually be comparable to the global system used to watch for and record earthquakes.

The ongoing project will constantly gather data so it can plot information about the range and abundance of plants and animals as worldwide temperature and rainfall patterns shift in response to climate change.

Details held on the database will include everything from gross anatomical details down to individual genes.

"We are creating a virtual observatory for world biodiversity, where environmental observations, specimen data, experimental results, and sophisticated modelling can be done across all levels of biodiversity - from genes to ecosystems," said James Edwards, executive director of the Encyclopedia of Life, in a statement.

The Encyclopedia, based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and the London's Natural History Museum are the key backers of the project. The push to create the observatory was unveiled at the e-Biosphere 09 conference held from 1-3 June in London.

As well as logging long-term changes brought about by climate change, the creators of the online observatory hope it will bring more tangible benefits.

It could give early warnings about invasive species or, for example, give insights into the timing, altitude and route of bird migrations in ways that could reduce bird strike numbers on aircraft.

The observatory would also serve as a hi-tech field guide for anyone who wanted to identify animals, insects, trees or flowers they found while on holiday or near their home.

Within 10 years, expect its backers, all aspects of the database will be available. Some parts of the system, such as images of species, maps of the seas and gene sequences to help with DNA barcoding, are already in use.

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