Fractalling the Paper Paradigm

Branch from the mammal tree of life - OneZoom
Branch from the mammal tree of life – OneZoom

The more information we gain about phylogenetic trees – the trees of life used to visualize species evolution and relationships – the more difficult it becomes to represent their intricate complexity within a traditional ‘paper paradigm’. I recently posted the avian circle, which is an excellent tool, and now I’ve come across another tool which could prove to be very popular.

OneZoom is a project that was introduced in late 2012 by James Rosindell and Luke Harmon. From their article published on PLOS Biology:

“Mega-trees” with millions of tips (species) are expected to appear imminently. Unfortunately, there has so far been no practical and intuitive way to explore even the much smaller trees with thousands of tips that are now being routinely produced. Without a way to view megatrees, these wondrous objects, representing the culmination of decades of scientific effort, cannot be fully appreciated.”

Born, appropriately enough, following a walk on the thinking path at Charles Darwin’s Down house, OneZoom uses fractal patterning in an interactive application to generate trees that can branch and grow, almost infinitely. Fractal patterns are infinitely self-similar, iterated, and detailed mathematical constructs having fractal dimensions. Fractals are not limited to geometric patterns, but can also describe processes in time. From the OneZoom website:

“Trees with millions of tips, richly embellished with additional data, can now be easily explored within the web browser of any modern hardware with a zooming user interface similar to that used in Google Maps.”

In addition, the trees are beautiful to look at, easy to use, have great flexibility and (even if this sounds like an advertisement for a new video game) they are just plain fun to explore. They can be embedded in websites and used for data entry, they can provide an interactive educational tool, and at some point I am sure people will create animations of particularly dazzling fractal tree climbing experiences. I’m sure more work is being done on some of the elements – it’s a little hard to get an overview, so the relative size of taxonomic groups isn’t yet readily apparent, and I’m not yet sure how ‘time’ can be visualized (for example, whether different branches within one group are all of the same age or not) – the OneZoom trees represent quite a remarkable revolution in the treatment of vast amounts of data.

The makers of OneZoom envision using the method for other Big Data applications, as well – monitoring of complex industrial processes, global financial data, complex computing structures including hardware and software, and family trees, genealogy and pedigrees.

Sometimes, when I hear people say they just can’t imagine life without their constant attachment to the virtual world, I find myself getting into a pair of boots, shutting the door behind me and going for a good, long, non-virtual hike. And then I come across something like the haunting OneZoom trees, and I almost have to agree: Virtual tree-climbing can be both fascinating and indispensable, as well.

Article: OneZoom: A Fractal Explorer for the Tree of Life – J. Rosindell & L.J. Harmon