I'm in the middle of researching and writing my next book, which means that I use the Encyclopedia of Life all day, every day. Lately it's been sporting a newly updated and simplified interface, and I realized that it was high time to sing its praises.
EOL is a mega-database cataloging all known species (of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, protozoa) known to exist on the planet. It's compiled by a consortium of authoritative organizations–just take a look at the credentials of these people— and pulls the latest taxonomic information directly from the governing bodies in the science world that determine these sorts of things. (The World Register of Marine Species, Integrated Taxonomic Information system, groups like that.)
So how do I use EOL?
First, I use it to check the species names of plants I'm writing about. You'll see in the screen shot above that today's plant, hops, turns up in three different classifications systems. I can check all three to make sure that it's not in the middle of being reclassified, in which case I simply yell at the screen, throw something out the window, and vow to never speak to another taxonomist again. (Or I write, "the classification of this plant is in some dispute…"– a line my editor will later cut on the grounds that nobody cares but me and a couple of taxonomists I'm not speaking to anyway.)
After that, I can take a look at some pictures of the plants (pictures that have been reliably verified to be actual pictures of the actual species–as opposed to a Google images search), see a distribution map that tells me where the plant grows in the world, and–get this–do a literature search with actual links to the actual literature. Check this out:
That's right. You're looking at 250 year-old articles on hops written in GERMAN, which I can simply click and read in scanned page format. There is no end to my delight. Well, there is an end to my delight–they don't have everything, because as you know, lots of scientific journals have not seen fit to share their scientific wonderfulness with the wide world. (Dear Scientific Journals: Please loosen up a little. How about letting people read some small number of articles for free every month, and then charging a subscription fee after that?)
But that's OK. What they have is interesting enough, and guaranteed to be a better time-waster than Facebook.
Speaking of Facebook, there is a feature called Community in which people can log in and talk about common issues of concern wrt some particular species. I haven't seen much of that yet, so I don't have an example to show you, but it's a cool idea.
And last but not least–for every plant, you can find out what information is being fed into the EOL entry. I appreciate the fact that EOL is egalitarian in its selection of sources–you'll see Wikipedia and Flickr here alongside more academic sources. It's good to have all of that, with all the usual disclaimers.
So. There you go. EOL. It's awesome, and it's run entirely on grants and donations. I finally sent them a donation, after realizing that I practically can't get out of bed these days without consulting EOL first. I spend a lot of time as a writer trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between the interesting, obscure, and complex work that scientists do–and the rest of us. EOL's doing that too, and I love them for it.