17 years after its launch, U-Michigan’s revamped Animal Diversity Web reaching millions worldwide

December 19, 2012

Philip Myers. Image credit: Michigan PhotographyPhilip Myers. Image credit: Michigan PhotographyANN ARBOR—University of Michigan biologist Philip Myers was preparing to teach a new animal diversity course for nonmajors, but he couldn’t find a textbook that contained the right mix: detailed information about individual species, lots of photos, and material about ecology and conservation.

So Myers and a few U-M colleagues created a new learning tool called the Animal Diversity Web, a searchable database and multimedia encyclopedia of animal natural history that was launched on the fledgling World Wide Web in 1995.

From modest beginnings, ADW has steadily grown to become one of the world’s largest and most widely used natural history websites. During busy months, more than 5 million pages of content are provided to more than half a million users worldwide, said Myers, who added that the popularity and global reach of his brainchild was “totally unexpected.”

“I would attribute our success to the fact that we filled a niche, and we filled it early,” said Myers, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist and a curator of mammals at the U-M Museum of Zoology. “This was the early days of the World Wide Web. At the time, we were one of the only animal diversity websites out there. And once we began seeing the potential impact that we could have on the field of animal diversity, we ran with it.”

And now, thanks to the first top-to-bottom site redesign in more than a decade, ADW has a fresh new look, with more graphics, new navigation tools that provide quicker access to information, and added features such as daily “animal headlines.” Check out the revamped ADW, which was redesigned by U-M’s Michigan Creative, at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu.

Animal Diversity Web began with students in Myers’ “An Introduction to Animal Diversity” course researching, writing and receiving author credits for text entries that profiled various animal species, from aardvarks to zebra mussels. The idea—unconventional at the time but now a widely accepted teaching practice—was that students would learn more by finding the information themselves than by having a teacher lecture them.

U-M undergraduates still provide much of the text for the “species accounts” that form the backbone of the Animal Diversity Web site. But over the years, they’ve been joined by more than 2,500 students at some 50 North American colleges and universities.

These student scribes have contributed to the site’s nearly 4,000 species accounts. The Animal Diversity Web now features more than 19,000 images, more than 700 sound files (with a few clicks of a mouse, you can hear the yelps and howls of a coyote, the screech of a red-tailed hawk, or the low rumbling croak of a male bullfrog), maps and videos, including QuickTime Virtual Reality movies that provide three-dimensional views of animal skulls from various perspectives.

While browsing the site, students and other users see how zoologists organize and categorize different species, and they learn basic concepts of natural history, ecology, evolution, biodiversity and conservation biology.

Animal Diversity Website homepage screenshotThe Animal Diversity Web is one of the largest content providers for the Encyclopedia of Life, a free, online collaborative encyclopedia intended to document all known species of life.

The ADW project also has a longstanding collaboration with the U-M School of Education to develop and test innovative approaches to teaching K-12 students about biodiversity and climate change. The BioKIDS project was the first of those collaborations, and it focused on teaching young students authentic scientific inquiry through biodiversity exploration.

The Animal Diversity Web is currently working with the Center for Essential Science to develop and test a climate change biology curriculum for middle and high school students, focusing on the ecological impacts of climate change on ecosystems.

And ADW’s Quaardvark project provides structured and accessible opportunities for students to test hypotheses with real data, thereby engaging in true scientific inquiry. Quaardvark is now used at more than 20 undergraduate institutions and is impacting hundreds of students annually.

U-M’s Animal Diversity Web has come a long way since 1995, when Myers’ search for the ideal textbook led to an innovative new online teaching tool. In addition to the undergraduate writers, graduate student reviewers and five full-time U-M staff members (four at the Museum of Zoology and one at the university’s digital library) help keep the project on track.

“The original and continuing goal has been to use this for educating students,” said Myers, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “We had no way of knowing, at the start, what the real potential of this project was. I could see that it had a great deal of potential for my personal use here at the University of Michigan, but the fact that somebody in Argentina would be using it in 2012 just never occurred to me.”

The Animal Diversity Web has received funding from the U.S. Interagency Educational Research Initiative, the National Science Foundation, the Homeland Foundation, the U-M Museum of Zoology, and the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.


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