Noah's Ark for the Internet era

By , csmonitor.com

Have you ever wondered what a Dodo bird sounded like? Or a Carolina Parakeet? Perhaps you'd like to be able to see a Mammoth or Mastodon in motion. Clearly, it's too late to record any of the animals above, but with a worldwide extinction rate estimated at one distinct species every twenty minutes, it's essential that science document as many currently endangered species as possible while it still is possible - and then protects those documents in the event of eventual extinctions. Britain's ARKive intends to serve exactly this purpose, and, in addition to gathering the information, is planning to make the collection available to anyone with an internet connection.

Describing itself as a virtual conservation effort and "Noah's Ark for the Internet era," ARKive plans to collect and post films, stills and even sound files for some 11,000 endangered plants and animals - and a few recent extinctions as well. (Current intentions are to have roughly 1200 species posted by the end of 2003.) With a goal of 6-10 stills and 10 minutes of high quality film footage for each species, it's still the ramp up stage for the site - but there's already a great deal to investigate.

Accompanied by such home page offerings as an introduction to the site's goals, and ARKive-related news, the primary reason for clicking on the site will be the ARKive Species link. Divided into two 'chapters' (a global listing, and a British natives listing), species are first divided into such categories as Mammals, Fish, and Fungi (you didn't know there were endangered Fungi, did you?) and then listed by their common and scientific names. One can browse entries sequentially through "Next Page" links, make alphabetical leaps to new pages or use a keyword search for more precise targeting.

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Once a specific species is chosen (such as Australia's Central Rock-Rat - thought extinct until 1996), the ARKive opens a new page with a short introduction, thumbnail images linking to medium and large-sized photographs, and when available, videos in QuickTime, RealPlayer and MediaPlayer formats.

In addition, each species is given a More Information page, which reveals details on such subjects as habitat, conservation efforts, and recommended external links. The More Information page also includes an "Authentication" statement, which either displays the name of an expert willing to put his or her reputation behind the posted information, or -in the interests of full disclosure- a notice stating that the data presented is still awaiting a specialist's seal of approval.

After leaving the main species catalogs, surfers can check the ARKive News section for a "Most Wanted" list. Here, organizers have posted requests for visual or audio media related to some 150 particularly elusive subjects - so if you happen to have a few snaps of a Visayan Warty Pig, or some video footage of a No-Eyed Big-Eyed Wolf Spider (seriously), the folks at ARKive would like to hear from you.

ARKive Education offers links, lesson plans, project ideas, and other resources of interest to parents and teachers, while Planet ARKive presents a kid-friendly version of the main site aimed at 7 to 11 year-olds. Finally, the ARKive Celebrity Gallery features a Shockwave 'wildlife paparazzi' game, and 10 famous Homo sapiens (ranging from John Cleese to Helena Christensen) as they provide brief personal endorsements for their favourite endangered creatures.

ARKive is only a few weeks old, and presumably because of its recent (perhaps rushed?) launch on May 20, there are still some bugs in the system - which one hopes will be repaired in a timely fashion. Some links simply don't work. The ARKive Education page, while opening normally in Explorer, merely reveals source code in the more web standards-compliant Netscape 7. And links to individual species neither highlight, nor change the mouse pointer when chosen, leaving the visitor unsure as to whether they have an active link. (This last phenomenon may have been a design decision - if so, it's a distracting one.)

Most annoying are some serious problems with ARKive's JavaScripted elements. On a Macintosh computer, both Netscape and Explorer browsers returned error messages for almost every JavaScripted function. (Oddly enough, the JavaScripted "More Information" links on the individual species pages worked fine.) A local PC surfer tells me he had more functionality, while still hitting some roadblocks - but the almost complete lack of Mac functionality left me wondering if the site's developers abandoned standards-compliance and used some Windows-only commands in its scripting. It wouldn't be the first site to do so, but it would be an especially odd decision for an educational site, given the popularity of Macs in the classroom.

Which leaves us with a great deal of 'potential.' ARKive's intentions are certainly worthy, and if it eventually fulfils its stated goal of, "...ease of use and accessibility..." for all visitors, it could become one of the Web's more valuable resources. After all, where else can you find moving pictures of a Tasmanian Tiger?

ARKive can be found at http://www.arkive.org/.

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