21 February 2011

Introducing PhyloPic: An Open Database of Reusable Silhouettes

Ever had this problem? "Boy, I could sure use a silhouette of [some kind of organism] for this diagram I'm working on. But I can't find anything on the web! Well, except for a few images which are copyrighted...."

What if there were a website with an open database of reusable images, available under Creative Commons licenses? What if you could do phylogenetic searches, so that, even if there weren't a silhouette for the taxon in question, you could at least find something close? What if you could build images like this...

...without having to look all over the web for figures?

Well, now you can! I've launched a new site called:

It's currently in public alpha, which means it's not quite done. So, I have some caveats:

  • I'm pulling most taxonomic data from uBio. It's great because it's really comprehensive. But it's also a huge mess because it stores multiple classifications, many of which are outdated and disagree with each other. (This isn't uBio's fault, as its goal is to store all these classifications, not to offer one nice, neat classification.) So you may (will) find some errata in the phylogenetic system. I'm working on cleaning it up, but there are a lot of taxonomic names out there....
  • It's still early on, so there are only about a hundred images in the database. It will grow over time, but don't be surprised if the closest image it has for your favorite invertebrate is some kind of indiscriminate worm.
  • There are some known bugs (and I don't mean Hemiptera). The Issues Page is open to all, though, so you can read the known issues and report new ones. (Please do!)
It's a work in progress, but I think it has enormous potential. And I think it's reached a state where it's ready for public use and feedback. So have a look, see what you think, and let me know! (And, if you're artistically inclined, please consider submitting some silhouettes of your own.)


  1. Colin Purrington22 February, 2011 03:53

    I just love this.

  2. This is awesome!

  3. Great.

    Some questions for submission, is there a standard for:
    1) File format;
    2) File size;
    3) Organism posture;


    Roberto Takata

  4. The Submission Tool automatically crops, contrasts, resizes, and converts all images. (The final format is PNG.) Ideally the cropped silhouette (i.e., without white edges) should be 1024 pixels or more in at least one dimension (but not gigantic). But you can do whatever you like. If you're not comfortable releasing your high-resolution work, you can upload smaller sizes (as long as it's over 64 pixels).

    As for organism posture, there are no requirements. (So far the submitters can't even agree whether the bilaterally symmetrical animals should be facing right or left! Of course, that's very easy to change when using them in a diagram, so it's not really important.) Whatever you think people will find useful.

  5. Oh, and the Submission Tool can read GIF, JPEG, and PNG files. PNG is probably best, since it's the highest quality (although GIF is also lossless). But it probably doesn't matter in most cases.

  6. This is superb. Thanks for doing it.

  7. I've now added a FAQ addressing the questions above.

    Thanks for the encouragement, everyone!

  8. This is really cool project. A question about proprietry:
    I have several of these I would be interested in contributing but they are adapted from other's work - tracings that I have made from published photos of fossils and skeletal reconstructions. Do you think these are kosher to share?

  9. I think tracings are fine, and if you really feel guilty you can say "(after so-and-so)".