A few weeks ago we discussed a paper in our journal club that used dinosaur silhouettes in its figures and referenced PhyloPic as the source. So today I finally decided to check the website out.
PhyloPic is a repository of black/white silhouettes of organisms across the tree of life. The idea is that everybody can sign up and submit their artwork under some kind of creative commons or public domain license, and everybody can use the silhouettes to do just what the authors in the aforementioned paper did: decorate phylogenetic tree figures in publications or talk slides, educate, etc.
The idea sounds great, so I played around a bit today to see how well it works. The experience was, alas, a bit mixed.
There are currently around 2,000 images in there. It sounds like a lot, but for now the content seems to be mostly focused on dinosaurs, primates and a few arthropods and birds. If you want plant pictures, you are out of luck. Still, that is for the user base to change.
So I drew a quick outline of a horsetail (Equisetum telmateia) I had photographed in southern France and submitted it. That at least works fairly smoothly. The website guessed the species name from my file name, sorted it into the right place in the classification hierarchy, transformed the SVG I provided into different size files in its database, and even populated higher level taxa that did not have a proper picture, such as the whole genus and family. All good.
What works much less well is searching for pictures. There appear to be only two options at the moment. The first is to click "browse", in which case the website will show the last 72 silhouettes that have been submitted together with a little Load More button. But you may be interested in, say, seeing all the flowering plants, so to use the second option you click on "search" and enter angiosperms.
Sadly, the result is not, as you would expect, a page showing all silhouettes of flowering plants. Instead, the website searches for taxa. One of the hits will be the angiosperms, so you click on the taxon name and are shown one or perhaps two representative pictures and the next lower taxa in the system. From there on you can navigate through the classification by clicking on these lower taxa, but as there are gazillions of levels in the hierarchy that can take a distressing amount of time.
The situation isn't helped by the fact that the database seems to be rather slow; when I arrived at the Asteraceae (daisy/sunflower) family, loading the list of next lower taxa took so long that my browser suggested the script on the website might have crashed.
To make matters worse, you are likely to go through all that for nothing. The creators of PhyloPic have apparently copied the classification of uBio to fill their own database, but that doesn't mean that any of the taxa in it necessarily have pictures, and of course nearly all of them don't. So you navigate all the way down to, say, a certain plant family only to find that there aren't any pictures for that family at all. Just as an aside, the website is also in a bit of trouble when you submit a silhouette of a species that isn't yet in its classification, as I did with my second submission.
Anyway, to make the website user-friendly, it would be better if there was a search function that does what I expected it to do in the first place: retrieve all pictures from the whole clade, down to species, whose name was entered into the search field. For the navigation through the classification it would be good if the website would at least show if there are any pictures at all downstream in the clade or not (perhaps with different colour buttons?).
So in summary, this is an idea with a lot of potential, but at this stage the implementation leaves something to be desired.