Mapping Languages with Virus-Tracking Tool

From the Collections posts

In the latest episode of the Shelf Life series, computational biologist Ward Wheeler admits he “always had a hankering to work on languages”—and discusses some of the methods he used when he joined forces with anthropologist Peter Whiteley to track the evolution and spread of an ancient group of languages.

But the software that Wheeler, a curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, used to unravel the relationships behind Uto-Aztecan languages had been initially designed to help track the evolution and spread of something else entirely: flu viruses. 

Supramap was originally developed to track the evolution and spread of viruses.

© Supramap/Daniel Janies/Andrew Hill


Supramap began as a way to track the evolution of flu viruses, exploring how pathogens evolve and change across time and around the world. The web application lets users combine phylogenetic data—information about the evolutionary relationships between groups of organisms—and geographic visualization. With these tools, researchers can trace different strains of the same virus—like those that are resistant to the drug Tamiflu—across the globe.

“It let us look at the evolution of a virus in space and time,” says Wheeler, who helped develop what he calls a “phylogenetic search engine” for the Supramap project, which was overseen by Daniel Janies, initially at the University of Ohio.

When studying how viruses evolve, change, and move around the world, researchers can use the interactive mapping tool to access a huge wealth of information about what viruses have sprung up at any specific location, and when. 

These same capabilities make Supramap a useful tool for gathering information about anything where biogeography is involved. That’s how the technology was brought to bear on the study of an ancient group of Native American languages that spread alongside technological innovations like maize cultivation. 

Analysis with Supramap suggests a Central American origin for Uto-Aztecan languages.

© AMNH


Now Wheeler and Whiteley are teaming again with a new group of colleagues to expand the utility of Supramap in ethnological research. Their upcoming project aims to compare linguistic, genetic, and cultural information about populations in sub-Saharan Africa to explore the history of how people have moved around the region.

And as Supramap continues to be developed and improved for applications in ethnology and epidemiology alike, Wheeler expects that researchers from many different disciplines will continue finding new ways to put the program to work.