Team Races to Catalog Every Species on Earth

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 5, 2002

Sometimes the world seems like a small place, but just how well do we really know it? When it comes to the other living creatures with which we share the planet, we don't know nearly as much as might be expected.

"Imagine doing chemistry knowing only one third of the periodic table," said biologist Terry Gosliner. "Sure, it can be done, but with an immense handicap. We are trying to do biology knowing perhaps only a tenth, or one hundredth, of our species. It is an immense handicap that does not need to exist."

That's why Gosliner and other scientists are involved in a nonprofit organization called the All Species Foundation. The group is dedicated to a straightforward but daunting goal: to discover, identify, and classify every living species on Earth within a single human generation or in other words over the next 25 years.

Once online, the information can be organized and linked with advanced database systems, eventually resulting in a "home page" for each species.

To date, taxonomists have identified less than two million distinct species, mostly mammals and birds. But it's estimated that the number of undiscovered species—primarily fish, fungi, insects, and microbes—ranges from ten million to more than one hundred million. Even at the low estimate, it's an enormous number.

New species are being classified at a rate of only 15,000 a year. That's not nearly fast enough to significantly close the knowledge gap.

Since the earliest days of the science—in the 18th century, when Linnaeus founded the modern binomial system of classifying plants and animals—taxonomists have dreamed of the ultimate goal: the classification of every living species on Earth. Despite their tremendous efforts, they have never come close to the prize. So why might they succeed now?

Technology May Speed Science

The advent of new technology is one factor bringing the goal within reach. "Five years ago we didn't have the capability to put every species on the Web and make it accessible to scientists all over the world," said All Species CEO Ryan Phelan.

Now, technological advances may have opened a critical window of time for the project's success.

Modern researchers have tools that can greatly increase the sluggish pace of species identification. Three-dimensional imaging, for example, makes it possible to share images of specimens instantly on the Web.

In the field, advances such as foggers for collecting insect species, the GPS system, and remote-controlled undersea equipment allow teams to push research farther, and faster, than ever before.

Continued on Next Page >>


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