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.

The speed is needed, because, by all accounts, living things around the world are under siege. Each year sees the loss of critical habitat that's home to still unknown species, which can be lost forever.

The longer it takes to complete the life list of Earth's species, the shorter that list will be.

Making Taxonomy Cool

While evolving technology is proving a boon to the science of taxonomy, it's no substitute for human experience. That's why giving a boost to the field is another important part of the All Species mission.

"All Species is trying to fill what is essentially an empty niche," said entomologist Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution.

Although taxonomy was popular in the 1940s and '50s, Erwin said that "as a legitimate field, taxonomy has really taken a back seat." Indeed, there are not even enough working taxonomists to classify the millions of unidentified specimens currently languishing in museums around the world. Young apprentices in the field are rare.

The foundation, which enlists the support and cooperation of scientific organizations worldwide, hopes to change all that. In the words of co-founder Kevin Kelly, "We want to make taxonomy cool."

All Species envisions the birth of a new generation of researchers, and hopes to provide them with the status and resources they need so that they can concentrate on their fieldwork.

Role for Developing Nations

Many of these new researchers may be found in the developing nations that are home to most of Earth's undiscovered species.

All Species intends to operate in every country in the world, and, as Phelan said, "has really made it a criterion, for our involvement in individual projects, that they focus on training and involving local people in field locations around the world."

Students living in those locations are eagerly awaiting opportunity. Terry Erwin said that in his fieldwork, he has seen the desire among young students in developing countries. If enough money can be provided for their education, he foresees an explosive growth in taxonomists from these areas.

"Twenty-five years is one human generation," he said, "but it's six generations of students." If each successive student generation inspires similar growth in the next, "at the end of that pyramid you could have several hundred thousand new taxonomists."

Important contributions to the project will also come from volunteers passionate about Earth's diversity of life. "We've seen in other groups, like the American Birders, how powerful the volunteer role can be," said Phelan. "Citizen-scientists should have a growing role in this initiative as it evolves."

Attracting volunteers, as well as the two to three billion dollars the project may cost, could mean competition with other conservation groups. Phelan, however, stresses cooperation rather than competition.

"All Species should not detract from the efforts to preserve habitat—it's extremely complementary to those efforts," she said. "We will allow them to make better and more informed decisions about conservation, knowing what we have is critical."

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