Team Races to Catalog Every Species on Earth

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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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