Making a List of All Creatures, Great and Small: For the First Time, an Agreed List of All the World’s Species

Giraffe Herd

A paper published July 7, 2020, in the open access journal PLOS Biology outlines a roadmap for creating, for the first time, an agreed list of all the world’s species, from mammals and birds to plants, fungi and microbes.

“Listing all species may sound routine, but is a difficult and complex task,” says Prof. Stephen Garnett of Charles Darwin University, the paper’s lead author. “Currently no single, agreed list of species is available.” Instead, some iconic groups of organisms such as mammals and birds have several competing lists, while other less well-known groups have none.

Reticulated Giraffe

Reticulated giraffe Giraffa (camelopardalis) reticulata, photographed in Kenya in 2013. Giraffe taxonomy is being debated, with the traditional classification recognizing a single species and other classifications recognizing up to eight distinct giraffe species. On the former view, the Reticulated giraffe would be a subspecies, on the latter, it would be a distinct species in its own right. Credit: Frank E. Zachos

This causes problems for organizations and governments that need reliable, agreed, scientifically defensible and accurate lists for the purposes of conservation, international treaties, biosecurity, and regulation of trade in endangered species. The lack of an agreed list of all species also hampers researchers studying Earth’s biodiversity.

The new paper outlines a potential solution — a set of ten principles for creating and governing lists of the world’s species, and a proposed governance mechanism for ensuring that the lists are well-managed and broadly acceptable.

“Importantly, it clearly defines the roles of taxonomists — the scientists who discover, name and classify species — and stakeholders such as conservationists and government and international agencies,” says Dr. Kevin Thiele, Director of Taxonomy Australia and a co-author on the paper. “While taxonomists would have the final say on how to recognize and name species, the process ensures that stakeholders’ needs are considered when deciding between differing taxonomic opinions.”

The Earth’s species are facing unprecedented threats, from global heating, pollution, land clearing, disease and overutilization, which together are driving an unprecedented and accelerating extinction crisis. “Developing a single, agreed list of species won’t halt extinction,” says Garnett, “but it’s an important step in managing and conserving all the world’s species, great and small, for this and future generations.”


Reference: “Principles for creating a single authoritative list of the world’s species” by Stephen T. Garnett, Les Christidis, Stijn Conix, Mark J. Costello, Frank E. Zachos, Olaf S. Bánki, Yiming Bao, Saroj K. Barik, John S. Buckeridge, Donald Hobern, Aaron Lien, Narelle Montgomery, Svetlana Nikolaeva, Richard L. Pyle, Scott A. Thomson, Peter Paul van Dijk, Anthony Whalen, Zhi-Qiang Zhang and Kevin R. Thiele, 7 July 2020, PLOS Biology.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000736

Authors SG, LC, SC, MC, KT, FZ received funding from the International Union for Biological Sciences to run a workshop reviewing the principles described in the paper as part of the IUBS programme “Governance of Global Taxonomic Lists.” SC’s involvement was funded by the Flemish Research Council Grant 3H200026. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. All other authors received no specific funding for this

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