Scientists argue for single list of the world’s species

Scientists frustrated at the number of different scientific lists for the world’s organisms say it’s time to agree on a model that would see all the world’s species on a single list.

Angola giraffe Credit: Frank E Zachos

The researchers, including Professor Mark Costello from the University of Auckland, have published a paper in PLOS Biology outlining a roadmap for creating, for the first time, an agreed list of all species, from mammals and birds to plants, fungi and microbes.

“It might seem as if this should have been normal practice but it’s not exciting work, getting agreement with people around the world is not easy, and it’s not an obvious responsibility of any one country’s funding agency,” Professor Costello says.

“Some of the problems with taxonomic classification is that iconic groups of organisms, such as birds and giraffes, appear on several lists while other, less well-known groups of species, have no list at all.”

Because species have been described in thousands of publications by taxonomists – those who discover, name and classify species - sometimes the same species are described many times with different names making it difficult to track how many have been scientifically named in total.

One example is the reticulated giraffe with the Kenyan and Angolan species considered a separate species by some scientists but not others (the International Union for Conservation for example recognises one species with nine sub-species). Both are a high conservation priority but work by conservationists to boost numbers by transferring animals between populations may result in hybrids or animals not well adapted to their new environment, Professor Costello says.

The new paper outlines a set of ten principles within a framework for creating and governing lists of species, and a proposed governance mechanism for ensuring that the lists are well-managed and broadly acceptable.

The authors say improvements in information technology are making it easier than ever before to communicate, access and aggregate biodiversity information so that now is the time to decide which taxa and names should be used.

Professor Costello says it’s important that governments have 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 also hampers researchers studying Earth’s biodiversity.

New databases, like the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) and the Catalogue of Life which Professor Mark Costello has played leading roles in, have brought considerable order to marine species’ lists and now list near 1.8 million – or 85 per cent – of all marine species.

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