Catalogue of all living species tops one million

A worldwide scientific effort to catalog every living species has topped the one-million milestone.

Six years into the programme, the total has reached 1 009 000, researchers report. They hope to complete the listing by 2011, reaching an expected total of about 1,75-million species.

Thomas M Orrell, a biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said the finished catalogue will include all known living organisms, from plants and animals to fungi and micro-organisms such as bacteria, protozoa and viruses.

“Many are surprised that, despite over two centuries of work by biologists and the current worldwide interest in biodiversity, there is [at present] no comprehensive catalogue of all known species of organisms on Earth,” Orrell said.

The listing does not include fossil species from the past.

The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (Itis) Species 2000 Catalogue of Life provides access to data maintained by a variety of scientific organisations, each specialising in a certain area.

For example, information on dipteran flies is maintained by the United States Agriculture Department’s Systematic Entomology Laboratory at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Natural-history museums in London, The Netherlands and New York maintain clothes-moth, dragonfly and spider data. Experts in Canada and Paris keep the data on Ichneumon wasps and longhorn beetles.

These lists are peer-reviewed and checked technically, and then integrated into special software for the catalogue.

The project, involving about 3 000 biologists, is led by Frank Bisby of the University of Reading in England and Orrell.

“We tidy it up and do a peer review to see which pieces are the best ones to use, like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Bisby said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “If you want to do international comparisons, you need a master list. It’s a little like if you were running a supermarket; you would have to do an inventory.”

Having internationally accepted standards for species’ names will help researchers compare the diversity of life in various regions of the world and produce uniform catalogues of germs, packets of seeds or genetic resources, he said.

Only rarely is there competition among names, such as occurred with sea anemones, hard corals and spiders, and occasionally an element of subjective opinion plays a role among the peer reviewers with various taxonomic expertise, Bisby said.

“It can sometimes be very difficult to decide,” he said.

Taxonomy, the formal system of naming living things, was launched by the Swedish scientist Karl von Linne — known as Linnaeus — in the 1700s, and his name still appears in the database.

Look up “grey wolf” in the Itis catalog and it produces the scientific name Canis lupus. Go to that listing and find that the wolf was given its scientific name by Linnaeus in 1758 and has two synonyms. Included are the wolf’s common names in English, Spanish and French. So, too, its scientific classification and reports where it is distributed.

Confusion occurs when the same plant or animal has many common names in different places. Taxonomists seek to solve that problem with the catalogue’s use of scientific names along with the various common uses.

The biggest section of the database currently is LepIndex, listing 253 680 species of lepidoptera, which are butterflies and moths.

At the small end of the scale is a database that covers 86 species of krill, the tiny, shrimplike creatures that whales eat.

The US Geological Survey’s National Biological Information Infrastructure is providing support for the effort. — Sapa-AP

On the net

Catalogue of Life

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


SABC sued over ‘bad’ clip of Ramaphosa

A senior employee at the public broadcaster wants compensation for claims of ‘sabotage’

Soundtrack to a pandemic: Africa’s best coronavirus songs

Drawing on lessons from Ebola, African artists are using music to convey public health messaging. And they are doing it in style

In East Africa, the locusts are coming back for more

In February the devastating locust swarms were the biggest seen in East Africa for 70 years. Now they’re even bigger

Western Cape Judge Mushtak Parker faces second misconduct complaint

The Cape Bar Council says his conduct is ‘unbecoming the holding of judicial office’

Press Releases

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders

Dimension Data launches Saturday School in PE

The Gauteng Saturday School has produced a number of success stories