Friday, May 25, 2007
Thoughts on an encyclopedia of life on Linneaus' 300.005th birthday
The little review of 'things that have happened recently' might also have included some of the buzz that has surrounded the launch of The Encyclopedia of Life (already denoted by the TLA EoL I see). If you're coming late to the party a very impressive group of organizations and individuals have got together to produce "an online reference source and database for every one of the 1.8 million species that are named and known on this planet". Add to this news the fact that Wednesday saw the celebration of Carolus Linnaeus' 300th birthday and you'll see I'm left with no choice but to talk a little about how 21st taxonomy is going to have to shape up if it is to fulfill Linnaeus' dream of describing every species on earth.
The Enclyopedia of Life wants to have a page for each of the 1.8 million species described since Linnaeus started the job. This is great, and an admirable goal, but 21st century taxonomy has a much greater task before it. There are probably another 10 million species on earth that haven't been described. Finding, naming and describing all these unknown species isn't just a biological stamp collecting exercise. The earth is in the grip of it's sixth great extinction and the organisations that governments have assigned to stemming this lost don't even know that 80% of the species they are meant to protect exist! The problem is even worse, taxonomy is not a sexy science and funding for expert taxonomists has dried up in recent years so now there are only a limited number of taxonomists in the world who can identify named species and start describing new ones and each of them are necessarily specialists in only one branch of the tree of life.
So, can a project like the EoL help bridge the so called taxonomic impediment? It has to be said we have very little of the details of the project but I'm optimistic. If the encyclopedia is going to be more than a mash up (their phrase) of existing projects it could develop into tool which taxonomists can share high resolution images and ecological, biogeogaphical and genetic data. Every major museum has a backlog of samples waiting to be sorted and assessed by taxonomists, a major database and network that allows the secrets those samples hold to be uncovered would be going along way to finishing what Linneaus started