Image: 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.

Image Credit: Frank E. Zachos, under the Creative Commons Attribution License

11 Jul 2020

Ten Principles for Taxonomy: Making a list of all creatures, great and small

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.

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. IUBS supported the authors to run a workshop reviewing the principles described in the paper as part of the IUBS Scientific Programme "Governance of Global Taxonomic Lists".

“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.”

Ten Principles for creating a single authoritative list of the world’s species as suggested by the authros:

  • The species list must be based on science, and free from non-taxonomic considerations and interference.
  • Governance of the species list must aim for community support and use.
  • All decisions about list composition must be transparent.
  • The governance of validated lists of species is separate from the governance of the naming of species.
  • Governance of lists of accepted species must not constrain academic freedom.
  • The set of criteria considered sufficient to recognise a new species may appropriately vary between different taxonomic groups but should be consistent where possible.
  • A global list must balance conflicting needs for currency and stability by having archived versions.
  • Contributors need appropriate recognition.
  • List content should be traceable.
  • A global listing process needs both to encompass global diversity and to accommodate local knowledge of that diversity

Read this in French, Spanish and Portuguese

Read more about the Ten Principles.

Paper Citation: Garnett ST, Christidis L, Conix S, Costello MJ, Zachos FE, Bánki OS, et al. (2020) Principles for creating a single authoritative list of the world’s species. PLoS Bioliogy 18(7): e3000736.