We need a single list of all life on Earth – and most taxonomists now agree on how to start

Monday, November 6, 2023
A red-eared slider turtle at the University of Arizona campus turtle pond.

Species lists, often overlooked but integral to science and society, serve as foundational pillars, shaping our comprehension of the natural world, aiding threatened species management, quarantine protocols, disease control, and more. Taxonomists are responsible for creating these lists, describing new species, and compiling comprehensive catalogs. A few years ago, the taxonomic community faced accusations of anarchy from a Nature headline, criticizing the lack of a unified view on species, causing confusion in our understanding of life on Earth. In a newly published article, Aaron Lien, an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the College of Agriculture, Life, and Environmental Sciences, writes about the recent public argument among global taxonomists about whether the rules of taxonomy should be changed. Despite concerns within the taxonomic community regarding potential limitations on their freedom of expression, a collaborative effort ensued, leading to the formulation of principles for a unified and authoritative list of species.

This collaborative approach extended to surveying the taxonomic community's opinions on the need for a global species list and its governance. The recently released results highlight significant support, with 77% of respondents supporting the creation of a single list of all life on Earth. Agreement extends to the need for a governance system supporting the list's creation and maintenance, with the specifics awaiting definition in the ongoing process. Recognizing the importance of such unity, especially as taxonomists propose hypotheses rather than facts when naming new species, the ongoing efforts emphasize the value of good governance, dispute resolution processes, and active participation from the taxonomic community to ensure the reliability and accessibility of global species lists.

Learn more about the plan to develop a global list

Elena Lopez
College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences