‘Catalogue of Life’ reaches one million species


New Zealand scientists have contributed to a major milestone in the quest to catalogue all of Earth’s species. The Catalogue of Life, a comprehensive online directory of all known living organisms, has now topped the one million species mark.

‘The Catalogue of Life represents the first up-to-date listing of all species, from bacteria to blue whales, mosses to moths, seaweeds to slime moulds, and even viruses,’ says Dr Dennis Gordon, a biodiversity scientist with the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). It is the modern successor to the work started by the 18th Century Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus, whose 300th anniversary is celebrated this year.

Despite more than two centuries of research by biologists and the current world-wide interest in biodiversity, there is presently no comprehensive catalogue of all known species on Earth. Having such a catalogue is important when comparing species across the globe, ‘for instance, to check the distribution of alien species for biosecurity purposes,’ says Dr Gordon, who is coordinating the cataloguing of New Zealand species.

The 10–year project, which began in 2001, plans to cover all estimated 1.75 million known species by 2011. It has so far involved a worldwide collaboration of 3000 biologists, and links about 50 databases that relate to different groups of organisms from the six kingdoms of life. Information on each species – including their common and scientific names, and geographic distribution – is validated by experts before being added, a big advantage compared to other lists available on the Internet.

The project is led by the Species 2000 organisation based at the University of Reading, UK, and by the Integrated Taxonomic Information System based in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. The international project management team includes New Zealand scientists Dr Dennis Gordon and Dr Jerry Cooper (Landcare Research).

New Zealand is poised to contribute its own all-biota list to the global catalogue, comprising some 45 634 named species. The first of three volumes of Species 2000 New Zealand will be published later this year. There are at least a further 8500 undescribed New Zealand species in museum collections and ‘it’s anyone’s guess how many undescribed species exist,’ says Dr Gordon. ‘There could be tens of thousands.’

The Catalogue is freely available at www.catalogueoflife.org.

Additional information

Species 2000: www.sp2000.org/
Species 2000 New Zealand: www.niwascience.co.nz/pubs/wa/12-3/species

The one million species milestone was celebrated with a special symposium at the University of Reading, UK on 29 March. For further information, see:


What’s in the Catalogue of Life?

The Catalogue of Life consists of an individual page for each species, listing the accepted scientific name and, where available, synonyms (other scientific names by which it has been known) and common names (in various languages) as well as its position in the taxonomic classification, broad geographical distribution, and an electronic link to the source database.

The Catalogue is published for free on CD as one Annual Checklist per year, and on the Internet, with, in addition, a real-time Dynamic Checklist giving direct access to current data from the providers.

What is the significance of Catalogue of Life and its "One Million Species"?

The estimate of 1.75 million species known worldwide represents all those that have been formally named, described, and classified by scientific experts called taxonomists. The number of scientific names published is much higher, but this includes many synonyms referring to the same species. This number does not include the estimates of species yet to be discovered, nor does it include fossil species from the past.

Reaching 1 009 000 species in the Annual Checklist for 2007 signifies a major milestone achieved after six years of the programme. It also means that other international programmes may now contemplate what was previously unthinkable – that just four years from now there may exist a working list of all known organisms; something that opens up opportunities for the science, management, and conservation of the world’s biodiversity.

Many professional and citizen users come to the catalogue simply to check scientific and common names, classification, and distribution, for instance in agricultural, forestry, or natural-history enquiries. But the comprehensive and global nature of the catalogue comes into its own when there is a need to make comparisons between species from across the world. For example, it is important to know where alien species are naturally distributed for biosecurity purposes.

The synonymy allows users to locate the same species, even if listed under different names in different continents. For international organisations spanning the biodiversity of all countries, it provides, for the first time, the ability to organise data on all organisms. The catalogue can also be installed and used by commercial companies as a reference index for their natural products or natural-history images.

How is the Catalogue of Life created and maintained?

This Catalogue of Life project does not involve a central database maintained by the organisers. It is a distributed programme in which different organisations around the world create and maintain the species checklist databases for different groups of life according to their expertise. For instance the FishBase and ILDIS networks maintain the fish and legumes lists; natural-history museums in London, Leiden, and New York maintain databases on clothes moths, dragonflies, and spiders; and individual experts in Alberta and Paris maintain the ichneumon wasps and the longhorn beetles.

‘Species 2000 New Zealand’, a project to compile the names of all known New Zealand species, has been underway since 2000. The results will be published in three huge volumes by Canterbury University Press, starting with Volume 1 later this year. The species tally for New Zealand has now been completed and the goal is to make the inventory fully available online as the New Zealand Organisms Register (NZOR), pending the results of a funding application.

Altogether, New Zealand has 45 634 named species of life, comprising 688 Bacteria, 2382 Protozoa (ciliates, amoebas, slime moulds, etc.,) 1569 Chromista (brown and golden-brown algae, water-moulds, and their kin), 6956 Plantae (all green plants plus red and green algae), 7041 Fungi, and 26 998 Animalia (sponges to vertebrates), but there are at least another 8500 undescribed species in museum collections in New Zealand and possibly tens of thousands of undiscovered species.

Coordinated by NIWA biodiversity scientist Dr Dennis Gordon, 220 contributors in 19 countries have collaborated to achieve the New Zealand inventory, with the biggest contributions coming from Landcare Research, NIWA, and Te Papa.


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Emeritus Researcher – Marine Biodiversity
Photo taken by Malcolm Francis, NIWA.