Nature's Secrets

Encyclopedia will inventory all kinds of life

CORRESPONDENTMay 16, 2011 

Humanity doesn't need a moon base or a manned trip to Mars. We need an expedition to planet Earth, where probably fewer than 1 percent of the life forms are known to science, and fewer than 1 percent of these have been studied beyond a simply anatomical description and a few notes on natural history.

Edward O. Wilson

in "The Creation"

A biological inventory project, called the Encyclopedia of Life (EoL), was recently launched to catalog information about Earth's 1.8million scientific species classified during the past several centuries. Currently, information on some species is only available piecemeal in different museums, collections, websites or roughly scribbled in the field notebooks of individual biologists. This first-ever global inventory will compile all facts about every species and make it available via computer. Thousands of taxonomists (scientists who classify and name organisms) are contributing information to create the first large-scale assessment of life on our planet ( www.eol.org).

On May 23, we celebrate the birthday of Carl Linnaeus, considered the Father of Taxonomy. Born in Sweden in 1707, Linnaeus is credited for inventing the current method of classification of organisms called "binomial nomenclature" (translation: two-names), otherwise known as Genus species. For example, Virginia live oak is named Quercus virginiana, whereas its cousin Red oak is Quercus rubra. Before Linnaeus championed his system, botanists created very long, awkward names for different species.

The Encyclopedia of Life is long overdue. The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences houses the most comprehensive collection of Southeastern American plants and animals; these collections will become an important part of EoL.

To date, only 1.8million species have been named and classified on Earth. Millions more species remain undiscovered in tropical rain forest canopies and the deep ocean. And Edward O. Wilson, biologist at Harvard University and champion of EoL, speculates that a teaspoon of soil may hold thousands of species of bacteria and other micro-organisms, raising his estimates of biodiversity as high as 100million species.

Classifying biodiversity takes on heightened urgency because scientists predict many species are becoming extinct before they are discovered. So the race to catalog Earth's species is under way, using a combination of old methods from Linnaeus, such as field notes, and new technologies, such as DNA and satellite imagery.

As Aldo Leopold once advised with respect to conserving Earth's biodiversity, "To save every cog and wheel is an essential part of tinkering."

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State professor who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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