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A plan for a unified species classification

As the Earth faces a growing environmental crisis, scientists are calling for agreement on a single, streamlined list of the planet’s immensely diverse plant, animal and microbial species.

The reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) is either a subspecies or a distinct species, depending on your choice of classification. Credit: Frank E Zachos

Currently, taxonomists say species classification is chaotic, with conflicting concepts and no overarching control over taxonomic judgements in a field fraught with confusion and disagreement.

To facilitate the streamlining of this process, Stephen Garnett, from Australia’s Charles Darwin University, and colleagues have come up with 10 guiding principles which they’ve outlined in the journal PLOS Biology.

“Lists of species matter,” they write. “In the face of a global extinction crisis, global lists of accepted species are foundational to managing biodiversity in an era of accelerating global change.”

The way species – or any other taxa – are defined can alter their perceived numbers and threatened status, influencing funding allocation for conservation. It’s also important for breeding strategies to protect them.

Research with the understudied giraffes, for instance, found that what was thought to be one species was in fact four – and they don’t interbreed in the wild, making them highly endangered and in need of protection.

Consistent definitions could also protect unprotected species from exposure to illegal trade.

“People regulating trade in animals can be sure that the same species will have the same names on both sides of a border if all adopt the single endorsed list,” Garnett explains; “at the moment this represents a loophole that can be exploited for trade in threatened species.”

Other impacts of species classification include identification of invasive pests and edible plants, livelihoods associated with conservation programs and ecotourism, and research in ecology and evolution.

The new principles to address these issues were derived from a discussion among taxonomists and stakeholders around the world, finalised at a workshop supported by the International Union for Biological Sciences at Charles Darwin University.

First, they propose the species list must be purely based on science, independent from political, financial or other unscientific influences.

The principles further advocate for community use and support, transparency, separation between governance of species and taxa, academic freedom, balancing conflicting needs, recognising contributors and comprehensive citations.

Finally, they encourage recognition of global biodiversity while referring to local knowledge and expertise, and outline a comprehensive pathway to engaging all stakeholders and putting the guidelines in place with a proposed governance mechanism.

Garnett is hopeful they will help solve the longstanding classification quandary, while realising such a complex venture will take time.

“It is a major step along the way towards creating a single list for governments and other users of taxonomy to work from, reducing the confusion that comes from having competing taxonomies for the same species,” he says.

“Ideally we will have processes in place to have a single global list by 2030, though it may well take longer.”

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