The road to degradation: is “naming all the species” achievable or even desirable?


In 2013 Mark Costello, Robert May and Nigel Stork published a review paper in the journal Science called “Can We Name Earth’s Species Before They Go Extinct?”  It’s a paper that I discuss with my students in their final year Biodiversity and Conservation module, and it always generates a lot of interest, and it’s has been well cited since it first appeared (143 citations* to date according to Web of Science).  There was an interesting response by Mora et al., with a riposte by Costello et al., but overall the original paper has been rather influential in framing some discussions about taxonomic effort and description of species, and the idea that we can “name everything” with additional resources.  At the end of the review Costello and colleagues answered their own question by stating: “We believe that with modestly increased effort in taxonomy and conservation, most species could be discovered and protected from extinction” [my emphasis].

Is their optimism justified?  Can “most species be discovered”?  And what are the implications for how we go about “discovering” these species that are unknown to science?

In my professional life I’ve been fortunate enough to carry out field work with some great colleagues in some wonderful parts of the world, including tropical rainforest and savannah in Guyana and Gabon, mountain scrub in the High Andes of Peru, seasonal dry forest in Australia, montane grasslands in South Africa, Namibian desert, and Brazilian cerrado and Atlantic rainforest.  All of these were sites where non-biologists would rarely venture: off the beaten track and (usually**) away from the typical tourist haunts.  It would be tempting to describe these places as “remote” but really they were not, because they all shared something in common: accessibility.  We were able to reach these sites by traveling along roads, of variable quality, usually in four-wheel drive vehicles.  The roads were often not in good condition, and frequently not metaled, but they were roads nonetheless.

It’s sometimes said that if one were to map the geographical coordinates of plant specimens stored in herbariums such as the one at Kew, you would end up with a road map of the world.  That’s because collecting biological specimens, or carrying out field work, requires us to be able to gain access to an area.  And accessibility usually means roads, unless one is working on the coast or along a river or lake, or have lots and lots of funding to allow teams to be helicoptered into an area (which is rare, but makes for exciting television).  Therefore most collecting of biological specimens is done in areas not far from roads.

So, any initiative that intends to “name all the species” in a particular group is going to require access to the remotest parts of the planet, areas that currently have no roads running through them.

There are still areas of the world that we can consider “remote” and “wilderness”, areas that are more than 100km from the nearest road – as a study published at the end of 2016 demonstrated.  But these are often found in the most biologically rich parts of the planet, for example tropical rainforest and mountainous areas, where we wouldn’t necessarily want to put roads to make them accessible to taxonomists (or even ecologists).  That’s because where roads go, people go, and accessibility to an area is usually followed by exploitation and degradation: illegal hunting, logging, mining, poaching of specimens for sale, etc. etc.


Now, don’t get me wrong, taxonomy is absolutely vital to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity.  It also underpins much ecological, bio-molecular and agricultural research and technology.  But the trade off for taxonomists is that they must gather their specimens and data from accessible areas, and that often means roads, and roads mean degradation.

The impetus for this post came from Twitter where a taxonomist highlighted the very good work done by the Virtual Institute of Spider Taxonomy Research (VINT) and described it as an “initiative to discover all spider species of the world in 30 years”.  Interestingly I can’t find that aspiration on the VINT website, but if it exists I’m not sure it’s achievable for spiders or any other diverse group of species, without being able to access parts of the world that are best left un-degraded.  Again, this is particularly true of the tropics where species can have very limited distributions.  A number of years ago an Australian botanist told me about how he was only able to collect some epiphytic Hoya specimens in Papua New Guinea by going into areas of rainforest that had been illegally logged, removing the plants from crowns of the felled trees, with no little risk to his own safety if the loggers had spotted him.  Some of those species might have remained undescribed if the area had not been opened up by a road prior to deforestation.  That would have been a loss for Hoya taxonomy, but surely positive for conservation.

Can “most species be discovered”?  Is this even a desirable thing?  I used to think so, because of the oft-stated view that we can’t conserve what we don’t know.  Now I’m not so sure, for reasons I hope I’ve articulated.  But as always I’d welcome your comments and criticisms.


*Including one in the conference: Annual Forum on Grumpy Scientists: the Ecological Conscience of a Nation:Royal Zoological Society, Sydney, Australia.  I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting!

**Usually, but not always: I have a few papers where some or all data collection was done in and around back-packers hostels, hotels, and tourist lodges.  Hey, you take your opportunities where you find them in this game!

18 thoughts on “The road to degradation: is “naming all the species” achievable or even desirable?

  1. quercuscommunity

    It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question. If you can’t conserve what you don’t know, and you can’t know it without endangering it…

    I’m glad I’m not an academic.

    Having said that, when everything is identified somebody (if my experience with birdwatching is any guide) will come along and re-classify it.

  2. Alex Laws

    I think this depends on the motives. If we want to name things so we can understand their ecology and work to conserve them, then great. But we need to consider whether in doing so we put them at risk, and make sure it will actually happen. Not much point discovering a new species only for it to be exploited because nobody pays to protect it. I fear this is just a case of… ‘look at us, aren’t we clever, we discovered all this stuff, and now it’s going extinct’. I have a romantic notion of new species being discovered by chance, not because we shredded an entire ecosystem, put it through a sieve and watched what dropped out.

  3. Christine Rose-Smyth

    Perhaps the first question can be answered, at least partly, by the Oberprieler et al (2007) observation that it would take 650 years to discover and describe the remaining estimated-to-be-existing 158,000 species of weevils at the rate that the first 62,000 species have been described. (Cue inordinate fondness comments).

  4. spamletblog

    You might be forgetting that we can now identify species without seeing them by simply bulk screening DNA in the World’s waters. That might not get ‘all’ species, but it is finding plenty of unknown microbe species already.

    As for species ‘going extinct’: I wish people would stop spreading this disincriminating deceit. In geological time, we may observe natural extinctions, but in the Anthropocene, species are being *exterminated*.

    *We* are the Daleks.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hmmm, eDNA is useful in some contexts, but it’s not going to help discover unknown species in the canopy of tropical rainforests, where most of the world’s arthropod fauna is found. And taxonomic rules for plants and animals state that a DNA sequence is not enough – there has to be a type specimen.

      1. spamletblog

        There has to be a type specimen at the moment, but taxonomy is rapidly progressing via genomics, and they have even been tracing the ancestry of a virus back to the Cambrian, just by studying genetic changes across the ever increasing databases of sequenced genomes. The concepts of species and type specimens may be going the way of card files sooner than we think–especially with funding for museums and libraries being cut all the time. Much of the palaeontological type specimens are only small pieces of tooth, or bone, in any case: a gene sequence could be much more useful than these.

        Having physical specimens satisfies our sense of completeness, but that is just our distorted perspective when most species are too small for us to see. A DNA sequence of sufficient length could be just as valid a type specimen as a stone tooth with no organic matter left. It’s just a matter on mindset.

        Sampling methods are improving all the time too, and rainforest canopies might be one of the more accessible places to prospect. Drones can sample leaves and water droplets on them, capture insects and inspect their gut contents and entire biomes. Any creature that is sampled can reveal the existence of many more, just by examining it’s various excretions and surfaces and parasites and their own biomes, and so on. Soil samples can reveal whole microbe worlds of their own. The scope is vast.

        I still expect that all the medium to large wild animals will be gone before many of them are more than a DNA read though.

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        You have a faith in technology that I can’t share, I’m afraid: genomics will never give us a complete picture of a species’ phenotype, how it behaves, its feeding role in a community: all information that can be used taxonomically. And drones have very limited ranges and flight times at the moment; that may change, but it may not: there is a limit to what small batteries can store.

  5. sleather2012

    I think that Costello et al are wildly optimistic – as pointed out by an early commentator we don’t have enough taxonomists to identify even one family of insects let alone all of them – it is not just insects that need conserving but also taxonomists (of every ilk before I am accused of being entomologicallly biased)

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Yes, wouldn’t disagree, though Costello et al. point out that we have more taxonomists than ever, I don’t think that they are as endangered as they once were.

  6. rcannon992

    Well I think it is desirable, but it is probably impossible using conventional taxonomy. DNA barcoding seems to work and is throwing up many cryptic species, so there are probably even more species than estimates suggest. There must be ways of targeting inaccessible species – sampling drones?! – but opening up these places (via roads etc.) just starts the long – sometimes not so long – process of habitat degradation and diversity loss, so there is an argument to just leave them alone I guess. The key point is, what are we doing with this knowledge? All sorts of wonders, behaviours, physiologies, chemicals and so on are out there already, which we barely utilise/study/conserve, so I agree, more (species) is not always better, just for the sake of it.

    1. spamletblog

      I think that you will find that rainforest canopies are among the most accessible places for drones. With solar recharge they can simply rest in the treetops while charging and then carry out long programmed sampling missions in places people can’t get to without building any roads. In fact, I would be surprised if someone isn’t planning this already.

      Remember, Man sent people to the Moon with less computing power than I’m using to write this.

  7. Alex Bond

    As someone who falls in the “conservation practitioner”, at least in part, I’ll echo some of the comments above about not being able to conserve what we don’t know (because let’s face it – many conservation actions are species- rather than site-driven, though that’s shifting), we don’t necessarily know the threats (the unknown unknowns, to quote Rumsfeld), and as Simon pointed out, there’s a bit of a lack of taxonomic skill. I’ve got heaps of terrestrial insects & spiders from a remote island, but darned if we can find anyone to ID them. Even for birds, we still use “species” as the default taxonomic level for conservation, and that’s rapidly increasing (see Barrowclough e tal. 2016:

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for the comments Alex. The main question in my mind is whether or not it’s an acceptable aim to “name all the species” in a particular group if the only way to obtain specimens is to put roads into previously inaccessible parts of the planet. Is that an acceptable trade-off? To my mind it isn’t, in which case why are some taxonomists claiming that they will name all the species in their group within a certain time frame? A taxonomist friend on Facebook likened it to something that Trump would boast….

      I used to buy into the argument “about not being able to conserve what we don’t know” but I think the logic here is flawed. If all development, agriculture, mining, etc. in the Amazon Basin had halted 100 years ago we would have conserved most of that area and the species within it, but would have named very little of its diversity. And the species that are most threatened now are ones that we have names for, e.g. large top predators and mega-herbivores.

      I’m not saying that taxonomy is of no value, clearly it is, I’m just questioning the value of efforts to put names to “all species”.

      1. Alex Bond

        I think as we move towards more site-based conservation measures, that will be the case. But there will always be the argument of “has it worked”? We’re pretty poor at documenting this in conservation interventions in my opinion, and with funders demanding more evidence-based measures of the success of project outcomes, my feeling is that will increase. I think remote sensing has a huge role to play here, at least at broad community/ecosystem levels. But far more than just about anything, I still get asked species-specific questions by donors, funders, & media.

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        Sure, nothing I’d disagree with there except to point out that being asked species-specific questions is not the same as being asked: “Have you discovered all of the species of taxon X in the world/country/region”. This comment on Facebook from plant taxonomist Mary Endress really expresses the issue in a thoughtful and poignant way:

        ” It’s always nice to find a new species, especially in the field, but even in a pile of indet herbarium specimens. But to have the idea/goal of “naming all the species” is, imho, kind of like a business guy’s idea of taxonomy or something. In fact, it kind of sounds like something the Donald might come up with. They would then, of course, be the best species ever seen… I also found the most species in a wet forest where a petroleum company had just recently gone through (was still going through) and clear-cut a huge area of forest. It was like a treasure trove of canopy flowers, lianas and epiphytes lying at our feet, which we would otherwise certainly never have seen, and we collected everything we could. When we reached the highest peak and looked around and saw the extent of the devastation, it was unbelievably sad, especially to know it was gone forever. I think an in-depth knowledge of taxa and being able to understand the evolution of the group is much, much more valuable than such a simplistic bean-counting approach. And, of course, I am aware of the argument that you must first know what it is – but I think this is putting emphasis on the wrong (and unobtainable) goals.”

  8. Manu Saunders

    Great post & good questions. I think taxonomy is important and taxonomists are important to science. However, I sometimes wonder if the hype over both overlooks the fact that good science, and good conservation, can be done without taxonomy. We don’t need to name all the species to foster a conservation ethic and understand how the natural world works. And I think scientists need to consider trade-offs for their research, especially when our main research message is to consider trade-offs in conservation/management.

  9. Pingback: Proposals to “sequence the DNA of all life on Earth” suffer from the same issues as “naming all the species” | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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