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Lay of the Land

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All Life Catalog

By Gordy Slack

Two hundred and fifty years ago, botanist Carl Linnaeus set his sights on naming and describing all of the organisms on Earth. Using the classification system he devised, scientists have so far identified some 1.7 million species. That’s a lot, but it represents only a small fraction of the estimated 10 to 100 million species on the planet. At this rate, it may take another thousand years to complete the task.

But we don’t have that long: While our understanding of earthly creatures is growing quickly, we are also destroying their habitat at an increasingly rapid rate. The All Species Foundation (ALL) was created two years ago to supercharge the Linnaean enterprise and describe Earth’s biological bounty before much more of it disappears. The San Francisco—based group’s cofounder, Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, hopes to spark cooperation and provide support that will enable the universities and museums already doing this kind of work to finish in a mere 25 years.

The effort is audacious, but top scientists and institutions around the world are taking it seriously. E. O. Wilson, Peter Raven, Terry Erwin, and other biologists are on the foundation’s scientific board. ALL has forged a partnership with the Hawaii Biological Survey to describe all multicellular organisms on the islands within five years. It also hopes to join forces with the National Park Service.

ALL plans to connect with naturalists in parts of the world where biodiversity is rich; promote new imaging, collecting, publishing, and database techniques; and make existing data more accessible. The foundation estimates that identifying 10 million new species could cost between $3 billion and $5 billion. But the story of life on Earth is the most important one around, says ALL CEO Ryan Phelan, and we need to know the characters to understand the plot.

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