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Planetary Biodiversity Inventories: A Response to the Taxonomic Crisis

Lawrence M. Page


Taxonomy, the naming and classification of species, is in crisis. Planetary Biodiversity Inventories (PBIs) offer a way to increase

  • the identification of organisms
  • our knowledge of Earth’s biodiversity
  • student enrollment in taxonomic studies
  • dissemination of information about the planet’s species

May 2006

Taxonomists name, identify, and classify organisms.

As illustrated in the Hall of Biodiversity of the American Museum of Natural History, New York city, the world’s biodiversity is immense. Photo: Dom Dada, Creative Commons.

Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming organisms and then organizing them into systems of classification. The world faces a taxonomic crisis caused by the combination of the loss of biodiversity1 and severe impediments to taxonomic research.2 In 2003, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) reacted to the taxonomic crisis by launching “Planetary Biodiversity Inventories,” a new initiative intended to remove or reduce impediments to taxonomic research. These impediments are

Taxonomy is in crisis.
  • insufficient taxonomic expertise
  • inadequate funding for research
  • isolation of resources required to complete taxonomic research
PBIs are global inventories of taxonomic groups.

Planetary Biodiversity Inventories

Planetary Biodiversity Inventories (PBIs) are global inventories of large clades (a clade is a related group with a common ancestor) of organisms that are likely to contain many undescribed species or otherwise require major revision to complete their taxonomy. To accomplish the huge task of globally inventorying a large clade, each PBI must engage a multinational team of taxonomic experts and institutions with biological research collections.

Four PBIs have been initiated.

The first competition for PBI funding was held in 2003. Four awards were made by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the study of

  • plant bugs (Miridae)
  • slime molds (Eumycetozoa)
  • the genus Solanum, a large genus containing nightshades, tomatoes, and related plants
  • catfishes (Siluriformes)
So far the program has proven successful.

A review of progress on one of the PBIs, the All Catfish Species Inventory, suggests that the PBI initiative is successful. Although the All Catfish Species Inventory is only in its third year, it demonstrates that providing funding to taxonomists can significantly accelerate taxonomic research, primarily by reducing the isolation of resources required to complete taxonomic research. In addition, a large number of students are working with scientists on the project and are being trained as the next generation of fish taxonomists. Following is a discussion of the catfish project, which serves to illustrate the goals, organization, and results of a PBI. The project illustrates that PBIs are an effective response to the taxonomic crisis.

Lawrence M. Page, Ph.D., is adjunct curator of fishes at the University of Florida Museum of Natural History, in Gainesville, and principal scientist emeritus in the Center for Biodiversity, Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS). His research interests include the systematics and natural history of freshwater fishes, and the conservation of freshwater ecosystems. He is author of the Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America and over 120 papers on freshwater organisms.

The All Catfish Species Inventory is funded by U.S. National Science Foundation award DEB-0315963.

Planetary Biodiversity Inventories: A Response to the Taxonomic Crisis


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Your one-stop source for information on evolution. Learn the facts in Evolution 101, browse the resource library, read about evolution in the news, or discover a wealth of materials to help educate others about evolution and related concepts—it’s all right here!

BioScience Article

“Microbial Diversity Unbound.”
Read Mlot’s December 2004 article, which outlines what DNA-based techniques are revealing about the planet’s hidden biodiversity. Read the citation, or log in to purchase the full article.

All Catfish Species Inventory (ACSI) website

This site’s extensive resources include

  • » information on catfish diversity, including lists of families and genera with numbers of species and images
  • » details about the scope and nature of participants’ research projects, including taxa under study and contact information
  • » bibliography of all papers on the systematics of catfishes (around 2,550 papers)
  • » electronic copies of old and difficult-to-obtain articles
  • » digital images of catfishes, including primary types and live and freshly captured specimens
  • » atlas of catfish morphology
  • » list of repositories for name-bearing types of catfisheslist of acronyms
  • » for institutions with collections of catfishes
  • » instructions for submitting research proposals to ACSI
  • » news and announcements relative to catfish taxonomy
  • » links to other websites with information relative to studies of catfishes
  • » sites supported by scientific societies, anglers, and fish hobbyists

Living on Earth: A Little Known Planet

Read the transcripts or listen to an April 30, 2004, radio program in three segments about planetary biodiversity inventories and discover what some scientists are doing to catalog biodiversity on Earth.

What Is Biodiversity?

This primer on Earth’s biological diversity explains why it’s important to maintain this diversity.

Taxonomy: What’s in a Name?

Get an overview of the science of taxonomy, with links for further exploration.

Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS)

ITIS provides a scientifically credible list of biological names in a unified classification, focusing at minimum on taxa of interest to North America, but with world coverage for many groups.

Tree of Life

The multi-authored project contains information about the phylogenetic relationships and characteristics of organisms and illustrates the diversity and unity of all living organisms.

About catfish

AIBS Online Presentation

View the PowerPoint presentation “Evolution and Diversification in the Tropical Crop, Cassava by Barbara Schaal and Kenneth Olsen, presented at the 2005 evolution symposium “Evolution and the Environment.”

ALL Species Inventory

The ALL Species Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the complete inventory of all species of life on Earth within the next 25 years—a human generation. You can help by subscribing to their newsletter or donating to their cause.


If you are a biology student, teacher, or scientist, you may want to subscribe to this international journal for taxonomic studies. original lesson

Activities related to the article by L. M. Page were written by The activities on the concept of species were written by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. The lesson includes article content and extension questions, as well as two units of activities with masters and worksheets.

Lesson Title: What Is a Species?
Levels: high school (all levels)- undergraduate (year 1)
Summary: This lesson investigates taxonomy and the evolving concept of species. Students can debate whether a “Peakapoo” is a species, consider whether two populations of indigobirds are separate species, consider the conservation benefits of taxonomy … and more!

Download/view lesson.
(To open the lesson’s PDF file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader free software.)

Useful links for educators

Useful links for student research

In addition to the links in the “learn more” section above:

  1. National Science Board. 1989. Loss of biological diversity: A global crisis requiring international solutions. Report NSB 89-171. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation.
  2. Page, L. M., et al. 2005. LINNE: Legacy Infrastructure Network for Natural Environments. Champaign, IL: Illinois Natural History Survey.
  3. Fink, S. V., and W. L. Fink. 1996. Interrelationships of ostariophysan fishes (Teleostei). Pages 209-247 in M. L. J. Stiassny, L. R. Parenti, and G. D. Johnson (eds). Interrelationships of Fishes. New York: Academic Press.
  4. De Pinna, M. C. C. 1998. Phylogenetic relationships of neotropical Siluriformes (Teleostei: Ostariophysi): Historical overview and synthesis of hypotheses. Pages 279-330 in L. R. Malabarba, R. E. Reis, R. P. Vari, Z. M. S. Lucena, and C. A. S. Lucena (eds). Phylogeny and Classification of Neotropical Fishes. Porto Alegre, Brazil: EDIPUCRS.
  5. Saitoh, K., M. Miya, J. G. Inoue, N. B. Ishiguro, and M. Nishida. 2003. Mitochondrial genomics of ostariophysan fishes: Perspectives on phylogeny and biogeography. Journal of Molecular Evolution 56: 464-472.
  6. Burgess, W. E. 1989. An Atlas of Freshwater and Marine Catfishes. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publications.
  7. Arratia, G., B. G. Kapoor, M. Chardon, and R. Diogo (eds). 2003. Catfishes. Endfield, NH: Science Publishers, Inc.
  8. Rodman, J. E., and J. H. Cody. 2003. The taxonomic impediment overcome: NSF’s partnerships for enhancing expertise in taxonomy (PEET) as a model. Systematic Biology 52: 428-435.
  9. Vari, R.P., C.J. Ferraris, Jr., and M.C.C. de Pinna. 2005. The Neotropical whale catfishes (Silurifomres: Cetopsidae: Cetopsinae), a reversionary study. Neotropical Ichthyology 3: 127-238.
  10. Sabaj, M. H. 2005. Taxonomic assessment of Leptodoras(Siluriformes: Doradidae) with descriptions of three new species. Neotropical Ichthyology 3: 637-678.
  11. Rodiles-Hernández, R., D. A. Hendrickson, J. G. Lundberg, and J. M. Humphries. 2005. Lacantunia enigmatica (Teleostei: Siluriformes) a new and phylogenetically puzzling freshwater fish from Mesoamerica. Zootaxa 1000: 1-24.
  12. Armbruster, J. W. 2004. Phylogenetic relationships of the suckermouth armoured catfishes (Loricariidae) with emphasis on the Hypostominae and the Ancistrinae. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 141: 1-80.
  13. Thomson, A. W., and L. M. Page. In press. Genera of the Asian catfish families Sisoridae and Erethistidae. Zootaxa.


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