Turbocharging a "Boring and Dry" Global Species Roster

Liz is a staff writer for Science.

Anolis carolinensis.jpg

Tomorrow, the Catalogue of Life, a database that lists 1.2 million of the estimated 1.8 million named species, kicks off a new phase designed to broaden its reach but not necessarily complete its species list. At a meeting in Reading, U.K., representatives from 38 institutions will decide the best way to make 4D4Life—short for “distributed dynamic diversity databases for life”—a reality.

The goal of the Catalogue of Life, launched in 2001, was to provide validated scientific names, synonyms, and common names from the world’s flora and fauna. (Anolis carolinensis, pictured, is one.)

It compiles its list from 60 more specialized databases and boasts of 40 million hits per year. It also distributes a species list on a CD-ROM to 80 countries.

It had hoped to finish the list by 2011, but that might not happen, says 4D4Life Coordinator Frank Bisby from the University of Reading. Instead, the new focus will be on improving the utility of the database and incorporating other taxonomic catalogs.

Over the next 3 years, with €3.3 million from the European Commission and the equivalent of about €8.7 million from other sources, including China, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, 4D4Life will link up with regional databases around the world that will compile local species lists and forward them on to the Catalogue of Life. In addition, Bisby expects to make the database more easily downloadable and more receptive to queries, such as requests for all the common names for a species. Right now, the catalog has yearly updates, but soon it will be updated more frequently, with new entries flagged. “As seen by the user, the Catalogue of Life will continue to be boring and dry, but it’s essential,” Bisby notes, as it provides the backbone for other key biodiversity databases such as the Encyclopedia of Life, and has about 40,000 serious users.

(Photo curtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/nakrnsm/, CC BY 2.0 )