Skip to main content Skip to main navigation menu Skip to site footer
Type: Editorial
Published: 2020-03-31
Page range: 105–113
Abstract views: 514
PDF downloaded: 368

Taxonomy as the key to life

The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand. Nord University, Bodo, Norway


Professor in Marine Ecology.
databases checklists species taxa biodiversity Earth oceans


Taxonomy is a key to life not only in providing guides to distinguishing species but in opening the door to knowledge about biodiversity. Names of species, as the only standardised measure of biodiversity, are essential for communication of information about nature. However, new knowledge means that what we understand each species to be may change over time. Online species databases are improving accessibility to this knowledge and expertise and provide an easy way to keep up to date with species nomenclature and classification. I propose three practical priorities for taxonomy: (1) complete a world list of all known species; (2) establish an online cooperative community infrastructure that updates species nomenclature and links it to associated literature, information and expertise; (3) create an internet portal as a key to life on Earth. The first is near completion in the Catalogue of Life. The second has an exemplar in the World Register of Marine Species. The third goal has not begun but some of its ingredients exist. This key to life should make it easy for anybody with internet access to accurately name, and discover unnamed, species, and learn about their natural history. Moreover, a “key to life” infrastructure suitably supported by the community and science organisations, could be a focal point for a world taxonomic society and a taxonomy based mega-science initiative to understand life on Earth.


  1. Alroy, J. (2002) How many named species are valid? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99 (6), 3706–3711.

    Anderson, J.G. (2017) Why ecology needs natural history. American Scientist, 105 (5), 290–298.

    Arfianti, T, Wilson, S. & Costello, M.J. (2018) Progress in the discovery of amphipod crustaceans. PeerJ, 6, e5187

    Bebber, D.P., Wood, J.R., Barker, C. & Scotland, R.W. (2014) Author inflation masks global capacity for species discovery in flowering plants. New Phytologist, 201, 700–706.

    Bebber, D.P., Carine, M.A., Wood, J.R.I., Wortley, A.H., Harris, D.J., Prance, G.T., Davidse, G., Paige, J., Pennington, T.D., Robson, N.K.B. & Scotland, RW. (2010) Herbaria are a major frontier for species discovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 107, 22169–22171.

    Bebber, D.P., Marriott, F.H., Gaston, K.J., Harris, S.A. & Scotland, R.W. (2007) Predicting unknown species numbers using discovery curves. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274 (1618), 1651–1658.

    BHL Consortium. (2020). Biodiversity Heritage Library. Available from: (Accessed 1 Mar. 2020)

    Bisby, F.A. (2000) The quiet revolution: biodiversity informatics and the internet. Science, 289 (5488), 2309–2312.

    Boero, F. (2010) The study of species in the era of biodiversity: a tale of stupidity. Diversity, 2 (1), 115–126.

    Borkent, A. (2020) Shrinking biodiversity, dwindling taxonomy and building a broader science. Megataxa, 1, 49–52.

    Boxshall, G. & Self, D. (2011) UK Taxonomy & Systematics Review-2010. Results of survey undertaken by the Review Team at the Natural History Museum serving as contractors to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

    Britz R., Hundsdörfer A. & Fritz U. (2020) Funding, training, permits-the three big challenges of taxonomy. Megataxa, 1, 46–48.

    Burgin, C.J., Colella, J.P., Kahn, P.L. & Upham, N.S. (2018) How many species of mammals are there? Journal of Mammalogy, 99 (1), 1–14.

    Christenhusz M.J.M. (2020) On species concepts, phylogenetics and the science of natural history-three current issues facing taxonomy. Megataxa, 1, 63–66.

    Costello M.J. (2015) Biodiversity: the known, unknown and rates of extinction. Current Biology, 25 (9), R368–R371

    Costello, M.J., Emblow C.S. & Picton B.E. (1996) Long term trends in the discovery of marine species new to science which occur in Britain and Ireland. Journal of the marine biological Association of the United Kingdom, 76, 255–257.

    Costello, M.J., Vanhoorne B. & Appeltans, W. (2015a) Progressing conservation of biodiversity through taxonomy, data publication and collaborative infrastructures. Conservation Biology, 29 (4), 1094–1099.

    Costello, M.J., Appeltans, W., Bailly, N., Berendsohn, W.G., de Jong, Y., Edwards, M., Froese, R., Huettmann, F., Los, W., Mees, J., Segers, H. & Bisby, FA. (2014c) Strategies for the sustainability of online open-access biodiversity databases. Biological Conservation, 173, 155–165.

    Costello, M.J., Bouchet, P., Boxshall, G., Fauchald, K., Gordon, D.P., Hoeksema, B.W., Poore, G.C.B, van Soest, R.W.M., Stöhr, S., Walter, T.C., Vanhoorne, B, Decock, W. & Appeltans, W. (2013a) Global coordination and standardisation in marine biodiversity through the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) and related databases. PLoS ONE, 8 (1), e51629.

    Costello, M.J. & Chaudhary, C. (2017) Marine biodiversity, biogeography, deep-sea gradients, and conservation. Current Biology, 27, R511–R527.

    Costello, M.J., Horton, T. & Kroh, A. (2018) Sustainable biodiversity databasing: international, collaborative, dynamic, centralised. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 33 (11), 803–805.

    Costello, M.J., Houlding, B. & Wilson, S. (2014b) As in other taxa, relatively fewer beetles are being described by an increasing number of authors: Response to Löbl and Leschen. Systematic Entomology, 39, 395–399.

    Costello, M.J, Lane, M., Wilson, S. & Houlding, B. (2015b) Factors influencing when species are first named and estimating global species richness. Global Ecology and Conservation, 4, 243–254.

    Costello, M.J., May, R.M. & Stork, N.E. (2013b) Can we name Earth’s species before they go extinct? Science, 339, 413–416.

    Costello, M.J., May, R.M. & Stork N.E. (2013c) Response to Comments on “Can we name Earth’s species before they go extinct?” Science, 341, 237.

    Costello, M.J. & Wieczorek, J. (2014) Best practice for biodiversity data management and publication. Biological Conservation, 173, 68–73.

    Costello, M.J., Wilson, S.P. & Houlding, B. (2012). Predicting total global species richness using rates of species description and estimates of taxonomic effort. Systematic Biology, 61(5), 871–883.

    Costello, M.J. & Wilson, S.P. (2011) Predicting the number of known and unknown species in European seas using rates of description. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 20, 319–330.

    Costello, M.J., Houlding, B. & Joppa, L. (2014a) Further evidence of more taxonomists discovering new species, and that most species have been named: response to Bebber et al. (2014). New Phytologist, 202, 739–740.

    Costello, M.J. Wilson, S. & Houlding, B. (2013d) More taxonomists but a declining catch of species discovered per unit effort. Systematic Biology, 62 (4), 616–624.

    Costello, M.J. (2016) Global biodiversity and biogeography of parasites. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 56, E44–E44.

    Costello, M.J. (2019) Unhelpful inflation of threatened species. Science, 365 (6451), 332–333.

    Costello, M.J., Emblow, C.S., Bouchet, P. & Legakis, A. (2006) European marine biodiversity inventory and taxonomic resources: state of the art and gaps in knowledge. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 316, 257–268.

    David, J., Garrity, G.M., Greuter, W., Hawksworth, D.L., Jahn, R., Kirk, P.M., McNeill, J., Michel, E., Knapp, S., Patterson, D.J. & Tindall, B.J. (2012) Biological nomenclature terms for facilitating communication in the naming of organisms. ZooKeys, 192, 67.

    Dayton, P.K. & Sala, E. (2001) Natural history: the sense of wonder, creativity and progress in ecology. Scientia Marina, 65(S2), 199–206.

    De Clerck O., Guiry M.D., Leliaert F., Samyn Y. & Verbruggen H. (2013) Algal taxonomy: a road to nowhere? Journal of Phycology, 49(2):215–225.

    Deng, J., Li, K., Chen, C., Wu, S. & Huang, X. (2016) Discovery pattern and species number of scale insects (Hemiptera: Coccoidea). PeerJ, 4, p.e2526.

    Deng, J., Wang, X., Zeng, L., Zou, X. & Huang, X. (2019) Dynamics of global institutional collaboration in insect taxonomy reveal imbalance of taxonomic effort. Insect Conservation and Diversity, 12 (1), 18–28.

    Edgar, G.J. & Stuart-Smith, R.D. (2014) Systematic global assessment of reef fish communities by the Reef Life Survey program. Scientific Data, 1(1), 1–8.

    Eschmeyer, W.N., Fricke R., Fong, J.D. & Polack, D. (2010) Marine fish biodiversity: A history of knowledge and discovery (Pisces). Zootaxa, 2525, 19–50.

    Fautin, D.G., Malarky, L. & Soberón, J. (2013) Latitudinal diversity of sea anemones (Cnidaria: Actiniaria). The Biological Bulletin, 224 (2), 89–98.

    Fontaine, B., van Achterberg, K., Alonso-Zarazaga, M.A., Araujo, R., Asche, M., Aspöck, H., Aspöck, U., Audisio, P., Aukema, B., Bailly, N., Balsamo, M., Bank, R.A., Belfiore, C., Bogdanowicz, W., Boxshall, G., Burckhardt, D., Chylarecki, P., Deharveng, L., Dubois, A., Enghoff, H., Fochetti, R., Fontaine, C., Gargominy, O., Gomez Lopez, M.S., Goujet, D., Harvey, M.S., Heller, K.G., van Helsdingen, P., Hoch, H., De Jong, Y., Karsholt, O., Los, W., Magowski, W., Massard, J.A., McInnes, S.J., Mendes, L.F., Mey, E., Michelsen, V., Minelli, A., Nafrýa, J.M.N., van Nieukerken, E.J., Pape, T., De Prins, W., Ramos, M., Ricci, C., Roselaar, C., Rota, E., Segers, H., Timm, T., van Tol, J. & Bouchet, P. (2012) New Species in the Old World: Europe as a frontier in biodiversity exploration, a test bed for 21st century taxonomy. PLoS ONE, 7 (5), e36881.

    Giam, X., Scheffers, B.R., Sodhi, N.S., Wilcove, D.S., Ceballos, G. & Ehrlich, P.R. (2012) Reservoirs of richness: least disturbed tropical forests are centres of undescribed species diversity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279 (1726), 67–76.

    Gordon, D.P., Beaumont, J., MacDiarmid, A., Robertson, D.A. & Ahyong, S.T. (2010) Marine Biodiversity of Aotearoa New Zealand. PLoS ONE, 5 (8), e10905.

    Gordon, D.P. & Costello, M.J. (2016) Bryozoa - not a minor phylum. New Zealand Science Review, 73 (3), 63–66.

    Griffiths, C.L. (2005) Coastal marine biodiversity in East Africa. Indian Journal of Marine Sciences, 34 (1), 35–41.

    Guiry, M.D. (2012) How many species of algae are there?. Journal of Phycology, 48(5), 1057–1063.

    Guiry, M.D. & Guiry, G.M. (2020) AlgaeBase. World-wide electronic publication, National University of Ireland, Galway. Available from: (Accessed 24 Feb. 2020)

    Hobern, D., Baptiste, B., Copas, K., Guralnick, R., Hahn, A., van Huis, E., Kim, E.S., McGeoch, M., Naicker, I., Navarro, L. & Noesgaard, D. (2019) Connecting data and expertise: a new alliance for biodiversity knowledge. Biodiversity Data Journal, 7, e33679.

    Hutchings, P.A. (2020) Major issues facing taxonomy-a personal perspective. Megataxa, 1, 43–45.

    Joppa, L.N., Roberts, D.L. & Pimm, S.L. (2011) The population ecology and social behaviour of taxonomists. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 26, 551–553.

    Kroh, A., Costello, M.J. & Horton, T. (2019) Biodiversity databases in the future: reply to Cene Fišer. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 34 (3), 185–186.

    Liu, Y., Dietrich, C., Braxton, S. & Wang, Y. (2019) Publishing trends and productivity in insect taxonomy from 1946 through 2012 based on an analysis of the Zoological Record for four species-rich families. European Journal of Taxonomy, 504, 1–24.

    Lohrmann, V., Vohland, K., Ohl, M. & Häuser, C. (2012) Taxonomische Forschungin Deutschland - Eine Übersichtsstudie. Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin. Available from: (Accessed 17 Jun. 2012)

    Lovejoy, T.E., Brouillet, L., Doolittle, W.F., Gonzalez, A., Green, D.M., Hall, P., Hebert, P., Herrmann, T.M., Hyde, D., Lee, J. & Maddison, W.P. (2010) Canadian taxonomy: exploring biodiversity, creating opportunity. The Expert Panel on Biodiversity Science. Council of Canadian Academies, Ottawa.

    Ota, R.R., Message, H.J., da Graça, W.J. & Pavanelli, C.S. (2015) Neotropical Siluriformes as a model for insights on determining biodiversity of animal groups. PLoS ONE, 10 (7), e0132913.

    Pagès-Escolà, M., Bock, P.E., Gordon, D.P., Wilson, S., Linares, C., Hereu, B. & Costello, M.J. (2020) Progress in the discovery of extant and fossil bryozoans. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 635, 71–79.

    Pamungkas, J., Glasby, C.J., Read, G.B., Wilson, S.P. & Costello, M.J. (2019) Progress and perspectives in the discovery of polychaete worms (Annelida) of the world. Helgoland Marine Research, 73, 4.

    Pimm, S.L., Jenkins, C.N., Joppa, L.N., Roberts, D.L. & Russell, G.J. (2010) How many endangered species remain to be discovered in Brazil. Natureza & Conservação, 8 (1), 71–77.

    Robbins, R.K. & Opler, P.A. (1997) Butterfly diversity and a preliminary comparison with bird and mammal diversity. In: Erwin, T.L., Reaka-Kudla, M.L., Wilson, D.E. & Wilson, E.O. (eds). Biodiversity II. Understanding and Protecting Our Biological Resources. Joseph Henry Press, pp. 69–82.

    Roskov, Y., Ower, G., Orrell, T., Nicolson, D., Bailly, N., Kirk ,P.M., Bourgoin, T., DeWalt, R.E., Decock, W., Nieukerken, E. van, Zarucchi, J., Penev, L. (eds.) (2019) Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life, 2019 Annual Checklist. Digital resource at Species 2000: Naturalis, Leiden, the Netherlands. ISSN 2405-884X.

    Sullivan, B.L., Aycrigg, J.L., Barry, J.H., Bonney, R.E., Bruns, N., Cooper, C.B., Damoulas, T., D’Hondt, A.A., Dietterich, T., Farnsworth, A. & Fink, D. (2014) The eBird enterprise: an integrated approach to development and application of citizen science. Biological Conservation, 169, 31–40.

    Taxonomy Decadal Plan Working Group (2018) Discovering Diversity: A decadal plan for taxonomy and biosystematics in Australia and New Zealand 2018–2028. Australian Academy of Science and Royal Society Te Apârangi: Canberra and Wellington., 82 pp.

    Tedesco, P.A., Bigorne, R., Bogan, A.E., Giam, X., Jézéquel, C. & Hugueny, B. (2014) Estimating how many undescribed species have gone extinct. Conservation Biology, 28 (5),1360–1370.

    Unger, S., Rollins, M., Tietz, A. & Dumais, H. (2020) iNaturalist as an engaging tool for identifying organisms in outdoor activities. Journal of Biological Education, 1–11.

    Wei, W., Luo, G., Ran, J. & Li, J. (2020) Zilong: A tool to identify empty images in camera-trap data. Ecological Informatics, 55, 101021.

    Wilson, S.P. & Costello, M.J. (2005) Predicting future discoveries of European marine species by using a non-homogeneous renewal process. Applied Statistics, 54 (5), 897–918.

    Woodley, M.A., Naish, D. & Shanahan, H.P. (2008) How many extant pinniped species remain to be described? Historical Biology, 20 (4), 225–235.

    Zhang, Z.-Q. (2020) Megataxa for big science questions in taxonomy. Megataxa, 1 (1), 1–3.