Paper co-authored by E O Wilson calls for thousands of scientists to collect information on 160,000 species deemed representative of life on Earth
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 8 April 2010 19.00 BST
An ambitious project to create a "barometer of life" to track the changing fortunes of the natural world will be set out tomorrow by some of the world's leading ecologists.
The plan is for thousands of scientists to collect information on 160,000 of the world's nearly 2 million known species - from great mammals, fish and birds to obscure insects and fungi - chosen to be representative of life on Earth.
The index would more than triple the scope of what is alreadythe world's biggest scheme - the "red list" of extinct and endangered species published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) - and would be updated every five years.
The cost of building the database would be about US$60m (£39.3m), but this would be "one of the best investments for the good of humanity," says the proposal, published in the journal Science and co-authored by the great American ecologist and writer E O Wilson.
The figures could be used to help companies carry out environmental impact assessments, allow national and international organisations to prioritise spending, and draw public attention to problems as a way of building support for policies to protect and improve biodiversity, said Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN's species survival commission, and the paper's lead author.
"Just think of the other uses $60m are put to by the world, and the amount of money spent on wars or banks, or advertising," Stuart told the Guardian. "We can put our hands on our hearts and say this would be better for the good of humanity. First of all it's an indicator of the health of the planet. Secondly in many parts of the world people depend on biodiversity for food or clean water or living wages. Thirdly I'd say because of their intrinsic value: there's something inspirational about ecosystems and species being in good shape, and the diversity of it."
The idea – informally titled the "barometer of life" – is supported by the IUCN and nine partner organisations, including Kew Gardens in London, and the Zoological Society of London.
The IUCN's red list has so far assessed more than 47,000 species, but is heavily biased towards a few groups of animals – mammals, birds and amphibians – and does not adequately represent the whole of life on Earth, says the paper.
Only half of all vertebrates and "an extremely small proportion" of plants, invertebrates, fungi and other groups like seaweeds have been assessed, and species from marine, freshwater and arid environments are also "poorly covered", said Stuart.
"There are good reasons for believing you are going to get different results in different groups, which is why we have got to extend what we have got already," he added.
Using the hundreds of experts in the partner groups, and guidelines set down by the IUCN, Stuart estimates the first barometer could be published five years after receiving funding – probably from a private source. After that it could be updated every five years, for an annual cost of – at a "guess" - $5m, said Stuart, little more than is spent on the red list by global governments.
The headline figure for all life on Earth could be modelled on the IUCN's extinction risk rating of 0-1, where 0 is all species in the group are extinct, and 1 means there are no threats. In addition, the index could be broken down by region, species group, and by type of threat, said Stuart.
The 160,000 species proposed is a "provisional" figure, and includes almost all the nearly 65,000 species of vertebrates, and representative samples from the other groups. The scheme is being proposed to mark the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010.
Scientists have so far described 1.9 million of the estimated up to 10 million species of vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, fungi and other groups on Earth, and possibly tens of millions more bacteria and archeans.
Ten of the most endangered species in the world
Florida bonneted bat - Eumops floridanus was thought to be extinct until 2002, when a small colony was discovered in a North Fort Myers suburb of Florida, US.
Saola – The cow-like Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, which occurs only in the Annamite mountains of Vietnam and Laos is in protracted decline.
Kakapo or owl parrot - In 2008, the total population of this large, flightless nocturnal parrot (Strigops habroptila) from New Zealand was 93, including the seven hatched that year.
Golden arrow poison frog – With the chytridiomycosis epidemic spreading from west to east through Panama, populations of Atelopus zeteki are now at severe risk.
Jamaican iguana – There may be no more than a hundred adult Cyclura collei remaining in the wild, and juvenile recruitment appears to be minimal.
Chinese paddlefish - Only two adult specimens of Psephurus gladius (both females) have been recorded since 2002. It is expected there are fewer than 50 adults left in the wild.
Chinese giant salamander - The largest of all amphibian species, sometimes growing to more than 1m long, Andrias davidianus is widespread in southern China, but its range is very fragmented
Sicilian fir - Abies nebrodensis trees are presently limited to the steep, dry slopes of Mt. Scalone in the Madonie Mountains of Sicily.
Sumatran orang-utan - The majority of surviving Pongo abelii live in the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra, Indonesia.