Numbers and Names: How taxonomic challenges affect biodiversity conservation

A new edition of the Pulse of the Planet

Friday, November 20th

One million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, according to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The species concept is fundamental to defining biodiversity yet our current understanding of the number of species remain frustratingly imprecise. While taxonomic rules and methods govern naming and classifying species, the current rate of biodiversity loss unequivocally indicates that we are losing species faster than our ability to name them.

Efforts to guide effective conservation action hinge on a firm command of species taxonomy.  Decision-makers rely on taxonomic decisions to understand which species exist, where they are located, and assess how they are doing. This information ideally helps determine which species and which sites should be conservation priorities.

Having a unified approach to species taxonomy would support global conservation efforts, but the devil is in the details. Even though new species descriptions and taxonomic revisions help clarify what is rare and what is common, conservation practitioners find it difficult to keep up with the volume of data posed by new taxonomic treatments.

In this new edition of the Pulse of the Planet, featuring a panel of global experts, we will focus on the taxonomic challenges that impact species conservation from a regional to global perspective. We will discuss the technical, social, and capacity challenges associated with integrating all aspects of taxonomic information to better serve society. We will discuss ways to respond to the needs of the biodiversity conservation and decision-making communities with a unified voice before it is too late.

See the rest of the Pulse of the Planet webinar series.

Speaker Bios


Sandra Knapp

Dr. Sandy Knapp is the President of The Linnean Society and a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London. She began on the Flora Mesoamericana inventory of Central American plants, but has since focused on studying the the large and diverse genus Solanum. She has served with the International Association of Plant Taxonomists, the IPBES Task Force on Knowledge and Data, and the BBSRC Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel. In 2016, Dr. Knapp was awarded the Linnean Medal for her service to science.


Maria Marta Cigliano

Dr. Maria Marta Cigliano is a professor at La Plata National University and research scientist from the Argentine National Research Council (CONICET). Previously, she served as thet President of the Orthopterists' Society and the project director of the worldwide catalogue Orthoptera Species File and of the biodiversity portal of Argentine insects BiodAr. Dr. Cigliano's main area of research is phylogenetic systematics and biogeography of grasshoppers (Orthoptera), focusing on species diversification aspects, and she is also involved in the design and implementation of web applications to assist taxonomists in sharing and managing biodiversity data on the web.

Donald Hobern

Since 2002, Donald Hobern has been active in the development of global infrastructure and tools for managing biodiversity information, first joining the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and then at the Atlas of Living Australia in 2007. He returned to GBIF as its Executive Secretary from 2012-2019 and helped to grow and strengthen its international community and establish GBIF as a significant digital research infrastructure. He is currently Executive Secretary for the International Barcode of Life Consortium and International Engagement Officer for Species 2000 and provides support to several Australian research data infrastructures. He has served as Chair of the Taxonomic Databases Working Group from 2008-2010 and on advisory boards for GEO BON and iDigBio.

Donald is an active amateur naturalist and photographer with a particular focus on Lepidoptera, in particular the plume moths (Pterophoridae) and many-plume moths (Alucitidae), for which he curates the global species lists that feed into the Catalogue of Life - available from He is based in Canberra, Australia.

Beckett Sterner

Beckett Sterner is an assistant professor at Arizona State University who studies the social epistemology of pluralism: what knowledge do we need to get things done together while differing in fundamental ways? Sterner investigates this question in biology, where globally coordinating data-intensive research is key to addressing societal challenges such as biodiversity loss. He brings a novel approach to pluralism in the information age through emphasizing the social dimension of mathematical formalization: abstraction enables scientists to coordinate joint activities without requiring consensus on what those activities mean in local contexts.

Alan Weakley

Alan Weakley is a plant taxonomist, community ecologist, and conservationist specializing in the Southeastern United States. He is Director of the UNC-CH Herbarium, NC Botanical Garden and author of floras in various forms (print, app, guide, graphic key) aimed at bringing current biodiversity information as tools to a diversity of users. As a trustee and advisor of public and private conservation granting agencies and foundations, he has helped oversee $400,000,000 of land conservation grants.