Taxonomists plan to catalogue all of the world’s species in the next 50 years. This NASA-style initiative, set at the Sustain What? Conference held in New York City this week, will require the identification and classification of approximately 10 million new species. To put that in perspective, only 2 million have been catalogued since binomial nomenclature was first invented in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus.

Leptotyphlops carlae

The botanists, zoologists, ecologists, and computer scientists present at the conference believe that a number of modern developments make such a feat feasible. One is the ability to organize information online. Digitization of information, they explained, keeps taxonomists from reinventing the wheel by re-classifying species that were previously catalogued in obscure places. “My productivity has increased by an order of magnitude in recent years because of the Internet,” noted Dennis Stevenson, a botanist at the New York Botanical Garden.

The Internet also allows taxonomists to make use of crowd sourcing. Already, “citizen scientists” around the globe are contributing their knowledge of local flora and fauna to Wikipedia-like databases such as the Encyclopedia of Life and MushroomObserver. Sara Graves, a computer scientist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and her colleagues are developing smart software that can be used to analyze and classify photos of species taken by amateur enthusiasts.

Algorithm Development and Mining (ADaM), as it’s called, was originally built to analyze NASA satellite images. The new version will use pattern recognition to troll through databases of photos of living specimens. “It does extremely fine-grained analysis of slices of images, and if it doesn’t recognize something, like an unusual insect leg, then the experts get involved.” In other words, ADaM will serve as the middleman between trigger-happy citizen scientists and, well, real ones.

The group plans to write a report on the Sustain What? proceedings that will outline the likely costs of their endeavor, as well as stressing its urgency: “”If we’re going to be addressing biodiversity and conservation, we need to be aware of what’s out there,” said Graves.