Scientists classify the entire planet’s ecosystems for the first time

An international interdisciplinary team of scientists has developed the world’s first comprehensive classification of ecosystems across lands, rivers, wetlands and seas. Ecosystem typology will enable more coordinated and effective biodiversity conservation, which is essential for human well-being.

German forest. (Smileus/iStock/Getty)

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Janet Franklin has become involved in this international effort through her scientific advisory role as a member of the Scientific Standards Committee for the Red List of Ecosystems (RLE) since 2014 – the RLE is a program of the highly respected International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which has approximately 1,400 member organizations, including countries.

“The ELA is a new approach to conservation that draws on the same concepts as the internationally recognized IUCN Red List of Species. If ecosystems collapse, they cannot sustain the biodiversity that is their foundation. But if you’re going to assess ecosystems for risk of collapse as a result of human activities, you have to define them,” Franklin said.

The broad collaboration, led by the University of New South Wales, Sydney researchers, IUCN, the PLuS Alliance – Arizona State University, Kings College London and UNSW Sydney; and more than 100 ecosystem scientists worldwide.

“This global classification of ecosystems – not just rainforest and savannah, but wherever life is found from the deep oceans to the depths of caves – was a moonshot for conservation ecology. Classifying the natural world is a bit of a 19th century activity (think Darwin) but at the same time we needed something like the concept of species, where species are recognized targets of conservation despite scientific debate over what delimits a species,” Franklin said, “We’ve applied modern ideas of defining ecosystems based on how they work, not just the species in them.”

Posted in Naturethe team’s work explores the science behind the classifications, as well as how they can help achieve global policy goals to be adopted by each country.

(Leslie LJ Reilly of San Diego State University contributed to this report.)