Canadian Taxonomy: Exploring Biodiversity, Creating Opportunity

The diversity of life on earth is an irreplaceable natural heritage.  It is being lost in Canada and around the world at a rate unprecedented in human history with massive consequences for the biosphere, the economy, and human well-being.  Taxonomy is the science that discovers, distinguishes, classifies and documents living things.  As such, it is the foundation of biodiversity research and essential to understanding the world around us.  Canada has a proud history of world class contributions to taxonomic research but today critical gaps exist within the Canadian system.

The Minister of Canadian Heritage on behalf of the Canadian Museum of Nature asked the Council of Canadian Academies to assemble an Expert Panel to conduct an independent assessment of: the state and trends of biodiversity science in Canada.  The charge had a specific focus on taxonomy.


Thomas E. Lovejoy via video at the Canadian Museum of Nature (left) and Council President Elizabeth Dowdeswell with the report (right), November 18th 2010.

Understanding the State and Trends of Canadian Taxonomy

The Expert Panel on Biodiversity Science developed an evidence-based report, Canadian Taxonomy: Exploring Biodiversity, Creating Opportunity, it explores the state of Canadian taxonomy in three areas: taxonomic expertise, the state of biodiversity collections, and Canada’s strength in data sharing.  After examining the evidence in each of these areas the Expert Panel concluded that Canada is not yet equipped to fully understand the challenges of its biodiversity resources.

Taxonomic Expertise: Canada continues to have world class researchers and strong student interest in taxonomy; but students are trained in an increasingly small number of labs, leading to a loss of breadth in taxonomic expertise.  Job openings in taxonomy have virtually ceased and research funding is stagnant.  Canada’s international contribution to new species descriptions has fallen from 6th in the 1980s to 14th in the 2000s.   

Biodiversity Collections: There are over 50 million specimens in Canadian collections, worth a conservative estimated value of over a quarter of a billion dollars.  Conditions under which specimens are stored vary considerably.  Many collections are stored in aging facilities and there is little room for growth.  Collections are managed under an array of different organizational schemes, with no national collections strategy or standards.

Data Sharing: Canada has impressive specimen collections and a strong digital infrastructure. However, most of the information about Canadian biodiversity is trapped in cabinets rather than accessible on the internet. Canada compares poorly internationally in digitization and sharing of data on online databases; approximately 80 per cent of Canada’s online biodiversity information is being held outside of Canada. 

These are just a few of the many observations about Canadian taxonomy that can be found in the Expert Panel’s report.

Assessment Question

What are the state and trends of biodiversity science in Canada? Are we equipped to understand the challenges of our biodiversity resources?


1. Do molecular techniques truly supplant traditional taxonomy, or do they create opportunities to focus effort?

2. What is required to supplement traditional taxonomy?

3. In light of what is globally required in biodiversity research, what does Canada need to do?

4. What are the gaps between what Canada needs to do and Canada's existing capabilities?

Reports and related publications

Expert Panel membership

The Expert Panel on Biodiversity Science first convened in November 2009 and is chaired by Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, Biodiversity Chair, Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C. For a complete list of panel members visit the Expert Panel on Biodiversity Science Membership page.

For additional information or media inquiries, please contact:

Samantha Rae Ayoub, Communications and Publishing Director, at 613-567-5000 ext. 256 or

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