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Fact Sheet

Planetary Biodiversity Inventories (PBI)

Mission to an (almost) unknown planet

September 23, 2003

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.


What kinds of living things exist? Where do they live? How are they related? These are simple questions, but have few answers. Were life to be discovered today on another planet, resources would quickly be mustered to inventory its diversity. Yet we remain ignorant about most of the diversity of life on Earth. To date, only 5 to15 percent of all life on our home base has been discovered and described.

Despite two-and-a-half centuries of attempts to inventory life Earth’s inhabitants, no model exists for how to complete a global inventory of all the species of any major group. The ambitious, multi-investigator, multi-institutional and multi-national PBI projects will demonstrate the feasibility of accomplishing global surveys within reasonable time frames. They will provide the first rigorous models to address global-scale questions in a comprehensive framework for understanding the biotic history and current ecosystems.

Why are large-scale projects needed? Our generation is the first to be aware of mass extinctions now occurring and the last to have the opportunity to inventory much of our planet's biodiversity before it disappears. If successful, these studies will provide models for workers on other groups to accomplish similar inventories in years instead of centuries.

Why are such studies crucial? They can answer the most basic questions of biodiversity for a major group, relatively completely and for the first time. By encompassing everything known about both fossil and living organisms, such studies can create a globally applicable system in which to chart the distribution of species and their characteristics, across ecological space and through geological time.

They can produce maximally efficient means of predicting the distribution of as yet unknown attributes among organisms, thereby providing a conceptual framework for all of comparative biology. They can generate rigorously tested knowledge accessible to everyone, everywhere, for research, education and application. They can produce interactive keys, or other automated identification tools, that will enable non-specialists to identify accurately all the species of these groups. They can provide a robust data set for conducting phylogenetic analyses, constructing predictive classifications and establishing the most precise, informative language possible for biological communication.

Each PBI team will:

  • conduct the fieldwork necessary to fill gaps in existing collections,

  • produce descriptions, revisions, web pages, and interactive keys (or other automated identification tools) for all new and known species in the targeted group,

  • analyze their phylogenetic relationships and to establish predictive classifications for them,

  • build a database for all new and retrospective locality information using GPS technology,

  • provide field, laboratory and museum experience for trainees, with special attention to international training for U.S. students as well as cooperation with foreign participants in training their students,

  • disseminate results and best practices to other scientific communities (workshops and other activities that share new software and other products resulting from project), and

  • disseminate results to the public

The Planetary Biodiversity Inventory is a joint initiative of the ALL Species Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


Media Contacts
Cheryl L. Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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