Four of the world's leading botanical institutions have started a catalog of every plant on the globe, with plans to make the inventory of at least 400,000 species available for free online by 2020.
Plans for the catalog called the World Flora were announced Monday by the St. Louis-based Missouri Botanical Garden, New York Botanical Garden and two British institutions, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
They will compile scientific information and images of plant species worldwide, in part to help halt the loss of plant biodiversity around the world, officials said.
"Thanks to advances in our botanical knowledge and in digital technology, an online World Flora is within our grasp," Gregory Long, chief executive officer of the New York Botanical Garden, said in a news release. "It is imperative that we create this resource, which will help us assess the value of all plant species to humankind and be effective stewards to ensure their survival."
Until a few years ago, plant experts weren't sure how many species existed. The Missouri Botanical Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, developed a database referred to as the Plant List, which includes about 400,000 species. Officials believe another 40,000 or so species have yet to be discovered.
The next step in catalog development includes adding images of each species and detailed scientific information. The four institutions plan to seek funding from a variety of sources for the effort, said Karen Hill, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Botanical Garden.
The United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a global conservation plan in 2002, with the goal of halting the continuing loss of plant biodiversity. Officials involved in the World Flora project said at least 100,000 plant species worldwide are threatened by extinction.
Developing an online catalog was one major part of the U.N. plan, officials said.
Researchers at the four institutions will look at historic data on known plants and review and update it before adding it to the catalog. New plant species will be added as they are discovered. Scientists from at least 25 other institutions are expected to participate in the project.
"We all want to see this come to fruition, and the entire international community will benefit from it," said Peter Wyse Jackson, president of Missouri Botanical Garden.