Knowledge of Species
This evaluation tracks scientific knowledge on the number of wild species in Canada and their conservation status.
Is the estimated number of wild species in Canada.
of species in Canada that are not described by Western science or remain poorly documented.
of species assigned status ranks that are of conservation concern.
Why does knowledge of species matter?
There are an estimated 80,000 wild species in Canada (CESCC, 2016). Just over 3,200 documented species have been introduced to Canada by people.
While some groups, such as birds and vascular plants, are well-documented, almost 80% of wild species in Canada are “grey biodiversity” that not described by Western science or remain poorly documented (Figure 1).
Of the over 16,000 species from Canada that have been assigned national conservation ranks by NatureServe, 3,144 (19%) are of conservation concern (i.e., assessed as Critically Imperiled, Imperiled, Vulnerable, Historical, Extirpated or Extinct).
There remain significant gaps in documented knowledge of Canadian species. More investment is needed to catalogue Canadian biodiversity and assign conservation ranks. This includes more effort towards species inventories and gathering of local and Indigenous knowledge.
Potentially, there are over 15,000 species of conservation concern in Canada. These are species that, if assessed using NatureServe criteria, are likely to be ranked as Critically Imperiled, Imperiled, or Vulnerable.
Canada may have over 30 times more species of national conservation concern than are officially recognized under the Species at Risk Act. Addressing their needs will require holistic approaches to conserving wildlife such as coordinated multi-species and ecosystem-based actions.
Much of this undocumented biodiversity is likely to occur in areas that are already known for their diversity and unique species, including in Key Biodiversity Areas. Identifying and conserving these places will help to conserve Canada’s undocumented species.
Calls to action
Addressing the biodiversity crisis in Canada will require transformative change. See our backgrounder for more information. More specific actions include:
Federal, provincial, territorial & Indigenous governments
- Make meaningful investments in species inventories, taxonomy, and Conservation Data Centers, and continue to expand on the number of species groups assessed in general status reporting (CESCC, 2016). Develop efficient and effective approaches for evaluating and monitoring the status of under-represented species groups (Buxton et al. 2021).
- Invest in institutions, technologies and systems that will accelerate species surveys including the Biological Survey of Canada and the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.
- Invest in Indigenous Guardians and knowledge keeper programs.
- Improve mechanisms to synthesize, coordinate, and share biodiversity information and data among jurisdictions (Buxton et al. 2021), while safeguarding sensitive data.
- Accelerate the identification of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) across Canada. Identify and protect priority places for biodiversity in Canada using systematic inventories (e.g., KBA approach) while capturing biocultural knowledge (Buxton et al. 2021).
Local governments & communities
- Contribute species data from environmental assessments and natural heritage studies to Conservation Data Centres.
- Organize and support local ‘bioblitz’ events (e.g., Yukon bioblitz).
Civil societies, community organizations, universities, colleges & museums
- Invest in growing the number of naturalists, taxonomists, and other species experts in Canada, particularly for poorly known species groups.
- Support and conduct more species surveys and gathering of local and Indigenous knowledge.
Businesses & corporations
- Share information from environmental assessments and impact studies.
- Fund communities and organizations that are conducting biological surveys and assessments.
- Download and use iNaturalist.
The number and NatureServe status of Canada’s wild species is summarized every five years in “General Status” reports. The last report was for 2015 (published 2016). The next report will be based on 2020 data and published in 2022. More species are added to each reporting cycle, generally based on taxonomic groups. Lack of basic knowledge on the numbers and conservation status of species occurs in every country, including the United States (Wilcove & Master, 2005).
Additional background in species assessments can be found in our backgrounder documents and these sites:
Confidence and limitations
Medium confidence – conservation status is ranked are curated by NatureServe and Conservation Data Centres. Species observations must meet specific conditions to be included in the NatureServe database. The total number of species in Canada is an estimate and the potential number of at-risk species is an extrapolation based on the conservation status of species with status ranks.
Species ranking are maintained and regularly updated by NatureServe and they provide the most comprehensive assessment of species ranks in Canada today, although many assessments rely on expert knowledge rather than systematic surveys. Some status rankings may have changed since the query for this evaluation was done. We did not include subspecies, varieties, and populations in the query because these are not included in the total estimated number of species. The addition of these will significantly increase the number of potential species of conservation concern in Canada. In addition, new populations of species that are likely at risk are being discovered, e.g., (Walter et al., 2022)
New species continue to be described and documented in Canada. A new species of glass sea sponge was described off the coast of BC in 2017.
Photo: Sally Leys.
Hine’s Emerald is a globally imperiled dragonfly that was first documented in Canada near Barrie, Ontario in 2007.
Photo: Bonnie Kinder, (iNaturalist).
Applications and next steps
This evaluation highlights the significant gap in fully cataloging Canada’s biodiversity. More efforts are needed to inventory and identify species through both traditional scientific approaches, Indigenous knowledge and new technology (e.g., DNA bar-coding). Funding to increase the capacity for these activities is needed in Canada’s universities, governments, museums, Conservation Data Centres, and Indigenous communities and organizations. Many of these uncatalogued species may be within sites that are known hotspots for biodiversity (Scheffers et al., 2012).
Evidence suggests that when species are poorly documented, they tend to be at a higher risk of extinction (Liu et al., 2022; Régnier et al., 2015). This increases the urgency to identify and conserve these sites, including Key Biodiversity Areas. Our future evaluation will identify subnational gaps in species knowledge and the potential number of species of national conservation concern.
Figure 1. Number of native Canadian wild species by status category.
S2: Globally Threatened Species
S3: Species at Risk
How to Cite
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada. 2022. Knowledge of species (version 1.0), in SHAPE of Nature. https://shapeofnature.ca/
Data sources & methods
Data are from NatureServe Explorer based on a query of native species in Canada with Rounded National Status of N1, N2, N3, N4, N5, NH, NX, NNR and NU. Query did not include sub-species, varieties and populations or species with non-standard or provisional taxonomy. Our query was done on November 4, 2021.
This evaluation will be updated annually in December.
S1 Edge of Extinction
S2 Globally Threatened Species
S3 Species at Risk
S4 Endemic Species
S5 Knowledge of Species
S6 State of Canada's Trees
S7 State of Canada's Whales
H1 Globally Threatened Ecosystems
A1 Protected & Conserved Areas
A2 Recovery Plans for Species at Risk
P1 Biodiversity Laws, Policies & Plans
P2 Provincial & Territorial Species at Risk Laws
P3 Delays in Protecting Species at Risk