Health & Environment

Detailing The Earth, One Ecosystem At A Time

A Texas A&M-Galveston marine biology professor contributed to a comprehensive work about all of the world’s ecosystems.
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications March 17, 2021

Fish underwater illuminated by sunlight
A professor of marine biology contributed chapters on the world’s subterranean ecosystems, including sea caves.

Getty Images


A Texas A&M University at Galveston professor contributed to a first-of-its kind work that comprehensively classifies all of the Earth’s ecosystems.

The valuable reference volume examines the function and composition of each ecosystem and identifies critically important components for biodiversity conservation, research, management and human wellbeing, now and into the future.

Thomas Iliffe, professor of marine biology at the Texas A&M-Galveston campus, is one of only a few of scientists worldwide invited to contribute to the work, which is sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). IUCN is an international group of researchers, comprised of 1,400 different organizations and 17,000 experts in all fields of science. It is considered “the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it,” according to its website.

Iliffe, one of the world’s foremost scientific cave divers who has discovered more than 300 new species of marine life, was selected to co-author 10 of the 108 chapters in the book. These deal with the world’s subterranean ecosystems including saltwater caves, tidal pools, sea caves, flooded mines, lithic (stone) systems, anthropogenic (human-produced) substances, groundwater, and water pipes and canals.

“I am appreciative and honored to be among the select few scientists from around the world who had a chance to contribute to this work,” Iliffe said. “This is a monumental undertaking and we hope that it will help draw attention and aid in the conservation of underappreciated subterranean ecosystems around the world.

“I am convinced that this book contains the essential information we need to overcome the enormous challenges we face.”

He said that currently, all of the world’s ecosystems show hallmarks of human influence, and many are under acute risks of collapse, with consequences including species extinction and loss of genetic diversity. Threats including climate change, deforestation, overfishing, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, air pollution and a host of other problems.

“We, as the Earth’s highest lifeform, are tasked with the role as caretakers of our planet,” Iliffe said. “Through this current work, we have created an inventory of the diverse habitats and ecosystems so that can be used to protect the diverse environments where life exists.”

The completed work, titled “Global Ecosystem Typology,” explains how ecosystems are critically important components of Earth’s biological diversity and are the natural forces that sustains human life and well-being. The authors said that the purpose of the work is to classify the major biological communities on the Earth and identify interactions between organisms and their environment. Such information is essential to identify which ecosystems most critically need biodiversity conservation, research, and management, the authors said.

“We are still discovering new ecosystems and don’t fully understand the relationships between the plants, animals and microorganism and the physical environment in which they reside, Iliffe said.

“Part of our job in writing these chapters was to determine the connections between surface and subsurface habitats and organisms. It involved a broad range of expertise, but fortunately, I was able to recruit colleagues of mine from Italy, Greece and multiple universities and institutions across the U.S to help with this task. This reference work is a crucial first step that will be updated and expanded as needed. When this occurs depends in large part on how successfully human are to address processes such as climate change, species extinctions, habitat loss, etc.”

Iliffe and his team continue to make cave dives around the world. For more information about his work and ways to support it, visit his cave biology website.

Media contacts:

  • Tom Iliffe, 409-740-4454,
  • Rebecca Watts, 979-229-0902,

Related Stories

Recent Stories