35,000 new species 'sitting in cupboards'

Dec 07, 2010
35,000 new species 'sitting in cupboards'
60 new species of one plant genus have been found in collections

(PhysOrg.com) -- Of 70,000 species of flowering plants yet to be described by scientists, more than half may already have been collected but are lying unknown and unrecognised in collections around the world, Oxford University research suggests.

A lack of resources for collections of plant specimens – known as ‘herbaria’ – and a lack of experts who can identify new are leaving a vital reservoir of information about global biodiversity untapped, the study’s authors believe. Their work shows that it currently takes on average 30-40 years from the time a flowering plant specimen is collected to it being recognised and described as a new species.

A report of the research appears this week in PNAS.

‘Many people think that discovering new species is primarily about expeditions to exotic locations and collecting new specimens, but the truth is that thousands of new plant species are lying unidentified in cupboards, drawers and cabinets around the world,’ said Dr Robert Scotland of Oxford University’s Department of Plant Sciences, an author of the report.

At the moment our knowledge of flowering plants is greater than our knowledge of almost any other group of organisms of comparable size – it is estimated that we know about 4 out of 5 species compared to knowing about only 1 in 10 species of insect, for example. Because flowering plants are found in every terrestrial habitat and every area of the globe they are a vital tool for monitoring biodiversity.

‘Because people have been collecting plants from around the world since before Victorian times the job of identifying a new plant species is becoming harder every year as collections fill up and it becomes more difficult to spot the new species,’ said Dr Scotland. ‘A lot of work needs to be done comparing specimens from different parts of the world, and eliminating any duplicates, before we can be sure that a plant is unique and describe it. At the moment there simply aren’t enough experts to do this.’

Herbaria consist of collections of dried plant specimens mounted on card and then filed away in cupboards and cabinets. Oxford University’s Department of Plant Sciences has its own herbaria containing around one million specimens and for the study worked with colleagues from the Natural History Museum (London), Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Earthwatch Institute.

‘Our own research into one particular genus of , Strobilanthes, described 60 new species from which had been sitting unexamined in herbaria for a long time,’ said Dr Scotland. ‘We now know that this pattern of new species going unrecognised is repeated at the world’s greatest plant collections, hindering efforts to monitor global biodiversity and measure the impact of human activity on plants and animals.’

Explore further: Female color perception affects evolution of male plumage in birds

Related Stories

Estimate of flowering plant species to be cut by 600,000

Sep 23, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists from the UK, US and elsewhere have been carrying out a comprehensive assessment of flowering plants and adjusting the estimate of their total number. The new estimate is that there ...

Thousands of undiscovered plant species face extinction

Jul 07, 2010

Faced with threats such as habitat loss and climate change, thousands of rare flowering plant species worldwide may become extinct before scientists can even discover them, according to a paper published today by a trio of ...

Birds could signal mass extinction

Oct 05, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The first detailed measurements of current extinction rates for a specific region have shown that birds are the best group to use to track the losses. The study also reveals Britain may be ...

All viruses 'can be DNA stowaways'

Nov 19, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- 'Fossil viruses' preserved inside the DNA of mammals and insects suggest that all viruses, including relatives of HIV and Ebola, could potentially be ‘stowaways’ transmitted from ...

Recommended for you

Dogs hear our words and how we say them

7 hours ago

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said—those consonants and vowels strung together into words and sentences—but also to other features of that speech—the ...

Amazonian shrimps: An underwater world still unknown

8 hours ago

A study reveals how little we know about the Amazonian diversity. Aiming to resolve a scientific debate about the validity of two species of freshwater shrimp described in the first half of the last century, ...

Factors that drive sexual traits

9 hours ago

Many male animals have multiple displays and behaviours to attract females; and often the larger or greater the better.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

scidog
not rated yet Dec 08, 2010
to ID all those just sitting around would be a good task for some sort of computer scan system.put the specimen under a 3D microscope of some type,i'm Liberal Arts not tech,a count of parts and their layout,size,number color-what ever, against know types would cull the numbers down to more detailed inspection.i'm sure systems like that must be used in quality control in everything from computer chips to candy bars.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.