Half of species found by 'great plant hunters'

February 2, 2012
John Wood collecting plants in Bolivia. Credit: courtesy of Darwin Initiative.

(PhysOrg.com) -- With an estimated 15-30% of the world’s flowering plants yet to be discovered, finding and recording new plant species is vital to our understanding of global biodiversity.

The age of great botanical explorers, such as Sir Joseph Banks and Alexander von Humboldt, might appear to have passed. But the study, led by Oxford University scientists, found that modern botany has its own ‘great plant hunters’ – individuals whose experience and skills enable them to make a disproportionate contribution to the discovery of new plant species.

A report of the research is published in this week’s Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

"It seems that, even in the 21st Century, we need ‘great’ plant hunters who have the skills and experience to make the most efficient use of their time in the field," said Dr. Robert Scotland of Oxford University’s Department of , who led the work.

John Wood holding a specimen of a possible new species of sweet potato. He has collected more than 28,000 plant specimens from Somalia, Yemen, Bhutan, Colombia and Bolivia, resulting in excess of 100 new species. Credit: courtesy of Darwin Initiative.

"Whilst local specialists, citizen scientists, and students all have an invaluable contribution to make to botany, our research suggests that years of experience helps great hunters collect, not necessarily more specimens, but more of the important ones that go on to change our understanding of plant species," Dr. Scotland adds.

The study assembled four datasets totalling 100,000 specimens from four institutions; The Natural History Museum, Royal Edinburgh, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Royal Botanic Garden Melbourne.

The researchers found that the most productive collectors are distinguished by five attributes: they collect over many years, they collect more types per year, they collect from several different countries (although specialising in one particular country), they collect from a wide range of plant families (although again, often specialising in a particular family), and they collect more types towards the end of their careers.

The study suggests that greater efforts should be made to identify, train, and support plant hunters throughout their careers as they can make a substantial contribution to the discovery of new species.

Oxford University’s Department of Plant Sciences has a strong history of producing ‘big hitting’ plant hunters from an 18th Century Professor of Botany, John Sibthorp (1758-96) who collected some of the first plants from Greece and many from Cyprus, to Sir Ghillean Prance, a recent Director of Kew Gardens and Graduate student at Oxford University who collected extensively in Brazil. Currently John Wood, a research associate at the Department of Plant Sciences, has collected 30,000 specimens from South America and Asia, many of which are new species.

The research was carried out by scientists from Oxford University, Earthwatch Institute, Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and Missouri Botanical Garden.

Explore further: Historic plant type specimens to go digital

More information: A report of the research, entitled ‘Big hitting collectors make massive and disproportionate contribution to the discovery of plant species’, is published in this week’s Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Related Stories

Historic plant type specimens to go digital

April 12, 2006

A unique collection of plant specimens that is part of The Academy of Natural Sciences' world-renowned herbarium soon will be viewable through the Internet, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation.

35,000 new species 'sitting in cupboards'

December 7, 2010

(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 ...

New botanic database holds a million plant names

December 29, 2010

Capping the UN's International Year of Biodiversity, botanists in Britain and the United States on Wednesday unveiled a library of plant names aimed at helping conservationists, drug designers and agriculture researchers.

Chinese primrose rediscovered

May 5, 2011

A botanist at one of Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partners, the Kunming Institute of Botany, has rediscovered two populations of a primrose which was thought to be extinct in the wild.

Recommended for you

Study suggests fish can experience 'emotional fever'

November 25, 2015

(Phys.org)—A small team of researchers from the U.K. and Spain has found via lab study that at least one type of fish is capable of experiencing 'emotional fever,' which suggests it may qualify as a sentient being. In their ...

New gene map reveals cancer's Achilles heel

November 25, 2015

Scientists have mapped out the genes that keep our cells alive, creating a long-awaited foothold for understanding how our genome works and which genes are crucial in disease like cancer.

Insect DNA extracted, sequenced from black widow spider web

November 25, 2015

Scientists extracted DNA from spider webs to identify the web's spider architect and the prey that crossed it, according to this proof-of-concept study published November 25, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Charles ...

How cells in the developing ear 'practice' hearing

November 25, 2015

Before the fluid of the middle ear drains and sound waves penetrate for the first time, the inner ear cells of newborn rodents practice for their big debut. Researchers at Johns Hopkins report they have figured out the molecular ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 02, 2012
With an estimated 15-30% of the worlds flowering plants yet to be discovered

How do they know this??? I've always wondered how the experts can say things like "we've only uncovered 10% of the world's insect population". Is it some formula based on existing biodiversity or does the statistic merely exhibit truthiness?

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.