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Like Studying Stars that Have Blinked Out

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 20, 2012

On average, it takes 21 years from the time a new species is collected before scientists get around to describing it.  That delay can make a life-or-death difference in the middle of an extinction crisis.  Here’s a report from Carrie Arnold at Science Magazine:

High in the Himalayas in 2008, a tiny flash of yellow caught Paul Egan’s eye. The poppy intrigued the doctoral student in botany at Trinity College Dublin, as he was alreadyattempting to study the ecology of several species of Himalayan poppy. Egan extensively documented the bright yellow blooms that he found, tentatively concluding that this flower was a new species. However, he eventually figured out that other scientists had collected samples of the same flower starting in the 1960s but didn’t realize it was new. The samples sat on shelves for nearly 50 years, until Egan finally published the first formal description of Meconopsis autumnalis and the closely related M. manasluensis last year in the journal Phytotaxa.

Such a delay is not unusual, a study published today in Current Biology finds. On average, more than 2 decades pass between the first collection of samples of a new species and the publication of the species’ description in scientific literature. With species falling into extinction at record rates, many already-collected organisms may die out before they ever make it into scientific literature, researchers say.

Read more here.

Or take a look at the report from ScienceDaily:

Many of the world’s most unfamiliar species are just sitting around on museum shelves collecting dust. That’s according to a report in the November 20th issue of the Cell Press journal Current Biology showing that it takes more than 20 years on average before a species, newly collected, will be described.

It’s a measure the researchers refer to as the species’ “shelf life,” and that long shelf life means that any conservation attempts for unknown, threatened species could come much too late. The problem, the researchers say, is due to a lack of experts and of the funding and resources needed to do the job.

“Species new to science are almost never recognized as such in the field,” says Benoît Fontaine of Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. “Our study explains why it often happens that we describe species which were collected alive decades ago and which can be extinct now — just as astronomers study the light of stars which do not exist anymore.”

Part of the problem is that many species are rare and may be represented in collections by a single specimen. Taxonomists will usually wait until more specimens of any new species are available before they will describe it. In that sense, increased effort to seek out new species and specimens in the field would help to move things along in the world’s museums and herbaria, the researchers say.

Fontaine and his colleagues calculated shelf life based on a random sample of 600 species described in the year 2007. The data show that those species had a shelf life of 20.7 years on average, with a median of 12 years. Shelf life did vary according to biological, social, and geopolitical biases, they report. In fact, amateurs as a group describe new species more rapidly today than professionals do.

The findings come as yet another reminder of how much there still is to do when it comes to understanding and protecting the diversity of species on Earth.

“Our knowledge of biodiversity is still very scarce,” Fontaine says. “Describing new species is — or should be — part of the everyday work of taxonomists, and we need to hurry; new species are disappearing faster than we can describe them.”

Benoît Fontaine, Adrien Perrard, Philippe Bouchet. 21 years of shelf life between discovery and description of new species. Current Biology, 2012; 22 (22): R943 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.10.029

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