Mistaken identities of tropical plants raise questions on biodiversity data

November 16, 2015

The primary way that researchers know anything about the distribution of species in the natural world is via the specimen collections housed in museums all around the world. As a result, tremendous effort is being put into uploading data on those collections into free and accessible databases (for example, http://www.gbif.org). But researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on November 16 have uncovered a big problem: mistaken identities in those collections are incredibly common, at least among tropical plants.

Since the 1970s, the world's plant collections have more than doubled, but more than 50 percent of tropical specimens, on average, are likely to be incorrectly named, the study suggests.

"Part of the reason for such rampant misidentification is the huge increase in the number of specimens which have been collected in the last 50 years," says Robert Scotland of the University of Oxford. "The other reason is the lack of expertise in many tropical plant groups. This produces a situation where huge numbers of incoming specimens can overwhelm any efforts to identify them by the few people with the necessary skill."

This discovery has serious implications for the use of specimen data coming out of those natural history collections. That might sound discouraging, but it's a problem that can be tackled.

"We estimate it takes £500 ($750) to revise a species, which means for the cost of one world-class footballer--[such as Barcelona megastar] Lionel Messi--it would be possible to monograph the entire flora of tropical plants," Scotland says.

He and his colleagues say that they are now doing their part by actively exploring new integrated approaches to taxonomy. They've brought their techniques together into something they call "foundation monographs," getting their start with two plant groups (see http://www.springer.com/-/2/AU_yD0s52brxj7RSZdi1 and http://phytokeys.pensoft.net/articles.php?id=5459).

The findings come as yet another timely reminder of how much there is to learn about biodiversity. "We know so little about the natural world, but we still have a chance to document it properly!" Scotland says.
This research was funded by the Systematics Association and Linnean Society, the BBSRC & NERC.

Current Biology, Goodwin et al.: "Widespread mistaken identity in tropical plant collections" http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.10.002

Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that features papers across all areas of biology. Current Biology strives to foster communication across fields of biology, both by publishing important findings of general interest and through highly accessible front matter for non-specialists. For more information please visit http://www.cell.com/current-biology. To receive media alerts for Cell Press journals, contact press@cell.com.

Cell Press

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