Tens of thousands of flowering plants in storage, waiting to be named

Botanists have spent more time over the past half century collecting flowering plants than describing and naming them.

An herbarium plant specimen.

Publishing in the December 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a group of scientists looked at
data on flowering plants discovered between 1970 and 2010, and found that only 16% had been officially described within five years after being collected.

At the same time, nearly 25% of flowering plant species described and named during that time period were from specimens more than 50 years old. What does it mean? It means most “newly discovered species” had been sitting in a herbarium awhile before being officially recognized and added to the ranks of known species on Earth.

Botanists and biologists are people who probably, as a rule, like nature. They probably like to be outside. Part of their job is to collect new species – in other words, pick flowers. According to the scientists conducting the PNAS study, more effort, funding, and research focus should now be directed to examining the contents of the storage vaults as to collecting new material in the field.

What’s more, extrapolation of these results (and you know we love to extrapolate), suggests that – of some 70,000 species estimated by scientists to be still in nature, waiting to be described – more than half already have already been collected and are currently stored in herbaria.

Botanists and biologists, get thee back inside!

When samples of new species are collected, they’re dried, mounted on paper, and stored. There are 75 herbariums around the world, holding more than one million species of plants. We can expect that many new species will be coming out of the cabinets in the years to come. In this era of extinctions, hopefully most of them will still exist in nature as well.

December 9, 2010

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