Photo credit: josef.stuefer/Creative Commons
To discover a new species, most people believe, scientists must brave dense jungles and dry deserts, pushing deeper into the least-explored regions of the world. Once there, these unknown plants and animals, the romantic tale continues, jump out, revealing themselves as if by magic.
The reality, of course, is much different. Though new specimens are, undoubtedly, collected in the field, the real work of defining a new species takes place in the lab—and typically requires years of painstaking research. It's a difficult process only a few researchers are qualified to undertake and, because of this, there is a tremendous backlog of specimens that have yet to be classified.The backlog, a recent evaluation estimates, could include more than 35,000 new species—and that's only taking collected plant specimens into consideration. Due to a lack of resources, the study found that it takes, on average, 30 to 40 years for a plant specimen to be classified after it is collected from the field.
Robert Scotland, a professor at Oxford University's Department of Plant Sciences who authored the study, explained:
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.
"Because people have been collecting plants from around the world since before Victorian times," he added, "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."
That said, science's understanding of plant species is relatively robust. Scotland estimates that four out of five plant species are known, compared, for example, to only one in 10 insect species. That knowledge, in some ways, make identifying new plants more difficult. "A lot of work needs to be done comparing specimens from different parts of the world," Scotland says, "and eliminating any duplicates, before we can be sure that a plant is unique and describe it."
At the moment, there simply are not enough specialists in the field to accomplish this.
Monitoring the health of plants—and flowering plants, in particular—is an important means of evaluating global biodiversity. The more complete the understanding of the world's species, the more accurate these evaluations can become—and the more carefully scientists can monitor the impact of human activity on global biodiversity.