Hardly an overnight success: 100 years to discover plant species
While the act of discovering a species is often seen as a thrilling moment, newly published research demonstrates the initial encounter is just the beginning of a long process. Understanding what a species represents actually, on average, takes more than a century.
Knowing what plants exist - and where they live - is a prerequisite to conserving global plant diversity. To improve understanding - and, so, meet the targets of initiatives such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, a programme of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity - it is necessary to work out how knowledge of plants accumulates over time. And, how it can be continuously updated against the high levels of climate and land use change being witnessed around the world.
To shed light on how knowledge of plant diversity is obtained, botanists from Oxford University and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh have measured how long it takes for a new species to be collected, given a name, and for 15 specimens of that species to be obtained and accurately identified.
The group’s study, published in Systematics & Biodiversity, on Thursday, May 7, 2020 shows that discovering plant species takes, on average, 70-100 years. Dr Zoë Goodwin, one of the paper’s authors, explained: “The long time it takes to understand a species, even at a basic level, reflects a lack of capacity in the field of Taxonomy — the science responsible for species discovery.”
Co-author Dr Pablo Munoz Rodriguez added: “Limited taxonomic capacity has important implications for science and policy targets that rely on this information, such as conservation and global biodiversity studies, as they are severely compromised, with knock-on effects for our ability to accurately measure levels of extinction.”
In an era of upheaval, with so much still to achieve, stock needs to be taken of the situation, concluded Dr Goodwin: "More than ever before we need to train new taxonomists and give them the opportunity to build up their expertise, if we are to take on the massive challenge of the biodiversity crisis."
Image: Aframomum thonneri first collected in 1909 in Democratic Republic of Congo. The species name was published in 1911. The species remained known only from that one location until 1955 when a second colllection was made. In 1992 Congolese botanist Dr Jean-Baptiste Dhetchuvi identified two more herbarium specimens in Brussels and now it is still only known from the Democratic Republic of Congo and appears very rare growing in four localities. Once all the available specimens from 11 different collections are studied by Harris & Wortley in a comprehensive study in 2018 the species is found to be widespread, in five countries and common and of "least concern" for conservation purposes.
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How long does it take to discover a species? is published by Systematics and Biodiversity:
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the fourth year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation. Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions. Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 170 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past three years.
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is a leading international research organisation delivering knowledge, education and plant conservation action around the world. In Scotland its four Gardens at Edinburgh, Benmore, Dawyck and Logan attract nearly a million visitors each year. It operates as a Non Departmental Public Body established under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985, principally funded by the Scottish Government. It is also a registered charity, managed by a Board of Trustees appointed by Ministers. Its mission is “To explore, conserve and explain the world of plants for a better future.” Learn more: www.rbge.org.uk
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