December 7, 2010

Thousands of Plant Species Discovered But Unidentified

There are more than 70,000 new flowering plant species yet to be discovered, and more than half of them may have already been collected but not yet identified, according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Despite the importance of species discovery, the processes including collecting, recognizing, and describing new species are poorly understood," lead author Dr. Robert Scotland of Oxford University's Department of Plant Sciences and his colleagues wrote in the paper.

Scotland and his colleagues noted that only 16 percent of the new botanical species collected between 1970 and 2010 were indentified within five years of their initial discovery, and nearly 25 percent of the new species described during that time period were at least 50 years old.

"Extrapolation of these results suggest that, of the estimated 70,000 species still to be described, more than half already have been collected and are stored in herbaria," they wrote. "Effort, funding, and research focus should, therefore, be directed as much to examining extant herbarium material as collecting new material in the field."

According to BBC News Science Reporter Neil Bowdler, Scotland spent 15 years using herbaria from all around the world trying to conduct research on a specific genus of flowering plant known as Strobilanthes. During the research, Bowdler discovered 60 new species of plants that were simply left lying, undiscovered, in collections at various locations.

"Together with colleagues, he decided to try and calculate how many undiscovered species of all flowering plants may be lying in such collections," Bowdler said. A total of 3,200 species had been identified in the past 40 years, and Scotland discovered that it took experts more than two centuries to identify one of the plant species in question, the BBC said on Tuesday.

Dr. Mark Carine, a member of Scotland's team who works in the Department of Botany in the Natural History Museum, London, said that the delay was due in part to a "lack of manpower and lack of expertise."

"There's no doubt we just don't have enough people to complete the process as rapidly as we might like," he told Bowdler. "I think what the study does is highlights the importance of collections such as the one at the Natural History Museum and elsewhere. We need to think about creative ways of unlocking information that we have in those herbaria as quickly as possible."


Image Caption: 60 new species of one plant genus have been found in collections.


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