A Blog by Ed Yong

“New” species gather dust on museum shelves for 21 years

When the fruit bat Pteropus allenorum was finally described by scientists, it was already extinct. One specimen of the bat was shot in Samoa in 1856, skinned, stored in alcohol, and shipped to the United States. It spent the next 153 years, inconspicuous and ignored, on a shelf in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Drexel University. When bat specialist Kristofer Helgen visited the museum, he immediately recognised that it was a new species. Sadly, it was too late. There are no fruit bats in Samoa nowadays, so the jar on the shelf represents our only encounter with this now-extinct animal.

The fruit bat’s story isn’t an original one. The beetle Meligethes salvan was collected from the Italian Alps in 1912 and sat in Frankfurt’s Senckenberg Museum until it was described in 2003. In the intervening time, the valley from which it came had been almost entirely destroyed in the process of building a hydroelectric power plant. Biologists searched in the nearby valleys but couldn’t find it. The beetle may be extinct.

These examples show that the shelves and drawers of the world’s museums are among the planet’s most diverse habitats—ecosystems brimming with different species, many of which have never been seen before.

People often think that discoveries are made when biologists see new species in the field, and immediately recognise them as such. That’s largely not true. Field biologists often collect their specimens en masse, taking them back to their respective institutions, and keeping them in storage until they get a chance to peer at them properly. This means that many of the planet’s new species are sitting pretty in jars and drawers, gathering dust while they wait to be formally described.

How long is this shelf life? For the bat, it was 153 years, and for the beetle, 92. On average, it’s around 21 years, according to a new study from Benoît Fontaine from the Natural History of Museum in Paris.

Fontaine calculated the figure by considering 600 species, randomly chosen from the 17,000 or so described in 2007.The species hailed from all the kingdoms of life, and on average, they sat on their shelves for 20.7 years before coming to the light. Some were described almost immediately. The record-holder for the longest delay was an Indonesian pit viper that waited for 206 years! (It belongs to a large family of south-east Asian snakes, where individual species come in radically different colours and have been given many synonymous names.)

Several factors can speed things up. Some are obvious: If scientists have recently revised a group’s evolutionary relationships, species are described more quickly because it’s easier to identify something that’s new (the pit viper is a glaring exception to this trend). Other trends were more surprising: Marine species took less time to describe than land-living ones, and Fontaine has no idea why that might be.

Fontaine also found that the best-studied groups, including plants, back-boned animals and insects, spend longest on the shelf than other groups. That’s probably because the vaults of museums and botanical gardens are flooded with vast collections of these families, which take more time to work through.

For similar reasons, scientists in developed countries take longer to describe species than those in developing ones; and amateurs take less time than professionals. The pros tend to make descriptions using archived collections, while amateurs and those in the developing world do more direct field work. Fontaine also suggests that amateurs get recognition by describing new species and have incentives to do so quickly; professional scientists are more concerned by publishing in top-tier journals and securing grants, “both achievements rather at odds with baseline species descriptions”.

To reduce these shelf lives, Fontaine offers two obvious solutions. First: train and create jobs for more taxonomists—individuals with the skill (and time) to identify, describe and classify a new species. Second: conduct more field work to collect more specimens. Many taxonomists will not describe a new species based on a single sample. Until more field trips are done, and more samples arrive, mystery creatures stay shelved.

“We need to raise awareness about the importance of taxonomy,” says Fontaine, because we are running out of time. At a very rough estimate, we’ve yet to identify around 80 percent of living species, and many of these may go extinct in the next few decades. “It’s a matter of emergency, if we do not do it now, we will never be able to study, know and enjoy this biodiversity.”

Just as astronomers are only now seeing the light of stars that exploded out of existence millions of years ago, tomorrow’s taxonomists might “discover” new species that were already wiped out in the time it took to take them off their shelves.

Reference: Fontaine, Perrard & Bouchet. 21 years of shelf life between discovery and description of new species. Current Biology, citation tbc.

Image from ANSP

12 thoughts on ““New” species gather dust on museum shelves for 21 years

  1. So, where is the disconnect between taxonomists/jobs/descriptions? I always find alternating articles that say “we need more taxonomists!” followed by taxonomists saying “we can’t even get hired!”

    Is it a question of not finding specific funding? Or institutions redirecting resources to more exciting areas? I’d love to go into taxonomy, but I’m really hesitant to go anywhere near it if I’ve got no chance of getting a job.

  2. Funding agencies do not recognise taxonomy as a worthwhile scientific activity, even though so many sciences rely upon it, and so the do not make funding available for it. I suspect this has to do with the idea that taxonomy is not theoretical enough, and so is at best just preparation work, when to do it well takes a long time. There’s a disconnect of expectations. I blame the theory-heavy focus of current big science.

  3. Leilah, John’s right, so most researchers that do taxonomy do it in combination with other work like phylogenetics (like me), ecology, or other natural history. Taxonomy gets done as a side project, gets funded by supporting researchers at museums, or other ways, but I think big NSF taxonomy projects are unlikely to be funded under current circumstances. I work on pitviper relationships and the temple viper mentioned here is part of a very complicated group – luckily there are good researchers trying to pick apart the variation. I’d love to get my hands on the new species and see where it fits, but there are no individuals here in the U.S. so I’m basing its placement on data gleaned from the species description. I don’t think the pitviper is really a glaring exception to the trend of new species coming out of poorly-understood groups because although there’s been a lot of work on pitvipers as a whole subfamily, the species-dense studies, particularly of Asian species, haven’t been done yet. We have a ways to go before we identify all of the green Asian species.

  4. I appreciate this post, but show me an example when Kristofer Helgen doesn’t open up a museum tray and describe a new species and I will be shocked! ; p

  5. I find the “we need more taxonomists!”/”we can’t get jobs” situation particularly frustrating. The issue at the heart of this is that taxonomists have tended to be good natured, helpful people who will assist others with identifications and other projects in their group of interest at the drop of a hat. Thus, much of a taxonomist’s work is often done for free. This leads funding agencies to believe that taxonomy isn’t worth funding, because if something is free, if taxonomists are just sitting around at the ready to do this work for nothing, then obviously it doesn’t need funding. The best reaction, though sort of Randian, is to take that away. You want an identification of this specimen that is probably just some common species but could be something rare or new? 75 dollars on the table before I even see it. No dollars? No ID. Sorry, all this knowledge I have took years to build, many dollars spent on education and books, and many hours killing my eyes with the bright light of a stereo microscope. If you need this done, then you need to compensate me. There’s also the issue mentioned above with bureaucratic duties, and that ideographic or descriptive science is seen as a lesser occupation. But I think we could persuade with the above policy.

    As for why it takes so long to describe the new species after they are collected, there are two major “taxonomic impediments”. The first is that research cycles in taxonomy are incredibly long. It may be 100 years before another worker comes along to learn a group well enough to do comprehensive revisions of genera. The second is that, despite well funded collecting trips, the description process often ends after initial sample sorting, probably due to the aforementioned good natured distraction. Neil Evenhuis covers a path for getting around the latter in his article “The Other Taxonomic Impediment”, but there’s little any individual taxonomist can do about the first one.

  6. there are probably more flying foxes/fruit bats in Samoa than American Samoa (just 50 miles across the sea)..How do I know? Because I live in Samoa and shoot bats in the weekends..the article is rubbish..

  7. I’m a plant taxonomist in a small consulting firm. We find that there are little bits of funding available for taxonomy. Our favorite projects are contracts with U.S. government agencies for taxonomic evaluations of groups that are hard to identify. We find that agency botanists generally know where the problems are and want to get them solved, though few of those scientists are skilled working the bureaucracy to extract the funding.

    We can’t get really long term, large scale studies funded this way, but its surprising how much we have accomplished – lots of articles, several new species, two book projects. Of course, our incomes depend heavily on purely commercial projects like wetland delineations and weed surveys, which exercise our taxonomic skills in other ways.

    We do find people want identification done for free, especially non-profit organizations doing projects on a shoestring. We give away identifications for one or a few samples because (1) billing for small jobs can take more time and effort than the identifications and (2) we hope to build up the good will and the reputation for skill that will help us get contracts later. We charge for larger lots, generally giving clients the option of paying by the hour (usually cheaper) or the sample (more predictable).

    To sum up: if you enjoy taxonomy in your particular group enough that you do it as a hobby, you may, at least in some countries, be able to work it up into a (poorly) paying job, if you are flexible about what kind of project you’re willing to do. Enjoy.

  8. Perhaps those with so much to say should learn a little about the number of organisms and the amount funding available to pay people.

    To put it simple whole animal sciences like taxonomy and ecology are the the very very poor relatives of genetics and molecular biology, which in turn is the poor relative in relationship to physics.

    If the world spent 10% of what it has spent on trying to find the Higgs boson, or looking for planets around distant suns, to support taxonomy or ecology it would be a great improvement.

    Far too many of the worlds top taxonomists work full time in a day job, (as a bank teller for instance) and do their taxonomy in the evenings because no governement is will to pay for taxonomy. Which is a crime. Species are going extinct fater than we are identifying them.

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