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New Species Gather Dust Before Their Scientific Debut

19 November 2012 4:25 pm
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Paul Egan/Trinity College Dublin

Finally. A new species of yellow poppy (Meconopsis autumnalis) from Nepal was written up last year—nearly 50 years after the first specimen of the species was collected.

High in the Himalayas in 2008, a tiny flash of yellow caught Paul Egan's eye. The poppy intrigued the doctoral student in botany at Trinity College Dublin, as he was already attempting to study the ecology of several species of Himalayan poppy. Egan extensively documented the bright yellow blooms that he found, tentatively concluding that this flower was a new species. However, he eventually figured out that other scientists had collected samples of the same flower starting in the 1960s but didn't realize it was new. The samples sat on shelves for nearly 50 years, until Egan finally published the first formal description of Meconopsis autumnalis and the closely related M. manasluensis last year in the journal Phytotaxa.

Such a delay is not unusual, a study published today in Current Biology finds. On average, more than 2 decades pass between the first collection of samples of a new species and the publication of the species' description in scientific literature. With species falling into extinction at record rates, many already-collected organisms may die out before they ever make it into scientific literature, researchers say.

To quantify the lag between discovery and publication, Benoît Fontaine, an ecologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and colleagues surveyed the 16,994 new species whose formal descriptions were published in 2007. Of these, the researchers randomly picked 600 species to analyze more closely. The lag between the initial collection of a new species and its formal publication in the research literature averaged 21 years for those 600 species, they found. The median time between collection and publication was 12 years. Fontaine refers to this time gap as a species' "shelf life."

Although the idea of a species' shelf life isn't new, it hadn't been quantitatively measured before, says Quentin Wheeler, director of the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University, Tempe. In previous centuries, newly collected species would routinely gather dust for years for decades before being written up. And the process doesn't necessarily move any faster today. Specimens must be collected and brought back to the lab for study. Researchers must conduct an exhaustive literature search to ensure that no one else has previously identified this species. Frequently, researchers will travel to different locations to examine other specimens or use DNA evidence to help determine the identity of a potential new species. "That's why papers like this are good: They help us identify the bottlenecks in the process," Wheeler says.

Fontaine and colleagues also examined a variety of factors that might affect a species' shelf life. Unexpectedly, the average shelf life of species discovered by amateur collectors was 15 years, compared with 21 years for professional biologists. Species also had a shorter shelf life when they were discovered by researchers living in countries whose average per capita income was less than $35,000—perhaps because those researchers are already in the places where most new species are found. New aquatic species also had a significantly shorter shelf life than new terrestrial species.

But several nonscientific factors likely increase a species' shelf life, Fontaine says. The descriptions of new species aren't seen as sexy, and many journals with high impact factors don't frequently publish papers that simply describe a new species. So, a young researcher looking to get tenure might opt to write a seemingly more sophisticated, hypothesis-driven paper published in a higher tier journal and shelve largely descriptive findings from a field expedition so that they can be published later. That strategy would explain why species identified by amateurs make it into the literature faster than those spotted by professionals, Fontaine says.

Given the recent increase in extinction rates due to human activities, however, a species can go extinct between the time it is collected and when it is written up. Many of the new species being identified are already endangered, notes Lee Grismer, a biologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. "A median shelf life of 12 years is catastrophic," he says. "We will not save biodiversity with this." Fontaine agrees: "It's difficult to protect things we don't know about."

In an attempt to decrease a species' shelf life, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature ruled that a new species would be considered official when it was published online, rather than just in print. Researchers predict, however, that move is likely to knock just a few months off the years' long lag between observation and publication.

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