As many as 50% of all natural history specimens held in the world’s museums could be wrongly named, according to a new study by researchers from Oxford University and the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.
A release from Oxford on Tuesday said even the most accomplished naturalist can find it difficult to tell one species of plant from another or accurately decide which genus a small insect belongs to.
So when a new specimen arrives at a museum, finding the right name from existing records can sometimes prove difficult. In turn, that can lead to specimens being given the wrong name – which can prove problematic for biologists, the release added.
A report of the research, titled ‘Widespread mistaken identity in tropical plant collections’, has been published in Current Biology.
“Many areas in the biological sciences, including academic studies of evolution and applied conservation, as well as achieving the 2020 targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity, are underpinned by accurate naming,” said Robert Scotland of the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford.
“Without accurate names on specimens, the records held in collections around the world would make no sense, as they don’t correspond to the reality outside.”
Scotland also points out that the negative effects of this are increasingly multiplied as large databases are aggregated online, gathering together vast amounts of specimen data, many of which have incorrect species names.
The team thinks there are three main reasons for these inaccurate names. First, they suggest that there simply isn’t enough time or research devoted to writing monographs.
Second, they point out that the number of specimens in the world is increasing too quickly for research to keep up – with 50% of the world’s specimens in 2000 having been collected since 1969.
Finally, there are now so many museums and herbaria around the world that experts cannot view all the specimens in a genus and revise the names accordingly, the release added.