A few great plant hunters find most species

03 February 2012

Just 2% of plant collectors find the majority of new species, and these great plant hunters could be key to finding the rest of the world's undiscovered plants, according to a report this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Plant collector John Wood in Bolivia - one of the great plant hunters identified in new research

Plant collector John Wood in Bolivia - one of the great plant hunters identified in new research who could be crucial to efforts to find the world's remaining unidentified plant species. © Darwin Initiative

Scientists led by Oxford University and including those at the Natural History Museum, studied over 100,000 type specimens - the important specimens that scientists use when naming a new species. They found that over 50% of the type specimens were discovered by 2% of the collectors.

These great plant hunters should be a focus of strategies to help find the estimated 15-20% of the world’s flowering plants yet to be discovered, the team says. They find a disproportionate number of new species, and at a time of rapid global biodiversity loss, could be an important way to find plants more quickly before they are lost forever.

Museum plant expert Mark Carine explains, ‘It’s clear from our study that a relatively small number of collectors have made a massive contribution to the discovery of plant species and that those ‘'big hitters'’ become more effective with experience – they tend to collect more species that are new to science towards the end of their careers.

Identifying, training, and supporting modern-day plant hunters, and targeting their efforts in the right areas of the world, is likely to be an effective element in completing the inventory of flowering plants.’

There are an estimated 380,000 known plants species. One in 5 plants are threatened with extinction and most threatened plant species are found in the tropics, the area of greatest plant diversity. 

Combining large sets of data
Plant specimen collected by Robert Brown in 1801 - one of the great plant hunters

Australian plant specimen collected by Robert Brown more than 200 years ago and looked after in the Museum collections. Brown is one of the great plant hunters from the 18th and 19th centuries.

For the study, 4 of the world's major specimen databases were combined to give a total of 102,955 type specimens. The data was from the Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Royal Botanic Garden Melbourne.

The team were able to analyse such large amounts of data because the records had been digitised. Carine explains ‘With support from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, the Museum has been databasing and imaging the type specimens and putting the data on the web to make them easily accessible.’

Leading the way digitally

This research method is leading the way in how scientific information is shared says Museum plant expert Steve Cafferty, who was also part of the research team. ‘This kind of collections-based research based on large multi-institutional datasets is in the vanguard of major new informatics initiatives, and has only recently become possible through the coordinated efforts to amalgamate such large datasets.’

Specimens at the Museum

More than 50,000 type specimens from the collections at the Museum were used in the study. Carine adds, ‘64 collectors (1.87%) constitute our big hitters as they were responsible for discovering half of the 50,398 type specimens we sampled from our herbarium.’ For example Robert Brown collected nearly 1700 type specimens during his collecting career from 1794-1827, and Arthur FG Kerr found 865 during 1908-1936.

Living great plant hunters

The era of the great plant hunters is often thought of as the 1700s and 1800s, with collectors such as Sir Joseph Banks. However, this pattern persists today says the team. 

The people who identify, name and classify new species are called taxonomists.

The scientists who identify, name and classify new species are called taxonomists and their work is an essential foundation to understanding global biodiversity.

For example during 38 years from 1938, Peter Davis from Edinburgh collected 348 type specimens mostly from Turkey. And John Wood, currently at Oxford University’s Department of Plant Sciences, has collected 30,000 specimens from South America and Asia, many of which are new species.

Challenges

The numbers of living, and potential future, great plant hunters is relatively small. Carine explains, ‘The reality is, there probably aren’t many because it is not a career path that is easy to follow not least because of funding’.

Currently, funding is usually aimed at shorter-term projects and so is unlikely to help build up the expertise that takes a longer time to develop, the team says. And funding is often aimed at newer collectors who, while they tend to collect more specimens in terms of numbers, they are less selective and find fewer new species.

So, although it is a small number of great plant hunters that have the biggest impact in discovering new plant species, this will only continue if the right support and strategies are put in place. 

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