Hardly an overnight success: 100 years to discover plant species

While the act of discovering a species is often seen as a thrilling moment, newly published research demonstrates the initial encounter is just the beginning of a long process. Understanding what a species represents actually, on average, takes more than a century.

Knowing what plants exist - and where they live - is a prerequisite to conserving global plant diversity. To improve understanding - and, so, meet the targets of initiatives such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, a programme of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity - it is necessary to work out how knowledge of plants accumulates over time. And, how it can be continuously updated against the high levels of climate and land use change being witnessed around the world.

To shed light on how knowledge of plant diversity is obtained, botanists from the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh have measured how long it takes for a new species to be collected, given a name, and for 15 specimens of that species to be obtained and accurately identified.

The group’s study, published in Systematics & Biodiversity, shows that discovering plant species takes, on average, 70-100 years. Dr Zoë Goodwin, one of the paper’s authors, explained: “The long time it takes to understand a species, even at a basic level, reflects a lack of capacity in the field of Taxonomy — the science responsible for species discovery.”

Co-author Dr Pablo Munoz Rodriguez added: “Limited taxonomic capacity has important implications for science and policy targets that rely on this information, such as conservation and global biodiversity studies, as they are severely compromised, with knock-on effects for our ability to accurately measure levels of extinction.”

In an era of upheaval, with so much still to achieve, stock needs to be taken of the situation, concluded Dr Goodwin: "More than ever before we need to train new taxonomists and give them the opportunity to build up their expertise, if we are to take on the massive challenge of the biodiversity crisis."