Unfamiliar Species Gather Dust in Museums for Decades

First Posted: Nov 20, 2012 06:20 AM EST

According to a new report by Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle most of the unfamiliar species are collecting dusts in museums. It takes more than 20 years on average before a newly collected species is described.

A long shelf life explains any conservation attempts for unknown, threatened species could come much too late.

The researchers predict that this is due to the lack of experts, funding and resources for the job.

"Species new to science are almost never recognized as such in the field," says Benoît Fontaine of Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris. "Our study explains why it often happens that we describe species which were collected alive decades ago and which can be extinct now -- just as astronomers study the light of stars which do not exist anymore."

They predict that the problem partially exists due to the fact that many species are rare and may be represented in collections by a single specimen.

According to the researchers, taxonomists wait until more specimens of new species are available before they go about describing it. Increased effort to look out for new species and specimens would help to move things along in the world's museums and herbaria.

Based on a random sample of 600 species described in the year 2007, Fontaine and his colleagues calculated the shelf life.

The data reveals that the species had a shelf life of 20.7 years on an average with a median of 12 years. They noticed a shift in the shelf life according to biological, social, and geopolitical biases.

"Our knowledge of biodiversity is still very scarce," says Fontaine. "Describing new species is -- or should be -- part of the everyday work of taxonomists, and we need to hurry; new species are disappearing faster than we can describe them."

The report was published in the November 20th issue of the Cell Press journal Current Biology.

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