Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Half the world's natural history specimens may have the wrong name

November 16, 2015

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.

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.

'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,' explains Dr 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.' Dr 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.

So his team, which includes researchers from the University of Oxford and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, decided to carry out a formal study to establish just how bad the situation was. Gathering data into the Botanical Research and Herbarium Management System (BRAHMS), developed at Oxford by co-author Denis Filer, it was possible to compare and analyse the species names used on the sampled specimens. The team actually used three different approaches to work out how many mistakes there were likely to be.

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