Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Taxonomy is slow

A frequent misconception of the discovery process is that new species are recognized as new in the field. This is not the case, most newly collected specimens are archived in museums and herbaria: collections thus act as a reservoir of potential new species. Vast collections of plants, vertebrates and insects have already been accumulated in museum vaults, representing a huge amount of unstudied material — this probably explains why these taxa have longer shelf lives than, for instance, fungi and invertebrates excluding insects, which are comparatively underrepresented in museum collections.

This paragraph is from a recent study published in Current Biology. A reality in taxonomy is that takes time from the first collection of a specimen of a new species to its formal description and naming in the scientific literature. The authors of the study refer to this time span as 'shelf life'. It is common knowledge among researchers in biodiversity science and taxonomy that this shelf life can be quite long and varies between groups but so far nobody actually tried to estimate these time spans more systematically.

Although the numbers don't surprise me very much they are still alarming. According to the study the average 'shelf life' between field discovery of a new species and its formal description is twenty-one years ranging between 206 and zero years. The authors of the study have also looked at variation in different taxonomic groups or demographic factors that might influence the shelf life. The figure on the left shows a couple of those comparisons.

Such high values are clearly a  symptom of the so-called taxonomic impediment, in particular the shortage of taxonomists but there are also technological and methodological restrictions on data analysis and publication norms that are usually highlighted as a handicap to rapid species delineation and description.

However, we might be on a good way to help with the latter. Researchers and the public can now have immediate access to data underlying discovery of new species of life on Earth, under a new streamlined system linking taxonomic research with open data publication. A new partnership paves the way for unlocking and preserving a wealth of 'small data' backing up research conclusions, which often become lost within a few years of an article's publication in an academic journal:

A group of scientists and students discovered a new species of spider during a field course in Borneo. The species was described and submitted online from the field to the Biodiversity Data Journal through a satellite internet connection, along with the underlying data. The manuscript was peer-reviewed and published within two weeks of submission. On the day of publication, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) have harvested and included the data in their respective platforms.

This is a radically shortened workflow with data shared and ready for re-use almost immediately. The full description is also published in an open source journal making all information fully accessible to everyone without any fee-barriers. I am very curious how this approach will develop and how it will be accepted by the taxonomic community. It certainly promises to become one factor that could bring down the average shelf life from 21 years to more reasonable figures.

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