Stuck on the Shelf

New species sit on the shelf for an average of 21 years before they’re described and named, researchers report in Current Biology.

Scientists estimate that about 80 percent of the planet’s species haven’t yet been formally described, and catching up could take centuries. A team of French researchers decided to calculate the typical “shelf life” of species, or the length of the limbo period when specimens have been collected but not described in a scientific paper.

The study authors examined 600 new species whose scientific descriptions were published in 2007 and obtained the first specimen collection date for 570 of them. The species waited an average of 20.7 years to be described, the researchers report.

So what happens to neglected specimens in the meantime? They generally linger in museums, “representing a huge amount of unstudied material,” the team writes. While others have blamed a lack of technological tools for the long delays, the study authors say the main problem is that there aren’t enough taxonomists.

Many of these undescribed organisms could disappear from nature before scientists recognize them as new species. “[T]axonomists will increasingly be describing from museum collections species that are already extinct in the wild,” the authors predict, “just as astronomers observe stars that vanished thousands of years ago.” Roberta Kwok | 20 November 2012

Source: Fontaine, B., Perrard, A., and P. Bouchet. 2012. 21 years of shelf life between discovery and description of new species. Current Biology doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.10.029.

Image © Yurdakul |