Half of specimens mislabelled in museums

20 November 2015

Interview with

Dr Zoë Goodwin, University of Oxford and Dr Henry Disney, University of Cambridge

What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but are we The coca plant - Erythroxylum coca.actually sure it's a rose? According to new research, around 50% of species may have been sitting under the wrong names in museums and other collections. Georgia Mills has the story...

Georgia - Here is a riddle for you.  What do Beyonce, David Attenborough and Darth Vader have in common? Stumped?  Well they have all had one of the greatest biological honours - they've had species named after them. Every single specimen on earth known to science, has been given a name, form us, the Homo sapiens to the Bumble Bee (Bombus supremus).  But news

broke this week from a study published in Current Biology that up to half the world's specimens might be sitting under the wrong name.  The group re-examined all the species from a group of plants, the gingers, and

found that most of them had been given the wrong name at some point throughout history, and many still had.  I spoke to lead researcher, Zoe Goodwin to find out why this is...

Zoe - The main reason is, just because there's a huge volume of specimens, and tons of new species coming in, and it's a very complex set of things you're looking at.  In order to make sense of it you have to basically become an expert in that group.  It's not a day's work, it's a good lifetime.  So it's a lack of expertise, it's too many specimens coming in and, to an extent, it's the people who did describe these species, you know they were basing it on one or two specimens.  So their knowledge of the species was very different to what we know now, just because they had less material to work with.  

Georgia - Why would you say this is a problem, that we don't have maybe the correct label on every single specimen in a museum?  Does it really matter?

Zoe - This underpins the whole of biology.  You can't study organisms if you don't know which organisms you're studying, and more fundamental things in life.  If we were walking in a tropical forest and I handed you a fruit, but I wasn't sure what it was, but I thought it was probably edible, you would probably say "I don't think I'm going to eat that" because you're not convinced, you're not that sure that you know what it is, so it might be poisonous.

Georgia - Okay, you've convinced me it's a big deal.  What can we do about this then?

Zoe - Digitisation and DNA work; it has its place as a helpful tool, but fundamentally we need people who can just sit there and look at these specimens, go out into the field, collect them, look at the plants in the wild, really understand the species and communicate that knowledge to other people.  It's sort of traditionally said that this is very expensive, but some of the work that we've been doing here at Oxford shows that you can revise a species for about £500.  So if there's maybe 200,000 species of vascular plant in the tropics - that's for about the cost of Lionel Messi - so, £100 million, you could probably revise all tropical vascular plants.  So it's possible.

Georgia - Having an expert on a group of animals or plants is clearly very important if you want to get the names right.  I went to meet one of

these experts, Dr Henry Disney from the University of Cambridge who is the world authority on a tiny insect called the scuttle fly...  We're standing in your office right now and there's cabinets full of hundreds and hundreds of trays with, presumably, specimens on them...

Henry - That's right.

Georgia - Are these species you've named?

Henry - A lot of them are ones I've named but that is a collection of scuttle flies of the world.  There are about 1500 species there - that's the most important collection of slide mounted scuttle flies in the world.  So there is a dissected scuttle fly.

Georgia - Oh Wow. Dissected...

Henry - And that's a reasonably sized one cause that's about two to three millimetres long.

Georgia - Just looking at the slide.  These animals are absolutely tiny and you have tell these things apart.  They all just look like full stops to me...

Henry - I prepare slide mounts of them and then put them under the microscope and I take them through the world of literature until I eventually have ruled it out.  And then once I have proved that it's undescribed, well then I set about giving a formal description.

Georgia - How do you go about naming it?

Henry - They have to be in Roman script and then they have to conform with the rules of Latin grammar.  I've named them after people - I mean I took part in the Project Wallace expedition to Sulawezi in 1985, where we had scientists coming and going all year.  We had an army navy airforce Gurkha support team, so I named a fly after each one of them as a thank you.  And then I've named them after habits of the thing.  A common thing is after the place.

Georgia - So most species are named after a place, their habits or named for someone but some scientists seem to have a little bit of fun naming their species.  A quick google revealed a fly called "Heerz lukenatcha,"  a beetle called "Abra cadabra" and, my personal favourite spider called "Apopyllus now" - one for the movie lovers...

Henry - There's some wonderful names.  There's a series of marine isopods where they're anagrams of the name "Caroline," because Queen Caroline, there was a certain amount of scandal around her at the time.  And then my late colleague, he used to work on the entomology abstracts for the flies and had a colleague who did the abstracts for beetles.  But she was a fundamentalist, she refused to abstract a paper on a beetle called Beelzebub beelzebubii , and that was someone having a joke.

Georgia - Are you allowed to name species after yourself?  You mentioned you've named...

Henry - That is considered unethical after yourself.  When I was trapping crabs in African basket traps - we also used to catch fish and snakes and things - but then a group of fish people came out and made them guests of the laboratory, and so I said you'd better look at some of the fish that we're eating.  And sure enough, a couple of them are new to science, including the staple diet of one village, so they named the one with nasty poisonous spines after me.  The pretty one they named after an American who took a pretty picture of it.

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