London: Of the estimated 70,000 species of flowering plants yet to be described by scientists, more than half are lying unknown and unrecognized in collections around the world, a new study suggests.
A lack of resources for collections of plant specimens known as `herbaria` and a lack of experts who can identify new species are leaving a vital reservoir of information about global biodiversity untapped, the authors of the study believe.
The work shows that it currently takes an average 30-40 years from the time a flowering plant specimen is collected to it being recognised and described as a new species, a release by the University of Oxford says.
A report of the research appears this week in PNAS.
"Many people think that discovering new species is primarily about expeditions to exotic locations and collecting new specimens, but the truth is that thousands of new plant species are lying unidentified in cupboards, drawers and cabinets around the world," said Dr Robert Scotland of Oxford University`s Department of Plant Sciences, author of the report.
At the moment, knowledge of flowering plants is greater than our knowledge of almost any other group of organisms of comparable size it is estimated that we know about 4 out of 5 species compared to knowing about only 1 in 10 species of insect, for example.
Because flowering plants are found in every terrestrial habitat and every area of the globe they are a vital tool for monitoring biodiversity.
"Because people have been collecting plants from around the world since Victorian times, the job of identifying a new plant species is becoming harder every year as collections fill up and it becomes more difficult to spot the new species," said Dr Scotland.
He added, "A lot of work needs to be done comparing specimens from different parts of the world, and eliminating any duplicates, before we can be sure that a plant is unique and describe it. At the moment there simply aren`t enough experts to do this.
Herbaria consist of collections of dried plant specimens mounted on card and then filed away in cupboards and cabinets".
Oxford University`s Department of Plant Sciences has its own herbaria containing around one million specimens and for the study worked with colleagues from the Natural History
Museum (London), Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Earthwatch Institute.
"Our own research into one particular genus of flowering plants, Strobilanthes, described 60 new species from specimens which had been sitting unexamined in herbaria for a long
time," said Dr Scotland.