London: As many as 50 percent of all natural history specimens held in museums across the world 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 under-pinned by accurate naming," said Robert Scotland from Oxford.
The team studied 4,500 specimens of the African ginger genus Aframomum, a detailed monographic study which had been completed in 2014, providing an accurate account of all the species and their specimens.
The researchers were surprised to find that prior to this monograph at least 58 percent of specimens were either misidentified, given an outdated or redundant name, or only identified to the genus or family.
As few plant groups have been recently monographed, the team suggests that a similar percentage of wrong names might be expected in many other groups.
The team thinks there are three main reasons for these inaccurate names. First, there is not enough time or research devoted to writing monographs.
Second, the number of specimens in the world is increasing too quickly for research to keep up, and finally, there are now so many museums and herbaria around the world that experts cannot view all the specimens in a genus and revise the names accordingly.