Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Museums haven’t a clue

17 Nov 2015

Up to half of all specimens in natural history museums around the world are named incorrectly, according to a new piece of research, meaning it’s okay to immediately forget those Latin words you read on the corner of the exhibit.

Rhododendrons? Ragworts? Rhubarb? Sadly the truth is often a mystery. Scientists have looked into how a natural history museum names its specimens only to discover that, well, they’re wrong as often as they are right.

The team studied 4,500 specimens of the African ginger genus Aframomum, which up until a major 2014 study were misidentified to some degree in 58pc of cases. That got them wondering how deep the confusion actually is.

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Often collections are divided up and sent to multiple museums as a way of spreading the love. This adds to the confusion as, often, in-house experts at each museum then work out the right name.

Aframomum | Natural History Museum

African ginger genus Aframomum, via Marco Schmidt/CC BY-SA 2.5/Wikimedia Commons

Looking at the Dipterocarpaceae, a family of rainforest trees from Asia, 21,000 specimens were sent around the world, almost a third of which had different names.

“At least one of these names must be wrong,” understates John Wood, one of the paper’s authors.

You’d think the dawn of computers would help this. A database, available globally, should negate any worries of misattribution, right? Well, just like the label on those roses in your local museum, this isn’t completely true, either.

Dipterocarpaceae | Natural History Museum

Neobalanocarpus in the family Dipterocarpaceae. This is a 1500-year-old Chengal tree (related) in Malaysia, via Christoph Swoboda/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Wood, Zoe Goodwin, Denis Filer, David Harris and Robert Scotland went to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility database, examining the names found on 49,500 specimens from the Americas.

40pc of these were outdated synonyms rather than the current name, and 16pc of the names were unrecognisable or invalid. In addition, 11pc of the specimens weren’t identified, being given only the name of the genus.

“Our data demonstrate that, while the world’s collections have more than doubled since 1970, more than 50pc of tropical specimens, on average, are likely to be incorrectly named,” reads the paper, published in Current Biology.

“This finding has serious implications for the uncritical use of specimen data from natural history collections.”

The researchers looked solely at plants – I went liberal on the headline – but suspect the issue may be worse with insects, representing over two-thirds of the planet’s entire suite of species between the both of them.

Skyline image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic