Half of museum plant specimens may have wrong names

Zoe Goodwin worked on the study at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.''Picture: comp
Zoe Goodwin worked on the study at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.''Picture: comp
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Up to half of all specimens held in the museums across the world could have the wrong names, according to research from the city’s Royal Botanic Garden.

Even a skilled naturalist can find it difficult to tell one species from another and accurately identifying a new specimen from records can prove difficult.

The research also led by Oxford University, found that the volume of samples being collected is outstripping the number of experts who can accurately record them. This has led to some being specimens being given the wrong name which can prove to be a headache for conservationists and biologists.

Dr Robert Scotland, of the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford, said: “Many areas in the biological sciences are underpinned by accurate naming. Without accurate names on specimens, the records held in collections around the world would make no sense, as they don’t correspond to the reality outside.”

His team, which includes researchers from the Botanics, decided to establish just how bad the situation was.

The painstaking work saw them gathering data to compare and analyse the species’ names used on sampled specimens.

They examined 4500 specimens of the African ginger genus Aframomum, from 40 collections in 21 countries, using a monographic study completed last year as a reference.

They were surprised to find that prior to this, at least 58 per cent of specimens were either misidentified, given an outdated or redundant name, or only identified to the family of the sample.

Because few plant groups have been recently monographed, the team believes a similar percentage of wrong names might be expected in other groups.

While Dr Scotland and his team have shown that the names of flowering plants are commonly incorrect, other researchers have shown that the insect kingdom is potentially in a worse situation.

Botanics botanist Zoe Goodwin said: “We think a conservative estimate is that up to half the world’s natural history specimens could be incorrectly named.”

It is common practice for collectors to take samples of a single plant and distribute these to museums worldwide.

Researchers considered how duplicated specimens from the same plant are given different names in different museums.

Ms Goodwin added: “It’s a bit like separating identical twins at birth.”

john.connell@edinburghnews.com