Half the world's natural history specimens wrongly named?

London: As many as 50 per cent of all natural history specimens held in the world's museums could be wrongly named, according to a new study.

When a new specimen arrives at a museum, finding the right name from existing records can sometimes prove difficult, researchers said.

In turn, that can lead to specimens being given the wrong name - which can prove problematic for biologists. "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," said Dr Robert Scotland from Oxford University in UK.

Scotland also points out that the negative effects of this are increasingly multiplied as large databases are aggregated online, gathering together vast amounts of specimen data, many of which have incorrect species names.

The team, which includes researchers from Oxford and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, carried out a formal study to establish just how bad the situation was.

Gathering data into the Botanical Research and Herbarium Management System (BRAHMS), it was possible to compare and analyse the species names used on the sampled specimens.

The team actually used three different approaches to work out how many mistakes there were likely to be. First, they considered how the name of a single specimen might change over time.

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 team were surprised to find that prior to this monograph at least 58 per cent of specimens were either misidentified, given an outdated or redundant name, or only identified to the genus or family. Next, the researchers considered how duplicated specimens from the same plant might be given different names in different museums.

It is common practice for plant collectors to take several samples of a single plant and distribute these to museums and herbaria around the world. Once distributed, they are often independently named by an in-house expert.

Analysing the Dipterocarpaceae, a family of rainforest trees from Asia, the team found that 9,222 collections had been divided into two or more duplicates, making a total of 21,075 specimens. Of these, 29 per cent had different names in different herbaria.

Finally, the team considered mistakes contained within aggregated records stored online. They scoured the records of Ipomoea - a large and diverse genus which includes the sweet potato - on the Global Biodiversity Information Facility database.

Examining the names found on 49,500 specimens from the Americas, they found that 40 per cent of these were outdated synonyms rather than the current name, and 16 per cent of the names were unrecognisable or invalid.

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