At last count in 2013, there were over 52, 517 native species living in New Zealand (including known undescribed species), and experts estimate there are around 65,000 species yet to be discovered. And although we’re discovering new species at a great rate, there are not enough taxonomists to describe and catalogue these species.
For all organisms across the planet, it takes an average of about 20 years from first discovery to final naming and description. In New Zealand alone, there are over 8,500 species that are sitting in jars and canisters or on herbarium sheets, waiting to be processed.
Advances in electronic publishing has enabled the mass conversion of data into formal descriptions, and imaging technology (such as 3D stacking) means digital specimens can be shared globally though these developments have done little to fill the scarcity-gap of taxonomists.
In part, the reason for the time lag from species discovery to formal description is because scientists need to formalise how a new species relates to others, how it fits into a family or genus, so they generally have to do a revision of the wider group before it can be officially announced. And that takes time.
This is where Museums come in. For taxonomists, Museum collections are of great importance to determine where a species fits within a genus, and a genus within a family. As well as holding vast stores of flora and fauna to help scientists solve taxonomic puzzles, Museums are one of the few bona fide institutions that can store type-specimens which are the standard representative of that species.
By correctly cataloguing, documenting and carefully preserving these specimens, staff at Museums play an important role in helping scientists explain the web of life, past and present*. Currently, Auckland Museum holds over one million natural science specimens and hundreds of bugs, grubs, marine species and plants are added each year by way of donations and collection field trips conducted by our curators.
For many of our natural sciences curators, discovering new species is part and parcel of their job. Surprisingly, though, it doesn’t take a trip into the deep, dark wilderness for them to discover new life. In Auckland Museum’s latest Bioblitz in 2010, the public uncovered around 30–40 new parasitic wasps alone – and that was conducted by families and kids around the Auckland Domain.
So if you’re looking to play your part in scientific discovery, all you need to do is put your name down for a bioblitz. Who knows? You may end up with a biological namesake yourself.
* Of course, gene sequencing can be very helpful in figuring out species’ relationships, but genetic studies alone cannot tell you everything about a species, and the vast majority of fossil species cannot be sequenced. Ancient-DNA studies are limited to the past few hundred thousand years, and then only for certain kinds of preservation, so having well-preserved physical specimens within Museum collections at hand is vital.