The Scotsman

Why it takes a century to get to know a plant

● Discovery is only the start of understand­ing a species – botanists

- By GEORGE MAIR newsdeskts@scotsman.com

It takes up to 100 years to get to know a plant, according to research by scientists at Scotland’s leading botanical garden.

Experts at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) are playing a crucial part in a global conservati­on effort to catalogue all life on Earth.

The institutio­n last year formally identified 56 new plants from around the world, many of them threatened species. But while the act of discoverin­g a new species is often seen as a thrilling moment, the research shows it is only the start of getting to know it.

Botanists from the RBGE and Oxford University measured how long it takes for a new species to be collected, named and a minimum number of specimens gathered to provide informatio­n about its frequency, geographic distributi­on, ecology and breeding behaviour. The study, published in the journal Systematic­s and Biodiversi­ty, reveals it takes an average of 30 years between collecting the first specimen and its publicatio­n as a new species.

It then takes another 70 years on average to understand whatitrepr­esents,makingthe timespan a century in total.

Dr Zoë Goodwin, a tropical botanist at the RBGE and one of the paper’s authors, said:

“The discovery of a new species is just the start of a long process of getting to know it.

“We already know that it takes a number of years from the first collection of a plant until it is published as a new species. The new paper has found that it takes another 70 years after that publicatio­n before we have enough correctly named specimens to have an understand­ing of the distributi­on, ecology etc of the plant. Think of it like meeting a new person – it takes you 30 years to put a name to their face, then another 70 years to know where they live, their personalit­y, habits and preference­s.

“By examining these named specimens, we can start to understand properly in which countries and regions the plant grows, what kind of habitat it lives in, what time of year the plant flowers and fruits, and whether it is at risk of extinction.”

The global inventory of species includes those that have already been named and those that remain to be named.

About 100,000 species of flowering plants have been named in the past 50 years.

Only 16 per cent of new species are published within five years of the first specimen being collected.

Giving plants a name is only the first step in ensuring their future. Even a basic understand­ing of a species takes a long time to accumulate as the average number of years to collect 15 specimens is 70 years.

 ??  ?? 0 Dr Zoë Goodwin said: ‘The discovery of a new species is just the start of getting to know it’
0 Dr Zoë Goodwin said: ‘The discovery of a new species is just the start of getting to know it’

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