728 10 NOVEMBER 2017 • VOL 358 ISSUE 6364 sciencemag.org SCIENCE
Biologists name about 18,000 new spe- cies each year. However, only about 20% of the species on Earth are named, and many are disappearing before they are identified. Naming new species is critical to increasing
our understanding of complex ecosystems—
especially given declining biodiversity.
Without a name, even sentinel, endangered,
and threatened species will go unnoticed.
Unbeknownst to many, thousands of new
species each year are identified from existing specimens in museum collections.
At a time when funding for natural history collections is under siege, Christopher
Kemp’s The Lost Species, which champions
the irreplaceable value of these collections in
the identification of new species, is a refreshing endorsement of both biodiversity and
curatorial taxonomic expertise. Kemp shares
stories of specialists who use their expertise
to recognize new species among the numerous uncataloged and misidentified specimens
in natural history museums across the world,
from the raccoon-like olinguito discovered in
the Chicago Field Museum’s mammal collections to the Ohbayashinema aspeira, a new
species of parasitic nematode discovered in
the National Museum of Natural History in
Washington, D.C. (Because many museum
collections were assembled by natural his-
A trove of biodiversity, at risk
BOOKS et al.
By Bonnie Styles
The author is executive director of the Association of
Science Museum Directors, Springfield, IL 62704, USA.
torians and explorers, sometimes centuries
ago, errors based on outdated or incomplete
information are prevalent.)
Despite the expansion of DNA barcoding
and major efforts to digitize collections, recent reductions in curators with
taxonomic expertise from museums around the world pose
problems for the naming of new
species. “[I]n 2001 the Field Museum had thirty-nine curators. Today there are twenty-one,” writes
Kemp. Likewise, “[t]he National
Museum of Natural History ...
has seen a loss of curators from
a high of 122 in 1993 to a current
low of 81.” The Natural Science
Collections Alliance called attention to this problem decades ago, but it is
reassuring to see it raised in a book written
for a broader audience.
The story of Sven Kullander, an ichthyologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural
History in Stockholm, lends support for the
long-term curation of collections. In 2015,
Kullander named a new fish species—the pike
cichlid—from a specimen collected by Swedish biologist Douglas Melin and colleagues in
the 1920s. The cichlid had been described by
Alfred Russel Wallace in the Amazon basin
160 years earlier, but Wallace’s specimen was
lost when the ship he was traveling aboard
caught fire and sank in 1852. “The distinctive
color pattern of female Crenicichla monicae
is very evident on Wallace’s drawing and enabled us to identify it as the spotted species in
Melin’s collection,” Kullander recalls.
Kemp’s interview with the coleopterist
Max Barclay reveals how much work is re-
quired to demonstrate that an animal rep-
resents a new species. Barclay oversees the
10 million beetle specimens in London’s
Natural History Museum’s collection, which
includes more than 200,000 type specimens
and about 60% of known beetle species.
Given that a beetle might belong to any of
180 possible families, and one family may in-
clude between 20,000 and 30,000
possibilities, the museum’s beetle
collection has proven essential
to identifying potential new spe-
cies. “Identification is a process of
elimination,” Barclay tells Kemp.
“[I]f you make the identification
correctly—you’ve knocked out
almost an order of magnitude.…
Eventually you get it down to a
Barclay has described and
named about 20 new beetle spe-
cies and notes that about 1000 novel species
are identified in the collection every year. He
observes that when a specimen becomes part
of a collection, it begins its life as a represen-
tative. The late conservationist George Rabb
might have referred to them as ambassadors.
Kemp ably demonstrates the vital role that
natural history collections and curators with
taxonomic expertise play in the documentation of new species and ultimately in the
preservation of biodiversity. These collections
require maintenance to ensure the preservation of specimens and documentation for the
next generation of taxonomists, who will discover more new species. It is my hope that
The Lost Species will engender broader public
interest and support for these efforts. j
With funding for museum collections in peril, new species
await discovery and names that may never come
The Lost Species
University of Chicago
Press, 2017. 272 pp.
This tray of parrots, identified as black-capped lory,
is one of many collections available for taxonomic
review at Berlin’s Natural History Museum.