Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Species wait 21 years to be described - show me the data

21Benoît Fontaine et al. recently published a study concluding that average lag time between a species being discovered and subsequently described is 21 years.

Fontaine, B., Perrard, A., & Bouchet, P. (2012). 21 years of shelf life between discovery and description of new species. Current Biology, 22(22), R943–R944. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.10.029

The paper concludes:

With a biodiversity crisis that predicts massive extinctions and a shelf life that will continue to reach several decades, taxonomists will increasingly be describing from museum collections species that are already extinct in the wild, just as astronomers observe stars that vanished thousands of years ago.

This is a conclusion that merits more investigation, especially as the title of the paper suggests there is an appalling lack of efficiency (or resources) in the way we decsribe biodiversity. So, with interest I looked at the Supplemental Information for the data:

I was hoping to see the list of the 600 species chosen at random, the publication containing their original description, and the date of their first collection. Instead, all we have is a description of the methods for data collection and analysis. Where is the data? Without the data I have no way of exploring the conclusions, asking additional questions. For example, what is the distribution of date of specimen collection in each species? One could imagine situations where a number of specimens are recently collected, prompting recognition and description of a new species, and as part of that process rummaging through the collections turns up older, unrecognised members of that species. Indeed, if it takes a certain number of specimens to describe a species (people tend to frown upon descriptions based on single specimens) perhaps what we are seeing is the outcome of a sampling process where specimens of new species are rare, they take a while to accumulate in collections, and the distribution of collection dates will have a long tail.

These are the sort of questions we could have if we had the data, but the authors don't provide that. The worrying thing is that we are seeing a number of high-visibility papers that potentially have major implications for how we view the field of taxonomy but which don't publish their data. Another recent example is:

Joppa, L. N., Roberts, D. L., & Pimm, S. L. (2011). The population ecology and social behaviour of taxonomists. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 26(11), 551–553. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2011.07.010

Biodiversity is a big data science, it's time we insisted on that data being made available.