How long does it take to discover a species?

Study measures time lags between the discovery of a new specices, the publication of its name, and subsequent collection of specimens required for a reasonable level of understanding and knowledge

GBIF-mediated data resources used : 22,601,556 specimen records
Aframomum atewae
Aframomum atewae Lock & J.B.Hall, specimen collected in Ghana in 1972. Photo: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The health and welfare of humans and the planet as a whole is tied to food security and biodiversity conservation, which in turn rely on knowledge and understanding of species, their characteristics and distribution. The discovery and description of new plants, however, is a lengthy process, often taking decades from the first specimen to publication.

This study attempts to flesh out the steps associated with species discovery and measure time lags between each stage. The authors recognized three key stages in the process: 1) collection of first specimen, 2) publication of name, and 3) when 15 accurately named specimens—considered the minimum for a reasonable level of understanding—are available.

Analysing 40 years of Kew Bulletin publications, the authors found 3,305 new seed plants described between 1970 and 2010, citing a mean of 4.9 specimens each. Only 6.2 per cent of these protologues cited more than 15 specimens.

For the time lags, the authors first explored the Aframomum genus, finding an average lag between first specimen and publication of name of 40.8 years, while gathering 15 specimens took on average 65 years from the first specimen.

Expanding their scope, the authors further used GBIF-mediated specimen records of more than 82,000 taxa belonging to the 20 largest angiosperm families, logging time lags for the collection of 15 specimens ranging from 58 to 74 years. Gathering the first three specimens usually took more than 30 years.

Goodwin ZA, Muñoz-Rodríguez P, Harris DJ, Wells T, Wood JRI, Filer D and Scotland RW (2020) How long does it take to discover a species? Systematics and Biodiversity. Informa UK Limited 18(8): 784–793. Available at: