Half The World’s Museum Specimens Are Wrongly Labeled, But Who Is To Blame?

It may sound harsh, but a natural history collection in a museum is almost worthless if it is not properly catalogued. Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time in a natural history collection can attest to the usefulness of well-curated collections. But sometimes, you open a specimen drawer, and immediately recognize a label with an outdated species name. Or even worse, you use the specimen in a study and don’t realize it is labeled wrong. Errors and mistakes like this are not the fault of the museum staff managing these immense collections, or the scientists themselves, but result from combination of factors that coalesce into a big fat mess when the accuracy of collections labels are systematically investigated.

Examples from Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh's collection (Photo credit: John Baker)
Examples from Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s collection (Photo credit: John Baker)

Researchers at Oxford University and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh examined tropical plants to assess just how many specimens are mislabeled and misidentified in herbaria around the world. In a paper published this week in Current Biology, Zoë Goodwin and colleagues evaluated 4500 specimens of African gingers from 40 herbaria in 21 countries and found at least 58% of the specimens had the wrong names associated with them. But how does this happen?

The authors point to a variety of factors that could lead to the extensive errors in museum collections. For one thing, major taxonomic revisions of groups are frequently needed but rarely completed. It wasn’t until a detailed monograph was done for the group of African gingers that the accuracy of labels could even be assessed. The authors also note with collections growing by leaps and bounds, specifically with the number of specimens in herbaria doubling from 1969-2000, it is impossible to keep up. It is just simply too much for the available experts to handle.

Another interesting problem is specific to the field of botanical collection. Often a single plant is divided into several samples and sent to a variety of herbaria for cataloging. Goodwin found that when the specimens from the same plant were chased down, 29% of them had different names in different herbaria. Simply put, many of these plants look very similar and can be difficult to identify. Again, there is just too much material out there for experts to see and assess to always be accurate in their ID. Although this is a study done with plants, this problem surely extends to all groups studied in natural history museums. Insects, the most abundant and diverse group on Earth, are sure to have considerable problems with accuracy of specimen labeling.

Orchids of Latin America from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY 2.0)
Orchids of Latin America from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY 2.0)

In 2004, legendary biologist E.O. Wilson wrote: “There are at present, at rough estimate, ca. 6000 taxonomists at work worldwide on all organisms combined.” Considering there are approximately 1.2 million species currently identified and upwards of 8.7 million predicted to actually exist on Earth, only having <10,000 scientists dedicated to naming millions upon millions of species with accuracy makes the task next to impossible. Although that was 11 years ago, since then there has not been an abundance of resources focused on promoting the field of taxonomy, often viewed as antiquated in the age of big data and rapid full genome sequencing.

Entomologist Quentin D. Wheeler writes in The New Taxonomy: “The taxonomy crisis is to a large extent a funding crisis. Taxonomists have proper techniques for describing and identifying species, but taxonomy as a discipline lacks the necessary funding for accomplishing the task.” A PhD level of expertise is often needed to be a qualified taxonomist, so the amount of money that needs to go into taxonomic training and research is not trivial. And while some think moving to a DNA based identification system is more useful, genetic databases like Genbank are also riddled with errors and mislabeled sequences. As Louisiana State University ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty writes in a 2013 publication, when depositing sequences on Genbank, “The taxonomic determination remains solely the responsibility of the submitter of the sequences.” He goes on to say that once these errors are made, they are hard to discover and even harder to stop from propagating.

Goodwin et al. suggest increased digitization of collections—this way, more experts from around the world can identify specimens more readily without having to travel to collections. They also suggest that DNA analysis should be integrated into taxonomy studies. If these efforts are combined, it is very likely the world’s taxonomy crisis can be better addressed. Nevertheless, the lack of funding for taxonomic research despite its status as a “fundamental discipline” will continue to jeopardize the task of exploring and describing the life on our mysterious planet.

This post originally appeared on forbes.com/science

In New Mexico, Fossil Hunting Is A Family Affair

Ryan Williamson crouches down looking for fossils while his brother Taylor prospects behind him. (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Ryan Williamson crouches down looking for fossils while his brother Taylor prospects behind him. (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

It’s early summer after their sophomore year at the University of New Mexico, time for a brief break before their seasonal jobs at Cliff’s Amusement Park begin, but Ryan and Taylor Williamson have decided to unwind in a way most 20 year olds wouldn’t typically chose—coming into the field to go fossil hunting with their dad.

Ryan and Taylor are twins who bear only a small resemblance physically, but as they start their playful banter and joking, it is clear they share DNA and the exact same sense of humor. Most of their conversations are made up of movie quotes and jokes, sometimes difficult for an outsider to break in to. They are fairly typical college-going 20 year olds—except for the part where they spend weeks each summer accompanying their father hunting for fossils in the deserts of New Mexico.

Their father, Tom Williamson, has been a curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science since 1994. He took up this post after he obtained his PhD at the University of New Mexico in 1993. Tom, an expert on Paleocene mammals, has amassed a vast collection of fossils from the San Juan Basin of New Mexico with the help of his sons.

Tom Williamson examines a fossil find (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Tom Williamson examines a fossil find (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

Both Ryan and Taylor have a level of knowledge about the outdoors that can only come from practically being raised in the desert. “The first time dad took us into the field we were 5 years old,” Taylor remembers. “It took us years to get good at climbing and spotting fossil localities.” When I asked them what continues to motivate them to find fossils, they look at each other and laugh “It’s always sibling rivalry.”

Ryan Williamson (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Ryan Williamson (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

Sitting on the outcrop one afternoon chatting and tossing rocks, Tom and Ryan reminiscence about a time when Ryan was much younger—probably only 8 or 9 years old—and he found an important fossil on a loosely consolidated hill and ran over to show his dad: “I asked Ryan where he got it and he pointed to the hill that now had a giant skid mark from where he slid down right over where the fossil came from!” Now a decade later, Ryan and his brother are expert fossil collectors who have an unbelievably keen eye and keep more copious field notes than most career academics.

Taylor Williamson (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Taylor Williamson (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

“I don’t feel like an academic,” Ryan says, as he talks about why he has decided to get a BFA in film from the University of New Mexico instead of pursuing science. Not only do they have a keen eye for fossils, but an artistic eye too, as both Taylor and Ryan are extremely talented photographers, which they often practice in the field.

“In the beginning, I was more obsessed with dinosaurs than Taylor,” Ryan remembers, but now it seems their roles are reversed.

While Ryan isn’t majoring in science, Taylor on the other hand was frustrated when he started finding so many fossils and couldn’t identify them. This interest has lead him to a dual major in biology and evolutionary anthropology. A real aficionado of anatomy, Taylor often talks about animals he has come across in the desert, talking excitedly about a dead horse he found in the field one year the way only a real natural historian would. “I came back the next year to pick it up…then I spent time boiling it, cleaning it off…now it is in my backyard.”

Taylor Williamson searches for fossils (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Taylor Williamson searches for fossils (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

Back on the outcrop, Taylor finds some pieces of a partial mammal skeleton. They all jokingly argue about who will get out their GPS first to mark a new fossil site, and who will get the credit for finding the fossil. Tom and his sons frequently reminisce about fossil skeletons they have found in years past. Moments like this it is apparent why they come out to the field for reasons beyond the fossils—to spend time together. “It’s a great time to spend with our dad, since we don’t usually see him a lot,” says Ryan.

Often professional paleontologists are asked who is allowed to look for fossils —the answer is anyone. Collectors like Ryan and Taylor show that curiosity is the primary driving force that makes a great paleontologist. As they get older and take on their own identities and embark on new paths in life, it doesn’t seem like either one of them wants to give up a chance to head out into the New Mexico desert, as Taylor told me, “we’ll keep coming to the field as long as we can.”

This post originally appeared on forbes.com/science 

Ancient Fossils Unearthed On Trek To Antarctica

The Antarctic landscape (Photo by A. West)

What do icebreakers, helicopters, and bright red down parkas with fur-lined hoods all have in common? If you are a fossil hunter in Antarctica like Abagael West, these are all necessary supplies for her job. To the envy of most people, her job is to explore one of the most remote places on the planet in search of 75 million year old fossils that represent a time when this barren, desolate place was warm and teeming with life.

West is a graduate student at Columbia University and the America Museum of Natural History who this past winter joined The Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project (AP3), a 12 person team of paleontologists from places like the Carnegie Museum, University of Queensland, and UT Austin who have gone on multiple expeditions over the past several years to explore the fossil-bearing rocks of Antarctica. I met up with her in her office at the American Museum of Natural History in the middle of Manhattan, an admittedly stark contrast to her recent Antarctic surroundings, and asked her to recount some of her experiences chasing down one of the last great fossil frontiers.

An Antarctic selfie (Photo by A. West)
An Antarctic selfie (Photo by A. West)

It all started on the first day of February this year. The team met up in Punta Arenas, Chile—the jumping off point for the US Antarctic Program (USAP). West and the other paleontologists spent time in Punta Arenas getting ready for their sea voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, making sure they didn’t forget anything they’d need on their month long camping excursion and meeting their research and support staff.

“We got extreme cold weather gear from the USAP, things like gortex pants, fluffy snow boots, wellingtons which were useful for getting on and off the boat,” West said. They were also issued the famous red USAP puffy jackets, gloves, and hats. With the gear set and the food packed up (mostly dry goods but also an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables) the team was ready to get on the Nathaniel Palmer, the larger of the two USAP icebreaker ships.

The trip from Chile to the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula was about 5 days, with 1 of those each way crossing the infamous rough seas of the Drake Passage. Seasickness? “You get used to it,” West said, also noting Dramamine was a big help during this portion of the journey.

Once the journey was over, they were all dropped off on the desolate ice-covered landscapes of James Ross Island and Vega Island—locations where fossils have previously been found but still hold many more secrets of a late Cretaceous shallow sea. Every day the paleontologists had to hike more than 6 miles just to get to the fossil sites, but their trip was more than worth it.

The only wildlife of the trip (Photo by A. West)
The only wildlife of the trip (Photo by A. West)

“In these rocks we found birds, fish, sharks, and plenty of marine reptiles,” West described, “and other cool fossils we found were interesting plants, ammonites, bivalves, and sea urchins.” Although it wasn’t too cold when the team was there during the Antarctic summer (around 40 degrees Fahrenheit), the harsh windy environment of Vega Island makes it ripe for erosion, which is ideal for revealing fossils. “Every day we would go back, there would be something new to find.”

During the Cretaceous this rock was formed in a shallow sea—meaning there are loads of marine fossils, and especially marine reptiles like plesiosaurs. “Big chunks of plesiosaur are weathering out all over the place,” said West, who then explained they were lucky because they did not have to carry this material all the way back to camp when they found it because they had a helicopter at their disposal.