Certainly, many species are found by going to unexplored places. But it turns out you can go to a place and grab a new species off the shelf. These places are natural history museums, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, or the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, which have huge collections of specimens that are preserved for present and future scientists to study. The vast majority of what a museum holds is never put on exhibit. Museums are extremely important to preserve our biodiversity knowledge from around the world, and because a specimen exists, someone can always go back and check a scientific claim someone makes about a specimen (as long as the museum sticks around and maintains its collections and specimens). When someone describes a new species, they usually store their specimens in a museum so that they can be preserved in perpetuity.
|1924! Just seeing specimens this old is truly valuable,|
but identifying a species new to science is cooler!
And I wasn't alone. Numerous people responded who had described new species. Although many of these were people that specialized in South American fishes, there were other examples as well, from Africa, from Asia, as well as marine fishes, including deep sea fishes. There are so many species left to describe the specialists don't have enough time to describe them. As one member pointed out, there was a recent study where the "shelf life" of new species was calculated, or how long that species had been in a collection before it was formally described. On average, it was calculated a species goes about 21 years before being described. The authors of the study also point out that the vast majority of species are not even recognized as new in the field, and thus collections are important holding tanks for potential new species. Another member pointed out that one of the mother of all shelf lives was publicized last year with the discovery of a new species of beetle collected by Darwin himself, boasting a 180-year gap between collection and description.
|A new species I am describing I found on the shelf, labeled as|
unidentified with the telltale "sp." for its species.
It's clear, though, that discovery and description are too different things. Although I'm describing several new species of fish, can I really claim discovery? These fish were found by someone else first, so perhaps I can't claim that? It's because of this disconnect between discovery and description that leads me to avoid using the word "discovery" for the fish I'm describing. All of the fish I'm describing were already clearly different to whoever first tried to identify them and label their jar, but they simply never went ahead and formally described the species. Perhaps one day I'll truly discover a new species. But until then, hopefully I can at least continue describing them!
Thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion: Rachel Arnold, Ricardo Benine, Andy Bentley, Mike Burns, Barbara Cálegari, Fabio Di Dario, David Ebert, Ben Frable, Les Kaufman, Flávio Lima, Hernan Lopez-Fernandez, Nathan Lujan, Daniel Lumbantobing, Marcelo Melo, Michael Mincarone, Javier Alejandro Maldonado Ocampo, Michael Oliver, Frank Pezold, C. Keith Ray, Luiz Rocha, Norma Salcedo, Scott Van Sant, Vivianne Sant'Anna, David Shiffman, Brian Sidlauskas, Randal Singer, Luke Tornabene, and Richard Vari.