Why It’s Surprisingly Easy To Discover A New Species

By Morris M. on Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Man examining tree
“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for—the whole thing—rather than just one or two stars.” —David Attenborough

In A Nutshell

For many of us, the coolest thing we could possibly do would be discover a new species. The idea that an entire branch of life could be out there, bearing our name, is the stuff of fantasy. But to do that you’d probably need millions in funding and an expedition team, right? Not quite. According to scientists, finding a new species is remarkably easy. You don’t even need to leave your hometown to do so.

The Whole Bushel

In 1972, Jennifer Owen decided to take up a peculiar hobby. An English biologist who worked for a university, Owen was desperate to find a new species. Only she didn’t want to go off exploring in some far-off land. She was going to find her new critters in her garden.

Although she was a relatively well-paid professional, Owen didn’t live in a mansion or anything. Her house was a typical suburban house with a typical English garden, the same as can be found up and down the length of the UK. Nonetheless, Owen set off to scour it for new species.

Her findings were incredible. Over nearly four decades, Owen and her zoologist husband cataloged over 8,000 species living in her garden, 20 of which had never been recorded in Britain. Of those 20, four had never been recorded anywhere. They were completely new to science.

What’s most surprising about Owen’s story is that it’s not really all that surprising. We know so astonishingly little about our world that people are stumbling over new species all the time. Around 15,000 new life-forms turn up each year, many of them found by amateurs with significantly less training than Owen and her husband. In southwest France, a retired mathematician named Jean-Michel Lemaire has made a name for himself tracking new beetle species. By wandering through old tunnels and exploring caves, he found seven in just a few short years.

It could be even easier than that. In 2011, researchers estimated there are 7.5 million species awaiting classification. Astonishingly, many may have already been discovered. Collected as specimens and sent to museums, they now languish in drawers, waiting for the right expert to uncover them. Many don’t get officially classified for at least 20 years, and there have been stories of specimens not being discovered within a collection for nearly two centuries. If you have a passion for insects, the easiest way to find a new species might be to simply head down to your local museum and ask to see their samples.

Unknown life-forms have turned up in even less-likely locations. In London, a mycologist discovered three new species of Boletus fungi in a pack of dried porcini his wife brought. In Taiwan, shark enthusiast Dave Ebert has cataloged 24 new species just by carefully browsing a local fish market. Provided you know what you’re looking for, discovering a new species can be as easy as simply ordering lunch.

Show Me The Proof

io9.com: The story of the woman who discovered new species in her garden
BBC Earth: How to discover a new lifeform
BBC News: The bug-hunters discovering new species in their spare time; The man who keeps finding new species of shark