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Science & Technology

Natural History Museums Rife With Mislabeled Specimens, Researchers Find

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

By the time a flower or insect makes it to a natural history museum, you'd think we'd know the basics - the very basics.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You'd think. But according to a team at the University of Oxford and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, up to half the specimens in all natural history museums are mislabeled, or at least labeled incompletely. Zoe Goodwin says scientists have a long history of leaving some room for interpretation. She's the lead author of the study.

ZOE GOODWIN: An example of a misidentified specimen, it was left as Zingiberaceae, so the ginger family, by the collector over the period of a couple of years. Several of the local expert taxonomists who work at the Brussels herbarium looked at the specimen, and they had basically a sort of a war of opinions about what the species was.

CORNISH: A war of opinions happens all the time at natural history museums all over the world. In the case of that ginger in Brussels, the war dragged on for years with more combatants.

GOODWIN: A few years later, a British botanist looked at the specimen and he actually changed the name back down to just the genus Aframonum because he said it wasn't either of those species.

CORNISH: But back to Brussels and the original scientists for a happy ending.

GOODWIN: They realized it was a new species that was undescribed in science.

SHAPIRO: A new species - so what is this little ginger plant? Afromomum albovilacelum.

CORNISH: For now, at least. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.