Species description

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A species description or type description[citation needed] is a formal description of a newly discovered species, usually in the form of a scientific paper. Its purpose is to give a clear description of a new species of organism and explain how it differs from species which have been described previously, or are related. The species description also contains photographs or other illustrations of the type material and explains in which museums the holotype (and other types such as paratypes) have been deposited. The publication in which the species is described gives the new species a formal scientific name. Today, some 1.9 million species have been discovered and named and some 8.7 million may actually exist on Earth.[1]

It is customary for scientists to introduce all relevant new findings and research in a scientific paper, which is scrutinised by other scientists (peer review) and, if accepted, published in a scientific journal of the appropriate discipline; this applies to the discovery and naming of a new species or other taxon. In many cases the scientific community will not formally accept the existence of a new species until a species description has been published, even when it may seem obvious that the species is indeed new.

History of species descriptions[edit]

Original title page of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae, published in 1735.

Early biologists often published entire volumes or multiple-volume works of descriptions in an attempt to catalog all known species. These catalogs typically featured extensive descriptions of each species and were often illustrated upon reprinting.

The first of these large catalogs was Aristotle's History of Animals, published around 343 B.C. Aristotle included descriptions of creatures, mostly fish and invertebrates, in his homeland, and several mythological creatures rumored to live in far-away lands, such as the manticore.

In 77 A.D. Pliny the Elder dedicated several volumes of his Natural History to the description of all life forms he knew to exist. He appears to have read Aristotle's work, since he writes about many of the same far-away mythological creatures.

Toward the end of the 12th century, Konungs skuggsjá, an Old Norse philosophical didactic work, featured several descriptions of the whales, seals, and monsters of the Icelandic seas. These descriptions were brief and often erroneous, and a description of the mermaid and a rare island-like sea monster called Hafgufu was included. The author was hesitant to mention the beast (known today to be fictitious) for fear of its size, but felt it was important enough to be included in his descriptions.[2]

However, the earliest recognized species authority is Linnaeus, who standardized the modern taxonomy system beginning with his Systema Naturae in 1735.[3]

As the catalog of known species was increasing rapidly, it became impractical to maintain a single work documenting every species. Publishing a paper documenting a single species was much faster and could be done by scientists with less broadened scopes of study. For example, a scientist who discovered a new species of insect would not need to understand plants, or frogs, or even insects which did not resemble the species; he would only need to understand closely related insects.

Modern species descriptions[edit]

Formal species descriptions today follow strict guidelines set forth by the Codes of nomenclature. Very detailed formal descriptions are made by scientists, who usually study the organism closely for a considerable time. A diagnosis may be used instead of,[4] or as well as[5] the description. A diagnosis specifies the distinction between the new species and other species.

Rates of species description[edit]

According to the RetroSOS report,[6] the following numbers of species have been described each year since 2000.

Year Total number of species descriptions New insect species described
2000 17,045 8,241
2001 17,003 7,775
2002 16,990 8,723
2003 17,357 8,844
2004 17,381 9,127
2005 16,424 8,485
2006 17,659 8,994
2007 18,689 9,651
2008 18,531 9,020
2009 19,232 9,738

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mora, C. et al. (August 23, 2011). "How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?". PLoS Biology. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127. 
  2. ^ Konungs skuggsjá (in Norwegian). 
  3. ^ Linnaeus, C. (1735). Systema Naturae. 
  4. ^ McNeill, J.; Barrie, F.R.; Buck, W.R.; Demoulin, V.; Greuter, W.; Hawksworth, D.L.; Herendeen, P.S.; Knapp, S.; Marhold, K.; Prado, J.; Prud'homme Van Reine, W.F.; Smith, G.F.; Wiersema, J.H.; Turland, N.J. (2012). International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (Melbourne Code) adopted by the Eighteenth International Botanical Congress Melbourne, Australia, July 2011. Regnum Vegetabile 154. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag KG. ISBN 978-3-87429-425-6.  article 38
  5. ^ International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (1999). "International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Fourth Edition, adopted by the International Union of Biological Sciences".  article 13
  6. ^ Quentin Wheeler; Sara Pennak (January 18, 2012). Retro SOS 2000-2009: A Decade of Species Discovery in Review (Report). International Institute for Species Exploration, Arizona State University. http://species.asu.edu/SOS. Retrieved April 25, 2013.

Other sources[edit]

  • Winston, Judith E. 1999. Describing Species: Practical Taxonomic Procedure For Biologists. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-06824-7