Why does it sometimes take so long to describe a species?

I wonder why so many undescribed species are known, sometimes for years, and still nobody describes them? What stops the process? In many cases to find specimens is not a problem.


My impression is that for obscure taxa, there aren’t very many researchers working on them which means there’s limited work-time for making any research progress with the group, so researchers need to prioritize what to focus on. The relevant researcher(s) are probably more interested in other areas of research (broader taxonomy, ecology, etc.) so describing species gets lower priority. You could probably apply this to any question of why research isn’t being done on something haha - limited time, researchers, and funding…


That’s unfortunate, imo it should be on of major prorities, can’t study ecology for something that is not known for science. With so many taxa in the project from different groups, I’d like to see them replaced with new finds.

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My colleagues and I describe plant species, so I have some feeling for why it can take so long. First, or perhaps our best excuse, is that knowing it’s an undescribed species isn’t enough. We have to gather information to convince other people. So we need to revisit the collection site and visit nearby sites to see how widespread or limited the species is and what habitats it grows in. We usually aren’t sure it’s a new species until we review our specimens in winter, so we’ll have to do the revisiting next year. We may not get all the life stages we want, so must revisit at the best time of year for what we need – another next year, in many cases.

Is our new species really different, or just an example of variation within an existing species? Have people found it before and not realized it? Or found it and given it a name we don’t know about? To answer those questions we need to read the relevant literature and examine specimens in herbaria for comparison. This requires loans from herbaria or visits to them, and both take time.

For detailed comparisons and descriptions, and especially for statistical analysis, we need lots of data. On my current project, getting all the data I want from one grass specimen takes about an hour. The good news, I guess, is that we have only about 15 specimens and some don’t have the parts we’d need to get certain measurements.

DNA information isn’t required but it’s often used in figuring out new species. Getting DNA sequences takes time and money and once you have it, what do you have? Analyzing the results takes time. Some of the undescribed species I know about are now included in a major review of the DNA of many species in the Apiaceae (carrot family) and that’s going to take time to complete.

(Insert lots of dithering and uncertainty at each stage.)

Most of these projects involve multiple people. Communication takes time. Also, there’s always someone (too often me) who for some reason drops the project for a while, delaying the whole thing.

Money – travel takes money, DNA analysis takes money, potting soil for growing plants takes money. Alpha taxonomy (species-level taxonomy) is cheap compared to most science, but we have to look for a bit of money. That takes time, including lots of procrastination time because writing grant requests is so unpleasant.

Writing takes time. Having the article edited and rewriting it takes time. Formatting the document to fit journal requirements takes time. Peer review takes time – hopefully just a couple months but sometimes a year. Rewriting takes time, some spent swearing at the stupid ideas the peer reviewers had. Final publication takes time.

Life happens. We have classes to teach, identification requests to fulfill, taxes to prepare, weddings or funerals to attend, other trips we want to take, other projects that need attention as much as our new species does. Holidays happen. We get sick. Friends get sick. For some of us, lots and lots of procrastination on iNaturalist happens.

And then there is the fact that a new species we all know about is considered the “property” of the person/people who plan to name it. Sometimes they sit on it for years. Sigh.

The grass we are working on may, if all goes well, reach publication two years after it was originally discovered. That’s fast! There’s a sedge we should name that I worked on hard for a couple years but now keep forgetting, so it’s been waiting for 20 years.


Yes, and at the same time I know publishings the net year from the discovery. If maybe scientists did write on observations that something is prepairing, that’d be fine, but what I get for fungi I observe “oh, we all know about it, but it’s not described” not like anybody cares?

I suspect that often the person who writes that is not the person who “owns” it and will be writing the description – eventually.


Yeah, ditto to all of this.
As a grad student I used to rag on some of the old taxonomists who had been sitting on undescribed new species for decades. But now I’m living the problem myself. Nobody does really care-- if they did they’d help make it a viable job. I have to teach and grade hundreds of students every semester to pay the bills; the university doesn’t pay me to write papers about taxonomy. Another recent robber fly graduate had to find a bill-paying job in computer stuff. And then when I do have an hour to work on it, my perfectionist impulses can run wild (after all, your name is associated and judged forever by your publications so you want them to be good) and whoops, it’s now been five years that I’ve been sitting on one manuscript, ten years on another, oops. Some people are fast but sloppy.


(split this off from the original topic)

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Meanwhile from the common names thread, the other side with taxonomic vandals sweeping thru.


It’s probably more straightforward to research and write a paper that involves revision of existing taxa ( including resurrecting an existing name) than to describe something completely new. Although some of the revision papers do a very good job of reviewing the taxonomic history of the group and its content, and that takes time and effort. Others are not so thorough.


But we also see many researchers specifically visit countries and describe stuff from them, they’re ready to spend the money on that, but here we have already an established sign of a new species and where it can be found, search for your taxon of interest, find out if anybody really “owns” it, do the job (and have more chances to get a grant). Are there any scientists left who are more interested in that than paper work?
@jnstuart revisions I see are very useful, often the only place with any key for the group, hands down it should be done more and maybe more with opened access, there’s a couple of papers I wrote to authors of which and had no answer, still can’t id those wasps.


Message me which papers and I’ll try to get access from my local university


In one case I know of, yet undescribed because a grad student was working on it, finished their actual primary project, and left. It was not super adjacent to the PIs work, and some of the data seems to have been lost with the former grad student who moved on to other things so it basically needs restarted from scratch. (Not that data is necessarily missing just no one knows where type thing) But everyone in the field knows about it. It is also an elusive hard to find and hard to get to species (deep cave systems), that require a certain amount of actual caving skill and training to get to so its not like just anyone could pick it up and run with it. I think this is almost a decade old? Its like, pre-my-time in the area lol.

The other case I know, there is one person who is an expert in this (also cave) taxa, and so again high demand high specialist and they have their own work! AND it is looking like a new genus not just new species, so its a big faff. This one is two years down the line thus far but is being worked on. And this is one Im personally invested in as I was on the original discovery trip - and I personally discovered the second population of them.

Hell it is taking us 3 years to get a huge range extension paper out - this is one I am a primary on. Covid restrictions on travel, people getting sick, has really slows things in general past few years. Couple that with the journal we were aiming for raised prices crazy, so we had to find and aim for a different journal which required a complete rewrite for differing structures and focuses as its turned into far more than just a range extension paper. Its frustrating me and its out of my hands the bit waiting for! We couldnt even secure SEM imaging until 1.5 years in, and it took another 6 months to catch up with the taxon specialist for their input, alone! Finally see the end in sight though.

A short note that we need to get out about a discovery this past summer is sitting with the PI to review / edit; but again, priorities and its lower on their list even though its again, high on mine.

Science is a lot like rescue, hurry up and wait. :joy: It bothers me too, but nothing I can do about it when Im reliant on a community, everyone with their own timelines and priorities


I read a bit about some more recently described North American orchid species - and sometimes maybe it’s good if it takes a long time to describe them.

For some of those species, reading the taxonomic history it often has the names of two earlier botanists come up. The first one had described many species originally, but with new DNA based methods it turned out many weren’t really valid - sometimes he had just missed that it had already been known before and so gave a new name to something already existing (and it can apparently take decades for someone to notice), or he had mixed up multiple species as one (glued to the same type sheet in one case), or had hybrids or mutations or slight variations or regional growth-patterns described as a new species. Some of his species remain but are already questionable and likely won’t hold up to further research. Clearly it would have been better for him to spend an extra year or two on some of his research, even if he would have described fewer species that way…
The other botanist already had speculated correctly on dozens of now described species, but refrained from formally naming any before he had time to make sure it’s actually a new species (in turn some are named after him now when they did get described by someone else eventually…). And the ones he did describe are all still actual species even after DNA testing.


Marina, I share your frustration. The simple answer that runs through most of the above replies is there are too many undescribed species and too few taxonomists. As well, those scientists who do taxonomic work must prioritize. It is a truism in the real world that interest in, and funding for, taxonomic work is often directly proportional to the visibility and economic relevance of the organisms. If an unnamed organism is causing disease in humans or human crops or has some other direct or indirect fiscal impact on the human species, it will get named. However, fungi with little or no known ecological importance or small obscure moths with no economic connection to us may wait in obscurity forever.


Table Mountain Strawberry discovered in 2020.
Still A Spider Awaiting Description

We have Ruborridion, can we have fragarioides?


There are some good reasons, mostly:

  • waiting for more specimens, especially if you have only one sex at hand;
  • locating type specimens of already known species is time-consuming and requires cooperation from institutions;
  • the desire to frame the new species within a more comprehensive work, that may grow, and grow, and grow…

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.


So true! I worked on a project where a researcher had borrowed the types 15 years before and was still working on the project so didn’t send them back. We asked her when we found out, but she still didn’t return them. Eventually a colleague contacted the chairman of her department and got them returned to the herbarium where they belonged so we could borrow them. After all that we returned them pretty fast, and she borrowed them again.

And then there are the types we can’t locate . . . .


Or those that were destroyed in the WW2. Or destroyed in the recent Museum fires in Brazil. There was a missile strike very close to the Ukraine Herbarium and damaged a window last month.


And in peaceful times the fire that swept past University of Cape Town. Burnt the library archives and social history. But missed the Bolus Herbarium.