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There are so many Amazonian tree species, we won't discover the last one for 300 years

New study compiles a checklist of all 11,676 known Amazonian tree species from museum data

Date:
July 13, 2016
Source:
Field Museum
Summary:
In a new study, scientists have compiled data from museums around the world to find how many Amazonian tree species have been described so far. The answer: 11,676. They also estimate that there are another 4,000 species yet to be discovered, and it will take 300 years to find them all. The report includes a checklist of all known Amazonian trees for conservation ecologists to use in their work.
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Amazonian forest in the Putumayo basin of Loreto, Peru, was surveyed during a February 2016 rapid inventory by The Field Museum.
Credit: Photo by Nigel Pitman, The Field Museum

There are more different kinds of trees in the Amazon rainforest than anywhere else on earth, but the exact number has long been a mystery. In 2013, scientists estimated that the number of species was around 16,000 -- no one had ever counted them all up, though. In a new paper in Scientific Reports, the same scientists delved into museum collections from around the world to confirm just how many tree species have been recorded in the Amazon so far -- and how many have yet to be discovered.

Nigel Pitman, The Field Museum's Mellon Senior Conservation Ecologist, explains, "Hans ter Steege at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center led an international team of botanists who tallied up the number of species in more than half a million museum specimens collected in the Amazon between 1707 and 2015, and we came away with a list of 11,676 Amazonian tree species. We interpret this to mean that our 2013 estimate of 16,000 species is good, and that about 4,000 of the rarest Amazonian trees remain to be discovered and described."

"Since 1900, between fifty and two hundred new trees have been discovered in the Amazon every year," adds Pitman. "Our analysis suggests that we won't be done discovering new tree species there for three more centuries."

The study relied upon the digitization of museum collections data -- photographs and digital records of the specimens housed in museum collections that are shared worldwide through aggregator sites like IDigBio. "We couldn't have written this paper without digitization efforts," says Pitman. "All of the information we needed was in the same place, so we didn't have to go through every individual museum in the world. We were able to use data not just from The Field Museum, but from museum collections everywhere."

The scientists explain that the checklist could prove an invaluable resource for ecologists studying the Amazonian rainforest. "We're trying to give people tools so they're not just laboring in the dark," says ter Steege. "The checklist gives scientists a better sense of what's actually growing in the Amazon Basin, and that helps conservation efforts."

The project, notes Pitman, is a marriage of centuries-old collections with new technologies that made it possible to share and aggregate all of the collections data. "Botanists at The Field Museum have been collecting and describing Amazonian plant species for over a hundred years," says Pitman. "We have scientists here, like Robin Foster, who have worked on Amazonian botany for decades. This new list is in some ways a culmination of all that work."


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Materials provided by Field Museum. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Hans ter Steege, Rens W. Vaessen, Dairon Cárdenas-López, Daniel Sabatier, Alexandre Antonelli, Sylvia Mota de Oliveira, Nigel C. A. Pitman, Peter Møller Jørgensen, Rafael P. Salomão. The discovery of the Amazonian tree flora with an updated checklist of all known tree taxa. Scientific Reports, 2016; 6: 29549 DOI: 10.1038/srep29549

Cite This Page:

Field Museum. "There are so many Amazonian tree species, we won't discover the last one for 300 years: New study compiles a checklist of all 11,676 known Amazonian tree species from museum data." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 July 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160713100743.htm>.
Field Museum. (2016, July 13). There are so many Amazonian tree species, we won't discover the last one for 300 years: New study compiles a checklist of all 11,676 known Amazonian tree species from museum data. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 28, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160713100743.htm
Field Museum. "There are so many Amazonian tree species, we won't discover the last one for 300 years: New study compiles a checklist of all 11,676 known Amazonian tree species from museum data." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160713100743.htm (accessed May 28, 2017).

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