A seaside snail found in rock pools on almost every stretch of coast around Britain has been named as the most misidentified creature in the world. Rough periwinkles are commonly seen on shorelines around the North Atlantic but come with so many colour and shape variations that they have confused scientists for centuries.
Researchers cataloguing the world’s marine life have found that scientists claimed to have discovered the molluscs as different species and sub-species at least 113 times, more than any other animal or plant.
Rough periwinkles have now been crowned the “champion of taxonomic redundancy” by the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS). Their accepted scientific name is Littorina saxatilis, which comes from their first description in 1792 by naturalist Giuseppe Olivi.
Misidentifying animals and plants as new to science has hugely inflated the number of species recorded around the world in the scientific literature. A reassessment has led to 190,400 marine species being deleted from the record books since 2008 because they had already been named and described. It leaves 228,450 accepted species.
Among the duplications is an octopus, Octopus rooseveltii, named in 1941 after US President Franklin D Roosevelt, which researchers now realise had originally been identified in 1904 as Octopus oculifer.
Jan Mees, co-chair of WoRMS, said the register provides “for the first time in history” a one-stop resource for researchers to check if specimens are new to science or if they have been beaten to them. He said difficulty in getting access to scientific literature in previous decades was the main reason why so many discoveries have been repeated.
But other factors, he said, were more reprehensible, including “lack of scientific rigour”, while “commercial interests” could also play a role, such as when more money could be made selling specimens of several “species” to collectors.
However, new species are being added to the pared-down list at a rate of one every four days. Several thousand have been discovered since 2008 – including dolphins, sharks, whales, squids, kelp and fungi. A further 10,000 new marine specimens are estimated to be held in laboratory jars worldwide waiting to be analysed before being named and described in scientific papers, the standard method of announcing the discovery of a previously unknown species.
“It is humbling to realise that humankind has encountered and described only a fraction of our oceanic kin, perhaps as little as 11%,” said Mees.
On average today, four new marine species a day are being described and added to the register. Some 1,000 marine fish species have been described since 2008, including 122 new sharks and rays, 131 new members of the goby family.
Other new curiosities since 2008 include a new basal eel-like family discovered in Palau, an Indonesian frogfish with “psychedelic”colouring, a frilled shark species in African waters genetically split from the wide-ranging Chlamydoselachus anguineus, a barracuda in the Mediterranean, and a trout in Turkey. – Guardian News & Media
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