Scientists have not kept pace with the work of discovering new species. Now, a growing number of committed hobbyists – ranging from a Belgian bus driver to a California cybersecurity expert – are out in the field, igniting a boom in documenting the world’s biodiversity.
COURTESY OF TERRI CLEMENTS
When mushroom hunter Terri Clements found a unique specimen near her home in Arizona, she couldn’t be certain by its appearance that she’d stumbled across a new species. She tracked down a commercial lab that would process DNA from samples she collected and studied the resulting sequences. Only later did she cold email a mycological scientist, who confirmed her work. As a result, this December, she became part of a team publishing a scientific paper describing her new mushroom species, Morchella kaibabensis, along with three others.
Mushroom hunter Terri Clements used DNA sequencing to confirm a new species of black morel, Morchella kaibabensis, she found near her home in Arizona.
A former restauranteur and real estate executive who retired in 2012, Clements has no formal scientific training beyond her college microbiology minor. But using a combination of traditional taxonomy — the science of describing, naming, and classifying life on earth — and increasingly accessible DNA classification tools, she’s now hooked on documenting fungi either previously unknown in her region, or, just as often, new to science. “I spend hours and hours on it,” she says. “It’s like a full-time job for which I don’t get paid.”
Her work puts her in the ranks of an increasingly vibrant group of hobbyists busy documenting unexplored species on the planet, ranging from a chemical engineer in France, to a cybersecurity specialist in California, to retirees like Clements. Many study organisms from specific groups of fungi, insects, and other invertebrates that are less charismatic and surveyed than the orchids, birds, and butterflies that have long attracted the public’s interest.
Through close study of niche areas, some of these so-called amateurs amass decades of expertise rivaling or exceeding that of traditional taxonomic experts. Others are more typical collectors who dabble in discovery, with the help of online information and collaboration. Either way, in a poorly-funded academic field in the throes of a long-recognized workforce crisis, career scientists are increasingly welcoming to these enthusiastic volunteers.
Amateur contributions to taxonomy are far from new — “Darwin wasn’t a professional,” notes David Pearson, an Arizona State University ecologist and beetle expert — but this work became the more exclusive domain of traditional academic and museum institutions in the 20th century. More recently, however, Pearson says the heyday of Darwin’s Victorian era — when amateur naturalists driven by their own curiosity helped dramatically expand the world’s biodiversity catalog — is having a comeback.
The data, though limited, support the trend. A 2012 study found new species of multicellular land and freshwater animals are being discovered at an “unprecedented rate” in supposedly well-explored Europe. Crucially, it found “non-professional” taxonomists were responsible for more than 60 percent of those new species descriptions from 1998 to 2007. In the ocean, it’s a similar story — 40 percent of first authors of recently identified marine mollusks have been so-called “amateurs.” Another paper by New Zealand researchers argued that because of these citizen scientists, as well as new tools to analyze species and online access to knowledge, “the field has never been stronger,” they write, despite a decline in funding for the formal profession…