Discovering new species in your backyard?

Watching QI the other day, I was indeed very surprised when the typical “failure noise” started bellowing upon one of the participant’s suggestion that most new species are discovered in the jungle than anywhere else. The correct answer according to Stephen Fry is neither the deep sea, but surprisingly one’s own garden. He referred to a study from 1971 when biologist Jennifer Owen discovered 533 species of ichneumon wasp in her back garden in the suburbs of Leicester. Of these 533 species 15 were new to Britain and 4 were new to science.

So far, so good. But: That was back in 71 and concerned ichneum wasps. Can it be generalized that more species are found in the backyard than somewhere in the lush jungles of this world’s remote slands? Or deep down in the dark unknown realms of the oceans?

This report states that between 1997 and 2007 more than 1068 new species were found in the Greater Mekong Region of Southeast Asia according to the WWF. That makes an average of 2 new species per week. Certainly, the size of that region compared to an average size garden makes comparisons very hard, and also the fact that species data was collected over 10 (long) years. But given the time, remoteness and scale of the Mekong Region, the finds in that Leicester backyard seem quite impressive.

How many species are discovered in one year anyways? About 2000 worldwide according to Stephen Hopper, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew. Since this information is mentioned in the context of botanical finds I assume that it only refers to finds within the plant kingdom.

And the deep sea? Deep controversy there with estimates ranging from 500.000 species to up to 10 million – the latter number established by Grassle and Maciolek in 1992 by sampling macrofauna in sediments along the New Jersey and Delaware continental margin and extrapolating these numbers to the world’s deep seas below 1000 meters, thus arriving at a global estimate of 10 million. A number that today is thought to be overestimated – but who really knows?

In the scientific community the prospect of such a high number of new species waiting to be discovered and named must have caused quite some excitement! But not only in the scientific community I believe. What is the general public’s interest in new species? Is it being too optimistic thinking that there might actually be quite a few hobby-scientists interested in documenting new species?

As an ex-scientist myself I’m not certain whether this would (easily) be possible. To what extent/Can non-scientists contribute to completing the catalogue of species? While species in the deep oceans as well as the remote jungles seem to be the terrain of scientists with the right equipment only, wouldn’t it be a shame to miss out on all those species in people’s backyards?

In Germany a call to the German Society for Nature Conservation (NABU) will suffice; some associations (e.g. Neobiota) actually ask people to document species they’ve encountered when diving for example.
I’m not sure what the procedure is in the UK – anyone?

Even though I myself would be very excited about the idea of discovering a new species myself, I think there’s not much hope in my own backyard:

All these species - not in my backyard
All these species - not in my backyard


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