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World's Plant Life Far Less Diverse Than Thought 338

Posted by timothy
from the consolidating-knowledge dept.
Meshach writes "A report out of FOX News (I know, I know) says that there are far fewer unique species of plants than previously thought. The report states that only about a third of named species are actually unique. The rest have been 'discovered' multiple times, often by separate scientists."
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World's Plant Life Far Less Diverse Than Thought

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  • by Nimey (114278) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @08:39PM (#34717546) Homepage Journal

    right?

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @08:58PM (#34717682)
    The fact that existing discovered and named flora is redundant should not be too surprising. But the number that we have discovered has no bearing whatsoever on the amount or variety of undiscovered flora, at all. So a statement like "World's Plant Live Far Less Diverse Than Thought" is simply irresponsible. The former situation is simply not evidence of the latter. It has long been acknowledged that we have only formally "discovered" and categorized a small fraction of the Earth's actual diversity.
    • by dbIII (701233) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @09:16PM (#34717850)
      I've got a marine example about the extent of undiscovered species but it still applies. At the moment there is a large ongoing survey of marine life in part of Australia's great barrier reef (emphasis added):
      http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2010/3095035.htm#transcript [abc.net.au]

      Dr John Hooper (Queensland Museum):"Things like the Echinoderms which we thought were relatively well known, the whole Holothurians alone, we had a visiting French researcher who looked at the collection of about 130 species we've got and he said you've probably got about 30 new species here, but this big one over here, he was referring to something the size of a house brick, is possibly a new genus as well. This is something you'd trip over if it was on a beach."

      The podcast is at: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2010/12/ssw_20101218_1213.mp3 [abc.net.au]

    • Are botanists surprised? The article doesn't justify that with any of its quotes, either. It seems reasonable professional botanists were aware of the problem's approximate magnitude and would see this as entirely reasonable. It's just a massive amount of work to test on the order of 1,000,000 items for uniqueness.

      So, the title "World's Plant Life Far Less Diverse Than Thought" seems bogus and is probably just there to grab your attention.
    • by retchdog (1319261)

      yes, it is evidence (of some value) of the latter. see for example http://en.wikipedia.org/German_tank_problem [wikipedia.org] or more to the point http://en.wikipedia.org/Good-Turing_frequency_estimation [wikipedia.org]

      • On the contrary: neither of those examples is even roughly parallel to this situation.

        The "German Tank Problem" assumes a discrete uniform distribution. Life on Earth does not meet either criterion. Not even close. If anything the actual distribution is the opposite of discrete or uniform.

        A similar problem holds for the Good-Turing algorithm: it makes some assumptions about the homogeneity of the population from which you are sampling. The problem there is that when speaking of the diversity of life,
        • by retchdog (1319261)

          yes, i am quite aware of the limitations. however i still believe that they are (at the very least) ``roughly parallel''. your only concrete objection, that of geographic diversity, is easily patched by a number of methods (the simplest of which is to just conduct parallel estimates, since we presumably know where the species were discovered...).

          at any rate, whatever criticisms there are, it would be even more silly to say that there is "no evidence".

  • by mrwolf007 (1116997) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @08:59PM (#34717700)

    As far as i can tell as a non-american is that Fox News is a pretty lowly news outlet.

    However that doesnt automaticly mean the story cant be true.

    Just start assuming the opposite. "There are no duplicates within the millions of plants discovered." In a database of that size, with manually made entries for well over a 100 years, highly unlikely.

    So, without further knowledge, one can only speculate about the percentage of duplicate entries.

    • by outsider007 (115534) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @09:16PM (#34717854)

      Yes but 66% duplicates? That's almost as bad as slashdot. *ducks*

    • by houghi (78078)

      Almost anywhere in the world Fox News would not be called a news outlet. And sure it could be true, but that does not mean that it is news. It is then just something that fits their purpose.

    • The Actual Source (Score:5, Interesting)

      by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday December 30, 2010 @09:40PM (#34718038) Journal
      Well, there's a lot of details from the actual source of the study [kew.org] that are left out of the Fox News report. Like the fact that they used a taxonomic knowledge in a rulebase to reduce the set of unique plants. While fascinating, one must wonder how well an automated system could perform such a feat. Note: The part about putting "discovered" in double quotes is not found in the original source article but arises in the Fox News article. You might want to be careful as you could be insinuating gross incompetence in the field of botany across its entire history. It's also possible that this algorithm for reducing the list needs to be worked on.
    • It is real simple. Fox News broadcasts as many negative articles as positive about Democrats and as many positive articles as negative about Republicans (this according to the Pew Foundation). Since most people just know that Republicans are evil and Democrats are good, Fox News must be very biased.
  • by damn_registrars (1103043) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Thursday December 30, 2010 @09:13PM (#34717822) Homepage Journal
    This really shouldn't come as much surprise. There are plenty of plants that look dramatically different at different stages of their life; if they were being "discovered" for the first time they could well be called different species. Add to that the differing languages spoken by different botanists when attempting to classify species and the problem grows very quickly.

    And for that matter, with molecular biology our notion of "species" is changing as well. Now a species is defined more along the lines of a unique genome (or at least uniquely organized genome) than simply on where and how it grows. Now we realize that - especially in the plant kingdom - there are many pairings of different species of plants that can hybridize and produce viable offspring.

    So indeed, the number was due to be corrected at some point. This happens in other sciences, too; a while ago a few species of dinosaurs were recently re-classified as likely being juvenile specimens of other species.
    • by Nutria (679911)

      And for that matter, with molecular biology our notion of "species" is changing as well. Now a species is defined more along the lines of a unique genome (or at least uniquely organized genome) than simply on where and how it grows.

      I've often wondered about that... If "space aliens" used pre-DNA descriptive methods of defining species, they'd certainly categorize tall, blonde Swedes and African Pygmies as two difference species.

    • by EdIII (1114411)

      This happens in other sciences, too; a while ago a few species of dinosaurs were recently re-classified as likely being juvenile specimens of other species.

      Considering this is Fox News, I also expect the dinosaurs to be re-classified into those that were ridden by cavemen, and those that were not.

  • by tirefire (724526)
    Well I think it's just a tragedy how many poor undiscovered species face extinction every year.

    Consider logging, a practice which harms the spotted owl. Now consider how many undiscovered species (it's in the thousands, just fyi) face an equal threat from logging. And consider how many of those undiscovered species are actually harmed by logging, not just in the minds of alarmists like me, but *really harmed*, as in dying! We have all fallen from grace, and must return to the Eden where humans and ani
  • Okay, ignore Fox (Score:4, Informative)

    by Amorymeltzer (1213818) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @09:27PM (#34717930)

    But http://www.theplantlist.org/ [theplantlist.org] quotes their data right on the front page:

    Accepted 298,900 28.7%
    Synonym 477,601 45.9%
    Unresolved 263,925 25.4%

    Note that a full 25% could go either way. Fox is putting the predictable spin on the story that ALL news media will probably put on this to generate readership, but the takeaway is that now we know more. This is generally considered a good a thing, especially when you want to do this sort of thing repeatedly. They have a method, and are looking to expand and perfect it. Mission accomplished.

  • If you take the time to actually read the article you find that out of ~1,040,000 species previously named, 300,000 are definitely distinct species. ~480,000 are pseudonyms for those, and another ~260,000 are as of yet undetermined as to their status as distinct species. Since those others are undetermined, it cannot be said with any certainty that they are not distinct species. It would be just as (un)truthful and (in)correct to lump those in with the 300,000 known species and call it more than half.

    Shoddy

    • I often wish in science stories reporters were barred from doing anything but quoting experts. It wouldn't sell nearly as well, but it'd be a lot more accurate. (Yes, you can misquote people.)
  • by gmuslera (3436) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @09:36PM (#34717998) Homepage Journal
    In the past, when a Fox News reporter was given the task of count different plant species, usually went like "1...2... too many". But things are improved, probably after seeing really big numbers related to US debt or bank bailouts, now when faced with the same task this time realized that the amount of plants weren't that many.
  • This is going to be really bad for biodiversity.
  • Teh make it simple for those just focused on the faux news angle:-

    • Yes - there are more synonyms for plants than their are plants (duh!)
    • In no way does this mean that "scientists" thought there was more plants than there actually is.

    I'll leave it up to others to speculate on why this "story" is spun like that - though personally, blaming it on festivities implies that the Murdock press (and others) have a "silly season" that's shorter than a year.

    To those who see this sort of story as "proof" that all scient

FORTRAN is a good example of a language which is easier to parse using ad hoc techniques. -- D. Gries [What's good about it? Ed.]

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