Want To Find A New Species? Start In A Museum

23:56 minutes

In 1832, less than a year into the first voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin found a beetle in Argentina. It was unusually large for its family of rove beetles. Along with numerous other samples, Darwin sent it back to England labelled it as specimen 708. None like it were collected again and Darwin’s sample disappeared.

But then, 180 years later, an entomologist who happened to specialize in rove beetles requested an assortment of samples from London’s Natural History Museum. There, among 24 pinned beetle specimens, was Darwin’s rove beetle. The entomologist, Stelios Chatzimanolis, eventually described it as a new species. In its name, he credited both Darwin and author David Sedaris: Darwinilus sedarisi.   

This story is not unique. Turns out, discovering new species in the depths of museum archives is not so uncommon. Dozens of such tales of are told by biologist and author Christopher Kemp in his new book The Lost Species. He describes the treasure hunts and serendipitous finding of species like the ruby seadragon and the olinguito, and why there may be many more discoveries waiting in the backlogged shelves of museums around the world.

[The Great Blue Hole of Belize is an exquisite place for pristine diving. But it also offers scientists clues to the Mayan collapse.]

And Regina Wetzer, associate curator and director of marine biodiversity at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, explains how combining centuries-old museum specimens with modern techniques may help turn up new clues in understanding the past, present, and future of Earth’s biodiversity.

Here are some examples of newly discovered species:

a red seadragon with a long nose
A ruby seadragon, Phyllopteryx dewysea. Credit: Josefin Stiller, Nerida G. Wilson, Greg W. Rouse/CC BY 4.0/via Wikimedia Commons

Ruby Seadragon

The ruby seadragon is one of only three known species of seadragon in the world. It was first described in 2015 based on just four samples stored in natural history museums. All but one was collected more than 60 years ago. Biologist Josefin Stiller was doing genetic analysis of the two known seadragons specimens (the leafy and the common), when she stumbled across a sample that didn’t fit. Two years after publishing the species description, a marine expedition finally saw two ruby seadragons in the wild off the coast of Australia.

Read more about the discovery of the ruby seadragon here.

two images, one black and white, the other in color, showing an large insect that looks like a cross between a turtle and a cockroach
On the left, a Exosphaeroma pentcheffi. On the right, Payden’s isopod. Credit: Adam Wall


In 2015, Adam Wall and Regina Wetzer completed a study of the marine isopod, Exosphaeroma amplicauda. The application of that species name was loosely applied, given to any isopod caught off the California coast. In the process, they found several new species, so obviously different that they could see it under a microscope, no DNA analysis required.

a furry four-legged creature in a tree
An olinguito. Credit: Mark Gurney/CC BY 3.0/via Wikimedia Commons


The olinguito was discovered in a drawer at Chicago’s Field Museum in 2003. It was originally filed with the museum’s olingos—small, raccoon-like mammals that live in South America. But researcher Kristofer Helgen said when he opened the drawer, he knew he was looking at something related, but different, that no one had yet described or named.

Read an excerpt from The Lost Species here.

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Segment Guests

Christopher Kemp

Christopher Kemp is a scientist and the author of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums. 

Regina Wetzer

Regina Wetzer is associate curator and director of the Marine Biodiversity Department at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Until recently, we knew about exactly two species of seadragon. That’s a kind of pipefish that lives near Australia. It has a long body, flowing fins– not unlike a seahorse, exactly, but definitely much more graceful looking.

Then in 2013, a graduate student was looking at all the known museum samples of seadragons trying to assess their genetic diversity. It’s part of our routine sampling project. And she discovered something amiss. Four mislabelled specimens– mislabeled in a museum for nearly 100 years.

It was a key serendipitous moment because the specimens turned out to be a third species of seadragon. And it wasn’t just genetically different. It looked kind of weird. The most recent sample captured in 2007 came with a photograph of a bright red animal that matched none of the known seadragons. So was born the Ruby seadragon.

And as you might have suspected, it’s not the only new species to be found collecting dust on a museum shelf. Natural history collections are vast, backlogged, error-riddled, or incompletely described. Think of all those expeditions in the 1800s and 1900s. Imagine drawers with thousands of beetles and flies, countless jars of marine invertebrates. What other treasures could those questions still be holding?

Well, biologist Christopher Kemp wondered about that, too. And he went on a quest to uncover the forgotten collections and chronicled his findings in a book, The Last Species– new species that were only found with the help of natural history museums.

And you can see pictures of some of these lost species and read an excerpt from the book at sciencefriday.com/lostspecies. And Christopher Kemp is with us today. Welcome to Science Friday.

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Thanks so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. I just recounted the story of the Ruby seadragon. This is a fish that got away, so to speak, for nearly 100 years after it was first collected, even though it’s so obviously different from the species we already knew. How does that happen?

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Well, there’s many reasons why it might happen. Someone might come up with new technology to look at old specimens, and that was what happened in this particular example because it required the ability to look at the DNA of the species because a dried specimen doesn’t really look as different as the animal does in real life.

Another example would be maybe a graduate student would come along and be really interested in sort of an obscure, less looked at type of insect family. And they might be the first person to look at it in 100 years. And then they would go into the collections and see drawers filled with specimens that just hadn’t really been properly appraised.

But I think the two main factors– you touched on one in your introduction– that the material in collections is just vast. I mean, we’re talking about millions and millions of specimens. And many of them were collected 100, 200 years ago. And they just haven’t really been looked at very carefully for a very long time.

And the other main factor, I would say, is that we just know very little about life on Earth. Scientists estimate that there’s probably around 10 million species on the planet, and maybe many more. But that’s the current estimate. Yet, we’ve described less than 2 million of them. So when you think about that, it’s sort of–

IRA FLATOW: Mind boggling.

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Sort of an idea of scope.


CHRISTOPHER KEMP: We’ve been scratched the surface of understanding life on Earth.

IRA FLATOW: So what tipped you off that there was a story to be told about these hidden treasures in natural history museums?

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Well, I love these stories. But typically, they’re told in descriptive papers in scientific journals. And I was reading one, I think it came out in 2013. And it was a description of a new species of tapir. I have to say, it was a pretty boring paper. And many of them are sort of very dry. There were pages and pages of graphs, and tables of data, and skull measurements of hundreds and hundreds of different skulls.

But then when you got to the discussion section of the paper, the authors mentioned that there was another skull that belonged to this new species of tapir. And it was in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. And it had been collected by Teddy Roosevelt in 1914 on his expedition of the Amazon. And that he’d collected it there and brought it back, and it had sat basically in a drawer for about 100 years.

And that just seems so sort of mind boggling to me that you would bury that incredibly interesting story and put it in the discussion section. Or maybe, oftentimes, I think authors don’t even mention those parts of the story at all. And it gets to that idea that we’re really good at the science but we’re not really good at telling the stories, which is what I sort of embarked on– trying to gather more examples of this and tell stories of it.

Because when we read these stories, 10 new beetles discovered, 50 new frogs, and every story is really fascinating. Who discovered it, how they did it, where the species comes from, and these stories need more attention.

IRA FLATOW: They’re actually the stories about the people, right? I mean, somebody decides to do that. And some of the stories–

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: That’s exactly right, and in–

IRA FLATOW: I’m sorry. Go ahead.

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Yeah, well, in many cases, the people who went in search of these specimens were intrepid, and brave, and maybe slightly crazy. They would go on these expeditions. It would take sometimes months for them to even get to the place that they were trying to explore. And they would endure such hardships, and they’d risk death. And many of them did die and never come back. And yeah, so these are human stories, really.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about some of them. That Darwin story– you write about an entomologist, as you say, who rediscovered a beetle specimen that Darwin had collected, for example. And he just happened to be the only person who could have known what it was. Amazing story.

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Yeah that’s exactly right. Yeah. Yeah, so it was Darwin as a 23-year-old naturalist on the Beagle. It docked in Argentina in 1832. And Darwin was a huge beetle fan. He really loved all insects, but he was especially drawn to beetles.

And he found this– it’s called a rove beetle. And it typically looks a lot like an earwig. It’s very long and sinuous. And this one was particularly interesting because it has a bright green, sort of iridescent head. It’s very atypical, really.

And so he picked it up, and he put it in with all the other specimens that he was collecting from Argentina. And he sent it back with all of that material to London. But when it got there, it was misclassified, and it sort of just disappeared into the collection, which is easy to do when you’ve got a collection that’s as enormous as the one in London.

And again, that’s sort of– you think about the scope of these collections in London at the Natural History Museum, the beetle collection has about 10 million specimens in. So if you’ve sort of misidentified something and put it in with the wrong group of insects, it’s sort of like searching for a needle in a haystack.

And so the entomologist Stelios Chatzimanolis, he was working on a different group of beetles. He organized alone, basically. And that’s what a lot of these taxonomists do, is they borrow enormous amounts of material from different collections around the world. And he received it in a little box. And as soon as he saw it, he realized that it was not with the right group of insects. And he was probably the only person who was able to make that distinction.

And then the next thought was, I think this is a Darwin specimen. And that’s incredible, the luck that it went to the right person. And that it had been lost for about 180 years. And that he was finally able to give it a name.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. So I want to talk now about what it’s like to sift through the species in a museum collection, and do that for a living. Regina Wetzer is associate curator and director of marine biodiversity at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Welcome, Regina.

REGINA WETZER: It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: I understand that you have a particular fondness for a kind of bug, a marine bug. What is that?

REGINA WETZER: I do. I have a fondness for marine pill bugs. So all four-year-olds know what a roly poly is. I just get the play with ones that in the ocean.

IRA FLATOW: Do they look like the ones that we know?

REGINA WETZER: Oh, yes. And they can be very colorful and very ornate.

IRA FLATOW: And Christopher has been telling us about new species discoveries, but sometimes it’s not exactly about discovering a whole new species, is it, so much as learning that one species is many, right?

REGINA WETZER: Absolutely. And so here at the museum, we had such an opportunity. And it’s a pleasure to get to meet Christopher online. And my colleague– then student, undergraduate– we were revising, and re-identifying, and designating new type species for a specimen that was attributed to the entire coast. So from the Aleutian Islands all the way in northern Baja California, the species was attributed to the same name. And this is a group of organisms that bear live young, brood their young, have no dispersal capabilities.

So again, like other scientists around the world, we borrowed material from all kinds of museums. We went through our own collections. And we discovered we had one new species in Alaska, one species in Puget Sound. We re-described the original one that bore the name off the Central Coast of California. We discovered one just outside of Los Angeles, right at the mouth of the Port of Los Angeles, and renamed one that had been poorly described just further down in San Diego off the Scripps Pier. So that became a quite strong paper and gave us a whole bunch of insights.

IRA FLATOW: So you found four instead of one.


IRA FLATOW: So why did you find it? Why were you successful at this and not the people who originally saw them? You were diligent? They were lazy? Is there some process that goes on that was wrong?

REGINA WETZER: Oh, no no. These things are small. The specimen from Alaska was only seven millimeters long. There’s only three of them. And again, technology, new microscopes, scanning electron microscopy, genetic techniques– all kinds of methods allow us to look closer– the types of habitats organisms inhabit.

And also, when these small things are collected, if one has a specific interest, one would look for a particular isopod, in our case. But I would be ignoring the things that I am not an expert in, and those would get set aside. And then in time, either those get lent out to colleagues that specialize in that group and that material gets worked out.

IRA FLATOW: How many undiscovered species do you think could be lurking in your museum alone in LA?

REGINA WETZER: Thousands. I probably have collected myself hundreds of them that are sitting on the shelf. It’s just a matter of time, of looking, and having the opportunity to work through them.

IRA FLATOW: Christopher, give us a sense then. If she’s got thousands in LA alone. In all the museums around the world, there must be millions.

REGINA WETZER: There are. To make up the difference for the 10 million that we think there might be and the 2 million or so that are described.

IRA FLATOW: Christopher, you agree?

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Absolutely. I mean, they’re everywhere. And not just in collections either, but in the world around us, too. A couple of years ago, scientists at the Natural History Museum of LA County set fly traps in backyards across the city and discovered 30 new species of fly with hardly any trouble at all.

And there were many, many undiscovered species in those nets. But they just concentrated on one genus of fly, and said, let’s just describe this particular genus. And they came up with 30 that are– they’re flying around us all the time. We just don’t know what they are. No one has had the time to look at them really closely and put a name on them. And that’s the same in museums, too. I imagine there’s more undiscovered species than described ones. They’re everywhere.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Ira Flatow talking about undiscovered species with Christopher Kemp and Regina Wetzer. We have a tweet that says, how is climate change affecting the discovery of new species? Cavitt writes that tweet. Any reaction to that, Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Yeah, it’s a good question. I don’t think it’s affecting the discovery of new species, but it’s making it even more important than ever to do that work. And it really highlights the importance of natural history collections because how else can you really assess the effect of climate change than by going back in a time machine, which is what the natural history collection is?

I mean, you can throw a dart at a world map, and you can go back in time 100 years through collections and say what species were there before that are not there now, and what species are present now that weren’t there a hundred years ago. And so that’s one of the really important factors. That’s one of the great uses of natural history collections that people generally don’t really think about.

IRA FLATOW: Regina, what do you say to people who say, why do we need all of these old stuffed, preserved specimens anyhow? We have DNA sequencing. It’s cheaper. It’s easier. It’s less messy.

REGINA WETZER: I recall touring a group of students with a teacher and that question came up. And she said, well, if someone came from outer space, and they dropped in, and they saw this school group– they saw you all standing around. And which one would they take back to their planet and say, this is Homo sapiens? So species are variable. They change over time. They adapt to local environments. And so it’s important to know what the breadth of the adaptation possibilities might be.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s only by actually looking at the object itself?

REGINA WETZER: That’s looking at the object itself. It’s also using other tools. It’s also using genetic tools in order to look at species.

IRA FLATOW: Are there tools that you would like to have that you don’t have?

REGINA WETZER: Oh. The tool I would like to have is to be able to extract DNA from formalin preserved specimens. I worked on a group and represent marine invertebrates, which are vast. It’s sponges all the way to sea squirts.

And many of those had been preserved in formalin, which is not necessarily amenable to modern DNA techniques. It’s done for ancient DNA, but extreme cost. And so at present, we are still going out and recollecting modern specimens to compare to existing museum specimens, and comparing the DNA of the species that we’re finding. And lo and behold, we’re finding a whole lot more diversity than ever before.

IRA FLATOW: So if you had a way of taking it out of the jars that you have on the shelves, you could compare it.

REGINA WETZER: Oh, and there’s examples of that, as well. And the sea star wasting disease is one of them, where the virus that’s attributed to causing this loss of sea stars along the West Coast that has been going on for a number of years is attributed to a virus. And scientists were able to go back, and with qPCR procedures, sample the ethanol that was in the jar, and determine that in 1942 we already had that virus present.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. We’re going to take a break and talk more about what the future holds for natural history museums where the scientists are hard at work cataloging the world’s biodiversity– how museums can be a surprising source of new species. Our number– 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @SciFri. We’ll be right back talking more about what we’re seeing in museums, and talking with Christopher Kemp, author of The Lost Species. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We are talking about the hidden treasures of natural history museums. All the undiscovered biodiversity in the back rooms that visitors like you and me might never get to see. The new species that have been found and the ones we could still find back in those dusty bins and in those jars.

Talking with Christopher Kemp, author of The Lost Species. And he talks about how you find what’s in the back rooms. He went there, and went himself and saw what’s going on there. And Regina Wetzer, the director of marine biodiversity at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Our number– 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @SciFri.

Museum is so often used as a synonym for a place where things are preserved and left unchanging. But you both are talking about ways in which these institutions are making new discoveries and also connecting us to the future of life on Earth. Is that how you hope people feel when they visit a natural history museum, Chris?

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Yeah. I think that’s how people should feel. And if they don’t, it’s because maybe we don’t do a very good job of telling these stories, and we to do better, I think. Traditionally, we haven’t done a very good job of justifying the importance of collections, and we need to.

In fact, you mentioned the word dusty a couple of times. And I know that anyone who works in a museum is just jumping up and down and gnashing their teeth because they hate that word. And a couple of times, I made the mistake of using that word, too. And I was I was told off very, very quickly.

They’re really state-of-the-art facilities. And they’re just as modern and technologically advanced as any other scientific institution.

IRA FLATOW: I apologize for that because I have been in the archives of many museums from the Smithsonian to the La Brea Tar Pits. And you’re right, they’re absolutely spotless places. So I apologize. It’s sort of a–

REGINA WETZER: But there’s many opportunities to engage the public. And I think that’s what’s so wonderful about being at a natural history museum today. Technology has offered many opportunities. We get to, as was mentioned, the Malaise Trap Program here in Los Angeles discovering flies allowed the community to participate.

My group and my colleagues, we take folks out to the nearshore environment. We don’t necessarily collect specimens. We don’t encourage people taking things off the shore. But it’s the citizens and the community that are actually taking photographs, documenting what is present, and that is contributing to field guides, and connecting recent documentation, recent changes with the past and the collections that are in the museum. So there is tremendous opportunity to engage.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Let’s engage with Oklahoma City. Go to Tim in Oklahoma City. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

TIM: Hi. Good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

TIM: My question was kind of along the lines of what are some of the criteria that you use to define a new species, especially when you’re dealing with dead specimens, that, you know, whereas the kind of classic example of live specimens being able to reproduce and have viable offspring?

IRA FLATOW: That’s a great–

TIM: Is it just DNA? Is it just one thing or the other?

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting because, Christopher, you say in your book that a species is a hypothesis. What do you mean by that?

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Well, that’s true. And it’s a really great question. And I think that it’s a question that the field actually grapples with quite a bit. What is a species? There’s a lot of disagreement about what a species is. And really, the reason it takes a long time sometimes to describe a new species is it’s really difficult to do so.

We can’t really just rely on DNA. They used to rely on morphometry, which would be just measuring specimens, or the external characteristics, or something like that. Now, we try and do as much as we can. So hopefully the DNA would be complementary to someone measuring specimens, looking at differences in the color or the shape of the animal.

There’s a mammal expert at the Smithsonian that I know who measures 3,000 bats just to determine whether the one bat that he’s interested in is different– is a unique species. And then he has to use statistics to map all these things out and see if this one animal sort of sits by itself on the graph, which is just pretty much the same way that the Ruby seadragon was discovered, as well. It was an outlier. So you’re looking for an outlier, I suppose.

IRA FLATOW: Regina, a lot of work going into that, it sounds like, yeah?

REGINA WETZER: Absolutely. And again, you put all the jars in front of you. You look at organisms that are similar. You’re looking for similarities. You’re looking for variation, of how much variation. Your judging lifestyle, geographic locality, depth, food sources. You’re putting all kinds of information together to make this hypothesis, which will then get tested over and over again. And as you know, names do change and hypotheses get changed. We add genetic data. We see variability. And in some cases, we are now recognizing that it’s very difficult or not possible at all to find morphological characters that distinguish organisms.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much, both of you, for taking time to be with us today. Regina Wetzer, associate curator and director of marine biodiversity at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, and Christopher Kemp, a biologist and author of the book The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums. You can see pictures of some of those lost species and read an excerpt from the book sciencefriday.com/lostspecies. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

REGINA WETZER: Thank you for having us.

IRA FLATOW: Welcome.

CHRISTOPHER KEMP: Thanks so much, Ira.

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