Conservation and the botanist effect

Over the last few decades, resources for descriptive taxonomy and biodiversity inventories have substantially declined, and they are also globally unequally distributed. This could result in an overall decline in the quality of biodiversity data as well as geographic biases, reducing the utility and reliability of inventories. We tested this hypothesis with tropical tree records (n = 24,024) collected from the Eastern Arc Mountains, Tanzania, between 1980 and 2007 by 13 botanists, whose collections represent 80% of the total plant records for this region. Our results show that botanists with practical training in tropical plant identification record both more species and more species of conservation concern (20 more species, two more endemic and one more threatened species per 250 specimens) than untrained botanists. Training and the number of person-days in the field explained 96% of the variation in the numbers of species found, and training was the most important predictor for explaining recorded numbers of threatened and endemic species. Data quality was related to available facilities, with good herbarium access significantly reducing the proportions of misidentifications and misspellings. Our analysis suggests that it may be necessary to account for recorder training when comparing diversity across sites, particularly when assessing numbers of rare and endemic species, and for global data portals to provide such information. We also suggest that greater investment in the training of botanists and in the provisioning of good facilities would substantially increase recording efficiency and data reliability, thereby improving conservation planning and implementation on the ground.