Discovering biological diversity is a fundamental goal—made urgent by the alarmingly high rate of extinction. We have compiled information from more than 100 000 type specimens to quantify the role of collectors in the discovery of plant diversity. Our results show that more than half of all type specimens were collected by less than 2 per cent of collectors. This highly skewed pattern has persisted through time. We demonstrate that a number of attributes are associated with prolific plant collectors: a long career with increasing productivity and experience in several countries and plant families. These results imply that funding a small number of expert plant collectors in the right geographical locations should be an important element in any effective strategy to find undiscovered plant species and complete the inventory of the world flora.

  • Received November 21, 2011.
  • Accepted January 10, 2012.
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