The type specimen of a species is the individual organism that scientists go to when identifying and categorizing the plant or animal they’ve found. Usually a preserved dead thing or a fossil, it is kept safe and accessible – an important job done by the best museums and universities.
Type Specimens Used for Taxonomy
Naming and classification of living things is a grand old science. Since the days of Aristotle, humans have been grouping animals and plants, keeping track of the natural world. Starting in the mid-1700s, with all-star biologist Carl Linnaeus, a genus and species naming system was born. Linnaeus’ work set the precedent that careful illustration, description and even saving of specimens was critical to taxonomy (the science of biological classification). This way, other scientists could continue to add to the ever-growing volume of data without redundancy.
Who Chooses a Type Specimen?
When a new species is identified, the scientist has likely studied a large number of organisms. But the rule is, when that researcher proposes that his finding is a new species and asks to name it, one individual member of the new species must be picked to be the representative. It’s not necessarily the prettiest sample, the biggest, or the most typical. And although one item is always named the actual type specimen, there are more specimens saved whenever possible.
The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), founded in 1895, is the authority on the naming of animal species. They are not the scientists who decide what species an organism belongs to, or if it represents a whole new species. Their job is only to approve new names, keep track of existing names, and assign the type specimen for each critter. Similarly, the International Association for Plant Taxonomy regulates the naming of botanical life.
Where are They Stored?
Many major universities and museums house type specimens. In fact, with a few phone calls, most will arrange behind-the-scenes tours for almost anyone to view their towering shelves of roll-out drawers lined with dried up dudes. I spent a few months working with collections in an invertebrate paleontology department and, believe me, when everything’s stuck in rock, it gets real heavy and dusty. But if you ever get a chance, slap on some wrist guards and take a peek. Be it fish, dinosaurs, geraniums or spiders, knowing that you’re holding the onomatophore of that species (onomatophore meaning “name bearer”) is pretty neat.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has the largest collection of fascinating dead stuff anywhere in the world. They store over 126 million items, including hundreds of thousands of type specimens. Imagine what a tremendous resource this is for scientists and students. Their collections are one of our greatest national treasures.
Who are My Favorite Type Specimens?
I’m so glad you asked! My home state of Kansas was once a deep, swirling sea of Cretaceous critters and our finest institutions now keep type specimens of some of those organisms. Drs. George and Charles Sternberg, of the Hays, Kansas area, discovered several species, and dug up their type specimens, in our state’s chalky rock. My favorite is Xiphactinus audax, an insanely large fish. The Sternbergs, for whom the Sternberg Museum of Natural History is named, discovered a Xiphactinus audax fossil complete with his lunch still in his belly – the famous “Fish Within a Fish” that I always drag my kids to see.
Because human evolution is so fascinating, I have pay special respect to a specimen named “Neanderthal 1” from the Neander Valley in Germany. He is a 40,000 year old fossil representing the Homo neanderthalensis species – everyone’s favorite cavemen. He was discovered in 1857.
In 1861, the type specimen for Archaeopteryx lithographica was discovered. This fella is considered the best example of a transitional creature between dinosaurs and birds, one of the first to wear true feathers. This fossil, kept in the Natural History Museum in London, is the type specimen.