Field of Science

The Significance of Type Specimens, and More on Utrecht

Last week I brought up the topic of the Utrecht Herbarium, which faces imminent closure as of June 1. Since then I have been in touch with Renske Ek, who started the petition against the closure. The closure of the herbarium is primarily a cost-cutting measure, and has been under consideration for some time, though it was not announced officially until the 26th of March. The most significant question you might be asking, though, is what is to become of the collection after the closure?

Let me remind you that, as well as over 800,000 specimens, the Utrecht Herbarium holds over 10,000 type specimens. What, some of you may ask, is a type specimen? When a new species is described, the author will select one of his/her specimens (or sometimes, a collection of specimens) of that species to act as the 'type'. That specimen then becomes the definitive example of that species. From that point, if the question ever arises, "What species does "species name X" refer to?", the answer essentially is, "The species that "type specimen X" belongs to". The type specimen also allows the identification of the species if the original published description turns out to be inadequate somehow. Imagine that a taxonomist working on ants describes a new species. He describes the new species' colour, ornamentation of the body, shape of its head, and calls it "species 1". Many years later, another ant taxonomist discovers that the area where the earlier taxo got his specimens from is actually home to two very similar species. One is the earlier author's "species 1", the other is a new "species 2". The problem is, the two species are identical in colour, body ornamentation and shape of the head. They can be distinguished by the shape of the antennae, but the earlier taxonomist, not realising that the shape of the antennae was going to turn out to be significant, never included it in his original description. How is the later taxonomist to work out which of the two species he has on hand is "species 1"? That is where the type specimen comes into play - even if the original description didn't include the appearance of the antenna, the later taxonomist can always look at the type specimen and fill in the missing details.

The type specimen means that a species name is not just a vague philosophical concept, but is tied to a real tangible object. As a result, it is critical that any type specimen is preserved and remains accessible to future researchers. If a collection is locked away from visitors, the specimens are unable to serve their purpose. Also, a locked collection does not simply sit intact until such a time as it is ever opened. Biological collections require constant maintenance and monitoring. After all, these are pieces of dead plant and animal matter we're talking about - their natural tendency is to decay. Alcohol and other preservatives can evaporate, dried insects or plants may be eaten by beetles, and when the collection finally gets opened up again, all that is left is unrecognisable dust and mush. The collected specimens, and type specimens in particular, have failed in their purpose.

Unfortunately, at present there seems to be no clear plan for what is to happen to the Utrecht herbarium collection after closure. Plans to transfer it to the Universiteit Leiden appear to have been shelved due to lack of funding. It seems to have been hoped that the Nederlands Centrum voor Biodiversiteit (Dutch Centre for Biodiversity) currently being put together would offer a permanent home for the collection, but it is unlikely that the Centre will be up and running before the herbarium closes.

Whatever is to become of the Utrecht Herbarium itself, it is imperative that the collection, particularly the type specimens, remains curated and accessible somewhere. Failure to ensure this would be an unforgivable tragedy.

Postscript: David Shorthouse of iSpiders has also commented on the situation.


  1. This one, and the post about voucher are excellent :)!

  2. Christopher, Superb post. Take this as will, its meant as a compliment, but it has continually amazed me for almost a year now you've been putting out high quality posts, but still only have 30 subscribers on your feedburner. Blows my mind. Keep writing though, the right people seem to be reading!

  3. Excellent post.
    Also, note the ever changing importance of types because of advances in molecular and cellular biology, e.g DNA analysis today, and other technologies. Digitization is an important new tool for capturing some type info but not all.
    Thomas Peter Bennett


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS