Molecular sleuths crack 300-year-old mystery over the identity of the Asian elephant type specimen.
“Natural history museums don’t usually tell their visitors, but they are riddled with wrongly identified specimens. Such errors even occur with important holdings, including plants and animals that serve as the archetypes, or type specimens, for their species — the ones that biologists described when they officially named them.
Taxonomy, the science of species organization, started with Carl Linnaeus, and his species descriptions serve as the basis for all other plant and animal classifications. Linnaeus has been proved correct more often than not, but questions hover over some of the species he classified, including the Asian elephant. Researchers have now confirmed a long-held suspicion that the pickled fetus he used as its archetype was, in fact, that of an African elephant.
Could the pickled fetus he used as its archetype actually have been a different species? A team in Copenhagen decided to find out, unaware they were about to add the final chapter to a centuries old saga.
Uppsala, Sweden, 1753
Carl Linnaeus could hardly contain his excitement over his latest acquisition. “I am pleased that the little elephant has arrived. If he costs a lot, he was worth it. Certainly, he is as rare as a diamond,” the founding father of modern taxonomy wrote in a letter to a friend on 18 May 1753.
At Linnaeus’s urging, King Adolf Frederick of Sweden had bought a fetal elephant preserved in alcohol for his already immense natural history collection. Few Europeans had ever laid eyes on an elephant, and Linnaeus was eager to include the beast in his life’s work, Systema Naturae.
Published in 1735 and updated regularly thereafter, Systema Naturae was a naively audacious index of all known life, organized according to the binomial classification system that Linnaeus formalized. He grouped organisms hierarchically, each described with genus and species names in Latin. Linnaeus’s system hinged on the concept of types — individuals that serves as the archetypes for a species, in much the same way that a platinum–iridium cylinder outside Paris defines the kilogram. And because Linnaeus was the one who came up with this system, which is still used by scientists today, he got to pick the type specimens." (read more).