Museums and integrity of types

Doug Yanega dyanega at
Tue Sep 30 07:49:05 EDT 1997

Michael Gochfeld wrote:

>That's why paratypes distributed to other museums
>are important (but never quite replace the holotypes, I guess).

Actually, I understand from some ichthyologist colleagues that there were a
large number of types destroyed in Berlin during the War, and the paratypes
have now become lectotypes for many of these, so they *do* replace
holotypes, at least in a practical sense.

> I
>anticipate that electronic and molecular documentation of types is going
>to become increasingly important to assure the security of types
>(particularly as more and more sibling species that differ only
>biochemically are discovered).

Ooo...yowtch! Let's hope that doesn't happen. If people seriously start
describing species based solely on molecular differences, it could well be
the veritable end of taxonomy as we know it. Consider this, and think
carefully whether this is really an exaggeration or not:
       (1) We will never know the DNA sequences for most extant holotypes,
let alone the particular organisms, both plant and animal, studied in every
paper published in ANY field of biology over the last 200 years. Now
consider what happens if analysis reveals that almost every named species
consists of several "molecular sibling species" (the Phylogenetic Species
Concept, or PSC, has no stipulations regarding interbreeding capacity like
Mayr's BSC - if all sampled members of a population have even a *single*
shared base pair difference from all sampled members of other populations,
they are considered a "species"). We would, in essence, have to start over
again from square one, except for the pitifully tiny handful of presently
recognized species which happen to be genetically monomorphic over their
entire range, and those species which are so rare (or extinct) that the
molecular taxonomists can't get any to sequence. (2) It will mean that no
one will be able to identify any organism without having access to a
molecular lab. "You say you have 3,500 different insects collected
pollinating your study plant? Well, it's 10 bucks per specimen to get them
IDed, even if they all *look* the same. Hope you have a BIG budget! What,
you want the specimens *returned* to you? You think I'm gonna have a
technician perform microsurgery on 3500 insects so you can keep vouchers?
Dream on!"
        Seems a little silly, at first, but then again...what, exactly, is
going to stop this from happening? After all, if the molecular evidence
indicates that there are really four or five Luna Moth species in the US,
and so on for almost every well-known butterfly or moth, would we not be
compelled to accept this and its scientific consequences, no matter what
past research it invalidates, nor how impractical identification becomes?
        Unless someone invents the Tricorder (i.e., a hand-held machine
capable of detecting and reading sequences *remotely*, from something as
small as a virus), those consequences could be pretty troublesome.


Doug Yanega    Depto. de Biologia Geral, Instituto de Ciencias Biologicas,
Univ. Fed. de Minas Gerais, Cx.P. 486, 30.161-970 Belo Horizonte, MG   BRAZIL
phone: 031-448-1223, fax: 031-44-5481  (from U.S., prefix 011-55)
  "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
        is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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