Beat the British

While Alfred Russell Wallace was exploring the Malay Archipelago, the Dutch scientific community became nervous. During the eight years he spent studying the Malayan fauna, he and his assistants collected thousands of specimens, many of them yet to be described. Meanwhile, the European Natural History museums were investing large sums of money – and even their collectors’ lives –  to expand their collections with those precious exotic specimens, gathered during ambitious expeditions in the colonies. Science was the museums’ first goal, but not without a political agenda: a race to international prestige.

The curators at the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie (in Leiden, The Netherlands, now the Naturalis Biodiversity Center) were particularly concerned with beating their British colleagues to the best spots and specimens.  And this little piece of the history of natural history has had its repercussions for us, curators two centuries later trying to establish the type status of these particular specimens, and for the taxonomists working on those groups. Continue reading

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When disaster strikes (or, what to do with manuscript names?)

When entomologist Lambertus Toxopeus died in a tragic motor accident in 1951, his ongoing research froze in time and the notes, labels and drawers he had been working on remained untouched for decades. He was planning a revision of a few butterfly groups, including some lace-wing butterflies and quite a few Nymphalid genera. In the Naturalis collection, many specimens bear his handwritten labels, with new species and subspecies names and the intended type status of those particular specimens. However, because Toxopeus never had the chance to publish any of these revisions, these manuscript names have caused a great deal of confusion since the 1950’s. How should we deal with this problem?  Continue reading