Preparations for Valley House installations #1

University of Kansas

Natural History Museum
Biodiversity Research Center

21 FEB 2001

I asked my friend, John Simmons, if he could direct me towards a good description of paratypes and holotypes in scientific collections, and he responded with:

The concept of species goes back a long way. Aristotle made the first comprehensive attempt to describe all the known species of the world. He thought species were fixed (non-evolving) and originated the concept of the "type" or representative of each species. Aristotle also arranged species by what he saw as their order of perfection, from most primitive to most advanced. For many years, those making collections tried to get a representative type of each known species.

This system was refined and formalized by Linnaeus (Carl von Linne) who invented the presently used system of biological nomenclature. Modern zoological nomenclature dates from the publication of the 10th edition of Systema naturae by Linnaeus in 1758. He, like Aristotle, thought species were fixed and could be arranged in order from primitive to advanced. Museums continued to try to collect one or two of each type of species. With Linnaeus came the refinement of making a formal description of a species. This was a detailed description, based on one or a few specimens, called the "type" or "types" (now syntypes) for the species. Thus, anyone who later found what they thought was the same species could bring their specimen to the museum to compare with the original type.

All this changed with the publication in 1859 of "On the Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin. Biologists now recognized that species were not fixed, but were both the product of evolution and were themselves evolving entities. After Darwin, the mere naming of species (taxonomy) became part of the classification of species (systematics). International rules were adopted to regulate the naming of species and are followed by systematists the world over.

From the type of Linnaeus, we now have developed a system in which one individual (the holotype) is described in a publication in detail. This one individual becomes the bearer of the scientific name (genus and species). We still use many names coined by Linnaeus, including Coluber constrictor (for the blue racer). Along with the type (holotype) specimen, one or more other individuals may be described as the paratype(s) of the species. These are described in lesser detail, but are also references for the original scientific name.

Thus, the holotype is the single specimen designated or indicated as the type by the original author at the time of publication of the original description. The paratype is a specimen other than the holotype that was designated or indicated in the original publication. The rules are quite complex and allow for picking a replacement type when the original is destroyed (a neotype), the elevation of one of the original syntypes to holotypic status (a lectotype), etc.

Because they bear the standard for the original scientific name, holotype and paratype specimens are considered very valuable in collections.

John Simmons
Collections Mangaer
University of Kansas Natural History Museum
Biodiversity Research Center

The images adjacent to John's text are from a corner of the KU museum's vault where the holotype specimens are stored. Dr. William E. Duellman and Dr. Linda Trueb have established one of the most significant amphibian collections in the world. Together they co-authored the Biology of Amphibians. First published in 1986 by Johns Hopkins University Press and subsequently republished in 1994 McGraw-Hill and Johns Hopkins the Biology of Amphibians is established as the foremost comprehensive publication on amphibians. I have been honored to work in their lab with John Simmons and his students including Hugo Alamillo, and wish to thank John and Hugo for their ongoing support and help.

The blue ribbons on the specimen jars represent paratype specimens, and the red ribbons represent the holotype specimens. The jars directly above are the paratype specimens of Dendrobates terribilis, the most toxic animal in the world and Bufo periglenes, the "golden toad".

Thursday evening as I worked into the night casting from the preserved frogs, I went into the vaults alone to find these last few frogs I would have the opportunity to pull molds from during this visit to Kansas. To prevent deterioration to the specimens from the light, the lights are kept off in the vault while no one is in the room. It is like a darkroom. I'm very comfortable with the feeling, but can remember the very first time I experienced total darkness. And suspect we all can remember some similar experience.

When the door opened and the saxophone began to play, I knew, he knew I was there. The lights were on and in the dead silence of the room I could hear him take his first breath and suspect he could hear my slight gasp. He only played a few notes. When he left I sat on the cold floor and let a few tears fall. Then got up and selected the final few Phyllomedusa.

John had told me this might happen. The saxophone player is an ex-biology student who is now studying music and comes back often to play to the silent chorus of preserved frogs.

The sax player and I never formally met. I didn't want to interrupt his concert, nor he my work. We did acknowledge each other with a nod later that night as he picked up the keys to return to the vault.

The lone Phyllomedusa coelestis in the KU collection.

Everything changes...



Tracy Hicks
223 North Shore
Dallas, TX 75216
214 948 0609