I began to write a post about my main reason for visiting European museums, but then realized that in order to do so, I should first explain what a type specimen is. The main goal of my visit was to view, record, and even borrow some type specimens – but what exactly IS a type? The type is generally a specimen that acts as the name holder for a certain species. Okay……what the heck does that mean?
Let’s say that I want you to look at a small, brown beetle and tell me if it is actually the species Elonus basalis (one of my favorite beetles). How would you know? You could find and read the original description, you could find pictures that people have taken of that species, you could ask for someone’s help that may know what that species looks like. But to truly understand what is meant by the name Elonus basalis, you should look at the type. The type is the specimen that the original author was looking at when he or she described the species – it literally defines what that name refers to.
For my research, it is absolutely necessary to do this since very few researchers have looked at the particular beetle family that I’m interested in and since the original descriptions are not entirely explanatory. Sometimes they are only a few words and there are no pictures.
Feel free to stop reading here if you are already bored. But if this kind of thing interests you, then you are a dork like me and I invite you to read on.
There are actually two different categories of types – primary and secondary. Primary types are the name holders and they come with a few different names:
Holotype: The one specimen that is the type that was referred to in the original description by the author. Many old publications did not designate a specific specimen as the holotype, but if only one specimen was seen by the author, then that is the holotype. This is known as holotype by monotypy.
Lectotype: The specimen that is the name holder – designated after the publication in which the species was described, usually by a separate author. Lectotype designation now must be justified by the author so you can’t just go to a museum as I did and start turning specimens into lectotypes for seemingly no good reason.
Syntype: A series of specimens that were viewed by the author when the species was described. Often referred to as the syntype series, these specimens are often as close to a single type specimen as one can get. In older publications many authors were not explicit regarding the numbers of specimens that they examined and designating a lectotype may range from difficult to impossible.
I won’t go into secondary types, but if you’d like to read all about them and more than you probably want to know about types, you can visit the code of zoological nomenclature. Isn’t this fun?