Repatriation of types

Sven O Kullander ve-sven at NRM.SE
Thu Aug 10 21:13:44 CDT 1995

A number of scholarly thoughts have already been expressed in response to
Jorge Soberon's plea for comments on a proposed Mexican regulation that --
for what I understand -. would require from foreign collectors that they
deposit type material eventually selected from their collection in Mexico.
(Naturally, Mexican collectors can deposit types wherever they want ..?)

My department has nearly no Mexican collections and only minimal contacts
with Mexico.(I will thus have to comment in such a general way that you can
freely replace 'Mexican' in this message with the name of any other
country.) That could very well change in the future.

Scenario 1: Since upon my future collecting trip to Mexico I inevitably will
have to spend a few days in Mexico City to 'fix things', I will of course
spend the otherwise dead hours going over the types maintained in the local
museum. (Or I would go there collecting, skip the museums, and make a
separate trip through Europe and the US to examine those types?). How
convenient it would be to have all the type stuff in one place, where one is
going anyway...

Scenario 2: I venture to specialize upon a group mainly distributed in
Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, with one or two species described from
Mexico. So, I will not bother to go to Mexico collecting. Instead I will
borrow those few type specimens, if the description is really so bad that I
and the Mexican curator cannot make out what species it is.

Scenario 3: I will do a world phylogenetic study of 'something' including
'one thing' that occurs in Mexico. In that case I will not really need types.

Scenario 4: I will write a book about the 'something' of Mexico. So I move
to Mexico, live there for a year or two and also leave the types because I
will not need them anymore.

In most scenarios I can think of, it would be more convenient to find the
Mexican type in a Mexican museum. And it would be a great relief for
Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, and Texan biologists to have types out of
their common fauna nearby. The only real exception would be exactly the
situation for neighboring country scientists. In the case of Mexican cichlid
fish (and I do not work on them), the two European museums with the largest
number of types of Mexican cichlid fish are two old, very hard-worked
places, one of which had no electric light last time I was there (they have
now) and with nearly no comparative non-type material of Mexican fish that
can be consulted during examination of the types. One of those institutions
does not lend out types at all.

Keeping a type collection is not exactly the acumen of curatorship. Type
specimens are generally of limited value for the more biological work most
of us want to do. What is the MTBE (mean time between examination) for
types? 50 years? 100 years? In fact, it really does not matter so much what
name we use for a species. Especially, I have not figured out what is the
significance of paratypes - which are not necessarily of the same species as
the holotype, and only the holotype has any value for nomenclature. Old
types are sometimes totally meaningless. Even if they are shown upon
reexamination to be not the species they have been thought to be over the
last 250 years, that finding might as well only result in a Commission
decision to keep the better known name.

Therefore, I am still somewhat wondering what the hysteria about types runs
to. I agree with Michael and Julian on the relatively little importance of
types, and suggest that the Mexican group consider this view. The most
valuable material to any scientist will likely be a specimen rich and
species rich collection that permits a wide variety of anatomical,
statistical and distribution studies. I would appreciate if the regulations
of other countries permit making such collections.

It is our current practice to return primary type material (=holotypes) to
the country of origin whenever possible, and we will continue this practice
whether or not we are required to do so.

---BTW, since the malaise trap is a Swedish invention (by Rene Malaise of
this museum), would it not be fair to send 10% of all type specimens of new
insects collected by this method to the NRM entomology department (I do not
want the fish you may get in that trap ;-)

Sven O Kullander

Sven O Kullander
Senior Curator - Ichthyology
Department of Vertebrate Zoology
Swedish Museum of Natural History
POB 50007
S-104 05 Stockholm  SWEDEN
Tel +46-8-666 4116 Fax +46-8-666 4212  E-mail: ve-sven at

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