GPS for old specimens

Sat Dec 7 06:12:42 CST 1996

Contrary to what my distinguished colleague Dr. Humphries said
yesterday, it is frequently impossible and often misleading to
attempt to assign precise coordinates to old specimens. Many
18th- and 19th-Century specimens bear extremely vague locales
such as "Mexico" or "Africa." Many early collectors were parts
of extensive military or scientific scouting expeditions and
had no idea where they were. I have seen labels from as late as
the 1960's saying simply "Garden Canyon," never mind that Garden
Canyon is 20 km long. How do you deal with that? Do you assume
the specimen was from the middle, 10 km from each end? This can
create some erroneous information, which is the only thing
worse than no information. I have seen distribution maps with
symbols as far as a few hundred kilometers away from the
correct collection locale. Yes, sometimes it is possible to
ascertain where an old specimen was collected, but often it
is not, and it can be folly to try.
   On another subject, my comments yesterday on "ined" were
directed at a specific case, i.e. when there is a pressing need
to discuss the taxon in nonsystematic circles. I did emphasize
twice the problems which might arise if the official name turns
out to be different from the name which has been used as a
nomen nudum. There is of course a simple solution, i.e. getting
the names into print as soon as possible. There are journals
such as Novon, Phytologia, and Mycotaxon which have a very rapid
turn-around time; I assume there must be similar publications
in zoology. To my friends in Queensland (or anywhere else, for
that matter), if you don't have time to write descriptions of
new plant species, loan me the specimens and I'll do it (if you
pay the page charges).

Joseph E. Laferriere
Tucson, Arizona, USA
JosephL at

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