[Taxacom] Type specimen

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Sat May 18 15:02:20 CDT 2013

I enjoyed Pierre's post, but his tongue-in-cheek comment below:

> I humbly volunteer for being myself the whatever-type for any possible
> taxonomic use ...in a little while of course, and universally accessible
as a
> spoonfull of ashes dispersed in a trout stream close to my home

... touches on a serious question I've pondered from time to time.
Specifically, my issue relates to the reference to "in a little while of
course" in Pierre's quote above.

There is nothing preventing a specimen being designated as a name-bearing
type while it is still living.  There are more than a few examples of this,
and while many have argued that this "loophole" of the Code should be closed
(in the form of actually requiring that the name-bearing type be captured
and deposited in a collection of some sort  -- Art. 16.4.2. does not require
this), there are specific examples where this is not possible, and whenever
this topic has come up amongst Commissioners while I've been present, there
seems to be no clean way to close this "loophole".

My question, however, is more along the lines of what taxonomists believe is
scientifically "appropriate" (regardless of what is technically required by
the Code).  Consider several examples:

- A new species of fish established on specimens that appear in a video
taken from a deep-see submersible

- A new primate established on a specimen photographed in nature

- A new animal established on a captive living representative in a zoo or

The first two are real examples, the third is one I'm bumping up against
right now (i.e., a new species of an extremely beautiful/rare/valuable reef
fish that is currently alive in captivity, and the owner of which has paid a
great deal of money for).  In this case, the owner has graciously decided to
sacrifice the fish for the good of science, to fulfill the role of Holotype
(he actually has two, so I can examine the second specimen as either a
paratype or as additional material examined without dispatching it). For the
particular group of fishes this new species belongs to, I do not need to
dissect it to examine the characters needed to distinguish it from all other
known species (this would be true even after it is dead) -- I have all the
character data I need from non-lethal external examination, tissue
extraction (fin clip) for sequencing, high-resolution color photography, and
an X-ray.

And yet, in a perverse sort of way, it just "feels like the right thing to
do" to kill the little bugger, fix it in formalin, and preserve it in a jar
of alcohol.  The alternative, of course, would be to let it continue to live
out the rest of its life in captivity, keeping its owner happy (not to
mention keeping the fish itself happy), all the while serving as the
designated holotype.  Upon its ultimate demise in the future (presumably via
natural or accidental causes), it would be fixed and preserved and deposited
in a Museum collection (i.e., we could not only fulfill the requirement of
Art. 16.4.2, but do so truthfully).  The major risk, of course, is that the
specimen dies and rots before it can be properly preserved, in which case
the condition of the preserved holotype would be significantly inferior to
what it would be if we euthanize it.

At the moment, our plan is to kill it and treat it like we would any other
holotype (again, we have the owner's blessing to do so).  But at the same
time, I wonder whether we should contemplate allowing the holotype to live
on.  Does anyone on this list know of similar examples (captive living
specimens designated as a name-bearing type)?  What do people on this list
think is the most "ethical" thing to do (considering two sides of that word
"ethical" -- the scientific one, and the more morally-based one)?

Sorry for the digression from the otherwise.... err.... "serious"


Richard L. Pyle, PhD
Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
Associate Zoologist in Ichthyology
Dive Safety Officer
Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org

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