Natural History Museums Rife With Mislabeled Specimens, Researchers Find

Nov 24, 2015

by Ari Shapiro and Audie Cornish

As many as half of all natural history specimens sitting in our museums are mislabeled, according to a team at the University of Oxford and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.NPR hears from Zoe Goodwin who is the lead author the study.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

By the time a flower or insect makes it to a natural history museum, you’d think we’d know the basics – the very basics.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You’d think. But according to a team at the University of Oxford and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, up to half the specimens in all natural history museums are mislabeled, or at least labeled incompletely. Zoe Goodwin says scientists have a long history of leaving some room for interpretation. She’s the lead author of the study.


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3 comments on “Natural History Museums Rife With Mislabeled Specimens, Researchers Find

  • You’d think. But according to a team at the University of Oxford and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, up to half the specimens in all natural history museums are mislabeled, or at least labeled incompletely.

    I am not in the least surprised. When samples are sent to botanic gardens from remote habitats with collector’s numbers, there are “type” specimens described in publications, but in remote and unexplored areas, nobody knows the extent of the variations within that gene pool or the extent of the range.
    Hence the various arguments about what should included be in related genera, what is a species, sub-species, variety, etc. and why various revisions are made when further discoveries are made. Then there are the “lumpers” and “splitters”!

    I have seen expert plant specialists looking a sample and saying it cannot be clearly identified until it has flowered/seeded/had its DNA analysed, etc.

    I recall an occasion when I was trying to find the species name of a rare plant in my greenhouse, and while touring, was delighted to spot one with a label in the pot across a greenhouse in a botanic garden.
    I went up close, and was disappointed to see the species name on the label was “species”!
    BTW: That was in KEW Gardens!



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  • @OP – By the time a flower or insect makes it to a natural history museum, you’d think we’d know the basics – the very basics.

    Cladistics are subject to constant revision, so labels would need to be constantly updated and revised as each new study offers their version of classifications. The list of revised names and earlier synonyms with cited authors, very quickly becomes far too long to put on a label.

    I have specimens of living plants which WERE correctly labelled 20 or 30 years ago, but do not have the more recent generic and species revisions / up-dates / abandoned up-dates etc. listed on their labels.

    Naming is not a simple business! Whose naming system is being followed, and what validity any particular one may have (at the present time), needs to be clearly stated! Or course after you have changed all the labels, a new revised hypothesis could be published next year!!!

    http://www.euphorbiaceae.org/pages/project.html

    We are fortunate to have access to a recently revised and comprehensive nomenclator for the entire genus/subtribe, in the World Checklist and Bibliography of Euphorbiaceae by Govaerts et al. (2000). The consolidation of this nomenclator is one of the first priorities in the first year of the project.

    The last complete monograph of Euphorbia was the treatment by Boissier (1862) in de Candolle’s Prodromus, in which 740 species were recognized. Steinmann and Porter (2002) provide a thorough taxonomic history of the genus since then. The bottom line is that a number of clades have been placed inside or outside of Euphorbia at different times (e.g. Chamaescyce, Cubanthus, Endadenium, Monadenium, Pedilanthus, Poinsettia, and Synadenium), and between 9 and 11 subgenera have been recognized at one time or another. Especially in light of the molecular findings of Steinmann and Porter (2002), few of the subgeneric circumscriptions hold up under DNA sequence analysis.

    Different groups of Euphorbia have been monographed at different times, including Pedilanthus (Dressler, 1957), Poinsettia (Mayfield, 1997), Hawaiian Chamaesyce (Koutnik, 1982), Caribbean Chamaesyce (Burch, 1965), mediterranean subsect. Galarrahei (Simon and Vicens, 1999), and section Tithymalopsis (Huft, 1979; Park, 1995). There have been numerous floristic treatments for different regions, but these are generally done outside of any avowed phylogenetic context. Examples are Carter’s 1988 treatment of Euphorbieae for Tropical East Africa, Johnston (1975) for the Chihuahuan desert region, Hargreaves (1987) for Malawi, Airy Shaw (1980) for Borneo, Benedí; et al. (1997) for the Iberian Peninsula, and Vindt (1953) for Morocco. For Madagascar, Haevermans (2003) has produced a checklist of the 170 species known from the island, and he has performed a molecular phylogenetic analysis of subgenus Lacanthis (Haevermans, 2004), which includes the widely cultivated crown-of-thorns, E. milii.



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