Examining name-bearers at the USNM


I’m at the Smithsonian Institution for the next three days, working in the United States Museum of Natural History (the “USNM”).  My main goal is to look at type specimens, especially Casey types, so that I can figure out what to call some of the species we are recognizing from the morphological and molecular work we are doing.  I thought it would be interesting to do a bit of a diary while I am here, reporting on what I find as I find it.  Because Internet access here requires me to leave the area with the microscopes, I’ll do updates only on occasion, rather than “live”.

Here’s the cabinet with Casey types:


And here is one of the drawers:


For those who are unfamiliar with the concepts of type specimens, here’s how it works.   When someone discovers what they think is a new species, and publishes an article to give it a name, they designate a “type specimen” that is the “name bearer”.  If someone ever wants to see a specimen that goes by that name, that’s the specimen they would have to look at.  There are different sorts of type specimens; a species discovered in 2013 would have a “holotype” as its name bearers, in general; for many of the older names there are different sorts of types (for reasons I needn’t get into here) such as lectotypes and neotypes.  Holotypes, lectotypes, and neotypes are all the name bearers for their names; as such they are called “primary types”.

 For example, when I described Bembidion louisella in 2008, I designated one specimen, a male collected in 2002 on the North Aspy River in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, as the holotype.  That holotype specimen now resides in the Canadian National Collection in Ottawa.   If anyone ever wants to see an “authentic” Bembidion louisella, that’s the specimen.

When we go about the processing of figuring out the species in a group of organisms, here’s how we proceed.  The first thing is not to look at the primary types; in fact, that is often the last thing we do.  The first thing is to gather specimens of the groups, gather data by looking at their structures under the microscope, sequencing their DNA, etc.  From this we formulate an hypothesis about how many species there are, how to tell them apart, where they live, etc.   We refine those hypotheses until we are as confident as we can be.  We might have tentative names for these species (e.g., the well-worn A, B, and C), but we don’t yet know what to call them formally.

We then gather all the name bearers for the group – that is, the primary type specimens, and see to which species they belong.  We sort the primary types into their species, and see where they fall.  Let’s imagine that species A contains two primary types, each for a different name, and species B contains one primary type, and species C contains no primary types.   The official name for species A will be whichever of those two names associated with its two primary types is older, the official name for species B will be whatever the name is associated with its primary type, and species C will be an undescribed species that will need to be named.  I actually don’t use A, B, C as my temporary names in general; I tend to use the formal Latin names that I think they will eventually be called, if there are such names available, and code names for others, with the full expectation that I might discover I am wrong once I look at the primary types.

There’s more complexity to it than that, of course, and I will write a post sometime that goes into more detail, and makes it all a bit clearer, but for now:  I am here at the USNM, looking at types of names created by Thomas Lincoln Casey, to see if they belong to any of the species I now recognize from our work.  This is really too early to do this, as I don’t understand the species boundaries yet, but I wanted to have a good idea about how many undescribed species we might be dealing with, so that we can plan to get future type series if needed, and to get a dry run of doing this at the USNM so we come prepared when we do it for “real” in a couple of years.  Also, I wanted to see if this history material suggests collecting localities for us to visit over the next two field seasons.

OK, here’s what I am finding as I find it, more or less.  I won’t explain much here, as I do it, as I don’t want to take too much of my precious time here to do that.  I will write up posts later with more details.  And I won’t write everything down; I will probably be learning so many things over the next three days that I can’t communicate them all quickly enough.  But I will write down some of the highlights.

27 Oct 2013

12:30 pm: The  B. placeranum Casey type is not a breve group!  I thought it was based upon some pictures I saw of it, but it is clearly not.  It looks as if it likely is a synonym of B. complanulum, but I haven’t looked at it too closely yet.

1:30 pm: I’m now looking at the types in the B. curtulatum group.  In an earlier post I posited that B. flebile might be the name for the B. curtulatum group species in the Bay Area of California.  Here’s the type series of B. flebile Casey 1918:


Only one of these is the primary type (the actual name-bearer, in this case a lectotype), as there can be only one; the other seven are specimens that Casey looked at when he described the species in 1918 (that’s why the whole set is called the “type series”).  The primary type is female on the far left.

This type series is mixed.  Six of the specimens belong to the normal form of B. curtulatum group, with moderately transverse microsculpture; the other two (the ones on the far right) belong to the Bay Area species with iridescent elytra and extremely transverse microsculpture, without meshes.  Given this these are from western California, and only two species are known from there (the ones whose code names are “standard curtulatum” and “Bay Area”), then the two species in this type series are probably exactly those.

The primary type is one with moderately transverse microsculpture, therefore the name B. flebile is NOT the name for the Bay Area species.  B. flebile is thus probably a synonym of B. curtulatum.  I’ll look at the other name-bearers within the B. curtulatum group, but it may be that the Bay Area species contains no primary type specimen, which would mean that it is undescribed and needs a name.

2:24 pm:   None of the primary types any of the other names in the B. curtulatum group have the microsculpture characteristic of the Bay Area species – looks as if the Bay Area species is without a name.

3:17 pm: I’ve been looking at Lionepha types.  It looks as if the three names in Lionepha that are now considered junior synonyms of the Lionepha erasa have primary types that all belong to the same species as the primary type of L. erasa.  This was important as I had wondered if the two names whose types are from California, L. lasciva Casey and L. lubrica Casey, might actually fall in the same species as the specimens I reported on earlier from Bishop Creek, CA, and thus one of those might be the name of that species.  As that doesn’t appear to be the case, the Bishop Creek species is almost certainly unnamed.   I have a name in mind for it already…

5:05 pm: I just looked at the Casey types for the subgenus Trechonepha.  It turns out that this subgenus has at least three species.  There are two species hiding under what is currently called Bembidion iridescens; I call these two species “Bembidion iridescens” (because I think the type specimen of Bembidion iridescens LeConte, described in 1852, belongs in this species) and “Bembidion sp. nr. iridescens“.  Austin Baker and I are working on this little group of Bembidion.  One of the questions we have is:  does “Bembidion sp. nr. iridescens” have a name?  If so, what is it?  The answer (as I now know) is yes, that species already has a name.  Of the six Casey names whose primary types belong to what used to be called Bembidion iridescens, three of them (B. fabrum, B. obliviosum, and B. repens) all belong to “Bembidion sp. nr. iridescens“; the remainder (B. volatile, B. impium, and B. deceptor) all belong to Bembidion iridescens.   We may have to choose between the three names that could be applied to “Bembidion sp. nr. iridescens“; because all of those were described in the same paper in 1918, it is up to us to make a decision about which should be used.  I say we “may” have to choose, because we may not, as the choice may be made for us: there is an older name, Bembidion parallelocolle Motschulsky 1859 whose type is still to be examined.  If it belongs to  “Bembidion sp. nr. iridescens“, then the name of that species will be B. parallelecolle Motsch, otherwise we will have to choose among the three Casey names.  B. repens is not a good choice, as its type is a very teneral specimen, which is not ideal.  And B. obliviosum is just so negative.  I think “fabrum“, which means “skillful”, is the best choice, but I’ll have to talk with Austin about it first.

OK, that’s it for today.  More tomorrow.

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One Response to Examining name-bearers at the USNM

  1. Pingback: Return of the Taxa | The Subulate Palpomere

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