Typical Type Problems

Returning to the theme of Archaeopteryx in its 150th anniversary it seemed a good opportunity to mention type specimens. I’ve generally steered clear of these in the past since I suspect most readers have a general idea of how things work and what types actually are and because I really didn’t want to sink deep into the depths of lectotypes and so on. However, there is a more common problem that Archaeopteryx can illustrate well so let’s crack on with that.

Type specimens in general are given special recognition in taxonomic work – these are if you like the ‘definitive’ specimens: the ones that stand out as being the recognised ‘identity’ of a species. As discussed in the ‘morphological species concept’ post, species can have several different definitions and there are various ways of defining things. In order to make sure everyone is talking about exactly the same thing, type specimens are erected to provide that literal physical basis of identity. Among types, the holotype is the most important. This single specimen is the one and all references to species identification should ultimately come back to the holotype.

For most of biology this is fine. You go out and find a new bird species say, collect some specimens, sort through them and when you describe it you name a holotype and maybe a few paratypes or whatever. You have the luxury of a whole set of specimens to pick through and can make sure your holotype really is typical and complete and contains every bit of information you think in should.

In palaeontology of course you generally don’t get a choice. Even if you are lucky enough to discover multiple specimens when finding something destined to be a new species, it’s unlikely that you’ll get a single and nice complete adult animal in good condition. Holotypes are almost inevitably incomplete, or crushed, or have key parts not clearly visible or who knows what and of course some are really based on very little material indeed – as little as a single bone. There’s nothing wrong with this really since if that’s all you have, that’s all you have. You can’t assume you’ll ever find another specimen of the same species (and that may not be any better than what you have already) so you have to go with what’s there and if it’s distinct and diagnosable then it should be named.

However, things can be distinct and diagnosable at the time and later loose that title as new discoveries show that what had appeared to be unique turn out to be common. On occasion though things can be pretty much undiagnostic to begin with. Enter Archaeopteryx stage left.

When it was first named, Archaeopteryx was just a feather (photo here on Pick and Scalpel). For all the famous specimens that attract all the attention, the original name was erected for a single bit of integument. Now arguably this was diagnostic in that there were no such things as Mesozoic birds at the time. I’m inclined to disagree with this since a separation of time and space is helpful to help separate out species, but hardly concrete evidence of genuine difference. In any case the rapid discovery of ‘real’ specimens of Archaeopteryx, and other birds, means that the feather is undiagnostic. There’s not really anything there that can be genuinely shown to be different to any other fossil feathers, or indeed those of many living birds. As a side problem, not only is the feather not diagnostic, but it’s also the holotype specimen.

That actually means that in theory at least, we don’t know what Archaeopteryx is. Or to be more specific, we don’t have an official holotype that is diagnostic. In practice of course we have important and complete specimens like those of London and Berlin that everyone accepts are members of this species and are distinct and diagnostic, so while this does need to be sorted out (and indeed the wheels are very much in motion on this) it’s not a huge problem. But it does provide an obvious illustration of these problems. I doubt there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t have a good mental image of what Archy really is, but I doubt that is just a single small feather, though technically, it should be.

My thanks to Paul Barrett for some info and fact checking on the status of the feather as holotype, Paul is part of the petition to get the London specimen designated as the new holotype.

9 Responses to “Typical Type Problems”

  1. 1 Mike Taylor 16/02/2011 at 12:31 pm

    (I know Dave knows this, but) the same is true of Cetiosaurus, which was originally named in such a messy way that it wasn’t even clear what the type species was. This was originally laid out by Upchurch and Martin (2003), and much of the relevant detail is in the ICZN petition (Upchurch et al. 2009) which you can read, if you are a masochist, at http://www.miketaylor.org.uk/dino/pubs/upchurch-et-al-2009/UpchurchEtAl2009-BZN-case-3472-cetiosaurus-type-species-oxoniensis.pdf

    • 2 David Hone 16/02/2011 at 1:28 pm

      I was going to mention that and Titanosaurus too, but given the whole 150 thing decided to stick to Archaeo. alone. I’m sure there’s lots more examples and certainly the ongoing issues over some of the ornithocheirid pterosaurs are giving various people headaches.

  2. 3 Heinrich Mallison 16/02/2011 at 11:01 pm

    Bah, London! You still revel in the glory of the British Empire, hu?

    If any spezimen ist ze new typ, it muzt be a German one, jawoll!


    More seriously: as you point out it is very important which specimen is the holotype (or lectotype) – especially if the material is incomplete. A nice case in point is my old favorite Kentrosaurus. The “choice” (there isn’t one, if one reads German, but too few researchers worldwide do so) was between two dorsals on one hand, and a nearly complete tail with a sacrum, two ilia, a bunch of dorsals, a femur and an ulna on the other hand. Luckily, the truth is with the partial skeleton, not the isolated dorsals, which means that Kentrosaurus as a taxon has become decidedly more stable, as the tail and sacrum add a bunch of unique characters.

    shameless self plug:

    • 4 David Hone 16/02/2011 at 11:22 pm

      Actually I’d be inclined to agree with the Berlin over London specimens (despite the fact that Paul will almost certainly read this) because I think it is a better specimen and has much greater public recognition. However, against that, London does have a historical prescedent and the Berlin one is very fragile and vulnerable to breakage, plus of course had that nasty leg-feather removal issue.

      I can see a case for both sides and depending on quite what you favour for the characteristics in a holotype, either is good choice.

      And nothing wrong with the odd shameless plug when accompanied with useful discussion. Cheers for that!

      • 5 Matt Martyniuk 17/02/2011 at 12:22 am

        The Berlin specimen also has the added complication that it’s occasionally considered to be a different species than the London specimen (i.e. it’s already the type specimen of Archaeopteryx siemensii).

      • 6 David Hone 17/02/2011 at 8:13 am

        That’s true of pretty much every specimen though isn’t it? I think all of them (or at least those that have been repeatedly discussed) have been assigned to new species or genera at some point, but now pretty much everyone seems to agree that this was rampant over splitting. Still, it is an issue.

  3. 7 Mark Robinson 17/02/2011 at 10:11 am

    “… as little as a single bone.”

    Or, in the case of Antrodemus, half a bone!

  1. 1 Taxonomy never stops « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 27/02/2011 at 4:49 am
  2. 2 The London Archaeopteryx « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 18/03/2011 at 6:23 am
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