Specimens in the Macleay Collections revealed to be among the first ever collected for science

12 August 2021
Type specimens of 12 mammal species and subspecies identified within the Macleay Collections
A recent paper published by biologists Dr Harry Parnaby and Dr Anthony Gill announces the location of type specimens of 12 mammal species and subspecies within the University of Sydney’s natural history collections.

The Macleay Collections contain a wide variety of natural history specimens, including insects, birds, mammals, fishes, reptiles, amphibians and a range of marine invertebrates, mostly collected during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is therefore one of the most important historic collections of animals in Australia. At the time the specimens were collected, many species were poorly known by Western naturalists, and the discovery of species new to science was commonplace. However, documentation of museum specimens at that time was also poor, often with little information on where they had been collected, or even on whether specimens were of particular scientific or historical significance. Time too has played a role in fragmenting or eroding what little information there was, thanks to the frequent loss of specimen labels and disassociation of specimens from their documentation. 

Old paper tags with calligraphic handwriting

Examples of 19th century MAMU specimen tags from the Macleay Collections. 

After several years of complex detective work, reading barely legible hand-written notes and correspondence, newspaper articles and any documentation they could get their hands on, biologists Dr Harry Parnaby (former Mijlouho-Maclay Fellow, Macleay Museum) and Dr Anthony Gill (Natural History Curator, Chau Chak Wing Museum) have just published a paper in the journal Zootaxa, announcing their findings: the location of type specimens for 12 mammal species and subspecies within the Macleay Collections. The specimens represent species of bandicoots, kangaroos, wallabies, native cats, rats and fruit bats described in the late 19th century by Australian naturalist Edward Pierson Ramsay and Russian naturalist Nikolay Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay.  

So, what is a type specimen?

Type specimens are the original specimens used by scientists to describe and name a new species or subspecies (geographic varieties of a species). The original descriptions often lack adequate details to determine what species the scientist had in hand, and so it is the physical type specimens that serve as the reference point to determine which names go with which species. Sometimes the same species has been incorrectly described as new more than once, particularly in species that vary in form depending on their age or sex. In those cases, the oldest name proposed is given priority over any that were proposed later.  

Two taxidermied tree kangaroos

Syntype skin mounts of Dendrolagus dorianus Ramsay (tree kangaroo), 1883. Left, NHM.376 adult female; right, NHM.377 adult male.

Seven years in the making 

In 2015 Harry Parnaby was awarded the Macleay Miklouho-Maclay Fellowship, an opportunity offering financial support to researchers with a project focussed on the Macleay Collections. Parnaby began his work on creating a type specimen inventory during his Fellowship, conducting an overview of the entire mammal collections, gathering documentation and scanning the collection for possible types.

Parnaby and Gill say this work is vital, not just for their field or for museums, but for conservation work and wider research. 

If biologists and other practitioners can not determine the correct use of a species’ name it can create issues in applications such as conservation legislation, where it is imperative that species are accurately named in order to protect them.
Dr Anthony Gill, Natural History Curator, Chau Chak Wing Museum

Featured image (top of page): Skin mount of NHM.471, Northern Brown Bandicoot, adult male, suspected syntype of Perameles macroura var. torosus Ramsay, 1877a [= Isoodon macrourus torosus]

Related articles