Staff from AMRI’s mammal collection published the first catalogue of mammal type specimens in the Collection since Krefft’s list of 1864.
It is often assumed that Australia's mammal species were all discovered and named long ago, with the possible exception of few small cryptic bats and small mammals. This is not the case and many mammal species await discovery. Type specimens continue to play a key role in this process.
Staff from AMRI’s mammal section have just published the first catalogue of mammal type specimens in the Australian Museum collection since the first list, published in 1864 by Gerard Krefft, the first scientific curator of the AM. Type specimens are pickled or stuffed research specimens of special scientific importance. They are the specimens upon which biologists base descriptions of new species and subspecies. Type specimens are the physical reference to which future researchers can turn if there is any confusion about the definition of what that particular species really is. Biologists who suspect that they have found a new species need to make comparisons with type specimens to ensure that a name for their proposed species has not already been published sometime in the past two centuries. Museums have a primary responsibility to preserve type specimens in perpetuity in research collections across generations of researchers.
During the past five years, we have assembled a catalogue of mammal type specimens in the Australian Museum collection. This enormous task involved detailed, and at times, convoluted detective work because many type specimens from species named more than 50 years ago lay unrecognised in the mammal collection. These particular specimens had been registered and identified to species but their historical connection as types had been lost generations ago. Consequently, we could not rely simply on assembling existing information but had to travel the paths that had become obscured over time. At the start of this project type specimens of 156 species or subspecies were known to be in the mammal collection. These were mainly from Australia, the island of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. We rediscovered types of a further 54 proposed species and subspecies. Most of the latter were named from 1864 to 1890, during a period when modern concepts of the importance of type specimens and the need to adequately label and document them was not fully appreciated. These rediscovered types are significant because for the first time for more than a century, biologists are now able to examine original types that were thought to have been lost. Until now, these lost types could not be included in taxonomic studies and researchers often had to rely on the limited published descriptions of proposed species.
The AM is the oldest museum in Australia and our mammal type specimens mirror much of the history of exploration in the Australian region. The oldest type specimens in the Mammal Collection are two Spectacled Hare-wallabies shot in 1845 on Leichhardt’s Expedition to Port Essington (NT). These were lodged with the AM and sent on loan to John Gould in England for inclusion in his Mammals of Australia. In 1853 Gould used them for his description of Lagorchestes leichardti, now regarded as a subspecies of Lagorchestes conspicillatus. Other notable 19th century types, to mention but a few, are Tachyglossus aculeatus lawsii, a stuffed Echidna sent to the AM by Reverend Lawes in 1877, during the first few years of European settlement of Port Moresby; a giant rat Solomys salamonis from the Solomon Islands named in 1882 by AM curator E. P. Ramsay and type material of several small carnivorous marsupials collected on the 1894 Horn Expedition to central Australia. During the 20th century the majority of types arose from the work of former AM staff Ellis Troughton and Dr Tim Flannery, who named a combined total of over 90 mammal species and subspecies. Our most recent mammal type specimens are of the Tube-nosed Fruit Bat Nyctimene wrightae from New Guinea named by Dr Nancy Irwin in August this year.
Armed with an arsenal of modern molecular and morphometric techniques, biologists are now aware of dozens of species of Australian mammals that need either to be named or that might already have an old name but need to be re-diagnosed and elevated to full species. This includes possums, gliders, bats, bandicoots, wallabies, carnivorous marsupials, native rodents, cetaceans and more. Detailed examination of type specimens of already named species is a key step in sorting out the naming of these new and unrecognised species. It is highly likely that many new mammal species also await discovery in other regions such as the island of New Guinea and the nations of the south-west Pacific. On 27 September this year, a new species of giant rat (Uromys vika) from Solomon Islands was named and announced to the world. That study depended on examining type specimens of giant rats described by past AM researchers from the 1880s to the 1930s.
Much work remains to be done in discovering and naming the mammal species of Australia and adjoining nations and the Australian Museum collections continue to be a focus of that effort. Consequently, type specimens are as relevant to modern science as they were at any time in the past, and will remain so for decades to come.
Harry Parnaby, Research Associate, AMRI
Sandy Ingleby, Mammal Collection Manager, AMRI
Anja Divljan, Mammals Technical Officer, AMRI
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