Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cryptozoology

This isn't really a post about cryptozoology. That will have to wait for another day, when I will hold forth at length about all the things that irritate me about cryptozoology and cryptozoologists. I was moved to write this because I got an email via ACUMG-L, which lest you wonder is the listserve for the Association of College & University Museum & Art Galleries. It was called "Saving Museums: From the Cryptozoologists" which struck me as an odd title because the two blog posts in question (which you can read here and here), taken from "Still on the Track: The Voice of the International Crypto Community" were actually rather good. They were both on the theme of why people need to realize that natural history collections are important.

OK, the tone was a little rabble-rousing for my tastes and I was greatly amused to hear cryptozoologists trumpeting the merits of actual specimens and data - things that most cryptozoologists tend to avoid if possible. But their heart was in the right place and so I was surprised that the listserve post described this as a case of saving museums from cryptozoologists. Then I realized that I had read the title wrong and it was a message from the cryptozoologists about saving museum collections. Duh!

However, it did make me go and read the paper by Kris Helgen and colleagues that was cited in the first of the CZ blog posts. I first met Kris back in 1998 when I had just moved to the States. At the time, he was an undergraduate volunteer in the mammal collections at the Harvard MCZ. He was extremely keen about pursuing a career as a mammal taxonomist, an ambition that I regarded with great skepticism. Now ten years on he is a curator at the Smithsonian and I have to be very polite in this blog because I will probably end up working for him one day. This, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with my opinion that his paper on Samoan fruit bats is an excellent piece of work, or my urging you to go and download it here and read it immediately.

Reading through the paper, I noticed that Kris and his coworkers had been unable to track down the type specimen on Pteropus whitmeei, a species of Samoan fruitbat described by Alston (1874) from a specimen collected on Samoa by the Reverend S.J. Whitmee. Alston's paper notes that the specimen was in the personal collection of "the Reverend Canon Tristram." This, of course, is why we collection wonks are extremely reluctant to describe type specimens in private collections; 135 years later we have no idea who the Venerable Tristram was, or where his blessed collection went, leaving Kris and his colleagues with a nasty loose end in their otherwise exemplary taxonomic account.

Except in this case, I know where this specimen is. It's in the Zoological Collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I'm quite familiar with it because I worked on it once. They have it databased under the wrong name, the collector's name is spelled wrong, and there's no record in the database that it's a type, but I'm pretty sure that it's this one. Or possibly this one. Which is actually two specimens under one catalog number.

This is an object lesson in how things in museums get lost. It doesn't matter that the specimen was described as a type, because no catalog number was recorded in the description, it was in a private collection, and the museum that eventually acquired it decided that it wasn't worth recording a taxonomic name that had lapsed into synonymy in their on-line database. But, of course, the day was saved by someone with personal knowledge of the collection, which gives the lie to all those earlier posts of mine in which I've disparaged cantakerous old timers with over-valued encylopedic knowledge of their collections. People like me, it now seems.

Of course, I immediately fired off an email to Kris, trying not to sound smug. Afterwards I wondered if this was really the right thing to do. Perhaps ignorance would have been better. After all, I wouldn't want to make him mad.

Did I mention that it's a very, very good paper?

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