How It All Began

“As well as a flourishing library, the school by 1909 had a wood collection containing specimens of nearly all of Pennsylvania’s native trees and large shrubs. For each species, cross sections and radial and tangential sections had been prepared to show the gross appearance of the wood. The next step was the preservation of samples in alcohol and glycerin so that sections suitable for microscopic examination could be cut. These latter sections were to be especially useful in the study of timber physics (wood technology)." E.H. Thomas, “A History of the Pennsylvania State Forestry School, 1903 – 1929.” p. 67

Monday, February 20, 2017

Observations on Updating Scientific Names of Older Specimens

Much of the Penn State Xylarium collection is comprised of very old specimens, those collected in the first half of the twentieth century. I am finding, as I go back and confirm the scientific names of the specimens that a surprisingly high percentage of them are not properly identified with current accepted names.

As I correct these names, I get the sense that somewhere between thirty and forty percent of the specimens are mislabeled. The obvious implication of this is that further collection efforts will be mistargeted unless these names are properly corrected to the modern name. It also means that unless the trading partner, or collection from which I make further acquisitions has been similarly updated, then I must be careful to confirm the specimen name prior to acquisition.

I don't think I have a way to quickly tabulate the numbers on the whole collection, but here are a couple examples of how many species names are different than their original designation in the Penn State collection.

Quercus matches my original expectations. Only four of forty-two species, about 10%, in the collection had their names altered in the confirmation process (very slight spelling variations are not included). Those were:

  • Quercus breviloba, confirmed as Quercus sinuate var. breviloba
  • Quercus prinus, confirmed as Quercus michauxii
  • Quercus stellata var. margaretta, confirmed as Quercus margarettae
  • Quercus virginiana var. maritima, confirmed as Quercus hemisphaerica
Similarly, Eucalyptus has about a 10% correction rate; six of the 56 species in the collection had to have their name updated. Four of those were the result of the reclassification of several of the Eucalypts to Corymbia.

However, eight of the fourteen Eugenia in the collection had to be corrected to modern names, and most of those had completely different genus names.

Syzygium cumini (L.) Skeels, one of two specimens in the collection originally labeled as Eugenia jambolana.
I also find that if a specimen is a one-only, that is, the only specimen of a species in the collection, there is about a 50-50 chance that the correct modern name is something different, and most likely a different genus.

Overall, I sense that somewhere between thirty and forty percent of the collection is being renamed as I go through the name verification process. Most of those renames are not to other species in the collection, so the overall number of species in the collection is not shrinking by that much...they are mostly being named to other species that are unique to the collection.

At this point, I've confirmed about 2000 of the 3400 names I've entered into the database.
Another week or so, and then I'll be back to data entry of the identified specimens. This time, I'll verify the names as I enter them into the database. It'll go a little slower, but at least I'll have a running tally of the number of unique species in the collection.

I encourage collection curators to perform the same process on their collections, now that the internet makes it so easy. I wonder if this has been done to the really big collections in the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, and Wisconsin?

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