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The elephant in the room: historians and scientists working together

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The understanding of Earth’s biodiversity depends critically on the accurate identification and nomenclature of species. Many species were described centuries ago, and in a surprising number of cases their nomenclature or type material remain unclear or inconsistent. A prime example is provided by Elephas maximus, one of the most iconic and well-known mammalian species, described and named by Linnaeus (1758) and today designating the Asian elephant. Morphological, ancient DNA (aDNA), and high-throughput ancient proteomic analyses accomplished by scientists at the Natural History Museum, London and the University of Copenhagen demonstrated that a widely discussed syntype specimen of E. maximus, a complete foetus preserved in ethanol, is actually an African elephant, genus Loxodonta. Using my archival analysis of the travel accounts and letters of 17th-century naturalist John Ray, we further discovered that an additional E. maximus syntype, mentioned in a description by John Ray (1693) cited by Linnaeus, has been preserved as an almost complete skeleton at the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence. Having confirmed its identity as an Asian elephant through both morphological and ancient DNA analyses, we designate this specimen as the lectotype of E. maximus, the definitive type example of this species. This paper (recently published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society and the subject of articles in Nature and Huffpost) is a case study of how historians of science and scientists can work together to make discoveries of relevance to both fields.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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