Saturday, 11 November 2017

Taxonomy, Type Specimens and Art

This article first written in 2012, but as relevant today as it was then....
A fascinating article in the UoN "Making Science Public" blog discusses the role of samples in botany. Written by Maura C. Flannery, Professor of Biology at St. John’s University, NY, the article was a genuine revelation for a non-specialist like NSB.

Durian (Durio zibethinus), Anonymous Chinese artist, ~1820.

Accessing botanical samples
Apparently, for each species of plant that has ever been identified, there is a "type" example that is the definitive example of that species, often collected by the scientist who first catalogued the plant. These "type" examples are kept as pressed specimens attached to paper and stored in "herbaria".

Botanists who are researching the taxonomy (classification) of plants often need to access these type specimens in order to check or examine some point of their structure.

And, for researchers in the developing world, this is where the problems start . . .

... because as a linked article explains, for the Rubiaceae (coffee plant) family, some 430 type specimens (over 95%) of catalogued species are stored in European herbaria (312 in the UK, 127 in Portugal, 99 in Franceand 70 in Belgium). There are only 50 type specimens in African herbaria, all duplicates of "definitive" type sample stored in Europe.

This relative lack of specimens in Africa means that researchers have to travel to Europe just to study speciments - which represents a significant economic burden on botancial departments that are already economically disadvantaged.

Grape Variety (Muscat Hamburgh) Goethe and Lauche, 1895

There are projects (such as the African Plants Initiative) underway to digitally photograph these European herbaria, but the paper suggests that photographs cannot replace phyical examination of actual specimens and points out that if they could then perhaps the photograhps could stay in Europe and the actual speciments returned to Africa.

But returning speciments to Africa has its own issues as they would need to be suitably housed, curated and maintained - again a costly excercise for developing African countries.

Photos versus pictures Another topic covered in the UoN article is that of the role of drawings to supplement the type samples and how drawings can be more useful because the artist is able to filter out some of the extraneous or irrelevant detail to focus on the the important structures of the plant. Indeed, for flora such as fungi, which cannot be dried without drastically changing their appearance, drawings are the key identifying tool.

Arabic translation of Dioscorides "De Materia Medica" c.1200

Other Comments
Whilst digging around on the Interweb to prepare this post, NSB stumbled upon some other interesting related resources.

One is the The Glass Flowers Collection Harvard University which contains over 3000 painstakingly made glass models of various plants. They really are an incredible example of craftsmanship.

Wikipedia has an awesome, gorgeously illustrated, list of Botanical Codices (NSB notes that it much much easier to look at and browse some of these illustrations at Wikipedia than at any of the Universities that are so lavishly funded with taxpayers money.)

Image Sources
Durian, Grapes, Arabic Translation

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