Today we introduce type specimens kept in The Ohio State University Herbarium. But first let us briefly introduce the herbarium and what a type specimen of a plant is.
The Ohio State University Herbarium was established in 1891, 21 years after the founding of the university. Since its inception, the vascular plant collections [all seed-bearing plants and ferns], as well as the non-vascular plant collections [mosses and liverworts], have grown rapidly through the efforts of the many plant collectors from Ohio and beyond, and through gifts, exchanges and purchases. The total holdings of vascular plants are estimated at over 550,000 specimens. The collection, having been built up over a period of nearly 126 years, is a state treasure. It continues to be augmented and studied by many experts interested in various groups of plants as well as in some aspects of Ohio vegetation. The herbarium preserves specimens as vouchers to document past and present research studies on vegetation. Such documentation may increase the value of the research study by making it possible for future workers to determine, without any doubt, what plants were used in the original research. An important special case of this is the preservation of specimens of the original plant material that was used to describe and give a name to a new species or sub-specific entity. These are called type specimens and are often simply called “types”. They are specimens on which the naming of plants and plant populations (as variety or subspecies) are based, and in a sense they serve as the key to the name of a plant. In the event of any discrepancy between independent descriptions of a species or any element of it, now or in the past, researchers can go back to the type specimen, and clarify the matter. For this reason, type specimens are among the most valuable entities in any collection, including the OSU herbarium. The effort is to have only a single type specimen for each name associated with a plant or its population, although in the past, that is, before the adoption of the type concept, many specimens were often used to describe and name a particular plant species.
Because of their value, type specimens are given special care by curators of herbaria. Since a while back an active search has been conducted to find and remove type specimens from the OSU collection for storage in a special cabinet (see photo). Currently over 470 sheets representing more than 100 vascular plant taxa have been confirmed as type specimens and photographs of types in our collection. Type specimens along with type photographs are, therefore, treasures of all times. Their preservation and safety is one of the priorities in the herbarium. Type specimens are kept in a separate and special case. This precludes unnecessary handling and permits more adequate inspection for possible harm (e.g. insect infestation). The case containing type specimens is placed on a wheeled cart with a sign “TYPE COLLECTION REMOVE FIRST IN CASE OF FIRE” consequently it’s easy to take it out first or quickly, during an emergency.
A greater and more tragic loss of literally thousands of type specimens resulted from the partial burning of the great herbarium at Berlin, The Federal Republic of Germany, in 1943. Type specimens are not, and should not, be used or handled any more than is necessary. Curators of many herbaria are reluctant to send out type specimens on loan to other botanists or institutions. They insist that researchers must first attempt at establishing identities of their research materials with the help of protologues (all original materials associated with a newly published name, including its description, diagnosis, illustrations, synonyms, studied specimens, etc.), the original species description, and the available electronic images of many types in databases of institutions and herbaria. It is only after these have failed and that the researcher is in dire need of examining particular details of these types, that they are willing to send types on loan. In our previous post, we illustrated how the type specimen of the Ohio Buckeye was brought, not sent by mail, to Ohio from Berlin. Part of the agreement with the Berlin herbarium then was that it will have to be taken from Berlin and sent back to Berlin with a staff member of the department, thus indicating the level of care that the institution placed on its type collections. Today, many of the type specimens kept in The Ohio State University Herbarium are available for viewing online through Global Plants, the world’s largest database of digitized plant specimens. Researchers are encouraged to check this and similar websites first in order to examine a type specimen, be it from Ohio or elsewhere.
We will show you more samples of type specimens and how researchers make these first descriptions on Friday!
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