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Published: January 5, 2015

Holotypes across the Sciences

Stephanie Ware, Manager, Morphology Labs, SEM

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Project Mentor: Dr. Joyce C. Havstad (Philosopher-in-Residence, Integrative Research Center)

Project Description: A holotype, or type specimen, is the official representative of a scientifically documented biological species, living or extinct. For example: the holotype of the species Scymnognathus major (a Permian gorgonopsian, or early mammal-like terrestrial vertebrate, from South Africa) is a fossilized skull which resides in the paleontological collection of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. This skull is the principal voucher specimen for the species S. major: it anchors the scientific name of the species and governs the use of this name.

As is the case for many ancient and now extinct species, paleontologists have had to make do with using an incomplete fossil specimen (just the skull) for the holotype representing this species. In contrast, the holotypes of extant species are usually complete specimens—and sometimes these complete specimens are supplemented with additional materials. For example: it is now common for ornithologists to include blood and tissue samples, audio recording of calls, and flight videos along with an particular type specimen, or holotype, when documenting a new species of bird. But even with newly discovered living species, in some cases it is impossible or unadvisable to collect a specimen to act as the holotype, due to reasons of conservation or preservation, among others.

So, what are the rules for collecting a holotype? What makes for a good holotype, a sufficient one, an insufficient one, or an immoral one? Obviously the answers to these questions will vary with context. Regardless, the goal of this project will be to identify the explicit, and even more importantly, the implicit protocols for collecting and enshrining holotypes across the sciences.

Research methods and techniques: The intern for this project will first learn how (type) specimens are currently collected, prepared and preserved in various sub-fields of paleontology, botany, and zoology. They will also learn how to use archival and other sources at the museum, in order to evaluate how these protocols have evolved over time. Finally, they will develop their analytical and argumentative skills by looking for shared, unifying norms—whether justificatory, methodological, teleological, or otherwise—which govern the development and use of these protocols throughout the range of examined sciences. By the end of the project, the intern will have developed a compelling and systematic account of either the unity or disunity of the standards by which these crucial specimens, the holotypes, represent their biological species.


Stephanie Ware
Manager, Morphology Labs, SEM

Stephanie Ware is currently a research assistant in the Division of Insects currently working with Dr. Petra Sierwald. She also works with Mary Hennen in the Division of Birds monitoring the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) populations in Illinois.