So, I have been back for almost a month and only now have had a chance to settle in. Field work is fantastic, but sometimes re-entry can be a bit of a challenge! But it is great to be back and in the collection again – lots of ideas from being out in the forest that need checking in the herbarium – I spent a good few days just re-identifying things and generally tidying up the Brazilian Solanum collections.
Just after I returned, an interview I did for the Global Plants project (where I am a member of the current Steering Committee) was posted on their website. I felt quite nostalgic for summer as it poured with rain in the London winter – it was HOT in New York City when we were filming!
The Global Plants project began as the African Plants Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose objective was to provide African botanists with access to images of type specimens of plants from Africa. The project expanded over the years (you can read the history on the Global Plants website) and with generous funding from the Mellon Foundation and logistical support from JSTOR has become one of the indispensable resources for botanists worldwide.
The Museum has been participating in the project since the early years, and our type specimens are scanned to become part of the Global Plants resource. When I began as a botanist in the 1980s, to see a type specimen you either had to borrow it (but they often weren’t available on loan for security reasons) or travel to many different collections to see the real things.
The importance of type specimens
Type specimens are critical for scientists like me – they are the specimens to which names are tied. They are usually not typical (one of those funny English words that gives the wrong impression), but instead are used to determine what name to apply to a particular species concept.
Imagine you have a stack of specimens – you sort them into piles, those are the species, then figure out into which pile each type specimen goes. Then, to figure out what species name each pile should be called by, the type specimen of the first published name takes priority, the rest are synonyms. So – if the types specimens for Solanum corumbense (described in 1895) and Solanum tumescens (described in 1986) fall in the same pile – Solanum corumbense is the correct name for the species and Solanum tumescens becomes a synonym.
To be able to compare type specimens online at the click of a button has truly changed the way in which we do our science – I cannot know imagine life without a resource like Global Plants!! Thank you, Mellon Foundation... I can even check types in the field (so maybe next time I needn't come back at all!! - although I'd miss South Kensington...)