Saturday, November 23, 2013

Linnaeus' lapse

Clearly it’s got protein, because the damn thing still exists,” says evolutionary geneticist Tom Gilbert of the University of Copenhagen, referring to the 300-year-old fetal elephant specimen in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, Sweden (IMAGE ABOVE). Gilbert had been frustrated 7 years ago when he was unable to analyze the specimen using the school's state-of-the-art DNA sequencing machine because it was too degraded. He and his colleague Enrico Cappellini have now had success using the emerging technology of ancient proteomics and concluded that the fetus is that of an African elephant (now called Loxodonta africana), not, as assumed and labeled, an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). The surprising thing is that the specimen had been identified by the father of modern taxonomy, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus himself. He had arrived at the palace shortly after the king had received the withered curiosity as a gift in 1752. Linnaeus had added a description of the fetus to his “Systema Naturae” and it had become a “type specimen” on which all subsequent descriptions of the species were based. "Later zoologists identified it as an Asian elephant, and since then the fetus has stood as a cornerstone of that species’ taxonomy," writes the New York Times. The scientists have now designated the skeleton of an Asian elephant kept at the University of Florence since the 17th c. as the new type specimen, and the bottled Swedish elephant fetus "has been demoted to a mere historical oddity."


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