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Thursday 21 January 2016

The labelling of labels: a rant

A lovely headline in the Telegraph caught my eye. It said: 

Half of world's museum specimens are wrongly labelled

Sadly, it's not quite true - but it's still an interesting story.

Imagine you've found a weed. You've no idea what it is, so you take it back to the museum. No one in the museum knows what it is, either, so it's filed under...well, dunno what this is won't be a lot of help, so it's filed under the name of the thing's genus, or its family; or perhaps, if there's a real expert present, then he or she might decide the specimen is new to science and give it a completely new name.

The next day, in another museum, another expert might also give the same species a new name - though of course the chances are that it won't be the same as the one given to the first specimen.

On top of all these problems with naming the weed correctly you may have trouble reading the finder's handwriting, be pushed for time (75% of all species have been discovered since 1969), and you'll inevitably have difficulties because research is moving so fast that no one can keep tabs on all of it. 

Is it any surprise that perhaps half the specimens of plants and insects in collections (forty collections in twenty countries were looked at for this study, though most of those specimens weren't actually on display) have labels that are wrong, incomplete, or out-of-date?

Looking at the Ipomoea family of plants, for instance, it seems that 16% of the labels were wrong, 11% were incomplete, and 40% were out of date.

This is, obviously, not an ideal state of affairs: so what can be done?

Well, Robert Scotland's team at the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University, together with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh, have suggested filing all specimens digitally according to their DNA.

And, you know what? That system might work very well indeed.

It wouldn't be as much fun as calling a horsefly Scaptia beyonce because it has a large golden bottom, though, would it?

Word To Use Today: museum. This word comes from the Greek Mouseion, which means home of the Muses.

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