Type-specimens of birds as sources for the history of ornithology

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Publication Date


Publication Title

Journal of the History of Collections


Science, Technology and Society


For more than a century, scientific describers of new species of animals and plants have designated the specimens upon which descriptions are based as type-specimens. These specimens are particularly valued by museums as tools to stabilize nomenclature. They can also be used as historical objects, providing interesting information for the historian of natural history. To illustrate this, the data contained in the labels on the type-specimens of birds in the Natural History Museum, London, is here used to highlight various points in the history of ornithology in Britain. The different categories of type-specimen labels illustrate the acquisition of specimens, the importance of new species descriptions and the role new species played in the development of ornithology. Type-specimens and their labels also reveal information on the development of descriptive natural history and publications, the network of describers and collectors and the character of collecting in different regions of the world.