According to Type

Tucked away in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s Entomology (insect) department, are a series of mysterious looking cabinets, all labelled with a yellow circle with” PR (Priority Rescue)” on them. But why? What does this mean? What is in these Cabinets?

Priority rescue is referring to the fact that in case of a fire, or other emergency that could cause damage to items within the museum, these cabinets are to be rescued first, before other items. But they aren’t filled with expensive technology, or millions of pounds of precious gems. They contain something totally irreplaceable and priceless: type specimens.

What are Type Specimens?

When it comes to Taxonomy, type specimens have a really important role. Taxonomy is the process of naming, describing and organising living things. It involves choosing names for organisms based on the features they share with other organisms.

For example Bombus subterraneus and Bombus terrestris have the same genus name “Bombus” but have difference species names “subterraneus” and “terrestris”. This means that they are closely related and have similar features, they are still different species. Can you spot some differences?

Short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus ©OUMNH
Buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris ©OUMNH

When a taxonomist names a new species, they will designate a particular specimen the “type specimen”. A type specimen is the physical example of a particular species that all other specimens of that species are compared to.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has over 5 million insect specimens. Around 20,000 of these are type specimens, the first specimen of a species to be described and named.

Type specimen for Dixeia pigea erubescens © Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Type specimen for Sangala beata © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Just to make things more complicated there are some different types of type specimen. Here are just a couple of examples that we have come across:

Holotype: a single physical example of a species, used to describe that species.

Syntype: a series of specimens of a species, used together to describe that species.

Paratype: additional specimen or specimens used, alongside a holotype, to help describe a species.

Iconotype: a drawing of a specimen that is used to describe that species, and serves as the type specimen. At the museum we have a book, William Jones’ Icones. It contains many species of butterflies and moths that are described for the first time and are classed as iconotypes.

By why is it important to have designated type specimens? What do you think? How might they be used? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or using the Contact us page. Also, it can be quite a confusing concept, so please do ask us any questions.

Insect Fun in the Museum – Saturday 12th March

Super Science Saturday: Fantastic Minibeasts

OUMNH Super Science Saturday by IWPhotographic

Drop in to the museum for this fun family Science Fair on Saturday 12th March, 12-4pm. Meet experts to find out more about tiny creatures like insects, spiders and more!

No need to book – just come along and, whilst you are in the museum, why not join us for our Insect Show: Insects: Beasties or Besties.

Insects: Beasties or Besties Family Science Show

Saturday 12th March, 1pm and 2.30pm

Ages 6+

Come along to our fun and interactive family show all about insects. You’ll meet a visitor to the museum, with a dislike of insects, who is confronted by a giant talking dung beetle! The unlikely pair take a journey, looking at the wonderful, and vitally important, role of insects in our world.

Please note that the show will be held in the Museum’s Lecture Theatre which has a capacity of 195 seats and social distancing will not be in place. Visitors are encouraged to wear a face mask for the duration of the show and hand sanitiser will be available when you enter/exit. 

The show is FREE but please book online.

Book your place at our FREE Event this half term!

Are you aged 10 – 14? Then join us for a FREE Crunchy on the Outside event here at the museum this half term.

Insects Under the Lens

Wednesday 23rd February 2022, 1 – 3pm

Take a closer look at some of the museum’s 5 million insect specimens under a variety of different lenses. We will be using microscopes and digital photography to reveal beautiful details of insect anatomy not visible to the naked eye.  This workshop promises to unlock some of the secrets of the insect world and develop your powers of observation!

Here are all the details you need:

WHAT: FREE workshop – Insects Under the Lens 

WHEN: Wednesday 23rd February 2022 , 1pm to 3pm

WHERE: Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW

WHO: 10 to 14 year olds

To book, email: hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk

Treasures from the Museum Library and Archive

Maria Sibylla Merian’s Insects of Surinam

The Library here at the Museum of Natural History is lucky enough to hold a copy of Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Insects of Surinam). This large and stunningly beautiful book by the German artist, scientist and adventurer, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), was published in 1705.  Trained as a professional artist, Maria studied insects and observed their metamorphosis from an early age. She could be described as one of the earliest entomologists. 

A woman truly ahead of her time, at the age of 52 she travelled with her daughter to the newly-founded South American colony of Surinam to study insects.  Maria carefully recorded what she found in the most fantastically detailed drawings and paintings which were later published in the form of a book. 

The illustrations show insects in all stages of their life cycles, increasing knowledge of metamorphosis at the time.  By showing insects in their natural settings and on their preferred vegetation, she also highlighted the relationship between insects, plants and other animals.  Not only are the illustrations beautiful but they are also very accurate and detailed enabling them to act as the basis for the naming and identification of a number of species. 

“Maria Sibylla Merian must have been an incredible woman to undertake such a journey in 1699 without patronage or being accompanied by a man.  Once in Surinam, she also had to withstand the conditions of a newly-formed colony, which must have been very basic.  She is definitely a figure to be admired as a pioneering role model for women

and I love showcasing her work.”

Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist, Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History

Treasures from the Museum Library and Archive

William Jones’ Icones

Icones is the work of 18th-century wealthy wine merchant and entomologist William Jones (1745–1818). It is one of the most scientifically important and stunning works on butterflies and moths ever produced.  In it, Jones carefully painted over 760 species, describing many for the first time.  What makes this book even more special is that it was never published and the copy held in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History archive is the original and only copy.   

Two of the hundreds of butterfly and moth species carefully recorded in Icones.

Volume I, William Jones’ Icones

Completed between the 1780 and 1810, Icones is now bound in six leather volumes. Using his own Lepidoptera collection and the collections of other naturalists, Jones create the book at a time when collecting natural history specimens from newly discovered parts of the world was a fashionable pastime among the wealthy.  Many of the species are described for the first time in this work and are classed as Iconotypes.  This means that the illustrations act as type specimens against which all other specimens of that species are compared for the purposes of identification.

Click to find out more about this unique work and to see more of William Jones’ incredible illustrations.

Events 4U in ’22!

Happy New Year!  We hope 2022 is full of exciting times and awesome insect discoveries. We are SO excited because this year, we are inviting you to join us for FREE Crunchy on the Outside events here at the museum. Come and take part in some fabulous activities specially designed for young people, aged 10 – 14, interested in natural history and insects in particular. Keep an eye on this blog for news of forthcoming events.

Read on to find out more about the first event happening in February half term and how to book!

Acorn Weevil – Curculio glandium

Insects under the Lens – Wednesday 23rd February 2022, 1 – 3pm

Intrigued by insects? Join us to take a closer look at some of the museum’s 5 million insect specimens under a variety of different lenses. We will be using microscopes and digital photography to reveal beautiful details of insect anatomy not visible to the naked eye.  This workshop promises to unlock some of the secrets of the insect world and develop your powers of observation!

Six-belted Clearwing Moth under the microscope

FREE workshop – Insects under the Lens 

Wednesday 23rd February 2022 , 1pm to 3pm

Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW

10 to 14 year olds

To book – email: hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk