Linnaeus’ Asian elephant – or not?

Very recently, an article from the Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society was released regarding the mix-up of Linnaeus’ identification of the species Elephas maximus, or the Asian elephant. In 1764 Linnaeus documented a preserved elephant fetus (which is held today at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm) as E. maximus in his studies. He believed it to have originated in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and this was long established as the so-called ‘type’ specimen of the species. Since Linnaeus never distinguished between Asian and African elephants, the true identity of the fetus has been in question and many suspected it to resemble the African species. Cappellini et al. decided to put the issue to rest and conducted ancient protein and DNA sequencing analysis to determine the true identity of the elephant fetus syntype. It just so happens that the fetus is in fact of the African elephant, in the genus Loxodonta.

An illustration of the elephant fetus from the Swedish Museum of Natural History referred to by Linnaeus

An illustration of the elephant fetus from the Swedish Museum of Natural History referred to by Linnaeus

This created quite a quandry because a new type specimen would have to be designated for reference, and according to the taxonomists’ rules, it could not be any arbitrary individual but preferably one that Linneaus had listed in his notes. At first it appeared a tooth fragment might be next possible canditate, which seemed rather unsatisfying since it was not an intact animal.  But luckily, Linnaeus had also cited a text by John Ray in which he describes the skeleton of an elephant. Apparently this skeleton, which had belonged to a touring performing elephant, is still intact at the Natural History Museum of Florence and was also thought to have originated from Sri Lanka. After analyzing the elephant skeleton’s DNA, Cappellini et al. were able to determine that the elephant was indeed the very specimen referred to in Linnaeus’ notes. E. maximus!

The E. maximus skeleton at the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence,

The E. maximus skeleton at the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence, the new type specimen if approved by the society.

Interested in learning more details on the Cappellini et al. article? Go here: http://www.nature.com/news/linnaeus-s-asian-elephant-was-wrong-species-1.14063

ResearchBlogging.org
Cappellini, E, A Gentry, E Palkopoulou, Y Ishida, D Cram, A Roos, M Watson,, US Johansson, B Fernholm, P Agnelli, F Barbagli, DTJ Littlewood, CD Kelstrup, JV Olsen, AM Lister, AL Roca, L Dalen, & MTP Gilbert (2013). Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae) Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society, 1-10 DOI: 10.1111/zoj.12084

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