November 2013: Asian elephant lost and found

Published on 4th November 2013

Type specimen of Asian elephant lost and found

Asian Elephant

In 1758 Carl Linnaeus published Systema Naturae, in which he named all of life as he knew it. Over 250 years his binomial system , has enabled universal communication about nature. Linnaeus’ descriptions of specimens have been proved correct more often than not, but questions hover over some of the species he classified, including the Asian elephant. In the Systema Naturae Linnaeus described the well-known mammalian species, Elephas maximus, the Asian Elephant. He used two elephant reference examples: a pickled foetus from the collection of Linnaeus’ contemporary Albertus Seba and a Latin description by the British naturalist John Ray. Linnaeus recognized just one species of elephant in the world, and this would be its archetype, he listed the elephant’s origin, as Sri Lanka. Seba’s elephant became known as the Asian elephant type specimen, which scientists have used ever since as the baseline reference for identifying this endangered species.

In a paper published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society in November 2013, a team of scientists have revealed that this type specimen used to describe the Elephas maximus is actually an African Elephant, using anatomical observation with the latest analysis of ancient protein and DNA. 
'Linnaeus did not distinguish between Asian and African elephants when he wrote his seminal work in the eighteenth century,’ said Dr Tom Gilbert of the Natural History Museum in Denmark, senior author of the study. ‘We combined genetics and proteomics to show that Seba's elephant, which had been thought of as the best surviving type specimen for the Asian elephant, is actually a completely different species: the African elephant. This then left us with the question of what and where is the Asian elephant type specimen?’

Left without a type specimen for the Asian Elephant, the team set to work on the elephant skeleton on show in the Natural History Museum in Florence which was seen by John Ray when he visited the city in 1664. Anatomical and DNA studies confirmed this as the one he described in Latin. Further testing on the bones and teeth of the Florence skeleton has identified it as an Asian elephant.

Enrico Cappellini, lead author of the study, from the Natural History Museum of Denmark comments, ‘We also analysed the mitochondrial DNA from a fragment of thigh bone of the elephant in Florence, so can confidently call it the type specimen for the Asian elephant species Elephas maximus. This is the foundation for all future work on its biology and conservation.’
The multi-skilled research team included scientists from Natural History Museums in London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Florence, and the Universities of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Edinburgh, as well as science historians from the Universities of Oxford and Lincoln.

On the 1st May 2014 the Linnean Society of London will welcome two contributors from the team, Dr Tom Gilbert of the Natural History Museum in Denmark & Professor Adrian Lister, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London for an evening lecture ‘Type specimen of Asian elephant lost and found’. Keep an eye on our website for more information about this event.

For the full article, please visit the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Image right: © Shutterstock, Jear