Washington: Researchers have revealed that a 300-year-old type specimen for Asian elephants is actually an African elephant.
In the study led by Enrico Cappellini and Thomas Gilbert in Denmark, researchers have established a new specimen to represent the species, which is likely the remains of Hansken, the famous performing elephant from the 1600s.
Whenever a new species is discovered, under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, it is given a scientific name using binomial nomenclature and a "type" specimen is preserved, usually in a museum or research collection, so that other researchers can refer to it for physical details about the species.
"The type specimen is considered to be the representative for the entire species," Alfred Roca, a professor of animal sciences and member of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, who led Illinois`s efforts in the study, said.
As the father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus solidified binomial nomenclature as the universal naming system and introduced a hierarchical scientific classification system where every organism is placed in a kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species based on defining characteristics.
Thus, Linnaeus had the first opportunity to name more than 10,000 plants and animals, including elephants.
"Linnaeus didn`t distinguish between African and Asian elephants," Roca said. "He just named the elephant."
In 1758, Linneaus named elephants Elephas maximus in his definitive work, Edition 10 of the Systema Naturae.
In his description, he cited several "syntypes" or examples of elephant specimens in Europe, including an elephant fetus as well as a skeleton described by John Ray, the famous 17th century naturalist.
Later, African elephants were separated into the genus Loxodonta designating two African species, the African bush elephant (L. africana) and African forest elephant (L. cyclotis).
Asian elephants remained known as E. maximus, and Linnaeus` original syntypes became associated with Asian elephants exclusively.
But historical evidence and physical characteristics indicated that the fetus was most likely an African elephant.
Unlike Asian elephant fetuses that have domed heads, relatively small ears, and a single "finger" at the end of their trunks, this fetus has a convex-shaped head, relatively large ears, and two "fingers" at the end of its trunk-characteristics of an African elephant.
Through genetic analyses, the study definitively concluded that the fetus is an African elephant and should no longer be considered a syntype for Asian elephants.
The study is published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.