Mistakes can happen

By Patrick Couper, Senior Curator Vertebrates, Queensland Museum

The biological specimens in museum collections need constant monitoring to ensure their long-term preservation. Initially they are treated in a manner that prevents decay. For wet vertebrate collections (whole specimens stored in jars or vats of alcohol), an animal’s organs, muscles and other tissues are fixed, usually with formalin. This results in the formation of covalent bonds within and between proteins, causing a specimen to become rigid and resist degradation. Once fixed, it is stored in an appropriate preservative, usually 75% ethanol.

© Queensland Museum
Jars containing whole, preserved Death Adders in the museum’s wet vertebrate collection.
The specimens are initially fixed with 10% formalin and then stored in 75% ethanol. They are used for taxonomic research but also contain dietary and reproductive information.

Dry specimens (study skins and skeletal material), on the other hand, are prepared by removing the soft tissues. The dry skin or skeleton is then stored, often in an enclosed space (box or cupboard), with a chemical additive to prevent insect attack. Naphthalene, a fumigant insecticide, is commonly used for this purpose. Both wet and dry collections should be stored in stable, temperature-controlled environments and, when not in use, specimens should be kept away from natural and artificial lighting to prevent fading.

© Queensland Museum, Jeff Wright.
Dollar Bird skins in the museum’s dry vertebrate collection.
These specimens are stored in tightly sealed cabinets, away from light and protected from insects by a fumigant insecticide.

Another important aspect of collection management is data collection and record keeping. Accurate data maximises the research value of any collection item. A specimen without provenance, or with incorrect data, is of diminished value and in some instances, can lead to misidentifications or erroneous species descriptions. Two specimens in the museum’s reptile collection illustrate this point. The first, described as Devisia mythodes, is a freshwater turtle, the second, described as Tropidechis dunensis, a colubrid snake.

Devisia mythodes, registered as QM J20207, is a dried specimen, effectively a stuffed turtle in a spread-eagle pose. The turtle was named by Douglas Ogilby in 1907, with the generic name honouring Charles DeVis, the museum’s Director from 1902 to 1905. The specimen, provided by Sir William MacGregor, was said to come from the Fly River in Papua New Guinea. However, this locality was later questioned by Loveridge and Shreve (1947). Upon examining photographs of the specimen, they found it to be consistent in all respects with the North American Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina, and reassigned it to this species. The collection details were clearly wrong, but how this came to be is a matter for speculation. It has been suggested that the label belonging to a specimen from New Guinea was transposed with the label for a North American Snapping Turtle in the museum’s collection.

© 2004, Queensland Museum, Vince Railton.
Devisia mythodes, named by Douglas Ogilby in 1907.
This specimen was said to have been collected from the Fly River in New Guinea but was later identified as a snapping turtle from North America.

In the case of Tropidechis dunensis (registered as QM J191), the erroneous data is more likely to result from a transcription error. The species, said to come from ‘Darro, Darling Downs’, was described by Charles DeVis in 1911. Later researchers questioned the locality, being unable to locate ‘Darro’ on the Darling Downs. Concerns were also expressed that this snake was known only from a single specimen, despite coming from a comparatively well-known area. In 1966 the specimen was examined by Harold Cogger from the Australian Museum. He found it to be an African Egg-eating Snake, Dasypeltis scabra. Cogger suggested there was ‘… little point in attempting to pinpoint the locality of De Vis’ specimen…’, but noted the existence of a town named Daro on Africa’s  Ivory Coast. It is easy to see how ‘Daro’ could be transcribed as ‘Darro’ in a museum register, but how the town’s name came to be associated with the ‘Darling Downs’ is puzzling, as is the information surrounding its donor. The specimen was given to the museum by Dr. T.L. Bancroft, a medical doctor with a keen interest in natural history. Dr Bancroft resided in Queensland and from 1884 to 1932 and collected specimens for Queensland Museum. How he acquired an African snake remains a mystery.

© 2004, Queensland Museum, Vince Railton.
Tropidechis dunensis, named by Charles DeVis in 1911.
This specimen, supposedly from ‘Darro’ on the Darling Downs, was later identified as an African Egg-eating Snake. ‘Darro’ may have been a transcription error for ‘Daro’ a town on Africa’s Ivory Coast.

Mistakes can happen, but cases like these show the importance of clearly written labels and the need for attention to detail when recording this sort of information. Trans-continental mistakes are the exception, but nonetheless, they do create headaches for future researchers.