Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Some confusing specimen labels

kw: labels, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs, puzzles

This post has two parts. Firstly, of several reasons that research collections wish to have multiple—even many—specimens of a species from a particular collecting location and time, with this first set of labels I wish to explore one that is not often thought of: Lot splitting for sharing. Sometimes a collector or museum desires specimens of a particular species, and also possesses multi-shell lots of a species desirable to others. Each can extract several shells from a larger lot to trade with the other.

These labels show one interesting consequence of this. The species Planorbis duryii Wetherby, 1879, now known as Planorbella duryi (Wetherby, 1879), is a moderately desirable snail of the Rams' Horn shape. But today the shell is not the story, the labels are. I don't know the protagonists here, so I will call them Collector 1, 2 and 3 (Coll1, Coll2, and Coll3).

Coll1 collected a largeish lot of this species, numbered it #1193, and later split the lot to share portions with two other collectors, Coll2 and Coll3. One of them, let's say Coll2, received both lots and wrote labels for them, giving one to his (or her) friend, Coll3. These were numbered No. 23 and No. 24. Notice that Coll2 did not care about the county they were found in, just the town and state.

Over time, the original lot and both splits made their way into one collection, which was donated to the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Judging from the catalog number, 153565, this occurred in the late 1980's. An alert collections manager, sorting through the donated material, naturally sorted them by species (if they weren't already sorted) and noticed that they were all from one originally collected lot. So they were combined and cataloged as one lot.

What makes their labels of further interest is the location information, and this brings up the second subject of this post. The location seems to be an unknown place! Survey, Florida is not found in the GeoNames geographic name database, nor in GNIS from which it originates. But these paragraphs in an online history of Bonita Springs unlock the mystery:
(1st paragraph) Bonita Springs had its beginnings when, some time in the 1870's, government surveyors in a remote part of Southwest Florida pitched camp near a medicinal spring which the local Indians believed could heal the sick. After the crew left, the site became know as Survey and the stream running from it, Surveyor's Creek.
(4th paragraph) In 1912, a Tennesseean named Ragsdale purchased 2400 acres around Survey. He and his associate, Dan Farnsworth, surveyed the area and laid out a small town with streets and avenues named for potential buyers. There was no church, but, in 1915, a Naples minister held the community's first non-denominational service in the school house. The developers decided that the name, Survey, lacked sales appeal, so the town was renamed Bonita Springs; Indian Spring Branch became Oak River; and Surveyor's Creek was upgraded to Imperial River
Without the Internet, it could have taken weeks to write letters or phone around to find someone who knows what happened to Survey. Name changes such as this are more common than one might suppose, leading to all kinds of interesting puzzles for researchers, and for errant database cleanup specialists such as myself. This is particularly a focus now that I am cleaning up the geographical information for the current project.

Just a month ago I finished taking inventory of the freshwater snails in the collection of the Museum. Now I am working on pinning down the collecting locations, correcting as needed—such as putting in Bonita Springs as the new name for Survey, Florida—and attaching or correcting county, state, and sometimes country. For example, one database record was attributed to Papua New Guinea, and a locality name of "Lake (Cape?) Palousa". I went to the specimens, and was able to puzzle out that the collector's handwritten label actually read "Cape Palmas", not mentioning a country. The species is an African endemic, which made it easy after that to determine that the country was Liberia. Cape Palmas is a prominent point near the southernmost part of the country. Here are some other interesting labels that I saw today; not all could be pinned down:

Lot #17002 is from the initial donation by John du Pont, used to set up the mollusk collection when the museum was chartered before 1970 (it opened to the public in 1972). As this label indicates, Mr. du Pont was the collector. This label replaced whatever label there might originally have been. More likely, the information was taken from a notebook when the label was written. (Note to collectors of all kinds. Never throw away an original label! Keep old notebooks also.)

It is curious that this label names the collecting locality as "Java, Singapore". The closest points of southern Singapore and northwest Java island are more than 500 miles (800 km) apart. I have taken this to mean the species is found in both places, but I wonder if the lot is a combined lot. Nerita lineata Chemnitz is a marine snail in a family that has many freshwater species. That is why it was included in a "freshwater gastropod" inventory. Being marine it could easily be represented all along the Malay peninsula and throughout Indonesia. The actual collecting locality remains a puzzle.

This collector's label for lot #90224 says, "Little Sur River Bridge Hwy 1 nth of Monterey Santa Cruz Calif", with the date and collector's initials. We think "nth" means "north." The bridge indicated is 10 miles south of Monterey, and more than 60 miles south of Santa Cruz. We have a "Verbatim Location" field in our database, and that is where the quoted text was put, while the "Locality" field for publication now reads, "Little Sur River bridge, Hwy 1, near Monterey", with the county (Monterey County) entered in its own field. I've driven the Big Sur highway, and crossed that bridge. Most of the highway is slow and curvy, but I would not expect actual confusion as to which direction one is traveling.

Finally, this label with older catalog numbers from two collections, and written in 1924, originally read, "Rio Hondo at S.P. Trestle". Much later someone  wrote "San Pedro Calif", which was entered into the museum ledger in about 1980 as "San Pedro Coll.". Ever since then, this has been assumed to refer to a college, but there is no such college. A look at the label showed me the real situation. The Rio Hondo wash splits off the Los Angeles river going northward between Lynwood and Compton, 16 miles or more north of San Pedro. The Southern Pacific trestle is a mile or so north of that, so the Locality field now reads "Compton" and I added the coordinates of the center of the trestle to our "Coords" field.

Fortunately, most of the geographic data is much easier to determine, and frequently can be vetted by a quick glance. A lot of data cleansing is routine and can be boring, but there is enough "detective work" involved to keep the boring times to a minimum.

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