When a new or nominal species, is discovered, the discoverer writes an article describing the species, where it was found and why they believe it is indeed a new species. This article is referred to as the “original description” or the “authority”. The modern practice is to designate a single specimen to serve as the archetype of the species, known as the “holotype”, plus several other specimens to capture variation within the species, known as “paratypes” (see GLOSSARY for more details). The general practice these days is for the original description to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and for the holotypes and other related specimens to be deposited in a museum.
Most of the nominal species in the order Scleractinia were collected and described in the 19th century. Back in those days, the original descriptions were found in encyclopaedias, books describing the many voyages of discovery, or even in letters to fellow researchers. Prior to the development of the World Wide Web, much of this material was very difficult to access. Prior to the development of cheap and frequent air travel and digital imagery, it was also very difficult for a single person to view all the type material for a taxa of interest. For example, the type material for the genus Acropora is stored in over 20 museums on four continents. It was also common for specimens to be transported multiple times among locations, resulting in specimen loss, fragmentation, or confusion with other specimen. All these factors have made revisions of taxa very difficult.
One of the major goals of Project Phoenix is therefore to collate all the type material for the Scleractinia and make it readily accessible. In particular, we aim to:
- Digitise the original descriptions along with translations where necessary
- Photograph all the type material
- Organise the above materials in a format, such as a key, to facilitate easy use
- Make these materials freely and readily available to the research community
After five years of work, this process is nearing completion for the 400 odd nominal species of the genus Acropora. We are currently exploring ways to make these materials publicly available.