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About the MCZ Type Database


What Are Primary Types and Why Are They Important to Science?

When a taxonomic researcher publishes the description of a species new to science, included in the publication is the selection of one specimen to serve as the representative individual of the new species. That specimen is given a special red label to identify it as the "holotype" (a kind of primary type) for that species. The red label and its mention in the scientific publication could be compared to your birth certificate and the legal record of your name and place of birth. After a new species is described, from that time forward researchers will refer to that primary type specimen to be absolutely certain of their concepts of that species.

Preserving these primary types and providing taxonomic researchers with access to type specimens is essential to insure a stabile and growing system of scientific names and accurate species recognition. Some of the primary types in the MCZ collection are now more than 200 years old, and are currently being studied by taxonomic researchers that are describing the earth’s immense insect biodiversity, the vast majority of which remains to be described and named. Unfortunately, the ever-accelerating rate of destruction of natural habitats and extinction of species makes the task of describing earth’s biodiversity more pressing than ever. Yet the rate of new species descriptions and the number of taxonomists qualified to do that are decreasing with every year. The most significant bottleneck in the process of identifying new species is the necessity to examine type material of the species already described, a procedure both time consuming and costly. Frequently, individual researches spend a significant portion of their research time and budget visiting museums to examine a handful of type specimens of species inadequately described or illustrated. Alternatively, types can be shipped, risking their loss or damage.

Digital imagining technology, combined with the ease and speed of distributing data over the Internet and other media, brings a promise of change to this scenario. Type specimens can now be photographed in great detail using relatively inexpensive equipment and instantly made available to the scientific community worldwide. Entire collections of types can be published digitally within months for a fraction of the cost of publishing typical, printed catalogs. The result of such an effort is multifold:

  • Curators of type collections will create a permanent record of their collection holdings,
  • researchers worldwide will be able to examine types without the need to physically handle them
  • the ease of locating and examining types will prompt researchers to undertake revisionary or faunistic studies
  • many "lost" types will be rediscovered and properly documented
  • based on the number of types we will be able to estimate the number of known species more precisely than ever.

The Department of Entomology, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) has developed a model that will bring the idea of the virtual type collections network to life.

About the Online Database

This online database contains records for primary types in the entomology collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). The MCZ insect type collection, one of the largest in North America, currently preserves the primary types of more than 28,000 species, representing 29 orders, 565 families, and 7,578 genera.

The database started as an online version of the type catalogs in the entomology department of the MCZ; to these type records were added the data present on the specimen labels of each type, and other related data such as biogeographic region and method of specimen preparation. This effort was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

The database is currently being enlarged and made more useful to the scientific community by the addition of digital images of the types. The database is updated periodically as more images are captured, new species are added to the database, and information becomes more complete.

Detailed information about the MCZ insect collections is given in the Historical Collections section of the entomology department website.


We are very grateful to the many systematists that have contributed information about species records in the type database.

We especially wish to thank the following systematists for providing type status, current names and other information for many primary types. In several cases this difficult-to-obtain information was generously provided by specialists who are preparing manuscripts of taxonomic catalogs.

  • Dr. Charles L. Bellamy (Buprestidae)
  • Dr. Michael S. Caterino (Histeridae)
  • Dr. Jon K. Gelhaus (Tipulidae)
  • Dr. Elena Kameneva (Otitidae)
  • Dr. Valery Korneyev (Otitidae)
  • Dr. Jan Krecek (Isoptera)
  • Dr. Kumar Krishna (Isoptera)
  • Dr. David Larson (Dytiscidae)
  • Dr. Geoff Morse (Bruchidae)
  • Dr. James O'Hara (Tachinidae)
  • Dr. Stewart Peck (Leiodidae)
  • Dr. Adrian C. Pont (Anthomyiidae, Fanniidae, Muscidae, Scathophagidae)

Imaging Techniques and Database Design

Virtually all images present in the type database have been captured digitally. Larger specimens and labels are photographed using a Nikon D1X digital camera with various macro lenses, notably Sigma 180 mm f3.5 Macro IF HSM (often in conjunction with 1.4 x or 2 x teleconverters) and Nikkor Micro 60 mm. Images of smaller specimens (25 mm and less) are being captured using a JVC KF70B digital camera mounted on a Leica MZ12.5 stereomicroscope. Because of the inherent problem of extremely shallow depth of field in macrophotography, many images found in the type database are composites of as many as 30 to 80 individual shots taken at different focal points. These images are then combined using Auto-Montage software package from Syncroscopy.

Large image files (TIFF and low compression JPEG) produced by digital cameras are subsequently reduced in size and saved in two versions as small (max. 500 pixels wide) and large (max. 900 pixels wide) JPEG's files for online display.

The online type database is powered by Mantis, a FileMaker Pro-based solution developed by Piotr Naskrecki. It is a relational database running on Windows XP server.

For more information on protocols for digital imaging of type specimens and creation of image databases, go to The E-Type Initiative.