Harvard University's E-Type Initiative: About



About the E-Type Initiative

Until recently, taxonomists have relied primarily on examination of physical specimens. Advances in imaging systems, computer software and databases now enable specialists to view detailed images of type specimens online, without leaving the vicinity of his or her computer.

Problems currently faced by taxonomists:

  • Species identification cannot proceed without the knowledge of already known taxa
  • Many species cannot be identified without consulting their types
  • Types are often difficult or impossible to examine
  • Visiting museums to examine types is expensive and time consuming
  • Shipping types is expensive and carries the risk of damaging the types

Digital imaging technology, combined with the ease and speed of distributing data over the Internet and other media, can change this scenario. Type specimens can 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. Using on-line images eliminates the costly and potentially damaging procedure of physically sending specimens, and enables multiple researchers to simultaneously work with a particular specimen. The advantages of digital type collections are particularly apparent for biologists in developing countries, where lack of access to primary taxonomic information is the most significant reason for the limited participation of these regions in the process of discovery and description of their own biodiversity.

Advantages of virtual type collections:

  • Researchers worldwide will be able to examine types without the need to physically handle them
  • Curators of type collections will create a permanent record of their collection holdings
  • 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

In order to undertake digital type publishing, the following are required:

  • Precise understanding of the needs of taxonomists
  • Adequate tools for selected taxa
  • Properly trained technical personnel
  • Data storage and distribution tools


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