Smithsonian, synonyms, and specimens
This week has been the most productive of my summer so far. While it is wonderful and necessary to spend time in the field, the same amount of time spent in a collection allows you to benefit from the generations of workers who came before you. This week I have been imaging the type specimens of Eleodes Eschscholtz held at the USNM (Smithsonian Natural History Museum) insect collection.
The value and importance of natural history collections cannot be overstated. Even specimens which some would assume have very little value often turn out to be quite important to future work. One such instance is the story of Eleodes compositus Casey 1891, pictured above.
Colonel Thomas L. Casey is infamous to coleopterists for naming and describing thousands of species. A great many of which were synonyms of species described by his predecessors, or even himself. For instance, Casey described 16 species of Eleodes, of which four are currently considered valid species. While it is easy to roll your eyes as you image and database yet another Casey synonym, it is important to always thoroughly examine each type specimen he described.
Eleodes compositus was described, as Casey was apt to do, from a single specimen from Texas, with the remark that “This species has but little affinity with any other thus far described” (Coleopterological Notices III, page 59). This was not an uncommon sentiment from the Colonel, and based only upon the description the species was synonymized by F.E. Blaisdell in his monographic revision in 1909 with the species Eleodes hispilabris Say. This move seemed fairly well justified given the description and the large range and variation found within E. hispilabris.
I loaded the holotype of E. compositus onto our camera system while plotting my best route home to avoid a traffic-filled commute when I first noticed something was odd. This was definitely not hispilabris. Quickly forgetting D.C. rush hour and examining the specimen closer, it became clear that not only was this not a specimen of E. hispilabris, but it was not even in the same subgenus. As fate would have it, this specimen belongs to the subgenus Promus LeConte, which I am beginning to revise. And this specimen is unlike any I have seen thus far. In all the works of Champion, LeConte, Horn, and the many, many workers after them, and all the coleopterists collecting through Texas and northern Mexico, this species seems to have not been collected or identified ever before or since Casey’s 1891 work. While I am hopeful that there may yet be another specimen of this species in a drawer of unidentified Promus back home at ASU, these are the types of unique treasures housed in collections like the Smithsonian.
Vindicating Casey in this species may not go far in helping his 4/16 ratio, but who knows what might be found in the next 75 drawers by generations of systematists to come?