Elephant painted by Rembrandt designated the type specimen for its species – University of Copenhagen

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04 November 2013

Elephant painted by Rembrandt designated the type specimen for its species

Scientific sleuthing by researchers uncovers an elephant painted by the Dutch artist as the type specimen for the Asian elephant species.

An Asian elephant, drawn in life by Rembrandt around 1637, and today on display as a skeleton in the Natural History Museum in Florence, finds itself as part of a science story that began with Carl Linnaeus and continues with research published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

The Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, known as the “father of taxonomy”, used both the skeleton and a pickled foetus of an elephant from the collection of Albertus Seba, to describe the species Elephas maximus, now known as the Asian elephant. By combining anatomical observation with state of the art ancient protein and DNA analyses, the research team, including, among others, scientists from London's Natural History Museum, the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the Swedish Natural History Museum, the Natural History Museum in Florence and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that Seba's elephant is in fact an African elephant (Loxodonta). Seba’s elephant is still held at the Swedish Natural History Museum in Stockholm.

'Linnaeus did not distinguish between Asian and African elephants when he wrote his seminal work in the eighteenth century. We combined genetics and proteomics to show that Seba's elephant, a specimen we had thought was the best surviving type specimen for the Asian elephant, is actually a completely different species, namely the African elephant. This then left us to question what and where is the type specimen for the Asian elephant?' said Tom Gilbert of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum in Denmark.

“Our findings are important because 'type' specimens are the blueprint reference specimen for each described species. So they are key for the correct identification and naming of species. Remember that even now in a world where species are not only being described at an unprecedented rate, but also being lost at a shocking rate, the understanding and preservation of Earth's biodiversity depends on the accurate identification and naming of species.” says Natural History Museum zoologist Dr Tim Littlewood.

Rembrandt's drawing of the elephant in the Italian collection.

Rembrandt's drawing of the elephant in the Italian collection.

Proteins and DNA

Scientists are not always confident of the accuracy of some type specimen identifications, particularly for species described a long time ago. This is particularly so for rare or obscure species, while it is much more infrequent for such an iconic and world famous animal as the elephant. Through archival research, the team discovered that the elephant skeleton originally described by the British naturalist John Ray during his visit in Florence in 1664, and eventually cited in 1758 by Linnaeus in his description of ‘Elephas maximus’, is still on display today in the Hall of Vertebrates at the Natural History Museum of Florence.

‘Ray’s Latin description of the elephant spanned four pages but contains nothing to identify the elephant as either Asian or African. The Florence skeleton, however, can be identified from its bones and teeth as a female Asian elephant of about 25 years old when she died’, says Natural History Museum palaeontologist Professor Adrian Lister. Based on this the team designated it as the new 'type' specimen for the Asian elephant. Archives also strongly suggest this is the celebrated elephant known as 'Hansken', born in modern day Sri Lanka, and depicted in 1637 by the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn.

‘We also analysed the mitochondrial DNA from a fragment of thigh bone of the elephant in Florence, so can confidently propose it as the 'type' specimen for the Asian elephant species Elephas maximus. says Enrico Cappellini from the Centre for GeoGenetics. 'It is remarkable to think that it is through combining observations made more than 200 years ago by Linnaeus, Seba and John Ray, with state-of-the-art experimental research available using ancient proteomics and DNA, that we have been able to provide the Asian elephant with its correct type specimen. That you can still see it as a life drawing by Rembrandt demonstrates how science and art remain inseparable.'

Top photo of E. maximus by Saulo Bambi, University of Florence.