About Identification labels

Unit tray of Lepturobosca chrysocoma (formerly Cosmosalia chrysocoma).

I belong (or used to belong) to several Facebook groups frequented by insect collectors—both professional and amateur. One question that frequently comes up—primarily for collections with species organized by unit trays—is how to deal with species identification labels. Not surprisingly, the opinions are as varied as the collectors. Some like to put a label on each specimen, while others put a label only on the lead specimen of a series. Some also print or write a separate header label that is placed in the unit tray. What about when names change? Or when reexamination of the specimen(s) reveals an erroneous ID? Should you remove outdated or erroneous identification labels? Fold them? Turn them upside down? Remove them altogether? These questions may seem trivial if one deals only with their own personal collection, but they become much more important when identifying specimens in institutional collections accessible to the public.

Here is my philosophy: an identification is a hypothesis, not data. As a result, ID labels are fundamentally different from labels indicating locality, date, ecological information, and collector, which are data—immutable and unchanging. Identifications can be “wrong” or may change over time, but regardless they merely reflect an individual’s opinion based on their level of expertise and familiarity with state of taxonomy and nomenclature at the time the identification was made. It then follows that identification labels do not need to be placed on every specimen—if a specimen without an ID label gets separated from the series, it does not result in a loss of data in the way it does for a specimen without a locality label, nor do old ID labels need to be changed as a result of nomenclatural changes or corrected identifications—a new label may be added (especially if it is an ID correction), but the old label should not be removed.

Almost as bad as removing old ID labels is folding them, which not only makes them difficult to read but results in mutilation—not just from the fold itself but also from the additional pin holes that are added when re-pinning the folded label. Old ID labels, even if incorrect or out-if-date, represent a historical record of opinion regarding the identity of the specimen, and degrading the labels obscures that history. If one simply must do something to denote a corrected ID, the old label may be turned over, but even then every effort should be made to reuse existing pinholes—just flatten with a fingernail before reusing so the label doesn’t spin. Seriously, however, this simply isn’t necessary—just add the new ID label beneath the old one, which denotes it as the more recent ID (another reason why year should be included on ID labels). Some people don’t like the way this looks, but to do otherwise is to greater priority on visual aesthetics than the integrity of the scientific data represented by the specimen.

As for dealing with nomenclatural changes—I don’t, at least not with already labeled specimens. That old ID label is not “wrong”—it accurately reflects the ID that was given to the series at the time the specimens were identified. Of course, any additional specimens that are added to the unit tray will receive an ID label the reflects the newer nomenclature. Case in point is the above photo, which contains longhorned beetles known for many years as Cosmosalia chrysocoma but recently reassigned to the genus Lepturobosca. You’ll note the older series of specimens bear ID labels with the older name, but the most recently added series contains an ID label with the newer name. There is no reason to go back and change or add ID labels for the older specimens, especially since newer specimens reflecting current nomenclature have been placed in the same unit tray with them. The mix of ID labels representing past and present nomenclature is not problematic—in fact, it adds historical perspective to the series as a whole. On the other hand, were I to receive a series of specimens labeled with an older name from another collection, I would be inclined to add my own, more current ID label (and would certainly do so if the ID—current nomenclature or not—was incorrect), since it was the result of subsequent examination by a different specialist.

Lastly, I don’t waste time creating header labels for unit trays—the ID labels on the specimens themselves are enough to indicate the identity of the species, and the time required to update header labels when nomenclature changes is just that much less time that I have to pin, label, and identify additional specimens being added to the collection.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

14 thoughts on “About Identification labels

  1. And the Australian way is to have the series of specimens, then following with the identification label. This can be very confusing for North Americans when they see sets of field-collected specimens unlabelled until the last specimen which carries the locality details. Series of specimens are often stored this way and if you don’t know the system, you can make a big mistake.

    And with identification labels, you can avoid all ambiguity by labelling each specimen. These days with computers, you can generate small identification labels, slightly larger than the locality label, and affix them to each specimen. Hope this helps.
    Dave Rentz

  2. Hi David – thanks for your comment! Interesting practice you describe, and it emphasizes the importance of avoiding storing specimens without data labels—regardless of whether the temporary data label is placed on the lead or trailing specimen.

    As for labeling each specimen with an ID label, I’ve had situations where people have printed ID labels with my name on it and added them to the remaining specimens of a series in which they sent me only a portion to examine. Unfortunately, the other specimens in the series were not conspecific with those I examined, and the result was an incorrect ID attributed (unfairly) to me. Because of this, I hand-write all of my ID labels and have publicly stated that any printed ID labels with my name on it should not be considered authentic. (The only exception to this is type specimens—a different situation and for which I do add printed type labels to all specimens.)

    Again, ID labels do not contain data, so the separation of a specimen without an ID label from a series in which the lead specimen bears the ID label has suffered no data loss. The style and placement of a lead ID label also makes it clear that it refers to the series. The benefits of preparing and placing ID labels on every specimen, no matter how efficiently done, simply don’t justify the time and effort it takes to do it—especially considering the potential downsides.

  3. Interesting article Ted, thank you. Although I was a museum curator (not in entomology) and used species boxes in the past at work, in my personal collection I just don’t have the cabinet space for species boxes (over 10,000 species of coleoptera from around the world), and so I have multiple related species in each large tray (e.g., Cleridae and Coccinellidae). Consequently I need to apply both the species’ identification and ‘Det 2022, RE Wrigley’ labels in addition to the main data label. It does not take me much time to add the other two labels. I print large numbers of the often-collected species’ and ‘Det’ labels, and keep them in several hundred tiny round plastic bead containers, so I can add the species’ names to every specimen without having to stop and print it out separately each time. Having each specimen with an identification label helps future curators keep specimens in the proper box after other users are finished removing and examining specimens. I appreciate your articles on specimen curation.

    • Hi Bob. That’s another reason I don’t add header labels to unit trays—to save space I group species represented by singletons or a short series of specimens into one larger unit tray. If I had unlimited space, I probably would prefer to have a single species per unit tray, but that is not and never will be the case. (And even if I could have a single species per unit tray, I still would not waste time on header labels.)

      I’ve obviously struck a nerve with those who like to add ID labels to every specimen. I understand and can appreciate the varied reasons to do so, and I don’t think it is “wrong”—just that it is a duplicative and chronophagic practice.

  4. Id lables are indeed more opinions than data, but historic ones tell interesting stories … and time flies, so what’s not historic? I agree that if you use species-dedicated unit trays id labels are usually duplicative, except on those expert-identified specimens. I have helped curate huge university collections and found head-labels for unit trays very useful. To the head label Carl Olson at the UofA added a little code, just a circle that was filled in or not for species that occur in AZ (circle) or were actually collected in AZ (filled circle) For many students and for my special project, that was very useful and time-saving info.

    • I’ve seen some very old ID labels by famous entomologists folded by more recent workers. The labels were so old and yellow that the paper cracked at the fold, and they were impossible to read without removing from the pin (requiring more effort and risking more damage. It was only after removing and unfolding was the significance of the label realized. I consider this taxonomic malfeasance.

    • Also, you are right about unit tray header labels being useful (and probably standard) in any large institutional collection. My comments about those were an aside (ID labels on specimens being the primary focus of the post) and we’re given from the perspective of and targeted primarily towards individual collectors. The organizational demands of a personal collection with thousands of specimens and one user are far less than an institutional collection with millions of specimens and hundreds or even thousands (over time) of potential users.

  5. I have ID tags on lead specimens, usually one that I have prepped and imaged, so the lead specimen also acts as the photo voucher. Never liked ID tags on every specimen so when taxonomy changes or misidentifications are found, I don’t have to deal with multitudes of changes. As Ted has said, an ID is not collection data, it’s an educated guess..

    • Even worse than dealing with changes is when those changes are reversed some years later. The genus Sternidius is a good example—I’m glad I didn’t worry about relabeling all those species that Chemsak trash-canned under S. alpha and then ended up being revalidated (and I agree). There are some more recent synonymies also that I don’t think will stand the test of time.

  6. Hi Ted,

    I agree 100%.

    I have a separate label for my opinion as to the ID, if attached, that is attached under the collection data label which is always attached first. Yes, never remove any labels even ID labels that may, or may not, be incorrect. Yes, folded labels are a real pain, and yes, re-use the same pin holes in the manner as Ted has suggested. Of course, never remove ‘type’ labels.

    I might suggest, at all costs avoid splitting collection data over more than one label. Place all that on a single label. Modern b&w laser printers are cheap and can easily print 10 lines of collection data at font 3 or 3.5 in very clear sharp print.

    Some other suggestions to pass around if I may:

    State the name of the nearest road, (or watercourse if nowhere near a road;

    Write a locality description that is both accurate and readily comprehensible e.g. ‘2.45 km NE of Cooladdi’. Use metric for distances and altitudes;

    Add the accuracy of a lat & long co-ord in meters, in round brackets, after the latitude and longitude, e.g. 30°25’7”S 152°25’41”E (±40m.);

    Add the altitude, in metres;

    Try to include all the names of whoever was on the field trip. If desired to specify the actual collector, add ‘(lgt.)’ after that person’s name, and put their name first.


    Allen M. Sundholm

    • Hi Allen – thanks for your comments. I plan to do a post about data labels, and many of your points fit right into what I planned to recommend. Good idea about adding (lgt.) after the actual collector when multiple people are listed as the collecting party (I have done this routinely for years now).

  7. Very useful article and comments! But a slightly different remark. In my opinion, the specimens in the photo are placed too close to each other. There is a risk of damage if is necessary to have to take out a specific specimen, e.g. for exchange or for the purpose of extracting data from the locality label. If this is done in the museum collection, and it is necessary to work with it, and I have to take data from locality labels, then it is a complete disaster. I understand that everyone (including museums) must save space, but….

    • Thanks anonymous. Regarding your comment that the specimens are placed too close to each other, I would agree completely if they were in an institutional collection and potentially accessible to individuals who aren’t necessarily committed to handling the specimens with the greatest of care. They are, however, in my own personal collection and, thus, accessible only to me. I am well practiced in handling specimens, so it’s not a problem. Eventually, when my collection finds a permanent home in an institutional collection, the specimens will need to be transferred into their storage system, and they can decide to what “density” the specimens should be packed.


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