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 Should you remove outdated or erroneous identification labels?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