Linnaeus’ Asian Elephant Was Misidentified
Analysis of the type specimen of the Asian elephant (pictured above) has shown that Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, had misidentified an African elephant as an Asian elephant and used it as the type specimen for the species.
This kind of mistake in taxonomy can result in very large problems. It could, for instance, force taxonomists to transfer the previous Asian elephant binomial name Elaphus maximus to the African elephant. Fortunately, Linnaeus did not refer exclusively to the elephant foetus (his type specimen) in his description of the species, but also to several other specimens. The rules of taxonomy laid out in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature include very specific protocols for what must happen in this instance.
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen sequenced the DNA of the foetus, and showed that it was indeed a foetal African elephant, as had previously been suggested on the basis of its large ears. Because Linnaeus referred to other material in his description, the researchers were able to assign a skeleton of a confirmed Asian elephant to which he had referred in his journals, which resides at the Natural History Museum at the University of Florence, as a new lectotype for the species.
For more information, listen to this audio feature published by Nature, or read the paper formalising the new lectotype designation here (behind a paywall, sorry).