Beware the Shifting Catalog Number

Those who have contributed to the ODP over the last few months know that a single specimen might have measurements featured in 2, 3, 4, or more separate scientific papers. In order to keep data entry and verification as transparent as possible, we’ve included the presentation from each scientific paper as a separate entry. Now, though, it’s time to combine these separate entries into composite entries that can be analyzed as a single unit (see this post for how you can help).

But, we do face some real challenges in cobbling this information together. One major problem concerns different specimen numbers or museum abbreviations for the same specimen. For those who aren’t familiar with the museum world, every specimen in a museum gets a unique number. This helps us to keep track of the data with each specimen (not just measurements, but locality information, storage location, etc.). Rather than saying “that big T. rex skull on display in that big New York museum,” we just say “AMNH 5027”. This means that it’s specimen number 5027 at the American Museum of Natural History; there’s only one specimen with that number. Believe it or not, some people memorize such minutia (maybe you’re one of them). I know the specimen numbers for most of the well-known ceratopsian skulls (just mention the phrase “YPM 1822”, and Triceratops prorsus springs to mind), but still have a tough time remembering my wife’s birthday. Believe me, I catch grief for that one.

At any rate. . .in some cases, it’s pretty easy to figure out multiple presentations of the same specimen. AMNH FR5240 (American Museum of Natural History Fossil Reptile #5240) is pretty certainly the same as AMNH 5240. There are just a few extra letters (to distinguish 5240 in the fossil reptile collection from 5240 in the modern fish collection, for instance).

Sometimes things get complicated. For instance, museums change names. The old “Geological Survey of Canada” specimens eventually became “National Museum of Canada” specimens, which then morphed into “Canadian Museum of Nature” specimens when the institution changed its name. So, the Chasmosaurus skeleton that started out as GSC 2245 became NMC 2245 became CMN 2245. “CMN” seems to be the abbreviation of choice nowadays, and luckily the specimen numbers stayed the same. Sometimes historic abbreviations are carried on through sheer inertia. For instance, “USNM” stands for “United States National Museum.” Yet, it hasn’t been called that in decades – today we know it as the “National Museum of Natural History” (or just “The Smithsonian” to most of the general public). But, for various reasons (including overlap in abbreviations with all of the other countries’ national museums), “USNM” still stands. When different publications use different abbreviations, we still have to sort out what’s going on.


AMNH 6471. . .I mean, CM 9185. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License, modified from an original posted to the Wikimedia Commons by Kevmin.

Sometimes things get really complicated. Did you know that the Protoceratops skeleton listed as AMNH 6471 by Brown and Schlaikjer’s 1940 paper is now known as CM 9185? This happened when the specimen was sent from the American Museum of Natural History to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. The only reason I know of this is because Matt Carrano had noted this in one of his data entries, and also through a chance reading of a 1981 publication on dinosaurs of the Carnegie by Jack McIntosh.

And sometimes things get just flat-out twisted. Back in the day, the Royal Ontario Museum completely renumbered their fossil collection. What was once known as the Corythosaurus ROM 5505 is now ROM 845. The Lambeosaurus ROM 6474 is now called ROM 1218. Thankfully, some papers indicate the old and the new catalog numbers. But not always. There are measurements from old papers of certain specimens (e.g., ROM 5167 and ROM 5971, specimens of Edmontosaurus regalis and Prosaurolophus maximus, respectively) that just aren’t clear. So, we’ll either hope that someone out there reading this knows the current specimen number, or we’ll have to contact a curator at the museum to find out. (feel free to chime in in the comments, if you know the answer)

These sorts of things are hugely important for the utility of our dataset, and we’re depending on each other to get these details ironed out. That’s the real strength of an open project like the ODP – anyone can contribute!

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4 Responses to Beware the Shifting Catalog Number

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Don’t get me started …

    In the world of sauropods, things are pretty bad. I don’t know whether it’s equally bad in ornithischian-world, but one classic example is that Jensen’s (1995) paper naming Supersaurus, Ultrasaurus and Dystylosaurus used specimen numbers that either were incorrect from the start or were quickly changed — they may have been “temporary” numbers invented on the spot. Some subsequent publications (e.g. Paul 1988) followed Jensen’s numbering, others did not. So for example the “Ultrasaurus” holotype dorsal was given as BYU 5000 but is correctly known as BYU 9044. Ugh.

    Meanwhile, the Humboldt Museum in Berlin is, as I write this, busy renumbering all its Tendaguru sauropod material, so that for example the Giraffatitan brancai lectotype that we all know and love as HMN SII is now properly called MB. R. 2181.

    In more useful news, I found out only a few months ago that the Natural History Museum in London has finally changed its acronym from the old BMNH to NHM: see and following comment.

  2. Andy Farke says:

    “The Natural History Museum” has always been my favorite. It’s not just a natural history museum, but the natural history museum!

  3. And then there are specimens that get shifted from collection to collection: the type of Tyrannosaurus rex (now at the Carnegie), the Field Museum’s Daspletosaurus skull, and the Smithsonian’s Gorgosaurus were all originally AMNH specimens with AMNH numbers.

  4. Andy Farke :
    “The Natural History Museum” has always been my favorite. It’s not just a natural history museum, but the natural history museum!

    It’s no funnier than the Smithsonian being called just “The National Museum of Natural History”. What nation? Well, as if you even need to ask!

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