“Avoiding (Re)extinction” – Museums and the collecting of specimens


Passenger pigeon study skins, OSU Museum of Biological Diversity.

There was an interesting article that recently appeared in the 18 April 2014 issue of the prestigious journal Science*, titled “Avoiding (Re)extinction”. The authors claim that field biologists need to get away from the traditional practice of collecting voucher specimens of animal species. The abstract of their article states:

“Field biologists have traditionally collected voucher specimens to confirm a species’ existence. This practice continues to this day but can magnify the extinction risk for small and often isolated populations. The availability of adequate alternative methods of documentation, including high-resolution photography, audio recording, and nonlethal sampling, provide an opportunity to revisit and reconsider field collection practices and policies.”

This has been a topic debated among museum workers and biologists for some time. However this article in an internationally respected journal brings the issue to the forefront. Collecting of animal and plant specimens is how most natural history museums have built their collections over the years. Species were collected for exhibits, for educational programs, and to build the permanent research collections. Why were specimens obtained for collections? Well, one of the traditional reasons was for the field of taxonomy – the naming and describing of species. Without the fundamental knowledge of what each species is, all other work in biology would be impossible. And without voucher specimens of each species it would never be clear which suite of characteristics make up each species. Furthermore, you’d have no way to go back and re-examine the previous research to see if original descriptions were accurate in the first place. As I said in a previous blog post, museums put the re- in research! But now that most of the large, more common, and more easily found species of animals and plants have been collected and described, do we still need to keep collecting? Do we risk driving into extinction small and isolated populations? And what about all the species that we have yet to discover and that are being lost to science through the encroachment of humans on the remaining wild areas?

In rebuttal to the Science article, Kevin Winkler of the University of Alaska Museum -Department of Ornithology, wrote an excellent article on his blog about the collecting of specimens and its value to science. Here’s the first paragraph of his article:

“A recent opinion paper in Science by a group of authors more concerned with human ethics than with science and biodiversity used a rather broad brush to paint scientific collecting in a negative light. Perhaps through their lack of intimate familiarity with biodiversity science, they made a number of errors in their effort to urge field biologists to stop collecting voucher specimens. Setting aside the issue of why a prestigious journal like Science would publish what is a rather weak contribution, the appearance of this piece does provide an opportunity to again help people understand why scientific collecting is important, why it does not pose a threat to populations of wild organisms, and why in a time of global change adding specimens to collections is now more important than ever. There is a substantial body of peer-reviewed literature on this topic; I will just summarize some of the main points here.”

He goes on to refute each of the points against the collecting of specimens. As to the opposition to the killing of animals on moral grounds, speaking more specifically about the killing of birds, he says:

“Not only is collecting an extremely small source of avian mortality (and the only one preserving samples for science), we live in a society that kills billions of animals annually for food and by accident. Moral opposition to animal deaths can achieve much greater successes (with fewer downsides) when aimed elsewhere. And preparing specimens of salvaged birds would be an excellent outlet.”

Read the entire article here: http://www.universityofalaskamuseumbirds.org/reaffirming-the-specimen-gold-standard/ Lots to think about!

I think we need to remember too that these arguments about collecting of animals for scientific research in museums are different than the issues of animal uses in medical research and lab animals used for in testing of consumer products. These all have their own pros and cons. But all these issues bring up many other moral and philosophical points as well, in regards to our entire relationship with other living things. After reading the articles, what do you think!?

* Science, Vol. 344 no. 6181 pp. 260-261 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250953

Posted April 25, 2014
Topics: Natural History

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