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.
Scientific collecting is important in many ways, and not just in describing and defining biodiversity. Traditional biodiversity studies continue to provide a scientific basis for the conservation and management of biodiversity, but the long-term preservation of specimens in collections enables many scientists through time to use this preserved material to ask and answer many other questions, too. And, contrary to the position expressed in this Science piece that vouchers are collected for identification purposes, the vast majority of specimens are collected for other reasons; we usually know exactly what it is we are collecting, and we are making informed judgments that balance values to science and conservation. Also, in birds, we’re operating under a considerable packet of permits usually obtained after close consultation with wildlife managers and permitting officials.
Even if you don’t care about systematics, taxonomy, species limits, subspecies, evolutionarily significant units, geographic variation, or other details of biodiversity that are critical to understanding and managing it, you should care about how specimen-based science directly benefits you as a human. Outside of traditional uses in biodiversity science, we benefit from the uses of specimens in diverse ways, from the study of zoonotic diseases and pathogens, to environmental contaminants, to important shifts in ecosystems and food chains. Yes, bird specimens and specimens of other taxa are used in a remarkable variety of ways, benefitting many. (More on these issues can be found here, here, and here). And as the environments we live in change, these benefits are only going to grow in frequency and importance – as long as we have the specimens to study, sampled through time.
We actually need more specimens added to collections, not fewer. Not only are populations poorly documented in collections (e.g., small sample sizes, limited geographic coverage), but we need to document populations through time if we are to succeed in understanding changes in those populations and the environments they (and we) live in. Most populations are healthy enough to sustain some sampling, and, remember, every individual eventually dies. Specimens are added to scientific collections both by actively collecting wild individuals and by salvaging ones found dead. The more that are salvaged, the fewer that might need to be actively collected (although in many species salvage alone does not bring adequate samples or adequate scientific quality). Here at the University of Alaska Museum we prepare a lot of salvaged material. But we actively collect some birds, too.
Why collect and preserve whole birds? Because it is the most efficient and effective way to preserve a broad array of specimen types for present and future researchers. Skins, skeletons, frozen tissues, stomach samples, and other preparation types are in wide demand. And so are the data generated from the specimens. Preserved specimens are the gold standard because they are literally scientific gold in the bank, usable for diverse studies and benefitting many far into the future, often in unpredictable ways (see for example the increase in mercury in the Atlantic Ocean over the last century, documented using seabird specimens). The diversity of uses is expanding, and the number of uses is, too (for the UAM Bird collection, see our Google Scholar profile of published uses and our earlier post on this). So we need to keep building these research collections as the important resources they are. Photographs, feathers, or blood from released birds are not as useful to scientists and, consequently, few museums will invest in them because they divert resources from scientifically higher-quality material. For the very rarest of the world’s animals nonlethal sampling is warranted, but most are not this uncommon. Data from vouchered museum specimens are available through a veritable explosion of online resources (check out VertNet, for example), and the highest quality GenBank records are linked to voucher specimens.
What about collecting individuals of rare populations or species? Very little of this is actually done in scientific collecting (illegal trade in rare organisms is another story; see for example the dire story of pangolins). There are many safeguards in place to prevent scientific oversampling of small populations. Several years ago, to proactively and dispassionately address many of the very issues raised in this recent Science piece, a group of authors from the American Ornithologists’ Union’s committee on bird collections and the conservation committee joined forces to provide guidelines for bird collecting so that birds, science, ethics, and society could continue to enjoy successes together. We published our deliberations, again, in a peer-reviewed outlet, in a paper in The Auk entitled “The importance, effects, and ethics of bird collecting.”
In sum, scientific collecting is and will remain an important endeavor, and you benefit from it in ways you probably haven’t imagined. Support it. Engage in it, when possible (and always under the proper permits). There is room for all to get involved in some way, and there is likely a collection near you that would welcome your interest and participation. I’ve added a couple of paragraphs below on some important side topics that will be of interest to some readers, and below these I include some references for anyone wishing to read more of the peer-reviewed literature on the importance of scientific collecting.
Opposition to collecting: Despite the many varied ways in which specimens benefit not only science, but also wild populations of animals and plants (and us as humans), field biologists often encounter opposition to specimen collecting. In a paper published in Conservation Biology (you can read it here), I outlined five of the main causes for such opposition and discussed why they were not valid reasons to block collecting. Briefly, they were: 1) Focusing conservation at the level of the individual ignores the fact that all individuals die. Only populations and species can be conserved. 2) Unfamiliarity with population biology causes people to overlook the often high rates of mortality that occur annually (~38% adult mortality in wood warblers, for example). Collecting does not add to this (it is compensatory, not additive), and the vast majority of populations can easily withstand the relatively tiny amounts of take that scientific collecting represents. 3) A misunderstanding of scientific research can occur when permitting officials wish to know exactly what will occur in a field effort before allowing it to begin. In effect, this view can limit scientific progress only to approaches using the experimental method, when the comparative method is how most research collections have been built. Given the value of collections to science and society, we need to continue growing them in ways that have proven so useful. Institutional field efforts in particular need to continue to sample avian communities in ways that benefit the collective research resource, and what one encounters in the field can rarely be predicted with precision. 4) Typological thinking is a view that one or two individuals are sufficient. This ignores the many types of variation present in populations (e.g., individual, age, sex, time of year), that populations vary across a species’ distribution, and that these distributions themselves change across years. Sample sizes are generally quite low in research collections when you consider this variation. 5) The opposition of scientific collecting on moral grounds is a view to be respected but not to be imposed on others. 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.
Guilt by association: The Science piece prompting this post included a feeble attempt to link historic extinctions with specimen collecting. Just because some of the last known occurrences of animals of extinct species happen to be in museum collections does not mean that collecting those individuals was a significant contribution to that extinction. This is like blaming people walking on the sidewalk near the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 for the deadly terrorist attacks on that day because these people happened to be participants in Western society. It is wrong to implicate collecting as a significant contributor to historic extinctions when in most if not all cases much larger forces were at work causing mortality on an unsustainable scale. It is like suggesting that the Cincinnati Zoo was partly responsible for the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon because they held the last one in captivity until it died in 1914. But re-hashing historic extinction events is a red herring when conditions have changed profoundly with respect to laws and regulations protecting wildlife. Also, today’s scientific collectors are highly committed to conservation.
Some further reading (there are many more publications listed here):
Update 26 April: Thanks to everyone for the enthusiasm expressed through emails, Facebook, Twitter, and the online replies. I have added Collar (2000) to the list above; when I attached it to a group email working on a more formal response, Kevin de Queiroz wrote to express how much he liked the first paragraph of that paper. I agree.
Update 23 May: Two responses (and a reply by the original authors) appear in today’s issue of Science.