There’s been a lot of discussion in the past day about a new paper published in Science. The paper is an opinion piece about an argument that’s played out many times in the past, namely: should scientists kill specimens to get them into museums and collections for future study? (Spoiler alert: yes, they should)
The authors argue, from their experience and perspectives in either vertebrate biology or environmental ethics, that scientific collecting can, and does, contribute to the extinction of rare species. They cite examples of such events. They then offer alternatives to the collection of whole voucher specimens (things like photographs, tissue samples, sound recordings). All perfectly reasonable on the face of it, except that pretty much any taxonomist or ecologist or evolutionary biologist who makes use of natural history collections for research knows that the proposed solutions are just not very realistic, oh and that some of their examples are misinterpreted.
In the end, this paper will simply fuel the anti-collecting sentiments espoused by a subset of people who just don’t understand how scientific collecting, taxonomy, museum research, or global biodiversity really work.
Here’s the problem with the authors’ proposed solutions to the Great Voucher Hunt (well, technically, here are just a few of the many problems):
1. The examples highlighted by the authors are a very small subset, are entirely vertebrate centered (except for a single shout-out to rare plants), and some are misinterpreted. Scientific collecting did not contribute in any significant way to the extinction of the Great Auk (or many other species). The number of specimens of Great Auks, Dodos, Passenger Pigeons and many other iconic extinct species in museum collections is vanishingly small compared to the numbers that were cooked, killed for feathers, killed for fun, eaten by rats and cats, etc. etc. etc. Blaming scientists for the extinction of species such as the Great Auk is like blaming Albert Einstein or Marie Curie for Cold War nuclear proliferation.
2. The paper ostensibly focuses on a small and critical group of (vertebrate) species that are known to be endangered, or were considered extinct and then rediscovered. And yes, it’s right to be concerned about the long-term prospects for their survival. However, I think that there’s a whole army of other factors we need to be more concerned about (habitat loss, introduced species, pathogens, human activities, climate change) than scientific collecting. But the authors then extrapolate out to broader arguments about the desirability of killing for voucher specimens or museum specimens. Unfortunately, that extrapolation fails because the vast (VAST) majority of species on earth are not in the same category as their examples (even the examples that they got right).
3. Flies are not mammals. Rotifers are not mammals. Neither are fungi, diatoms, nematodes, tardigrades, slime molds, algae, or most other species on the planet. We cannot identify the vast majority of these species from photographs. We cannot record their sounds. We usually cannot take a sample of DNA without killing the organism (because they’re SMALL). The reality is that in order to document, understand, and implement conservation strategies (where needed) for most species on this planet we have to kill specimens and study them in the lab in order to have any hope of knowing, with reasonable confidence, what they are.
4. Museums aren’t simply morgues for the long term storage of dead things. And voucher specimens are not just trophies from our awesome trip to Borneo or Tierra del Fuego. That view is a ridiculous caricature. The collection and curation and maintenance of specimens in natural history museums is a crucial necessity in documenting biodiversity. Natural history collections are the source of raw data to address a vast array of research questions. They are the place where we discover new species, they are the repository of the data that allow us to verify an enormous body of previous research. Collections facilitate the great majority of taxonomic research. But they do much more than that: collections are the source of data that allowed us to demonstrate the effect of pesticides on the thickness of egg shells, to document body size changes in species over time as a result of climate change, to track the decline and disappearance of some species (and no, NOT by collecting!), and the increase and spread of others. Many excellent authors in recent years have written about the importance of natural history collections in broader questions about ecology and evolution. These papers are easy to find.
Collections already take a bit of a beating from university and museum administrators and funding agencies because of the shocking lack of comprehension about their unique value and contributions to science. We don’t need more colleagues adding fuel to the fire simply because they don’t understand what we do. It’s not that hard to find a natural history collection, and the people inside are generally a pretty pleasant bunch. The work we do may be perceived as old-fashioned and unnecessary. That’s wrong. Stop by for a coffee sometime. We’ll be glad to enlighten you.