A fruit fly is not a mammal, and other revelations from the museum

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.

Little stories of change - bumblebees in the Lyman Collection

Some bumble bees have declined in North America. But not because of collecting. We used collections to track that decline.

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.


Minteer BA, Collins JP, Love KE, Puschendorf R. 2014. Avoiding (Re)extinction. Science 344: 260-261.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to A fruit fly is not a mammal, and other revelations from the museum

  1. I’ve noticed a lot of science/museum folks digging in their heels to defend scientific collecting in response to the Science article. I also recognize the important role of collecting (but I wouldn’t agree with the blanket statement that scientists “should” collect specimens without some kind of caveat).

    But, aren’t we all missing an opportunity to talk about the ethics of collecting? In some cases, collecting isn’t a good idea. And, it can be done irresponsibly. Do scientists take it lightly when they kill something? So, I think the emphasis here shouldn’t be whether scientists should collect, but to remind everybody that scientific collecting is often done under strict scientific and ethical guidelines. And, if there are some aspects of collecting that are in a gray area, maybe the Science article will prompt people to start thinking about it in more concrete terms.

    My 0.02 cents.

  2. Thanks David. Yes, we have to use appropriate judgment when collecting. Most invertebrates, for example, are in a very different category than endangered vertebrates. Similarly, scientific collecting of moths for museum specimens is in a very different category than commercial collecting of endangered butterflies for sale to private collections. I think the great majority of scientific collectors respect the rules and ethics of collecting, and we also understand the difference between pushing a critically endangered population past the tipping point and taking minute proportions of large populations.

    Scientific collecting is, I think, a tiny wedge in the pie chart of mortality for most species. Yet there is an active and vocal anti-collecting movement that, despite a lack of understanding about the difference between killing a fungus gnat and killing a rhino, raises alarms every time the issue of scientific collecting is raised. The authors of the Science paper are right to be concerned about collecting pressure on critically endangered species, but the reality is that such situations are incredibly rare. They are setting up a crisis that does not, in reality, exist. If we are to be concerned about rare species let’s focus on, for example, poaching, bushmeat trade or logging, rather than a grad student on a field trip. Their proposed solution displays a severe lack of knowledge about the challenges in identifying the great majority of species on the planet. It’s simply not workable. What worries me about the article is that the flawed arguments may be used to further misrepresent scientific collecting and museums in general. That would be a shockingly myopic move.

    Hollywood depictions aside, most scientific collectors in the 21st Century have a pretty good grasp of the ethics, regulations and best practices in our activities.

    • Thanks for the response. I agree that in the vast majority of cases, scientific collecting is done in a responsible manner by ethical scientists. I also agree that scientific collecting is an insignificant source of mortality for most species when compared to other mortality sources. But, in only takes one irresponsible person to set the field back and it is, at least in theory, possible for that irresponsible collector to contribute to an extinction, as unlikely as that may be. And, if that happens, it’s too late for that species and it’s a black eye for the 99.99% of scientific collectors who know better.

      I think there is a danger in saying we don’t need to talk or worry about scientific collecting because we can trust scientists to do what is right. The general public already has a trust issue with scientists on many issues and I don’t think this is a compelling argument. I think the publication of this article is an opportunity to not only reinforce why scientific collecting is vital and important to our knowledge of the natural world but also emphasize that it is not a decision that is taken lightly by scientists and there are many checks to make sure irresponsible and/or ethical practices are stopped before they ever occur.

      Are the ethics, regulations, and best practices clearly outlined anywhere? If not, I think they should be, for multiple taxonomic groups.

      • David, Neal’s comment below gives an excellent example of a case in which caution is justified and necessary. As with so many things, simple black or white, all or nothing arguments don’t even come close to telling the whole story. I think that many of us would not have taken such exception to the Minteer et al paper if they had presented a more nuanced argument instead of their all-or-nothing presentation.

  3. Neal Evenhuis says:

    Here in Hawaii, the endangered species capital of the world — and extinction capital of the world, we take a very serious look at whether collecting should be done on a case by case basis — permit applications ask that question. Mass collecting (Malaise, pitfall, water pans, light traps, etc.) in an area that has endangered species just is not done. It is virtually impossible to collect something to extinction, but you can collect rare species to the point that populations are reduced below their minimum threshold to reproduce and they die out. The bird war between Rothschild and Newton in the 1890s to collect every Hawaiian bird that could be found in order to have a one in their representative collections no doubt led to extremely reduced populations and the eventual demise of certain species – but it wasn’t collecting that led to their extinction probably as much as bird malaria, rats eating eggs, and competition from alien species for food resources. The black mamo, found by RCL Perkins on Molokai in the 1890s was named funerea in part because the authors predicted, knowing of the fragility of bird species here, its eventual demise. It was last seen in 1907. The orange-black damselfly hangs on in one lone population here on Oahu (a trickle of a stream fed by a leaky hose!). Other insects on the endangered list are also closely monitored and designated critical habitat for those species are areas where mass collecting techniques are just not allowed to “prevent” anyone from collecting something to extinction. I guess the bottom line on all of this is collecting can probably be done in 99.9% of the cases where it is needed, but that 0.1% is where you have to be careful — and not just for verts and plants, although they come out as the loudest among all the “endangered” and “threatened” species.

    • Hi Neal, Great example of a case in which collecting, even of insects, has to be considered in the broader context of ecosystem status, species at risk, and rarity. Blanket conclusions are almost always ill-advised. Minteer et al’s apparent extrapolation to all vouchers based on a tiny subset of vertebrate examples is unfortunate, but so is the attitude of a butterfly or beetle collector who thinks they can go anywhere they want and collect anything they want. Rules and regulations such as those in place in Hawaii are usually the result of careful consideration and assessment, and the onus is on good collectors to know and respect them, as well as having an understanding of the natural history of the place they’re headed for. As you say, collecting whole vouchers of many taxa is fine (and often necessary) almost all the time, but not ALL the time. Context is everything.

    • midnightrambler956 says:

      The catch, in Hawaii, is that there is almost zero enforcement of these rules. Almost the only way to get in trouble is if you try to follow your permit but run afoul of one of the more nonsensical conditions that have little or nothing to do with shielding endangered species from overcollecting, in which case they threaten to never issue you a permit ever again. Which only encourages people to skip the system entirely, as several workers I know do.

      • Neal can probably weigh in on the specifics of the Hawaiian situation better than I can. That being said, it’s unfortunate when there aren’t sufficient resources to enforce the regulations associated with responsible scientific collecting. But it’s even more unfortunate when collectors decide to do an end run around the rules because they are, in their opinion, “nonsensical”. If the normal channels of enforcement can’t catch up with such offenders, one can only hope that the scientific community will step in and try to encourage responsible practices (and/or blow the whistle on the offenders).

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  5. “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.”

    Why do you use the word ‘ostensibly’ in the quote above? I read the article and got the impression that its focus was truly (not ostensibly) on a small and critical group of animals. The article is nine paragraphs long, and I counted at least eight uses of phrases that made it clear (to me, at least) that the authors were talking about the collecting of rare animals and not extrapolating out to broader arguments against all collecting.

    In the interests of disclosure, I’ll say that I do know one of the authors of the Science article and that maybe the message I got out of the article was influenced by my knowing that he’s a smart and reasonable guy.

    • Thanks for your comment, Stewart. My considered use of the word “ostensibly” was based on the fact that the paragraphs specifically about voucher collection (paragraph 1, and 4-9) were painted in very broad strokes. The authors did not restrict the discussion specifically to the special case of critically endangered vertebrates. If they had done that, I don’t think this paper would have elicited such criticism from the natural history community. Instead, we are left with three paragraphs (2-4) perpetuating the caricature of museum people as rapacious stamp collectors, book-ended by five paragraphs broadly proposing that we should no longer be taking complete voucher specimens of “species”, and instead collecting photos and tissue samples. This argument, admittedly motivated by a perfectly justified concern for the fate of the few, could be perceived as showing a surprising lack of knowledge or consideration about the way in which biodiversity science works for the many.

      • Thanks for the reply, Terry. The little pseudo-abstract at the top-right of the article consists of the following sentence: “Alternative methods of identification should be used to avoid collection of voucher specimens of threatened or rediscovered species.”
        Paragraph one contains the sentence: “…can magnify the extinction risk for small and often isolated populations.”
        Paragraph four contains the following words/phrases: “.rediscovered”, “…rediscovery of amphibian species thought to be extinct…”, “…amphibian rediscoveries have been documented by collecting specimens…”, “…rediscovered species typically exist in small populations with small range sizes and are therefore highly vulnerable.”, “…verify the reappearance of species presumed extinct…”.
        Paragraphs 6-9 contain similarly words/phrases. Seems to me that the authors made their intentions pretty clear, but I guess interpretation is subjective. It’s clear that we’re not going to change each other’s interpretation of the Science article, so I won’t go any further. I do, however, whole-heartedly agree that habitat loss, introduced species, etc are bigger concerns. If the event that tips a species over the edge into extinction is the collecting of one or two voucher specimens, then it’s very likely that the species wasn’t going to survive anyway. And I’d suggest that having the last known specimens of a species preserved in a museum is far more helpful (to us) than them being in a predator’s stomach.

  6. Nico Franz says:

    Well said, Terry. Thankfully (sometimes) the world is complex. Arizona State University just completed major upgrades to its Natural History Collections infrastructure.

    • Thanks Nico. I think more non-collection people should spend time in collections seeing the broad range of research that does and could potentially come out of them. The perception that natural history collections are used for nothing but taxonomy and routine identifications is terribly outdated.

  7. macromite says:

    Interesting thread, but it seems to be more skating on the surface than getting to the underlying causes of why a prestigious science journal would run such an opinion piece (and why it was not reviewed well enough to clean up the dubious and misleading examples).

    David Steen makes a good point in a polite and gentle way, and Neal provides an example. I would rephrase this as ‘just because someone is a scientist doesn’t mean they aren’t also a dickhead’. Scientists should not be exempt from ethical considerations and regulation – but of course they are not. Any scientist in a public institution knows the red tape that must be negotiated to get ethical clearance and permits to collect. Any scientist with the misfortune to work on vertebrates is already overburdened with regulations. Apparently it is so bad in the medical sciences that some are revolting against the suffocating effects of the risk-management bureaucracy (see http://suffocatedscience.com).

    Is it at all likely that ethical approval or permits would be issued to collect from a seriously threatened vertebrate population? This seems very unlikely to me. So why is Science fronting an opinion article implying that voucher specimen collection is a danger to threatened vertebrate populations?

    I can think of several hypotheses:

    1. Manufactured controversy: Science is in the business of making money from science (and politics) and some editor was hoping to stir-up a controversy that would give Science publicity and further their career. This seems the simplest hypothesis and may be the true one. There is a similar previous example that I remember about whether it was ethical to drive a mosquito species to extinction.

    2. Poiltical/ religious beliefs: Many people (and several formal religions) think that killing anything is bad and they do not give indulgences to scientists. The news and opinion sections of Science magazine are clearly in the environmentalist camp and, in my experience, many greenies are against killing vertebrates (and often horrified at the thought of eating them) and some even think it wrong to collect insects. This is a more complicated hypothesis, but the general trend in opinion and news published in Science over the last few decades does seem to be supportive – or at least could be tested by an analysis.

    NB: These two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive: an editor could have been hoping to manufacture a controversy dear to their views on life.

    Personally, I doubt that any of the people involved in producing this paper care much about invertebrates (even though collecting a vertebrate also involves collecting their invertebrate associates), but if people with these attitudes continue to triumph, then the days of PETI being a satire are numbered.

    • Thanks, Dave. I do wonder about the motivation here. Although I could speculate as to why Science chose to publish this opinion piece, it would be speculation only, and I hesitate to second-guess editorial decisions that I was not privy to. To be honest, I’m more concerned about the finished (yet flawed) product and the ample room for people to use the authors’ unworkable recommendations to promote other agendas.

      It’s true that not all scientists are angels, but I think that, on the whole, we mostly play well with others, especially in our dealings with rare vertebrates in the 21st Century. The authors’ straw man is already blowing in the wind.

  8. macromite says:

    Hi Terry,
    I overlooked (residual respect for what Science once was) the simplest explanation – biologically incompetent editors – but even then you would need an explanation as to why this idea was floated. The straw man may be blowing in the wind, but I imagine a lot of readers have been shaking their heads in disgust at these rare animal murdering scientists.

    And as for blowing in the wind, I think a lyric from same is appropriate: ‘Yes, how many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?’ And to paraphrase Marcellus’ line in Hamlet, ‘Something is rotten in in the state of Science’.

    • Point taken, Dave, but I’m still unwilling to condemn the journal and the editors based on this bad opinion piece. My original post, and my responses in the comments, focused on the weaknesses and biases in the Minteer et al paper. Do we still need to have broader discussions about the ethics and uses and justification and importance of collecting? Sure. But hopefully those discussions will be had by people who actually understand what scientific collecting and museums are and are not.

      And yes, I still read Science pretty regularly. There’s a lot of good science in there, as there is in Nature and PeerJ and Canadian Entomologist and Zootaxa . . .

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  10. kaleberg says:

    The Beaty Museum at UBC in Vancouver has a great exhibit which consists of an array of collection cabinets with drawer after drawer full of samples, protected by plexiglass sheets. It’s an amazing experience just exploring a small piece of it. I gather this is actually part of their working collection, so I’m guessing some scholar types consider fetching stuff from the exhibit space a PITA, but it does give those ordinary visitors who are willing to think a bit a sense of what a natural history museum is really about. (Yeah, I know, it’s the dinosaurs, but …)

    Science published the article in question, because they like to make their readers think. They like to publish papers that are unexpected, pivotal, seminal and often controversial. It is possible that they’ve crossed the line between being thought provoking and trolling here.

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