Collecting biological specimens essential to science and conservation

A letter signed by more than 100 biologists and biodiversity researchers,  published online in Science today (Science 23 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6186 pp. 814-815 DOI:10.1126/science.344.6186.814), states why collecting plant and animal specimens is essential for scientific studies and conservation and does not, as some critics of the practice have suggested, play a significant role in species extinctions.

Beetle collection. Image by Paolo Viscardi

The letter is a response to an April 18 Perspectives article in Science arguing that alternative methods of documentation—such as high-resolution photography, audio recordings and nonlethal tissue sampling for DNA analysis—make the field collection of animal and plant specimens unnecessary. As most natural sciences collections professionals are fully aware, this is simply not the case.

“None of the suggested alternatives to collecting specimens can be used to reliably identify or describe animals and plants,” said Cody Thompson, mammal collections manager and assistant research scientist at the U-M Museum of Zoology.

“Moreover, identification often is not the most important reason to collect specimens. Studies that look at the evolution of animal and plant forms through time are impossible without whole specimens. Preserved specimens also provide verifiable data points for monitoring long-term changes in species health and distribution.”

In addition, specimens from museum collections and their associated data are essential for making informed decisions about species management and conservation now and in the future, the authors state.

“Photographs and audio recordings can’t tell you anything about such things as a species’ diet, how and where it breeds, how quickly it grows, or its lifespan—information that’s critical to assessing extinction risk,” said Luiz Rocha of the California Academy of Sciences, who organized the response to the Science article.

And contrary to statements made in the April 18 Science article titled “Avoiding (Re)extinction,” collecting biological specimens does not play a significant role in species extinctions, according to the rebuttal authors.

In the April article, Arizona State University’s Ben Minteer and three co-authors cite several examples of species extinctions and suggest that the events were linked to overzealous museum collectors.

Not so, according to authors of the rebuttal letter, who reviewed the evidence and found that none of the cited extinctions—including the disappearance of flightless great auks in Iceland and Mexican elf owls on Socorro Island, Mexico—can be attributed to scientific collecting.

Millions of great auks were harvested for food, oil and feathers over the millennia, and only about 102 exist in scientific collections. Mexican elf owls were common when specimens were collected between 1896 and 1932, and the most likely reasons for extinction around 1970 were habitat degradation and predation by invasive species.

At the same time, Minteer and his colleagues failed to point out any of the valuable services that museum biological collections have provided over the decades, according to the rebuttal authors.

Both historical and new collections played a key role in understanding the spread of the chytrid fungus infection, one of the greatest current global threats to amphibians. The decision to ban DDT and other environmental pollutants was based on the discovery of thinning bird eggshells collected over an extended period. And the declining body size of animals, one of the negative effects of climate change, was discovered using body-size data from museum specimens.

Egg collections like this helped identify the harm done by DDT. Image by Paolo Viscardi

In other cases, genetic data from decades-old scientific specimens has even been used to “de-extinct” species. One of these, the Vegas Valley leopard frog, was thought to have gone extinct in the wake of Las Vegas development. However, a study published in 2011 compared the genetics of specimens from the extinct population to individuals from surviving populations of similar-looking frogs elsewhere in the Southwest and found them to be the same species.

These types of discoveries are “the hallmark of biological collections: They are often used in ways that the original collector never imagined.” And with the continuing emergence of new technologies, this potential only grows.

That potential, combined with the increasing number of threats species face and the need to understand them, suggests that the need to collect specimens—and to share the information they hold—has never been greater.

In their April article, Minteer and his colleagues erroneously portray scientific collecting in a negative light that distracts from the primary causes of modern extinctions: habitat degradation and loss, unsustainable harvesting and invasive species.

“Halting collection of animal and plant specimens by scientists would be detrimental not only to our understanding of Earth’s diverse biota and its biological processes, but also for conservation and management efforts,” said Diarmaid O’Foighil, director of the U-M Museum of Zoology and a co-author of the rebuttal letter.

“That detriment in understanding would only increase with time because having museum specimens available for future generations of scientists will allow their study using research methodologies that have yet to be invented.”

A pre-publication pdf version of the letter can be read here.

 

Rhino DNA database

Rhinoceros horn thefts have been a problem for a while, with several UK museums being amongst those targeted by thieves. If you haven’t hidden away your rhino horn yet you should do it now!

Despite the rather dire situation, it is heartening that in several cases the people responsible for thefts have later been arrested and convicted. It is also interesting to note that rhino horn is being intercepted and seized at airports and in Police raids.

Of course, a seized horn isn’t easy to return to its owner unless it has a unique identification – after all, rhino horns can look rather similar to each other. This is especially problematic when the material is seized in the destination country rather than the country from which it was taken.

To tackle this problem, the Wildlife DNA Forensics – Diagnostics & Molecular Biology Section of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) have just started on a project to establish a DNA database for rhino horn in museums and zoos in Europe. This service is currently being offered for free to museums in the UK.

Rhino

The database will provide a mechanism for the identification of stolen rhino horn, which will make return of specimens possible and (perhaps more importantly) make it far easier to demonstrate whether seized material has been stolen as well as illegally traded/imported/exported. This would mean longer prison sentences for guilty parties – which may be a better deterrent than the paltry sentences sometimes handed out – and it would also help identify the chain of supply for rhino horn, which could play an important role in restricting the trade.

The database could also potentially contribute to other research on rhinos – perhaps about their past genetic diversity, which may contribute to a better understanding of their conservation requirements in the future.

In light of the obvious security concerns associated with rhino horn, NatSCA have been in touch with the representative for SASA who is heading up the project, Dr Lucy Webster.

Lucy has been very helpful in providing information about the project and addressing security concerns about the database. In her own words:

“We realise the sensitivity of the information you are providing. The information you submit with your samples will be held securely and transcribed into electronic format as part of the database. The database will be hosted on a government secure network, with access restricted to those directly involved in this project.

Some concerns have been raised regarding the security of this information in relation to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We have consulted with Scottish Government FOI unit and while we are obliged to consider all requests, the sensitive nature of the information means that we have good grounds for withholding detailed information (e.g. addresses of submitters).

Summary information, such as the total number of samples on the database or the total number of submitters, may have to be disclosed. We are very grateful for your involvement in this project. If you are interested in specific details about your samples (e.g. the species, or the sex of the animals) we will be able to provide these details once the DNA profiles are on the database.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that the project does not ask for the specific storage location of any rhino material and there are no visits to museum sites by external parties involved in the data collection – the specimens are sampled by staff at the museum using the guidance provided below.

Obviously there are still considerations about getting involved in the project, since sampling involves drilling a 5mm hole in specimens (alas the surface sampling technique using a rubber that we saw at this year’s conference only provides enough data for species level analysis, not individual identification), but that has to be balanced against the potential benefits offered by the database.

Whether you send in your samples is a decision for you and your organisation, but if you would like more information you can contact a NatSCA committee member or get in touch with Lucy.

Sampling method guidance

Submitting samples for Rhino DNA database