More Than 100 Researchers Defend Practice of Collecting Plant, Animal Specimens

May 23, 2014 10:33 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

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The practice of collecting plant and animal specimens from the field for scientific studies and conservation has been defended by over 100 researchers in paper published this week.

The paper was published in the journal Science on May 22.

Over 100 biologists and biodiversity researchers signed a letter in opposition to an April 18 article in the journal that argued alternative methods of documentation.

Alternative methods mentioned included capturing audio recordings and high-resolution photography, as well as using nonlethal tissue sampling for DNA analysis, according to the study. These methods have made collecting animal and plant specimens unnecessary, according to a press release issued by the University of Michigan.

"None of the suggested alternatives to collecting specimens can be used to reliably identify or describe animals and plants," Cody Thompson, a mammal collections manager and assistant research scientist at the university's Museum of Zoology, said in the release. "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."

The authors of the response letter are from over 60 research institutions on six continents.

Specimens from museum collections and their data are fundamental to making knowledgeable decisions about species management and conservation "today and in the future," the authors said in the study.

Alternate means of documenting species, which was referenced in the piece that criticized field collecting, falls short of scientific standards, according to the letter.

"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, according to the release.

The authors said that collecting biological specimens don't play a significant role in species extinctions.

Arizona State University's Ben Minteer and three co-authors cited a number of examples of species extinctions and indicated all of the events were linked to overzealous museum collectors in the April article.

The authors of the letter said none of the cited extinctions can be attributed to scientific collecting. This includes the disappearance of flightless great auks in Iceland and Mexican elf owls on Socorro Island, Mexico

"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, according to the release.

"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," O'Foighil added.

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