LIU Brooklyn Professor Says Scientific Collections Play Crucial Role in Science and Conservation Biology
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Scientists from 66 U.S. and international research institutions, spanning six continents have responded to a recent paper published in the prestigious Science magazine, which questioned current methods of scientific collecting and advocated the use of non-lethal alternatives. The response, led by Luiz Rocha, Ph.D., the California Academy of Sciences' assistant curator and Follett Chair of Ichthyology, and co-authored, among others, by Jose Tello, Ph.D., LIU Brooklyn biology professor and American Museum of Natural History research associate, describes in detail the value that scientific collections provide across a wide range of disciplines, including conservation biology, and stresses the minimal impact that collecting has on animal and plant populations. The response is published this week in Science.
In the original paper, "Avoiding (Re)extinction," the authors (Minteer et al.) argued that the collection of scientific specimens has played a significant role in species extinctions, citing examples of now-extinct birds, frogs, and plants to support their idea. In response, Rocha et al. present significant evidence to the contrary. For example, of the 102 great auk (Pinguinus impennis) specimens in scientific collections worldwide, many are skeletons obtained after the species got extinct—and even when added together, the total number of specimens only represent a tiny fraction of the estimated millions of great auks killed for food, oil, and feathers in the 16th century. Similarly, there are only nine scientific specimens of the now-extinct Socorro Island endemic elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi graysoni), and these were collected when, according to field records, the species was still common—before the effects of habitat degradation and invasive species had pushed the owls to extinction.
“In tropical birds, 10-25 percent of adults die each year from natural causes, thus taken a few individuals for scientific collections is nothing compared to the many other threats that species face today,” said Tello. “People do not realize that human-caused mortalities, through habitat degradation and loss, unsustainable harvesting, or invasive species, play much larger and more devastating roles in population declines and species extinctions. For example, several millions of birds are killed each year in the U.S. by window collisions and domestic cats.”
In their paper, Minteer et al. went on to recommend alternatives to standardized collection methods used today, namely photography, audio recordings, and non-lethal tissue collection. Although in some cases these methods are useful in species identification, Rocha et al. argue that they fall far short of the wealth of information that scientific specimens provide. Species identification, they write, is not the only—and is often not the most important—reason to collect voucher specimens.
“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, and vital IUCN Red List designation,” Rocha explained. “And because photos and sound recordings provide only snapshots of individuals at one time and place, they can't be used to understand how a species and its ecology, distribution, and population dynamics have changed over time, or how individuals vary from one part of the species' range to another.”
In their response, Rocha et al. point to several examples that illustrate the role scientific collections have played in understanding such things as the effects of climate change on populations and the spread of disease. In one such analysis, scientists looked at specimens from a wide range of taxa, collected over the past several decades or more, and found a significant correlation between an increase in mean ambient temperatures and a decrease in body size—a response that might affect the ability of some species to tolerate more dramatic swings in temperature extremes. Scientists have also analyzed amphibian specimens collected over the past five decades or more to track the origin and spread of the deadly chytrid fungus in hopes of preventing its further spread. And this sort of disease tracking is not limited to chytrid.
"There are a lot of diseases in many different species that we can better understand by tracking them through time, addressing questions about where the disease came from, what the pattern has been, and whether anything has fundamentally shifted in the environment,” said David Blackburn, Ph.D., assistant curator of Herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences, and also a co-author of the Science response. “But a snapshot from one time period won’t allow us to answer those questions; we only get that ability from looking at many historical records over time."
“In other cases, comparisons of genetic and morphometric data using old and recently collected scientific specimens have been used to uncover and describe new species and unveil their evolutionary relationships,” said Tello. “For example, in Amazonia the discovery of several cryptic species and their relationships is helping us to understand the region’s species diversity, its origins and evolutionary history, and the mechanisms that maintain it.”
These types of discoveries, the authors wrote, 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 scientific specimens—and to share the information they hold—has never been greater.
"Scientific collections are not maintained for the curators own personal benefit. After being collected, specimens are preserved, cataloged, geo-referenced, and managed as a resource for use by the entirely world scientific community, present and future. With new emerging technologies (such as the use of stable isotope analyses, next-generation sequencing, and computed tomography), scientific collections are becoming more crucial than ever for studies of ecology, evolution, and conservation biology,” concluded Tello.
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