Social Sciences Panama , Panamá, Thursday, July 24 of 2014, 10:03

STRI defends biological collections in ‘Science’

Is there a role for scientific specimen collecting in today’s biodiversity science?

STRI/DICYT Given the ubiquity of technology in contemporary biology, from whole genome sequencing to the ability to radio track migratory whales across their ocean migration, is there a role for scientific specimen collecting in today’s biodiversity science? Recently, such a challenge was put forth in the journal Science.

The piece of contention, “Avoiding (Re)extinction” by Ben Minteer of Arizona State University and colleagues, argues that collecting voucher specimens may increase threats to endangered species and is no longer necessary given alternatives such as photographing, recording calls or sampling tissue non-lethally. However, a group of 124 scientists, including three from STRI, disagree, and published a response in today’s issue of Science.


“The simple answer is obviously that you gauge your collecting to the existing population,” said Harilaos Lessios, a STRI marine biologist and co-author of the response titled “Collecting biological specimens is essential in science and conservation.” The authors note numerous incidences when understanding change over time — including the chytrid fungus blamed in the disappearance of amphibians — was aided by collections. Often, the usefulness of voucher specimens goes well beyond original intentions of identifying the animals in question.


“This is a hallmark of biological collections: they are often used in ways the original collector never imagined,” wrote the authors, who also include STRI’s Ross Robertson.


Matthew Miller, a co-author and scientist in charge of the STRI bird collection housed at Naos Island Laboratory, points out that the bird collection, which was started to answer questions about avian disease ecology, now figures prominently in genetic, environmental and pollution research and is essential to helping identify birds colliding with planes at Panama’s international airport. “A bird’s tissues are kind of like blotter paper for the environment at the time of collection,” said Miller. “The bird specimens give me a window into questions about contamination, pathogens and parasites.”


In their response, the authors note: “Halting collection of voucher specimens by scientists would be detrimental not only for our understanding of Earth’s diverse biota and its biological processes, but also for conservation and management efforts. Further, given increasing rates of habitat loss and global change, we consider that responsibly collecting voucher specimens and associated data and openly sharing this knowledge are more necessary today than ever before.”