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Biologists consider the costs of collecting invaluable specimens

Researchers have long used scientific specimen collections as sources of data on an animal's environment, diet and its very DNA. However, a debate has emerged among biologists over the ethics of collecting specimens of rare species whose numbers are dwindling. Some biologists argue that specimen collection provides them with critical information about a species. In addition, their collection counts for a small number of species compared with those that die from other man-made threats, such as habitat destruction. On the other side, researchers say that accurate specimens can be collected without killing animals using new technologies, such as DNA sampling, high-resolution photography and sonograms; they maintain that these considerations are especially important for isolated and endangered species.

This debate heated up following the publication of an opinion paper in Science, which raised questions about the effect that scientific collection has on small animal populations and which called on scientists to reevaluate their collection policies, especially the common practice of taking a live voucher sample—the accepted way to document a species' presence in a location. The paper's authors focus on the responsibility of scientists to avoid harming the populations they study. One author, Robert Puschendorf, also described in a NPR broadcast his own experience in the field, as he weighed the ethics of collecting the specimen of a rare Costa Rican tree frog. 

The paper prompted a responding letter in Science from hundreds of researchers around the world. In addition to the formal reply, many researchers and museum curators defended the practice on blog posts, and in magazine articles and other media. They argued that scientific collecting goes beyond describing and defining biodiversity: It allows scientists to use the samples to pursue research on zoonotic diseases, environmental toxins, and changes in entire ecosystems, among other areas of study. This small number of samples, collected with proper permits and in accordance with authorities, is not threatening the stability of most populations, according to the scientists.

Those defending collecting also worry about backlash from the public and permit-granting authorities. "It's getting harder and harder to get approval and permits to collect," noted Carol Baldwin, a fish specialist at the National Museum of Natural History, in the NPR broadcast. She and other scientists must receive permission from regulators for specimen collection.

The academic research community takes pride in its peer-review process as a way to maintain high standards. Those standards include the source of the original data, in this case the collected species. I believe it is up to biologists in a given area of study (ornithologists may have different concerns than ichthyologists) to come to a consensus over guidelines and ethics governing the collection of samples in the field, as well as how that information is disclosed in publications. These guidelines may come in part from federal regulations. The National Park Service, for example, maintains general conditions for scientific collection permits.

Incorporating this information—determined by consensus and consistent with applicable regulations—into the existing publication and the peer-review process should allow biologists to continue collecting valuable samples, while maintaining clear and consistent standards and ethics for those collections.

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