Scientific collections play vital role in conservation biology

Thu, 05/22/2014

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Jen Humphrey
KU Natural History Museum
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LAWRENCE — Scientists from the University of Kansas and more than 60 other international research institutions spanning six continents have responded to a recent paper in Science, which questioned the practice of collecting and preserving scientific specimens.

KU biologists Rafe Brown and Andrew Short, along with other researchers, argued that the value of scientific collections is vast and their effect on natural populations is minimal. The response also stresses the immense value of scientific collections – such as those held by the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum – across a wide range of disciplines.

In the original paper, "Avoiding (Re)extinction," the authors had argued that the collection of scientific specimens has played a significant role in species extinction, pointing to examples of now-extinct birds, frogs and plants to support this claim. 

Today’s response paper, led by Luiz Rocha, a fish biologist from the California Academy of Sciences, emphasizes the minimal effect that research-based specimen collecting actually has on populations. Rocha, Brown and Short, and other scientists, argued that the value of scientific collections is vast and their effect on natural populations is minimal.

“This is a delicate topic because none of us like to think about the death of a beautiful bird or colorful frog,” said Brown, curator of herpetology at the Biodiversity Institute.  “But as conservation scientists, we are primarily concerned with species preservation and the long-term viability of populations.  It’s not the several individual frogs that are sacrificed humanely for the global good that make me sad…I get emotional about the many hundreds of thousands that will die this year en masse as we cut down forests and pave over the last of their habitat; we know that many of those individuals will be the last of their species."

The authors 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 daily temperatures and a decrease in body size — a response that might limit the ability of some species to tolerate more dramatic swings in future temperature extremes.

Scientists have also analyzed amphibian specimens collected over the past five decades or more, including many hundreds of specimens in KU’s herpetology collections, to track the origin and spread of the frog-killing chytrid fungus in hopes of preventing its further spread.

It is only by investigating information about specimens collected across time that scientists can answer questions about species and the environment in a changing world, said Short, entomology curator at the Biodiversity Institute. Such collections are not the cause of extinctions.

“Responsible collecting of scientific specimens is the only way to identify most of the world’s species,” Short said. “These collections are critical to assessing water quality, habitat degradation and the impact of climate change. It is not a conservation threat and treating it as such distracts from the real drivers that are imperiling our biodiversity, such as habitat loss and invasive species.”

In the original paper, the authors went on to recommend alternatives to standardized collection methods used today, namely photography, audio recordings and non-lethal tissue collection. Although in many cases these methods are employed in species identification, scientists point out that they will often 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.

In other cases, genetic data from decades-old scientific specimens has even been used to identify current species that were thought to be extinct.

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 before they disappear forever, suggests that the need to collect scientific specimens — and to share the information they hold — has never been greater.

At KU, such collections are held in six buildings spread across campus – more than 9 million specimens across disciplines such as ornithology, paleontology, botany and entomology.

“Collections and their associated data are the world’s biodiversity libraries,” said Leonard Krishtalka, director of the Biodiversity Institute. "They document the life of the planet and, with increasing technological precision, help us take and sustain the pulse of the world’s known 2 million species of animals and plants."

The response, co-authored by science luminaries as Harvard's E. O. Wilson, was published this week in Science. 



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