Luiz Rocha and biologists from 60 universities and other institutions have crafted a journal article claiming the collection of animal and plant samples does not lead to extinction. The letter was in response to one published in Science, calling for nonlethal methods of collecting animal specimens.
Naturalist E.O. Wilson of Harvard University and Margaret Loman joined Rocha, who is assistant curator of the California Academy of Sciences and Follett Chair of Ichthyology, in his critique of the original article. Ben Minteer was lead author of "Avoiding (Re)extinction," published April 18, also in the journal Science.
"[Collecting specimens] can magnify the extinction risk for small and often isolated populations. The availability of adequate alternative methods of documentation, including high-resolution photography, audio recording, and nonlethal sampling, provide an opportunity to revisit and reconsider field collection practices and policies," Minteer and fellow authors wrote.
In the article, researchers discus case histories of plants, birds and frogs that have gone extinct, partly due to sampling. The article recommends less-invasive techniques for collecting data on animal and plant species, including photography, audio recording and nonlethal tissue collection.
"Specimen collection: An essential tool - Response" was published in Science on May 23. It pointed out that collection of biological samples results in only a small percentage of losses, especially compared to hunting and collection of animals for oils and feathers. As an example, the authors mention the Mexican elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi graysoni). Only nine individuals of that species were ever collected by researchers, and those were taken when the animals were still common.
"A few representatives taken for scientific collections is a drop in the bucket compared to the many other threats that species face today. Habitat degradation and loss, unsustainable harvesting, and invasive species each play much larger and more devastating roles in population decline and species extinction," Rocha stated.
Researchers in the second article enumerated several characteristics of living organisms that are easier to determine with live samples than through visual and audio recordings. These include the diet and feeding habits of a species, as well as their behavior.
"Photographs and audio recordings ... 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," Rocha told reporters.
Plants and animals perish during the collection of samples, but additional lives can, sometimes, be saved through the process. Amphibians in danger from the chytrid fungus may be saved from research performed on the animals, learning how to control the infections.
This debate over the best way to study and manage animal and plant species is likely to rage for years.