Atelopus varius
April 18, 2014

Biologists Call For Changes To Endangered Species Identification Process

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers from Arizona State University and Plymouth University in the UK are advocating changes to the way in which threatened species are identified, due to the potential danger presented to vulnerable animal populations by the so-called “gold standard” of collecting voucher specimens for identification purposes.

Ordinarily, field biologists traditionally collect those specimens to distinguish animals and/or confirm that they still exist in the wild. Due to global warming and vanishing habitat essential to the continued survival of several endangered species, scientists believe there is an urgent need to confirm that animals once-thought extinct are returning, as well as the presence of newly discovered species.

“We are drawing attention to this issue as an important question bearing on the ethical responsibilities of field biologists. It concerns not only an increased extinction threat to re-discovered species, but also the collection of specimens from small populations more generally,” explained Ben Minteer, an ecological ethicist and conservation scholar in the ASU School of Life Sciences.

“Because these populations are very small and often isolated, they are incredibly sensitive to oversampling. Combine the understandable impulse to confirm something really important – such as that a species is not, in fact extinct – with the sensitivity of a population to collection and you've got a potentially significant conservation issue,” he added in a recent statement.

In Friday’s edition of the journal Science, Minter and his colleagues address the issue by citing examples of the declining population or complete loss of several types of animals as a result of field collections by both professional researchers and amateur nature enthusiasts. Among the cases referenced are now-extinct birds, as well as the loss and subsequent rediscovery of Costa Rican amphibian populations.

The study authors suggest an alternative method that combines high-resolution photography and auto recordings of mating calls or other sounds to confirm a species existence, as well as the use of swabs from the mouth or skin to conduct DNA testing without even needing to remove creatures from their natural habitats to identify them. They believe that these techniques could be just as effective without increasing species’ extinction risk.

“The thrill of rediscovering a species must be one of the most exciting events in a biologist's life, however it is easy to forget it comes with significant responsibilities,” said Plymouth University conservation biologist Dr. Robert Puschendorf. “What impact are we causing to the species even in this first encounter? The technology is there to gather crucial evidence to substantiate our finding without harming the animals. There is no need to collect by default.”

The issue of using less-invasive identification techniques is part of a larger bioethics issue in which the benefits of improved scientific understanding of endangered species must be weighed against the effects of that analysis on the threatened creature populations. The issue of ecological impact versus research value is a complex one, according to ASU evolutionary ecologist James P. Collins.

“Studying small populations is a special challenge, especially in cases such as amphibians where species are declining globally, at times to extinction,” he said. “Our goal is to highlight this challenge while offering options for documenting exciting, interesting and important discoveries. We are emphasizing the need for investigators to reflect on the wider ethical and social implications of their work before or as they conduct the research.”

“The time to change is now,” added Minteer. “While we use amphibians as an example in this article, the negative effects of collecting samples from endangered animal populations is a concern that applies across taxa and around the world. The argument that 'this is how we've always done it', is not good enough. Especially in the case of rediscovered species, avoiding 're-extinction' should be the primary ethical constraint of any scientific effort to verify a species' welcome return from the dead.”