Scientific Collections Of Species Important For Preserving Biodiversity
May 23, 2014

Scientific Collections Of Species Important For Preserving Biodiversity

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

In an article published in April in the journal Science, researchers from Arizona State University and Plymouth University in the UK argued that the collection of specimens to confirm a species existence has contributed to the extinction of “small and often isolated populations.”

On Friday, more than 60 other international research institutions spanning six continents published a response in Science that cited the significant value of scientific collections and called their impact on natural populations minimal.

“This is a delicate topic because none of us like to think about the death of a beautiful bird or colorful frog,” said response author Rafe Brown, curator of herpetology at the University of Kansas’ 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," he continued. “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."

In making their case, the authors mentioned multiple examples that demonstrate the role scientific collections have played in understanding things like the effects of climate change on populations and the spread of disease. In one such investigation, scientists viewed specimens from a wide range of taxa, gathered within the last few decades or more, and discovered a substantial correlation between a boost in daily temperatures and a reduction in body size – a reaction that might restrict the ability of some species to endure more dramatic shifts in future temperatures.

By investigating data on specimens gathered across time, scientists can resolve questions around species and the changing world. These collections are not the cause of extinctions, said co-author Andrew Short, an evolutionary biologist at KU.

“Responsible collecting of scientific specimens is the only way to identify most of the world’s species,” he 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.”

Authors of the original paper had suggested using photography, audio recording and other means as an alternative to specimen collecting. However, the response team said these means of information gathering fall short of the amount of information attained by scientific specimens – such as genetic testing that can be performed on decades-old specimens. This genetic data has recently been used to identify species thought to be extinct.

These types of discoveries are "the hallmark of biological collections: They are often used in ways that the original collector never imagined."

“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."