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Specimen Collection Threatens Endangered Species

Apr 19, 2014 12:42 PM EDT

Current specimen collection methods are threatening endangered species, a team of researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) says.

In a time when habitat loss and global climate change are already causing concern, biologists are growing increasingly sensitive to their means of identifying species.

"We are drawing attention to this issue as an important question bearing on the ethical responsibilities of field biologists," ASU School of Life Sciences conservation expert Ben Minteer said in a press release. "It concerns not only an increased extinction threat to re-discovered species, but also the collection of specimens from small populations more generally."

Field biologists traditionally collect "voucher" specimens, a fatal technique, to distinguish animals or identify new species. The issue raised in the journal Science prompted scientists to reconsider their documentation system in order to preserve species already on the brink of extinction.

"The technology is there to gather crucial evidence to substantiate our finding without harming the animals. There is no need to collect by default," said Robert Puschendorf, a conservation biologist with the School of Biological Sciences at Plymouth University.

Instead of current lethal techniques, ASU researchers suggest replacing these with a combination of modern, non-lethal practices to confirm species' existence, including high-resolution photography and audio recordings of sounds or mating calls. Other procedures recommended by the team also include DNA sampling using swabs or taking small biological samples such as skin or fur to keep from significantly disrupting animal activities.

Authors say these modern methods are just as effective as physically removing the specimen from the field and will help protect animals from reaching extinction, especially those in small populations.

"The time to change is now," Minteer said. "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."

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