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Specimen Collection Does Not Lead to Species Extinction, Scientists Say

May 23, 2014 12:10 PM EDT

Over 100 researchers behind a recently published paper defended the practice of collecting plant and animal specimens, contending that it does not lead to species extinction.

The paper was published May 22 in the journal Science.

Biologists and biodiversity researchers alike opposed an April 18 article calling for alternative methods of specimen collection and documentation - including audio recordings and high-resolution photography, as well as nonlethal tissue sampling for DNA analysis.

"A few representatives taken for scientific collections is a drop in the bucket compared to the many other threats that species face today," Luiz Rocha of the California Academy of Sciences, who organized the response to the Science article, said in a statement. "Habitat degradation and loss, unsustainable harvesting, and invasive species each play much larger and more devastating roles in population decline and species extinction."

Rocha and others, from over 60 research institutions on six continents, argue that putting a stop to field collecting wouldn't just fail to make a dent in extinction rates, it would actually hinder scientists in their understanding of a species biology.

"None of the suggested alternatives to collecting specimens can be used to reliably identify or describe animals and plants," Cody Thompson, a mammal collections manager and assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology, said in a press release. "Moreover, identification often is not the most important reason to collect specimens. Studies that look at the evolution of animal and plant forms through time are impossible without whole specimens. Preserved specimens also provide verifiable data points for monitoring long-term changes in species health and distribution."

Even if that weren't the case, according to this assembly of critics, the above-cited alternative means of specimen collecting falls short of scientific standards.

"Photographs and audio recordings can't tell you anything about such things as a species' diet, how and where it breeds, how quickly it grows, or its lifespan - information that's critical to assessing extinction risk," Rocha added.

Despite arguments in the original paper that a number of species extinctions were directly related to overzealous specimen collection, authors of this letter say that is just not the case. This includes the disappearance of flightless great auks in Iceland and Mexican elf owls on Socorro Island, Mexico.

The original study is described in further detail in a Nature World News article.

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