Gotta Catch ‘Em All? The ethics of specimen collection for scientific research

As a coral biologist/physiologist, the ethics of specimen collection for scientific research has been on my mind since day one. We do a lot of destructive sampling in this field. In order to make physiological measurements on a coral, the organism most often be sacrificed. I have seen many a freezer full of collected coral and have bleached, airbrushed, or fixed many fragments in formalin myself. Specimen collection is widespread throughout the coral field, because it is simply necessary for us to collect and kill small quantities of coral in order to learn about them. Our experiments are meant to help us understand how the organisms work, how they respond to stress, and what, if anything we can do to help. In spite of all of this, it is still difficult to go out on a reef and dig a core out of a 200 year old colony of coral, or even airbrush the tissue from small fragments that come out of tank experiments. As a conservationist you hate to kill the thing you are trying to save, but the sacrifice of the few will hopefully help the many, right? At least that is what we tell ourselves. It is a bit of a personal struggle for me to this day. Yesterday I found out that I wasn’t the only one. In fact, it seems that the idea of specimen collection for science is a bit of a hot topic (and a controversial one, at that).

Study corals collected in Mexico. Currently located in a -80 Celsius freezer somewhere (photo: Verena Schoepf)

NPR published a story about this exact debate yesterday.

(accompanying text story)

The NPR story plays both sides of the argument for collection. An ethicist and ecologist suggest that collection can be detrimental for small populations, species that are already at risk, and species in which population sizes are unknown. However, museum curators (specifically, those at the Smithsonian) suggest that collection is 100% necessary for conservation and understanding of organisms. The people arguing against specimen collection (in some cases only) are co-authors of a recent study published in Science (If you can’t read that article because of a pay wall, you should check out my article on that issue).

The authors of that study argue that taking animals from small and declining populations, or unknown populations could indeed play a role in extinction (or at least be detrimental). They argue that more modern approaches, such as taking DNA or photographs are just as valuable for documenting a species as collection is. On the other hand, the museum curators argue that just photos or just DNA could be misleading and that without specimens scientists cannot acquire all of the data necessary for species conservation. In fact, the curators were not alone in their views, a large group of conservation biologist (including the two curators interviewed for the story) signed a letter of opposition to the original article and sent it to Science. It was published in May.  This group points out that scientific collection is such a tiny fraction of all of mortality for each species, that it hardly matters at all. This is how most scientists (myself included) think of collection as a whole. Collect a few, save many. It is important to note that the authors of the original Science paper were not attacking scientific collection as whole, they actually support it and understand its value. They were speaking out against instances of collection in which the species was known to be at risk, or not enough was known about the population to know that the effect of collection would be.

A colleague (S. Levas) collecting some specimens in Puerto Morelos, Mexico (photo: V. Schoepf)

You are free to make your own decision about all of this (as always), but the argument really just made me think about what we do in my lab. We collect a good many coral colonies, but we are not permitted to collect endangered or at risk corals (some people are, but we are not those people), nor will we collect more than we need. What we do is difficult and sometimes quite sad. Killing a colony is never a good feeling. It makes me wonder if the research that we are doing will actually lead to a better understanding of the species and help us find a way to better conserve corals as a whole. Sometimes I feel like the knowledge we gain is purely academic, but when I look back at it, that is not true. We gain valuable academic insight, but we can apply that knowledge to improve conservation efforts, policy, etc… This improvement requires speaking out (advocating) and collaboration with others (not necessarily jut other scientists). Many scientists aren’t willing to make that collaborative leap, hoping instead that someone will come to them. Collaboration is a two-way street and it isn’t always easy, but in order to help improve the situation for coral reefs worldwide it is necessary. Seeing it occur and working towards an actual goal beyond simply publishing, getting new funding, and securing a new job is important. It is the reason I do what I do and it helps justify the specimen collection and destructive sampling for me. I hope this piece is as interesting and thought provoking for you as it was for me.


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