Is specimen collecting justified?

Historically, killing an animal was the only way to preserve its likeness for future study. Even with modern technology, we must continue to do this.

Illustration by  Eliza Wolfson

Illustration by Eliza Wolfson

In 2015, Chris Filardi from the American Museum of Natural History took the first ever photograph of a poorly known species of bird: a moustached kingfisher, found in the Solomon Islands. This small kingfisher, a male, was gorgeous to behold, with a plumage of intense electric blue and orange. The bird was then humanely killed and prepared by Filardi for preservation in a museum collection.

Prior to this capture, the moustached kingfisher had remained elusive to ornithologists for 65 years, hidden away in the tall, dense forest canopies of the Solomon Archipelago. Indeed, Filardi himself had been searching for this cryptic bird for 20 years. Very little is known about the species — before this research trip, there were no records of what the male kingfisher looked like, with only three female specimens from the 1950s and earlier held in museum collections.

However, this wonderful discovery was overshadowed by the public reaction that followed. People were outraged that scientists could find an uncommon and beautiful species of bird and then kill it. Filardi was even accused of taking the bird as a ‘trophy’. There was confusion and distress over why the kingfisher was killed: surely a feather and blood sample, along with the photograph, were enough material for science to work with?

Collecting animal specimens remains a controversial subject in the public sphere. Never before have animal ethics and conservation been so highly regarded by so many people. It’s a vast improvement over the predominant Western attitude of previous centuries, and is driving great leaps in the improvement of animal welfare all over the world. But this attitude can be misguided, and, especially in online echo-chambers, can quickly escalate into misleading debates that are harmful to scientific process.

Study skins of Eurasian Jays at the Berlin Naturkundemuseum.    LoKiLeCh/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY 3.0)

Study skins of Eurasian Jays at the Berlin Naturkundemuseum. LoKiLeCh/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)


For many people, specimen collecting brings to mind images of European imperialists traversing the wilderness and shooting whatever takes their fancy to stuff and mount in a curiosity cabinet over their fireplace. In Australia, animals were incredibly unfamiliar to European colonists, which created a demand for rare and unusual specimens. This was enhanced by an increase in the competitive attitudes of the great European museums and private collectors to have the most complete and interesting collections.

During his journeys across the Malay Archipelago, the 19th century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace amassed a large collection of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. Typical of the time, specimens were shipped to his agent in England who then sold them on, investing the profit and thus securing income for Wallace. Rare, large and beautiful specimens sold for the best prices, and there was a financial incentive for naturalists like Wallace to collect animals new to Western science. This contrasts greatly to specimen collecting over the past century, which provides no direct income or status to researchers or collectors.

Wallace’s collections from Australasia and South East Asia were bought by a range of collectors and institutions, including the British, Oxford and Berlin Museums, as well as a number of individual British and French collectors. A substantial number of Wallace’s specimens are now preserved in the collections of the Natural History Museum, London. Today’s museums contain specimens collected not only by museum staff and researchers, but also by industry — such as the donation of fishery by-catch — and by the public, through animal bodies killed by window strike, road kill and pet attacks.

Insect collecting was an especially popular educational hobby during the Victorian era.   Andrew Moore/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Insect collecting was an especially popular educational hobby during the Victorian era. Andrew Moore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


So why are animals collected for science? The reasons for doing so are often unclear to people not directly involved, especially when there seem to be so many alternatives that do not result in the death of an organism. Indeed, with what we can now do with DNA, it seems like a mere blood sample should be all that’s needed to tell us everything we’d ever want to know about an animal. Our digital technology has also improved greatly from the days when paintings provided the only record of an animal's appearance: now we can take high-fidelity photographs, videos and sound recordings.

Last year, a species of bee-fly was described by researchers from the University of Guelph, Canada using only photographs. Not much is known about this fly, and having photos — and more importantly, a taxonomic description — of the species provides an excellent starting place for further research. Why, then, are photographs not good enough for other species?

In this situation, it was more a case of not letting the lack of specimens stop the species from being described. As the fly researchers themselves put it, if you have high-quality photographs showing new and distinct taxa, and these photos provide enough information to diagnose a new species, then this is what should happen. But, they stress, specimen collecting should still be the ‘gold standard’ of describing new species. The authors make a case for the use of photographs as an alternative to dead specimens only when collecting is difficult or impossible, such as under restrictive permits, or when catching and preserving specimens is difficult.

Specimens catalogued and curated in museum or university collections, known as voucher specimens, are typically preserved as taxidermied skins, whole specimens stored in spirit, or cleaned skeletons. Each of these methods preserves different features of an animal, meaning that multiple specimens are needed to capture a species’ whole biology. Additionally, specimens must be collected repeatedly over time to represent the changes in biodiversity, appearance and species distribution that occur from year to year.

Collected specimens provide morphological information that simply isn't possible with photographs or tissue samples.   Andres Cuervo/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Collected specimens provide morphological information that simply isn't possible with photographs or tissue samples. Andres Cuervo/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The reason that photographs, DNA and tissue samples cannot replace a voucher specimen is that having a whole preserved organism is vital for research in a number of areas, including biodiversity research, evolutionary biology, taxonomy, conservation biology, and even public health and safety. Specimen collections provide a series of portraits of our past and present state of diversity.

“Dead frogs in jars can still talk to us,” says Dianne Bray, Senior Collections Manager of Vertebrate Zoology at Museums Victoria. “They are still giving up their stories.”

Historical and modern collecting was crucial in understanding the spread of the chytrid fungus that is seriously threatening amphibians worldwide. Analysing egg shells collected over decades enabled scientists to identify the disastrous effects of the pesticide DDT on birds and the environment, resulting in its ban. Museum specimens are now helping us determine the impacts of climate change on animals: we can see, for example, a gradual shift in body size associated with increasing temperatures.

Both figuratively and literally, specimens can tell us important information; at Museum Victoria, alongside physical frog specimens collected in Australia over the past 50 years are recordings of the calls of these frogs made in the field. These records are vital in describing species and understanding human impacts on speciation.

A specimen provides information that genetic data alone never could. Information to distinguish species, such as scale counts in reptiles, often requires the whole animal. This becomes especially important when identifying animals, describing new species or checking the validity of old records. The usefulness of genetic material by itself can be limited. Variation seen in DNA cannot be associated with the physical aspects of an animal without access to a record of that animal's features, which is provided by a whole-body specimen. The small quantities of tissue or blood in a non-lethal sample mean that it can be used up over the course of only a few research projects.

Images are also inferior to a whole animal body. Photos cannot give information on an animal’s internal structure, and provide only very limited insight into their diet, health, sex and reproductive data. My own research investigating the thermal properties of feather colour is dependent on voucher specimens housed in the Museum Victoria bird collection. Having only photographs, or even individual feather samples, would make it impossible to collect the data I need.

Finally, voucher specimens are crucial to verifying observational records. This becomes very important when monitoring evolution through time, as well as for conserving populations and species. “Museum collections give us snapshots in time and space of how animals have changed,” says Bray.

Museum specimens offer useful information about a species' historical distribution, decades or even centuries prior.   Andres Cuervo/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Museum specimens offer useful information about a species' historical distribution, decades or even centuries prior. Andres Cuervo/Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0)

From years of experience in the collections and the field, Bray knows that any information about an animal — be it photographs, blood, feathers or fur samples — is better than no information at all. But specimens are vital to ground-truth where species occur, especially as climate change wreaks havoc on animal distributions and movement patterns. The physical record of an animal in the form of a voucher specimen gives immense weight to any records of an animal occurring at a particular place. This matters a lot when determining the location of new reserves, and whether habitat should be protected, as well as defining the extinction risk of a population or species.

Three misconceptions generally take the foreground in the controversy over specimen collecting. The first is what I have addressed above: that non-lethal collection of data is adequate and killing animals for preservation is never justified.

The second involves the perceived attitude of scientists who collect for research — that the killing of animals is motivated by a personal desire to collect, treating specimens much like trophies. The vast majority of scientists do not take the collection of animals for research purposes lightly; no good researcher enjoys killing the animals they have devoted much of their life to studying, and the trigger-happy attitude to natural history collections is a long-gone relic of the past.

In addition, researchers are processed, controlled and scrutinised by animal care and ethics committees whose purpose is to ensure that no unnecessary death or suffering of animals occurs, as well as local authorities, councils and Indigenous land holders. Practical restraints, such as the long-term storage of specimens and the materials needed to preserve them, also limit researchers from collecting more than they absolutely need to.

The third often-cited criticism of modern specimen collecting is that it contributes to species extinction. This kind of fear reveals a lack of understanding about population dynamics. Researchers are very cautious about how their work might affect populations or species, making conservative estimates of how many individuals can be removed based on population health and size.

Look at  another way: For the removal of one or two individuals to cause extinction, a population or species would have to be already functionally extinct. We call such populations the 'walking dead', and collecting some individuals would make no difference in the long run. Indeed, in these cases, it is arguably better to preserve what remains, either alive in captivity or as a museum specimen, rather than return in a few years to find nothing left at all. How else will anybody know that the species occurred where it did? How would we uncover what caused the demise and prevent it from happening again?

Frequently mentioned (and dismantled along with other examples here) is the case of the great auk, a seabird which rapidly went from millions in number to extinct in the mid-19th century. Scientific collectors have been blamed for the loss of the species, despite only 102 specimens existing in museums worldwide compared to the millions of birds harvested for food, oil and feathers over decades.

There is little evidence that specimen collecting alone can drive species to extinction.   Aude Lising/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There is little evidence that specimen collecting alone can drive species to extinction. Aude Lising/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


In the media, the moustached kingfisher was described as 'uncommon' and 'elusive'. Many readers took this to mean the species was vulnerable to extinction, and there was concern and outright anger that too little was known about the bird to be sure that collecting one male would not negatively impact the whole species. Filardi responded to these criticisms by explaining how his team were able to infer a healthy population size to justify collecting the male.

Relying on photos and genetic data as our only records for a species means we restrict the possibilities of science. Just a century ago, no one could have dreamed of our current genetic sequencing techniques, our spectrometers, CT scans and 3D modelling, and we today should not presume to limit the potential of future scientists. We can only guess what kinds of research will one day be needed. And right now we cannot risk discounting the usefulness of whole specimen collection and preservation.

Bray describes specimens housed in museums as “a collection of the past and present for the people of now and the future” and laments the decline in specimen collecting caused by heavy public resistance and lack of funding. Researchers are immobilised by immense restrictions and expectations placed upon them, to the point where they can no longer collect. Almost no large animals are being brought to museums for research, and new mammals and bird specimens are in short supply. This means there will be less information for future researchers, creating a conspicuous silence in the story of biodiversity that collections tell.

It is important that scientists and the general public, when faced with the humane killing of a beautiful animal for the sake of scientific collections, can distinguish between saving individual lives and protecting a whole population, species or ecosystem.

Edited by Andrew Katsis and Ellie Michaelides. A version of this article was originally published on the University of Melbourne student blog Scientific Scribbles.