AboutZoos, Since 2008


Com­mon iden­ti­fi­ca­tion meth­ods a threat to endan­gered species, researchers now call for alter­na­tive identification

pub­lished 18 April 2014 | mod­i­fied 18 April 2014

Global cli­mate change and rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing habi­tat are crit­i­cal to the sur­vival of count­less endan­gered species. There­fore, there is a height­ened sense of urgency to con­firm the exis­tence of these endan­gered species, as well as the return of ani­mals thought to be extinct, or to con­firm the pres­ence of newly dis­cov­ered species. Tra­di­tion­ally field biol­o­gists col­lect spec­i­mens to dis­tin­guish the ani­mals or to con­firm that they do indeed exist in the wild.

Atelopus variusResearchers at Ply­mouth Uni­ver­sity and Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity (ASU) want to change the way biol­o­gists think about this “gold stan­dard” of col­lect­ing a ‘voucher’ spec­i­men for species iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. They sug­gest that cur­rent spec­i­men col­lec­tion prac­tices may actu­ally pose a risk to vul­ner­a­ble ani­mal pop­u­la­tions already on the brink of extinction.

Because these pop­u­la­tions are very small and often iso­lated, they are incred­i­bly sen­si­tive to oversampling
Ben Minteer, eco­log­i­cal ethi­cist and con­ser­va­tion scholar, School of Life Sci­ences, Ari­zona State University »

“We are draw­ing atten­tion to this issue as an impor­tant ques­tion bear­ing on the eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ties of field biol­o­gists. It con­cerns not only an increased extinc­tion threat to re-​discovered species, but also the col­lec­tion of spec­i­mens from small pop­u­la­tions more gen­er­ally,” said Ben Minteer. “Com­bine the under­stand­able impulse to con­firm some­thing really impor­tant — such as that a species is not, in fact extinct — with the sen­si­tiv­ity of a pop­u­la­tion to col­lec­tion and you’ve got a poten­tially sig­nif­i­cant con­ser­va­tion issue,” added Minteer added, who is also the Ari­zona Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety Chair.

The researchers raise the issue in an arti­cle pub­lished on 18 April in the jour­nal Sci­ence. In the arti­cle, Minteer and his col­leagues cite exam­ples of the decline or loss of a range of ani­mal species due to the impact of field col­lec­tions by both pro­fes­sional sci­en­tists and ama­teur nat­u­ral­ists. There are cases of now-​extinct birds, as well as the loss and redis­cov­ery of amphib­ians in Costa Rica.

Chang­ing the “gold stan­dard”
The researchers sug­gest using a com­bi­na­tion of mod­ern, non-​lethal tech­niques to con­firm a species’ exis­tence includ­ing high-​resolution pho­tog­ra­phy and audio record­ings of sounds or mat­ing calls. Also, using DNA sam­pling by tak­ing swabs of the mouth or skin offer mol­e­c­u­lar tech­niques that could iden­tify an ani­mal with­out tak­ing a spec­i­men from the field.
The sci­en­tists say using new tech­nolo­gies can be just as effec­tive in iden­ti­fy­ing an organ­ism and will also avoid increas­ing the extinc­tion risk for small populations.

“The thrill of (re)discovering a species must be one of the most excit­ing events in a biologist’s life, how­ever it is easy to for­get it comes with sig­nif­i­cant respon­si­bil­i­ties. What impact are we caus­ing to the species even in this first encounter? 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 who focuses his work on the impacts of dis­ease and cli­mate change on wildlife at the School of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences, Ply­mouth University.

Biol­ogy and ethics: bal­anc­ing eco­log­i­cal impact against value of research
The dis­cus­sion about replac­ing lethal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tech­niques and field col­lec­tion prac­tices with less-​invasive ones is part of a more com­plex issue. Weigh­ing the ben­e­fits of improved sci­en­tific under­stand­ing of threat­ened species for con­ser­va­tion, against the research impacts on endan­gered ani­mals is com­pli­cated.
“Study­ing small pop­u­la­tions is a spe­cial chal­lenge, espe­cially in cases such as amphib­ians where species are declin­ing glob­ally, at times to extinc­tion. Our goal is to high­light this chal­lenge while offer­ing options for doc­u­ment­ing excit­ing, inter­est­ing, and impor­tant dis­cov­er­ies. We are draw­ing atten­tion to the need for inves­ti­ga­tors to reflect on the wider eth­i­cal and social impli­ca­tions of their work before or as they con­duct the research and not just after the fact,” said James P. Collins, an evo­lu­tion­ary ecol­o­gist and Vir­ginia M. Ull­man Pro­fes­sor of Nat­ural His­tory and the Envi­ron­ment in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

(Source: Ply­mouth Uni­ver­sity news release, 17.04.2014)

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