Let me tell you ‘bout the birds and the bee-mimicking flies and Bambiraptor

Abstract

Scientists have been arguing for more than 25 years about whether it is a good idea to collect voucher specimens from particularly vulnerable biological populations. Some think that, obviously, scientists should not be harvesting (read: killing) organisms from, for instance, critically endangered species. Others think that, obviously, it is the special job of scientists to collect precisely such information before any chance of retrieving it is forever lost. The character, extent, longevity, and span of the ongoing disagreement indicates that this is likely to be a hard problem to solve. Nonetheless, the aim of this paper is to help field biologists figure out what do to when collecting a voucher specimen risks extinction. Here I present and assess varying practices of specimen collection for both extant (i.e., neontological) and extinct (i.e., paleontological) species in order to compare and contrast cases where extinction risk both is and is not a problem. When it comes to taking vouchers from extant species at some risk of extinction, I determine that those advocating for conservative approaches to collection as well as those advocating for liberal information-gathering practices have good reasons to assess things in the way they each do. This means that there is unlikely to be a decisive, one-size-fits-all response to this problem. Still, progress can be made. We can acknowledge the risks of proceeding in either manner, as well as the uncertainty about how best to proceed (which will be deep in some cases). We can proceed as thoughtfully as possible, and be ready to articulate a rationale for whichever procedure is used in any particular case.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Type specimens are one kind of voucher.

  2. 2.

    At time of writing.

  3. 3.

    Without necessarily endorsing this division, or presuming it to be constituted by anything more than whatever has produced or reflects the disagreement under discussion here.

  4. 4.

    Biology includes both neontology, the study of extant species, and paleontology, the study of extinct ones.

  5. 5.

    Invalid is the technical term for a failed attempt at naming a new species.

  6. 6.

    For a representative sample of authors each articulating a subset of these concerns, see LeCroy and Vuilleumier (1992), Collar (2000), Bates et al. (2004), Dubois and Nemésio (2007), Donegan (2008), Nemésio (2009), Krell and Wheeler (2014), Minteer et al. (2014a), Peterson (2014), Marshall and Evenhuis (2015), Ceríaco et al. (2016), Aguiar et al. (2017), Dubois (2017); and Krell and Marshall (2017). For a somewhat terrifying demonstration of what can be at stake here for an individual practicing scientist, see Johnson (2018).

  7. 7.

    Loftin (1992) discusses the issue of scientific collecting in a piece published in Environmental Ethics. The paper attempts to combine considerations from the land ethic with those of animal liberation à la Mary Anne Warren (1983), and it almost concludes with a list of eight criteria that must be met in order for collecting to be justified: necessity, importance, novelty, least damage, mercy, maximum information, no long-term impacts, and no jeopardy to endangered species. But after this list is provided the paper actually concludes with a short vignette, about a somewhat small collection, “amassed by a rather mediocre ornithologist” (Loftin 1992, 264), which was bequeathed to an eminent ornithologist who discovered, amongst all the rather commonplace material, a single specimen that provided the first and so far only evidence of that specific bird being present in that particular state. The author of the paper (Loftin), who is both an ornithologist and a philosopher, then declares that he thinks the acquisition of that knowledge was worth the life of that bird.

    But the list just provided does not appear to have been consulted at all in the generation of this judgment, and it seems highly likely that many of the birds in that collection were collected in a way that violates the requirements of the list—what about all the “commonplace” birds that had to be collected in order for the amateur to happen upon something valuable? What about the fact that it does not seem like this collection was available for study prior to the death of the collector? What about the “least damage” and “mercy” requirements, since we do not seem to know anything about how the birds were collected? I could go on, but the point is that not even the creator of this list of criteria for justified scientific collecting seems to be using the list when generating his assessment of whether a particular episode of collecting is justified or not; the creator seems instead to be using the value of the information produced as a sort of trumping, retroactive justification. Field biologists need help figuring out whether and how to collect when they are actually in the field—before they know precisely how collecting or not collecting will turn out.

  8. 8.

    The exchange between Dubois and Nemésio (2007), Donegan (2008, 2009), and Nemésio (2009) is especially demonstrative of this point.

  9. 9.

    This is a conservative list intended to identify especially those cases which involve no voucher specimen collection explicitly due to risk of extinction. There are other kinds of cases where vouchers cannot accompany new species discovery and description for other reasons, like that of the size of the specimen involved, its inaccessibility (e.g., deep in the ocean), difficulty preserving its body, or the simple fact that it escaped. See Krell and Marshall (2017) for a more inclusive and extensive list of novel taxonomic discovery and description attempts sans voucher but for various, including unspecified, reasons.

  10. 10.

    The one pesky exception to this general rule is, of course, the not-quite-collected specimen purportedly belonging Laniarius liberatus. That shrike was pied, but the molecular analysis of Nguembock et al. (2008) and Finch et al. (2016) both group it along with, respectively, what was formerly L. erlangeri and what is now L. nigerrimus.

  11. 11.

    Imagine two foraging communities that each spend the day scrounging for berries and firewood. One community lives in an abundant forest; the other in a rather more punishing steppe. Both sets of foragers obey the rule “collect as much as you can each day.” Because of what is available to be found in their different environments, the forest foragers tend to think of a good collecting day as one which pulls in X amount of berries and Y bundles of firewood, whereas the steppe foragers think of a good collecting day as one which pulls in one-fifth of X amount of berries and one-tenth of Y bundles of firewood. Just looking at these two very different outcome-based notions of what counts as a “good” collecting day, you might think that these two communities have different standards for what counts as good collecting—and in one sense, they do. But in another sense, these two communities have exactly the same standard for what counts as good collection. The procedural standard both are following is that of collecting as much as you can.

  12. 12.

    A reviewer suggests that actually, what matters most to both the neontological and paleontological communities is having the bodies of organisms—a perspective which might be termed a sort of habeas corpus view. But this position cannot genuinely be the one adopted by paleontologists, because fossils are not bodies. Taphonization (the process of fossilization) generally leads to the replacement of most if not all of the organic materials that bodies are made of (for an introduction to taphonomy, please see Behrensmeyer et al. 2000). Fossils, to put it bluntly, are rocks. They are records of bodies, not bodies themselves—just as a video of a shrike is a record of a body, but not a body itself. Sometimes original, organic biomolecules are (partially) preserved in fossils—just as a blood sample or a moulted feather (partially) preserves original, organic biomolecules from an organism. Neither the type specimen for Siats meekerorum nor that proposed for Laniarius liberatus are bodies.

  13. 13.

    See Dubois and Nemésio (2007) and Dubois (2017) for more thorough explication of all the relevant passages as well as the various contradictions and confusions introduced therein.

  14. 14.

    Although this particular process of amendment to the code was not quite radical enough for all voting members of the commission (Minelli 2013).

  15. 15.

    See Aguiar et al. (2017) for a representative account of why photography is no simple substitute for specimens. See Bates et al. (2004) for an illustrative account of why neither blood nor DNA are sufficient.

  16. 16.

    Thanks to the editor of this special issue for pressing me to state this conflict explicitly, and in (close to) these terms.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the editors and reviewers as well as members of the Species Reading Group at the Field Museum of Natural History in 2014 and 2015, for extensive and delightful discussion of these issues.

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Correspondence to Joyce C. Havstad.

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Havstad, J.C. Let me tell you ‘bout the birds and the bee-mimicking flies and Bambiraptor. Biol Philos 34, 25 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-019-9681-3

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Keywords

  • Collection
  • Conservation
  • Extinction
  • Species
  • Taxonomy
  • Vouchers