Extinction claims “nonsense”, says SBS professor

23 May 2014

Scientists who claim that biological collecting has caused species extinction have sparked a furore, with the School of Biological Sciences’ Professor Kendall Clements among more than 120 scientists worldwide who have called the claims false.

The stoush started in April’s issue of Science, in which academics from Arizona State University and the United Kingdom’s Plymouth University claim that specimen collecting has played a significant role in species extinction, pointing to lost birds, frogs and plants to support their argument.

They say “collecting specimens is no longer required to describe a species or to document its

rediscovery.” It’s time to turn to “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.”   

Professor Clements, a marine biologist, says the claim that collecting has caused extinction is “nonsense”. He is among 122 scientists from more than 60 international research institutions who refute claims about the specific birds and animals cited. They say that without whole specimens, certain research is impossible, and their riposte is published in Science this week.

The great auk, a flightless bird, was cited as driven to extinction by museum collecting. But the scientists’ letter points out that of the 102 examples in collections, many are skeletons that were collected after extinction – and even when added together, the total number of specimens is a tiny fraction of the estimated millions of great auks harvested for food, oil and feathers. 

Professor Clements says that the numbers of organisms taken for scientific collections is “a drop in the bucket” against the threats posted by commercial hunting, habitat degradation and loss, unsustainable harvesting, and invasive species.

Modern collecting adheres to strict rules and regulations, including collecting specimens substantially below levels that affect populations, he says. The suggested alternatives to whole specimens can’t tell scientists anything about such a species' diet, how and where it breeds, how quickly it grows, or its lifespan. Importantly, samples for genetic work from many organisms, such as fish, require a whole specimen, not only for tissue samples for DNA extraction, but to link genetic markers to morphological characteristics.

Professor Clements says that as new technologies such as stable isotope analyses, massive parallel sequencing and CT-scan tomography emerge, scientific collections are becoming even more important in the study of ecology, evolution, and conservation. And that’s important, he says, when it’s estimated that 86% of the species on Earth remain unknown.

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