Bird Conservation International

Research Article

The importance of continued collecting of bird specimens to ornithology and bird conservation

J. V. Remsen Jr


Because museum scientists and conservationists are natural allies in the struggle to preserve biodiversity, conflict over the legality, morality, and value of collecting scientific specimens is counterproductive. Modern bird specimens contain a variety of data, summarized briefly herein, that are applied to numerous questions concerning the biology of birds, many of which have direct and often critical relevance to conservation. In particular, continued collecting of specimens has been shown to be critical in determining species-level classification in birds; unless species limits are established correctly, conservation priorities cannot be established reliably. Objections to collecting specimens are summarized and discussed. Calculations are presented to show that the effect of collecting specimens on most bird populations is insignificant. Moral objections t o collecting specimens seem to reflect a lack of awareness of the extent and causes of natural mortality, as well as a failure to recognize the magnitude of unintentional mortality inflicted on bird populations by routine human activities. The reason why more specimens are needed than currently exist in museum collections is that most existing specimens lack the data needed for most kinds of modern analyses, and even common species are represented by inadequate samples for research. Reasons are given for why equivalent data cannot be obtained solely from living birds that are subsequently released. Objecting to collecting specimens because it sets a bad example for developing countries trying to establish an environmental ethic is counterproductive in that it draws attention away from the fundamental units of concern for conservation biology: the population, and the habitat that supports it. Biological specimens differ from some other scientific specimens (e.g. archaeological) in that they are renewable resources whose removal does not deplete a country's national heritage. Misconceptions about museum scientists and their motives are discussed. Regarding collecting permits, recommendations are presented concerning (1) numbers of specimens, (2) percentage of specimens left in the host country, (3) species composition, (4) deposition of specimens, and (5) processing permit applications. Regulating agencies are often overly enthusiastic i n restricting scientific collecting, which is the only kind of mortality that is so highly controlled and yet from which bird species might derive benefit, whereas the same or sister agencies often permit and even encourage activities that are responsible for massive mortality in bird populations. Given that (1) the goal of scientists, conservation agencies, and governments is protection of populations, not individual birds; (2) scientific collecting has no measurable impact on the vast majority of bird populations; (3) scientific specimens represent an important source of information on bird biology and conservation; and (4) existing scientific collections are largely inadequate for answering many questions that could be answered with greater numerical, seasonal, or geographic representation, then it follows that continued scientific collecting will benefit ornithology and conservation and should, therefore, be encouraged by conservation and government agencies.