This Letter to the Editor was submitted by Abigail Nishimura.
In September 2015, an international team of scientists embarked on a biodiversity survey of Guadalcanal, an island in the Soloman Archipelago. While on this expedition, Christopher Filardi, an ornithologist from the American Museum of Natural History, placed a net in a highland forest and caught a Moustached Kingfisher. This event was remarkable; there are only three individuals of this species preserved in museums, and scientists have only ever observed one in the wild. Filardi and his team took the first photographs and recorded the first vocalizations of this enigmatic species. They then euthanized the animal to add to a natural history museum collection.
The decision to sacrifice the bird has sparked a fierce response from the public. The comment sections of news reports are filled with non-scientists accusing Filardi of immorality and callous professional motives. Unfortunately, the rationale of the scientists has been largely ignored. It is important to explain why many scientists believe that this kind of regulated specimen collection is not only justified, but is ultimately beneficial to the species themselves. The Moustached Kingfisher controversy serves as a good case study to analyze a broader question: is it ethical to sacrifice animals for natural history museum collections?
Critics of the collecting of scientific specimens have argued that killing individuals from endangered species increases their extinction risk. Though other authors have debunked claims that scientist-hunters have driven species to extinction, regulations are in place to ensure that overzealous researchers do not contribute to any species’ demise. In the case of the Moustached Kingfisher, Filardi reports a series of investigations he used to estimate population size before deciding to euthanize. He conferred with local wildlife experts who reported the species as common. He also analyzed bird songs in the forest, identifying multiple individuals in the area. Ultimately, these population assessments indicated that the sacrifice of one individual wouldn’t harm the species as a whole. The findings also demonstrated that the dearth of sightings by scientists and the small number of museum specimens are a result of the remote nature of the birds’ habitat rather than low population numbers.
Extinction impact aside, critics of specimen collecting also argue that modern technology has advanced so far as to make the killing of animals cruel and unnecessary. It is suggested that photographs and blood samples replace the collection of the animals themselves. As a vegetarian of six years, I understand the desire to avoid killing animals whenever possible. However, I firmly believe that the sacrifice of an individual for a museum collection can benefit its entire species in ways that non-lethal sampling methods simply cannot. There is incomparable, invaluable research potential in a physical specimen.
If specimens were replaced with photographs and blood samples, the value of museum collections would be severely compromised. Without specimens, researchers wouldn’t have been able to study changes in eggshell thickness, ultimately showing that the use of a pesticide called DDT was harming birds. Declines in bumblebee species might not have been identified or correlated with the intensification of agriculture. A curator at the National Museum of Natural History wouldn’t have happened upon a specimen that didn’t quite look like the species written on its label, a discovery that led to the naming of a new South American carnivore species and helped to intensify calls for the protection of its cloud forest habitat.
With these precedents, it is exciting to consider what the Moustached Kingfisher specimen will reveal about our planet’s biodiversity.
Though wildlife photography has its place, and though blood samples can allow for astounding genetic analyses, these methods will never replace the plethora of data that can be gathered from physical specimens. A ban on specimen collecting would impede conservation-oriented research to the detriment of the species themselves.
Natural history museum collections serve as biodiversity libraries. They are objective, permanent archives of our planet’s incredible biological variation. Future generations will forever be able to study these collections, gathering new data and applying scientific methods that have yet to be developed. The Mustached Kingfisher is now a member of this hallowed repository. In collecting one individual, Filardi acted to protect the species as a whole. As researchers begin to study that specimen, they are ensuring that the kingfisher was not sacrificed in vain.