After my post about collecting two weeks ago I received a bit of feedback, some positive, some negative, and I’ve been mulling it over with the intention of writing about some of the issues that could be considered the root cause of the disagreement. Then I read Linda Hufford’s guest post, hosted by our own Suzie, and decided that first I had to write another piece, a reply to that post. This is not a case of simply disagreeing with Linda’s post so much as finding the arguments and even layout problematic.

Set the scene: Scientists are “EVIIILLLLLLLL”

The piece is about an ornithologist in tropical Melanesia, so obviously it starts out by painting a wholly unflattering picture of some scientists in a different part of the world. It’s different to know exactly what to make of this section. While it makes a passing attempt to say not all scientists are like these monstrous fiends (or truly arrogant, as she dubs them) it mostly focuses on these monstrous fiends simply to prove that scientists in wildlife conservation can be monstrous fiends, particularly compared to the environment-loving oil industry of Alaska. As related by people who financially fight wildlife conservationists all the time to open up more of the area to more drilling. Clearly those people have wildlife’s best interest at heart.

Best guess? The start was there to try and break the warm fuzzies people have about wildlife biologists, people generally well regarded for doing badly paid work trying to help photogenic animals in the wild. It’s important to set up the premise that these well meaning and well liked people are actually truly arrogant, or at least can be truly arrogant. Now I’m a former wildlife biologist and can assure everyone that wildlife biologists can be every bit as flawed as anyone else. At the same time the field is somewhat lacking in people unconcerned with habitat or wild animals, but if Linda says that they do more damage to permafrost than oil companies dumping 94 thousand gallons of oil laced water on the environment, who am I to argue?

Enter the Villain of the Piece (Dramatic Music)

Having warned to her theme she introduces her villain of the piece, the AMNH researcher Chris Filardi, who collected a kingfisher. The previous set up made sure that you discounted 20 years of working in difficult jungle in remote countries to better understand and conserve rare and interesting species, and gets you ready to treat him like the truly arrogant monster he undoubtedly is. One look at his bio and you know he’s trouble.

“He has, among other things, studied foraging behavior of Palm cockatoos in Papua New Guinea in an effort to expand CITES protection; worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society to set up one of the first community-based wildlife reserves in the country; and studied radiations of Pacific birds to clarify boundaries among species and begin unraveling the origins of pan-Pacific bird groups. Throughout his professional career, Chris has maintained a commitment to bridging his research interests with grassroots conservation. While not in New Guinea and the tropical Pacific, he helped establish natural history-based undergraduate student programs that integrate indigenous communities with wildlands conservation in threatened landscapes of western North America and Central America.”

Clearly a man dripping with contempt for the natural world and high regard for his own importance. No doubt he reads that bio and goes “It’s good, but what I really want to do is kill some f***ing birds”.

Linda doesn’t waste any time in deciding which camp Chris belongs to. He’s in the truly arrogant camp before Chris’s reasons for collecting the bird are even discussed. His reason is dismissed before it is even stated (“it’s ridiculously laughable”). Only once we’ve seen the pretrial condemnation do we get to see the way Linda considered his case, and it’s astonishing and, I am sad to note, dishonest. You see, the bird was collected for scientific study. Says the prosecution to this:

“Can a dead bird educate the researcher on its song? Or how gracefully it flew? Where and how it gathered food? How its diet changed seasonally? How it raised its chicks? Who its predators were? How it is being affected by human intrusions? Its natural longevity? The unique behaviors this mysterious species might exhibit? The relationship between this bird and other animals and plants?”

To see why these questions are so dishonest you need to consider them this way. The preferred alternative to collecting a bird is to take photos and a blood sample. Now, which of the questions asked can you answer with photos and blood?

Science doesn’t work that way!

Studying a wild animal is a multi-disciplinary exercise. So yes, you cannot answer many behavioural and some ecological questions with a dead bird. But, and I can’t believe I have to type this, those are NOT THE QUESTIONS PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO ANSWER WITH A DEAD BIRD. Honestly, you may as well criticise a Chevy Tahoe for not having the ability to fly you from LAX to LHR.

In the Victorian era and before much of what we knew about the natural world came from specimens and the study of their morphology and distributions. Today we augment that knowledge with live observations and survey to build up a much more complete study including understanding of their behaviour and ecology. But we still need to know about morphology and use it to unravel their phylogenetic relationships and evolutionary histories. I used the collections in Australasia to examine how climate and isolation affected the sized and shape of birds across New Zealand. Other scientists have used collections of amphibians to map the spread of chytrid fungus infection, one of the greatest threats to amphibians in the world. Similarly the threat posed by DDT was proven using museum collections, which led to its ban. Surely most people that aren’t Rush Limbaugh can agree that was a good result?

(Moreover, as something of an aside, you actually can answer some of those questions with a dead bird. The morphology of the wing can tell you stuff about the way it flies. The body is potentially host to new parasites we haven’t seen before. Stable isotope analysis of bird tissue can give you a long term history of diet changes. And a lot of what we know about the diet of birds? Stomach content analysis from collected specimens).

Describing the position that Linda took with regards to the validity of the science as dishonest may have been unfair. It assumes that she knew there were scientific reasons why scientists collect birds and other animals or museums and intentionally withheld them to make their position seem absurd and scientists seem truly arrogant. The alternative is hardly flattering though. Linda knew that scientists considered collections important, but made no effort to understand why.

Science Schmience

Either of those positions speaks of a disinterest in what the scientists are looking for or doing. You can’t help feeling it is not the scientific justification that Linda finds unsatisfying, it is any justification.  I feel two questions have been conflated into one here, question the first being “do scientific collections tell us anything useful about the natural world” and question the second being “is it ever acceptable to kill a wild animal”.  From these two issues one can grapple with the third, wider question “do the benefits of collecting wildlife outweigh the costs”. There is room in science to disagree about question one, and certainly have intelligent discussions about when and where collecting is acceptable or not. And it is almost a certainty that people will disagree with the second question. But Linda has completely refused to engage with the first question in a meaningful way and instead attacked a straw man, possibly because of strong feelings regarding the second question, and that stymies any chance of discussion about the third question.


Featured image: Study skins of Garrulus glandarius in Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin. Image by LoKiLeCh, CC

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.