Kelly Mc wrote:
My question concerns the possibility of a nebulous factor to expansive (scientific) specimen collection, with the factor being necessity versus academia tradition.
Define "expansive" scientific specimen collection.
Despite Ernie's claims (which are shared by many here), the total collection impact of scientists is very small. We're talking a relatively small field of biological specialists, each of whom target a relatively narrow group of organisms in their study. Ernie's response to my comment doesn't invalidate my point- let's upscale the Smithsonian's collection impact. Again, using Ernie's own estimates, I'm saying about 1 individual per species is collected every 4 years by the Smithsonian for their research. This actually isn't an abnormally low collection rate for taxonomy-type studies, and the beauty of them is that the specimens and data (particularly genetic) are freely available to any researcher who wants to use them, once collected. They essentially don't need to be collected anymore for that type of study. Hell, most phylogenetic studies these days rarely even collect their own animals unless they need a particular locality filled- most just take pre-existing data of genbank whenever they can. Anyway, at that rate of take, to reach the level of impact of the ball python commercial take (which I completely agree is likely sustainable), you would need 480,000 scientists (or institutions), each collecting similar numbers of ball pythons.
Even using Ernie's example of Mearns collecting "thousands" of birds, let's say he collected 10,000 of a single species in a single year, year after year- ignore the dubious fact that every museum in the world would be full of just that one species of bird by now- there still needs to be 12 more people doing similar work on the same species to even come close to the impact of that sustainable ball python take.
I'll speak from experience. I conduct fairly invasive studies (using as humane methods as possible) into reptile reproduction using small Australian tussock skinks, which are highly unique as one of 5 reptilian lineages to have evolved a functional placenta (as opposed to only a single mammal lineage, btw). They are an incredibly powerful animal model for cutting-edge evolutionary study, but our work also has implications for conservation- any reproductive study is important in this respect because advancing understanding of the environmental and genetic influences on reproductive success can lead to predictive models for understanding birthrate, which along with death rate and migration rate makes up population dynamics. At the same time, these animals share the same molecular mechanisms for reproduction as do humans, so they also can provide information relevant to understanding our own biology, and potentially contribute to combating diseases like endometriosis and preeclampsia. There's a tremendous amount of potential shared benefit, across many different fields, that might be gained from studies of this one species.
They're also really cute, and I do have moments where I hate myself, but emotions like that are great for making sure you treat the animals themselves as carefully and humanely as possible, at all times. We aren't all mad scientists bent on world domination, after all.
Anyway, we hammer this species hard in the field and sometimes collect 100-200 pregnant females per season (average about 40). We also conduct mark-recapture for ecological studies, and there is so far no evidence that we are impacting the population. We are collecting about as intensively as a scientist can on any one species at any one time. Any more and we would be fundamentally limited by the logistics of proper animal care and welfare in the lab, given the many other obligations (teaching, writing, etc.) that we have. There just aren't enough hours in the day, or dollars for crickets, electricity, facility rental costs, water, and labor.
We collect about as intensively as any one group of scientists can on a single reptile species, given those logistical constraints. Our collection goes far, far beyond the effort needed for taxonomy-type studies because we need a lot of replication, and the skinks are so small that there are only so many things we can do with a given tissue sample. Even the vast majority of ecological or physiological studies of reptiles don't even come close to ours- it's a lot easier to house 200 4 gram skinks in a small lab/animal room than it is even 200 ball pythons. Still, even with our level of collection, you would need about 600 equally intensive scientists to reach the level of collection in Ernie's ball python example, and we would all have to be having similar levels of impact each year. In reality, there's maybe 2 or 3 other people that work on this species, and they work in Victoria and Tasmania, while we're up in New South Wales. We all work on separate populations, and so our collective impact is split amongst them. The other labs also do more field-based work than we, so their specimens are usually never actually collected. This is the standard for biologists who work on herps- very few people work on a single species, and of those, very few are involved in wholesale collection as opposed to field study like mark-recapture. The potential exceptions are species that are common, widespread, and are charismatic, declining, or useful for multiple research questions- things like red-eared sliders, painted turtles, timber rattlesnakes, garter snakes, green anoles, etc.
So, is scientific collection really so expansive? I'll grant you there are some bad apples out there who have done bad things (such is humanity), but these days the ability to collect in a wanton manner is severely restricted by animal ethics and collection permits. For example, there are rumors of some old scientists who used to do things like collect out an entire breeding pond of amphibians for one reason or another. Permits and IACUC approvals simply don't get issued for those kinds of collections anymore, unless there is a CLEAR need for it to occur (which is incredibly rare and takes a lot of justification). In some cases, old geezers doing things like this have even had their permits rescinded.
But still, even if you wanted to wantonly collect a huge number of animals like that, it simply isn't logistically possible for that collection rate to come anywhere near approaching what occurs in the commercial or food trades. Again, I'm not arguing from a sustainability perspective, just that the witch hunt against science, over and over again, ignores a lot of reality.