Museums house thousands of animal specimens that are ancient, extinct, newly discovered and have yet to be studied. New York's American Museum of Natural History has 33 million specimens inside, while the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. has a whopping 145 million holdings.
While most animals collected by these institutions have been obtained legally, euthanized painlessly and researched with respect, some researchers often wonder whether there could be a better way of doing this kind of work. Two new, contrasting papers in the journal Plos Biology have ignited the debate once more.
How are museum specimens collected, and is there a more ethical way to do so? How can technology help implement that change?
Making a Case For Compassionate Collection
In an editorial for the journal Plos Biology, Allie Q. Byrne, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, urges experts in the field of natural history to consider whether there's a more ethical way to curate natural history collections than having to euthanize and store entire dead animals.
"For me, there's an intersection of cultural change and technological advancements that is shifting the way we're relating to nature around us," says Byrne, whose work focuses on using genetic and genomic techniques to study amphibians — but no longer collects animals for her research intentionally.
The application of specimen collection comes from "extractive, colonial science practices," Byrne writes in the paper, and taking an animal from its natural habitat and killing it reinforces the idea that humans should have power over other living creatures.
"I'm interested in asking people what would it look like to shift it even more, and can we get to a point where we don't have to take any more animal lives for museum collections and research, and what does that vision look like for the future?" says Byrne. This reflection was spurred by Byrne's feelings in the field — when confronted with first having to collect and kill animals herself, she felt queazy and confused. It also stems from conversations with graduate students who had the same concerns going into the field.
Methods for Compassionate Collection
Her research paper proposes a new framework: "compassionate collection." Museums should focus on growing their collections by improving their databases of non-lethal samples — like collecting more animal tissue — and building better infrastructure to preserve their specimens.
Museums should also implement more digitization in their collections — more pictures and recordings, which get more accurate thanks to better tech and well-planned centralized data sharing. Additionally, museums could embrace new technologies that can unlock much more knowledge from existing collections, like new advancements in ancient DNA sequencing and whole-genome sequencing.
"Properly preserved nonlethal tissue samples could provide high-quality DNA for myriad future uses," Byrne writes. She suggests we should start thinking of "extended specimen" and holistic sets of physical and digital data for specimens to continue using these technologies to replace the need for whole animal bodies.
"The main goal was to spark these kinds of conversations because I don't think [...] the pro-collecting/con-collecting debate is that interesting," says Byrne. "But I think we're envisioning creative solutions to minimize animal harm."
Could Museums of the Future Not Have Dead Animals?
Critics of "compassionate collection" like Prosanta Chakrabarty, an ichthyologist and a fish collector from Louisiana State University, have suggested that while this idea is well-intentioned, it just misses the mark. There's just too much we do not know about biodiversity for scientists to stop collecting specimens in the wild.
"What we do is 'sacrificing the few to save the many' because you can't save something you don't understand," says Chakrabarty. While technology can allow for studying them more in-depth, it cannot replace them.
Pictures, videos and 3D models can help classify fish according to their morphology, but scientists cannot peer inside the animals' bodies. By looking at DNA or bits and pieces of animals, scholars risk getting an incomplete picture of what they're like. "We take a fin clip and put the fish back," says Chakrabarty. "The DNA helps a lot. But you don't describe species on DNA; you understand species based on their morphology."
Not all animals from the same species look the same because there are males, females, juveniles and variations among each individual. "Variation is how evolution happens," says Chakrabarty. "If you just take a fin clip, or feather, or a blood sample, you're not seeing that variation."
What Are Specimens Good For?
Not having specimens also risks making future research non-repeatable or invalid: you cannot test something again if you only have a small bit of DNA instead of a whole animal. Chakrabarty recently penned an editorial for the journal eLife urging researchers who work on animal genomics to always link back to the original specimens they've used for research because of this same principle.
Describing new species is impossible without a solid collection of old ones to go back to, according to Chakrabarty. "It's really hard to tell things apart without having them in front of you."
Plus, each voucher is a data point that can continue to be studied throughout the years for things researchers didn't even know they needed. "If they have data, they're not dead," says Chakrabarty.
In April 2023, researchers learned more about the bacteria that causes leprosy in some old armadillo specimens from 10 different natural history museums. Some scientists have made the most of museum specimen archives to identify the pathogen that causes Chagas disease in wood rats and that of hantaviruses in deer mice, as well as study snake fungal disease.
Plus, most invertebrates and, therefore, most of the world's biodiversity are too small to be sampled non-lethally — it's improbable to be able to harmlessly collect skin swabs from bugs.
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The Decline Of Specimen Collection
In the same issue of Plos Biology, an editorial by Cornell University's vertebrate researcher Vanya Rohwer noted that museum collections are currently struggling with a decline in new additions of vertebrate specimens to natural history collections. Records collected from about 245 natural institutions suggest that new specimen additions have actually declined by 54 percent to 76 percent across four vertebrate groups from 1965 to 2018.
"Failing to add new specimens to natural history collections compromises the value of existing collections and, inevitably, will limit future discovery through a lack of appropriate comparative material," Rohwer writes. "If we value the inspiration, insight, and use of specimens in the discovery of new knowledge, we should quickly reverse these trends."
Museums and universities should implement active collecting programs that teach researchers how to use collections to their advantage, Rohwer suggests.
What If The Animal Died Anyway?
According to Chakrabarty, it's also important to consider if the animal was already dead for collections. "We treat the specimens with respect, and we don't collect more than we need to," says Chakrabarty. "This is just a small fraction, a tiny fraction of what's out there, and also what's being exploited."
Plus, not only do researchers collect and euthanize animals in the most humane and ethical ways, Chakrabarty says, but many animals are also collected once already dead for other reasons. "Sometimes I describe new things from fish markets," says Chakrabarty, saying he's described "probably five to 15 new species" from market specimens and fishery bycatch.
For instance, many of the birds currently in museum collections have hit a window or a glass door. The Field Museum in Chicago has a program dedicated to managing these instances.
What Should Natural History Museum Collectors Do Better?
Still, it's true that natural history collecting is based, in many cases, on extractive, colonial science practices.
"It's a Western construct, the natural history collections," says Chakrabarty. Most specimens housed in natural history collections in the West, for instance, come from countries that don't have any of those specimens themselves. Working to instill the scientific infrastructure necessary so that these regions can have their own collections and conduct their own research is paramount.
In a 2018 paper by curators at London's Natural History Museum, researchers acknowledged that the lack of information on the political and social context of natural collections "is problematic because it alienates non-white audiences" and that the way science is taught is important.
As an institution, they have been working towards decolonizing their natural history collections ever since, according to Atlas Obscura, and opened an exhibit called Displays of Power — putting the museum's collection side by side with explanations about how it is tied to colonialism. Similarly, Berlin's Natural History Museum ran workshops to draft recommendations for how to go about handling specimens from colonial contexts.
"We should be better about not just working with locals locally, but like, incorporating them into the global network and working with them into publications and building the scientific infrastructure," says Chakrabarty.
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