Behind the scenes at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, there's a vast, warehouse-like room that's filled with metal cabinets painted a drab institutional green. Inside the cabinets are more than a half-million birds — and these birds are not drab. Their colorful feathers make them seem to almost glow.
"The birds are showing their beautiful plumages; they're laid out like little soldiers in a row," says Helen James, the curator in charge of the bird division, as she points to some special finds. "We have some of the most amazing hummingbirds. Here is one with a long, straight bill that's longer than the bird itself. Here is the smallest species of a raptorial bird — a tiny little falcon."
Probably every hour, she says, someone reaches into a cabinet here and pulls out a bird. Maybe a visiting scientist wants to know all the places a species has been collected, to understand its geographic range. Or a paleontologist needs help identifying a fossil to reconstruct the evolution of birds. Sometimes a researcher wants to take a bit from a specimen to do a lab analysis that could reveal what the bird ate, or whether it was sick, or if it was exposed to a toxin.
The value of scientific collections like this one — and the constant need for adding new specimens — is so obvious to James that she was alarmed by a recent article that appeared in the journal Science.
It warned that scientific collection has the potential to hurt animal populations that are small and isolated. The article also asserted that "collecting specimens is no longer required to describe a species or to document its rediscovery."
"There was a real concern here that there was an issue of scientific responsibility," says Ben Minteer, an ethicist at Arizona State University and one of the report's authors. "If we're dealing with very small populations, where individuals really matter in these populations, it doesn't take many researchers filling their specimen bags to have an impact."
Last year, for example, Minteer's co-author, Robert Puschendorf of Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, was doing field work in the mountains of Costa Rica when he heard that a certain tree frog — once thought to be extinct — had just been spotted.
"A colleague of mine was telling us about it and he was really excited," Puschendorf recalls; he and some colleagues went out that night to try to find this frog but couldn't. In the morning, they heard that someone else had found one and collected it.
Puschendorf says the experience was an eye-opener. "I've collected lots of animals in the past and it's incredibly important," he says. But this case left him feeling troubled. "Because why do we actually need to take the animal right at this point in time," he asks, "when they are just starting to show up again in a site ... and you can actually be harming that population?"
Traditionally, collecting what scientists call a voucher specimen is considered the gold standard for documenting the presence of a species. "It's the ultimate evidence that you've found something, right?" Puschendorf says. "You have the whole animal."
He and a colleague asked Minteer for advice on the ethics of whether this is always the best approach. They concluded that instead of collecting one of the rediscovered frogs right away, scientists could have used alternative techniques to document its existence — like getting some of its DNA, or taking photographs.
After all, this tree frog was already known to science. But even when researchers discover a totally new species, Minteer says, they shouldn't collect if they don't understand the possible impact. To him, this was a no-brainer.
"The surprise for me was the degree to which some [in] the biologist community and the museum community felt that this was an all-out attack on what they do," says Minteer.
More than a hundred researchers from museums and universities around the world signed a letter to Science that defends specimen collection as an essential tool. The researchers noted that an estimated 86 percent of species on the planet aren't yet known to science.
"If we don't have the specimens, then we can't obtain the data that we actually need to conserve the species," says Carole Baldwin, a fish specialist at the National Museum of Natural History.
Baldwin says she, personally, would not be convinced if someone claimed to have a new fish species just based on photos and DNA, because that could be misleading.
And she points out that much of ocean life simply cannot be discovered without collecting it. Baldwin studies deep ocean reefs, for example, that she reaches by diving in a small submarine.
"Most of the diversity on coral reefs, you've never seen," she says. "It's not swimming out above the reef; it's down deep inside. So you're not going to come to me with photographs and DNA unless you've got a specimen."
She worries that this recent criticism of collecting will give the public the wrong idea — which worries her. Before scientists go on a collecting trip, they have to get all kinds of permission from regulators, and Baldwin says "it's getting harder and harder to get approval and permits to collect."
Over in the bird division of the museum, James notes that one recent field expedition to Djibouti in Africa required seven different permits and approvals.
That expedition returned with a big black case that James opens to show a tray of black-and-white birds, pinned down so that they would dry in the right position.
"These three here are crab plovers," James says. "This is a very special addition to our collection because we did not have any modern genetic material of this family." Now the scientists can sequence the DNA of this strange shorebird and figure out how it fits into the family tree.
She worries that Minteer's arguments could create a dangerous slippery slope.
"When it's suggested that you should cease collecting because maybe there's a case when you don't know whether you might collect something rare, then that argues that we should cease collecting generally," James says. "We fear it will swing the pendulum toward ceasing scientific collection entirely, and I think that would be a great harm."
Long ago, some scientists did go out and deliberately collect rare species in a way that would never be accepted today, says James. But she sees no evidence that modern scientific collection has ever made a species go extinct, and says the real culprits are activities like habitat destruction.
"We're not claiming that scientific collection is a leading driver of extinction," counters Minteer. "That's a sort of absurd, sort of hyperbolic interpretation of what we're saying."
He says all he and his colleagues really wanted to convey is that scientists should be careful and think twice — seriously consider alternatives before automatically grabbing an animal to take home.
"It's one thing for a community to say, 'Look, we have a code of ethics, we abide by it. No responsible biologist would ever do this.' We think that those are all good things, and good statements," says Minteer. "But it's harder to actually create a sort of ethical culture in the field when no one is looking — when no one is watching."
There needs to be more discussion of how scientists can watch over themselves, Minteer says, to make sure their desire to collect a species never delivers the final blow.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Cabinets of curiosities - that's what wealthy people in 18th and 19th centuries called the rooms they filled with everything from narwhal horns to preserved crocodiles. These collections became more formalized with biologists, like Charles Darwin, who brought back all kinds of crustaceans and insects and birds from distant lands. Even today, scientists collect specimens for study - it's routine. Too routine, some critics say. They believe scientific collection is helping drive some species towards extinction. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, this charge has provoked a strong reaction from universities and museums.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: To understand what a big deal specimen collecting is, I visited a vast warehouse-like room filled with dead birds - over half a million of them. They're stored inside tall stacks of metal cabinets. Helen James has pulled out some birds that are so colorful they almost seem to glow.
HELEN JAMES: The birds are showing their beautiful plumages, they're laid out like little soldiers in a row. We have some of the most amazing hummingbirds. Here's one with a long straight bill that's longer than the bird itself. Here is the smallest species of a reportorial bird - a tiny little falcon.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so how often does somebody, like, walk out here and open a cabinet and pull out a bird?
JAMES: Probably every hour.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: James is the curator in charge of birds at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. She says these specimens can help answer almost any question about birds you can think of - how these species evolved, how populations have changed over time, scientists can even take bits of specimens and use them to analyze the birds DNA or test for diseases or toxins. The oldest specimens date back to the 1840's but new ones are always arriving. James opens a big black case. It belongs to a colleague who just returned from Djibouti in Africa.
JAMES: So this is how it comes back from the field.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Underneath a layer of cotton is a tray of black and white birds pinned down so that they'll dry in the right position.
JAMES: And these three here are crab plovers. This is a very special addition to our collection because we do not have any modern genetic material of this family.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says this will help them finally figure out how this strange shorebird fits into the bird family tree. The Smithsonian doesn't just gather birds but also fish, insects, reptiles - the collections are huge. And James says, most of the world's species are still out there - unknown and waiting to be discovered. To her, the need for more collecting is obvious - so she was alarmed by a recent article. It appeared in the high profile journal "Science." Its message - collecting can sometimes be dangerous.
BEN MINTEER: There's a real concern here that there was an issue of scientific responsibility.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ben Minteer is an ethicist at Arizona State University and one of the article's authors. He argues that if an animal is rare and potentially threatened, scientists should think twice before they grab it and take it home.
MINTEER: You know, if we're dealing with very small populations where individuals really matter in these populations it doesn't take many researchers filling, you know, their specimen bags to have an impact.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Minteer started thinking about this because of a biologist named Robert Puschendorf. He works at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom. Last year, Puschendorf was doing fieldwork in the mountains of Costa Rica. When he heard that a tree frog that was once thought to be extinct had just been spotted.
ROBERT PUSCHENDORF: And a colleague of mine was telling us about it and he was really excited about it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That night they searched for this frog but had no luck. Then, in the morning, they heard that someone else had found one and collected it. That worried him.
PUSCHENDORF: I have collected lots of animals in the past and that's incredibly important but in this case I just thought, well this is just really not on because why do we actually need to take the animal right in this point in time when they're just starting to show up again, in our sight again, and you can actually be harming that population.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He and a colleague asked Minteer to help them sort out the ethics here. The group concluded that in this kind of situation biologists should leave the animals in the wild. They say, these days, there are alternatives for documenting a species - like sampling its DNA or taking photographs. To Minteer, this was a no-brainer.
MINTEER: The surprise for me was the degree to which some of the biologist community and the museum community felt that this was an all-out attack on what they do.
CAROLE BALDWIN: If we don't have the specimens then we can't obtain the data that we actually need to conserve the species.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Carole Baldwin is the curator in charge of the fish division at the Smithsonian. She studies life in coral reefs.
BALDWIN: Most of the organisms that I study, you're not just going to go out with a submersible or scuba gear or snorkel gear and get photographs. These things are living cryptically in reefs. It's not swimming out above the reef - it's down, deep inside.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says to study it you have to collect it.
BALDWIN: You're not going to come to me with photographs and DNA unless you've got a specimen.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Baldwin points out that laws and regulations already protect wildlife.
BALDWIN: It's getting harder and harder to get approval and permits to collect. And I think part of our concern is that articles, like the Minteer et al. article, sort of swing the balance in the wrong way in terms of public perception.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's why she joined over 100 other scientists from around the world to sign a letter that strongly defends the continued need for specimen collection. Helen James, the bird curator, also signed it.
JAMES: When it suggested that you should cease collecting because, maybe, there's a case when you don't know whether you might collect something rare - then that argues that we should cease collecting generally.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says scientific collection makes up just a tiny, tiny fraction of all the birds killed by people. Mostly, we destroy their habitat but that's not all.
JAMES: There are over a billion birds taken by domestic cats. There are half - over half a billion birds that fly into our buildings every year and die just in the U.S. And there, you know, a hundred million or more that are killed on our highways.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This kind of response makes Ben Minteer think that everyone is missing the point.
MINTEER: We're not claiming that scientific collection is a leading driver of extinction. That's a, sort of, absurd, sort of, hyperbolic interpretation of what we're saying.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They just wanted to raise awareness of a problem.
MINTEER: You know, it's one thing for a community to say, look we have a code of ethics, we abide by it, no responsible biologist would ever do this. You know, we think that those are all good things and good statements but it's harder to actually create a sort of ethical culture in the field when no one's looking - when no one's watching.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says biologist can't afford to be defensive. They need to have a real discussion about how to weigh the benefits of collecting a specimen with the risks. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.