Recently the story of how researchers killed an elusive moustached kingfisher drew the collective ire of the world’s media outlets. The species is only known from three female specimens from the early and mid-20th century so it came as a shock to the public and some fellow biologists when it was discovered that Christopher Filardi and his team, on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History euthanized the only male of the species ever caught.
Filardi’s defence of the decision noted that it was in keeping with the ‘gold standard’ of zoological practice and also claimed the bird would be a valuable voucher specimen.
Voucher specimens are collected for research purposes by various institutions; many of Darwin’s famous finches can be found at the Natural History Museum in London for example, along with a staggering 29 million other animal specimens. Similarly before a species can be formally described it first requires a ‘type specimen’, a preserved individual which partly serves as hard evidence for that species existence. For the last 200 hundred years this manner of collecting species has been the most accurate way of collating and comparing them, even today scientists still utilize the large back catalogue of specimens for important research.
However in this age of photography, 3D printing and DNA sequencing is the collection of dead specimens really a priority when dealing with rare species? The moustached kingfisher currently has no population data but is thought to be endangered owing to habitat loss and a small home range according to the IUCN.
So is this kill and collect procedure compulsory when finding an underrepresented or new species? No, in fact in Somalia 1988, biologist Edmund Smith and his team broke the mould when they discovered a rare, never before seen bird. Smith captured the bird near the town Buloburti and strongly suspected that it was a new species of shrike due to its unique plumage.
This is usually where the story ends for the captive bird; however Smith decided not to kill it, ducking a 200 year old zoological trend. Concerned that the bird may be critically endangered he studied it in captivity before releasing it back into the wild. Using DNA techniques Smith later confirmed that the bird was a new species of shrike and aptly named it the Bulo Burti boubou, its Latin name of Laniarius liberatus is a nod to the bird’s liberation. For the first time in zoological history a new species had been captured, described, named and released back into the wild without a type specimen. Instead various ‘type materials’ such as moulted feathers, blood samples and DNA were used. Many high profile scientists including the former director of science at Bird Life International Dr Nigel Collar ridiculed the decision, donning a similar stance to Filardi in his defence.
There was a final twist in the tale of the Bulo Burti boubou bird however. In 2008 far more advanced DNA sequencing methods had become available since Smith published his findings in 1991 and it was discovered that the Bulo Burti boubou was not a new species, just a rare colour morph of the Somali boubou. The fact that this information was garnered in the absence of a dead specimen supports Smith’s decision not to collect one in some ways.
So in summary yes there is an alternative to killing rare species for use in museum collections and no the zoology police will not track you down if you chose the alternative option as Smith did. No matter which option you choose however you will face ridicule from your peers, the public or both as Filardi and Smith found out. Being standard practice, the moustached kingfisher probably won’t be the last collection casualty we hear of in the coming years, we may have to wait a little while longer for another case like the Bulo Burti boubou however.
What do you think, should scientists adopt a kinder approach to specimen collection or continue to adhere to the gold standard? Share your comments below.
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