Scientists Plead For Alternate Identification Methods For Threatened Species: Rush To Resurrect Extinct Animals May Actually Cause Extinction

By Ben Wolford on April 17, 2014 2:05 PM EDT

Atelopus varius is a species of Central American tree frog presumed extinct for more than a decade until small populations were discovered in the 2000s. (Photo: Robert Puschendorf)

Atelopus varius is a species of Central American tree frog presumed extinct for more than a decade until small populations were discovered in the 2000s. (Photo: Robert Puschendorf)

For a biologist, few things are more exhilarating than discovering an animal in the wild that was thought to be extinct. The first reaction is usually to collect the animal and take it back to a lab for testing to ensure it is what it appears — it could belong to a new species or an existing one. But this practice of removing specimens from the wild could have dire consequences for threatened species.

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"Because these populations are very small and often isolated, they are incredibly sensitive to over-collecting," says Ben Minteer, an environmental ethicist at Arizona State University. He and colleagues in Arizona and England are pleading in this week's issue of Science for biologists to use alternate collection methods for vulnerable species identification. "Combine the understandable impulse to confirm something really important — such as that a species is not, in fact, extinct — with the sensitivity of a population to collection and you've got a potentially significant conservation issue," he said in a news release.

The impulse among scientists in such a situation is to quickly trap a "voucher specimen." This is the present norm. But such efforts to understand animals on the verge of extinction risks causing their extinction. "Especially in the case of rediscovered species, avoiding 're-extinction' should be the primary ethical constraint of any scientific effort to verify a species' welcome return from the dead," Minteer says.

Instead, they propose that all field biologists should use non-invasive and non-lethal sampling techniques. These include genetic testing with swab samples, high-resolution photos and videos, and audio recordings of animal sounds. "The technology is there to gather crucial evidence to substantiate our finding without harming the animals," says Robert Puschendorf, a conservation biologist at Plymouth University and co-author of the paper. "There is no need to collect by default."

The idea of non-invasive sampling is not new. For years scientists have been identifying animals — without ever seeing the animal. For example, researchers used mitochondrial DNA samples from hair snags to distinguish species of North American mountain lions. And in the Canary Islands, two species of endangered pigeons revealed themselves only through the molecules in their droppings.

Yet, there are limitations to these strategies. Sometimes the amount of DNA collected is too small, which can lead to errors and false identifications, according to a 2008 study. The authors of the new Science paper acknowledge that deciding how to conduct field science "is complicated."

"Our goal is to highlight this challenge while offering options for documenting exciting, interesting and important discoveries," said James P. Collins, an evolutionary ecologist at Arizona State. "We are emphasizing the need for investigators to reflect on the wider ethical and social implications of their work before or as they conduct the research and not just after the fact."

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