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Conservation Biology

Panel Discussion


GROSLINER:  What we have been able to do today is look at some of the operations of systematics, some of the things that are ongoing in systematics and I think, understand that systematic biologists. I think a lot of people have an image of individuals who simply sit in a laboratory and look at dead stuff. I think hopefully, one of the things that we have been able to demonstrate that when you have an interest and when you study a group of organisms that there are many other things that you take into consideration. Such as, some of the fly parasites that are found on bats, some of the distribution patterns of other organisms that are found in similar environments.

There are a whole array of different things that the systematic biologist has to incorporate into their repertoire of understanding of a group of organisms that they study. The more that one is able to do that, you can see that the understanding of that group of organisms and its relationship to other groups of organisms is greatly enhanced. That is how as systematic biologists we put together a pool of evidence and a pool of information that we can then share with the rest of the biological community and conservation organizations and we really formulate the knowledge about the distribution, systematics, evolutionary relationships and a lot of the comparative biology of those organisms.

One of the questions that came up certainly is one of the things that we have to do. You saw that each one of us in the process of undertaking systematic biology and doing what we call collection based research, collects organisms. One of the questions that I wanted to ask first of all to Joel is, within the context of conservation biology, why do we continue to increase collections?

CRACRAFT:  It is a complicated question and it has many ramifications and it bumps up against people's philosophical notions about life and about science and conservation. From a scientific standpoint as I mentioned, we really do not know what is out there. For the vast majority of organisms, you go into a rain forest or you go onto a corral reef and you collect animals there and it is the first time they have ever been collected and you are discovering stuff that we never knew about. Again, you also may be collecting things that will provide new medicines, new biochemical products for bioremediation. If one looks at the number of things out there that benefit human kind, collecting seems rational indeed. Where it sometimes doesn't seem rational to people is thinking that, well, we know everything. Harry mentioned this. Well, all off us have talked about new mammals and new birds because we think we know everything when in fact, we don't.

While the thrust of collecting is not only to discover new things, it is to understand what we already know better and the only way you can do that is through the collection sometimes because we are interested in collecting tissues for, getting tissues for molecular systematic research. In order for that to be useful, you have to have voucher specimens. It is easy to go out in the field, collect blood and release an animal and then all I have to do is have somebody come along and say, prove to me that that blood sample is from that animal and not from a contaminant and not from something else and you can't do it. Your science is useless. Unless you can say, it has come from this specimen right here and we can take a little bit of tissue from a topad, a bird let's say, that is in a museum and resequence it and convince ourselves that in fact, it came from this bird at this location and this time.

Conservation organizations that we have dealt with want us to collect because they want, sometimes with a little reluctance, but they understand that if they don't have that information, they don't know what they are preserving. It makes a better argument, like I said with that little bird that we found, that gives World Wildlife Fund a lot of convincing power with say, the government of the Central African Republic is really crucial to set aside and maintain as a refuge.

So there are many reasons why collecting is important. But I also mentioned, collecting, it is almost impossible to find examples in which--there are some, there are some. Not necessarily with bird but with some other organisms, that collecting has anything to do with hurting populations. Scientists don't go out there and just ravage the landscape. We don't do that. Most of us are not that thrilled with killing animals or collecting. That is not what we are out there for. We don't ravage the landscape and our populations are really never harmed by collection. In my experience, there has been very, very few documented examples of scientific collecting doing more harm than habitat destruction and other over uses for commercial purposes.


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