The Future of Voucher Specimens

Kannan, R. 2007. New bird descriptions without proper voucher specimens: reflections after the Bugun Liocichla case. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 104: 12-18.

This story begins with the discovery of the Bugun Liocichla, a spectacular but possibly rare bird discovered recently in India. The formal description of the bird stirred up a lot of controvery, as no type specimen was sent to a museum or examination, as is the formal procedure. Rather, the authors decided to take photographs and feather samples, as they believed that the species was too rare to allow for the taking of an individual. This raises some important questions about the current state of museum specimens, and whether they remain relevant in biology today, and if traditional practices are conservationally unadvised.

Bugun Liocichla

The author surveyed a broad group of museum ornithologists in order to form a consensus opinion on the future of museum collections, and the policy of requiring voucher specimens. Basically, all parties surveyed unequivocally supported the continued use of type specimens. Points:

  • Specimens can definitively separate species, otherwise multiple descriptions of identical species may occur.
  • Photographs are unreliable, due to the effects of lighting, angle, unreliability of color, and the potential for photo manipulation.
  • Collecting doesn’t severely affect populations, as bird populations typically rebound easily. Collected individuals may have eventually succumbed to natural causes anyways.
  • If a species is on the hopeless verge of extinction, is it better to collect the last individual than to allow it to vanish somewhere in the field where it is unrecoverable, therefore providing no information to science?
  • DNA complements rather than replaces voucher specimens, and therefore the submission of feather or blood samples is not sufficient without the additional conclusion of a voucher specimen.
  • If a researcher is truly worried about conservation issues, they may inform the scientific and public community about their discovery, but refrain from a formal description until a specimen is taken.

Overall an interesting paper that raises some thoughtful points. The debate over whether specimens should be taken from extremely rare species should remain contentious. I’m glad I found this obscure journal in Cornell, I have no idea why we have it.

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