From: Shreya Dasgupta, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published November 12, 2015 07:20 AM

To Kill or Not to Kill: The Great Specimen Debate

Indeed, museum collections are fascinating. Many of us probably still gawk at stuffed collections of extant and extinct birds, beetles, vibrantly-colored butterflies, and other animals that fill up glass cases and exhibition halls.

Many of these collections were borne out of expeditions to remote parts of the world; treks that involved trapping, killing, preserving and cataloging animals that explorers encountered. Many of these collections have been useful in shaping what we know of the natural world.

For instance, Charles Darwin’s collection of birds from his travel aboard The Beagle — particularly those collected on the Galapagos Islands — is believed to have inspired his theory of evolution. We also know of the now-extinct animals like the dodo from museum specimens alone.

However, species conservation or scientific advancement was not always the goal of animal-collection. Often, it was done simply to suit the aesthetic whims of society’s elite.

The practice of amassing collections boomed in the nineteenth century, when many wealthy and indiscriminate collectors accumulated specimens of birds and other animals from across the world. For most of these collections, aesthetic considerations often trumped scientific ones, according to a 1980 paper in the Archives of Natural History that examined the history of ornithological collections in the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries.

“The result was an emphasis on showy specimens, oddities and arrangement,” the authors wrote in their paper.

Things have changed, though, and the practice of collecting species has evolved with time.

In science today, there isn’t much indiscriminate collection “because there is nothing to gain from it,” Luiz Rocha of the California Academy of Sciences, told Mongabay.

“Nobody’s scientific papers will get better if they collect more specimens,” Rocha said. “In addition, most museums have limited funding, so we don’t have where to preserve those specimens if they are collected indiscriminately, let alone support expeditions. There has to be a clear purpose for the collection of every specimen.”

Continue reading at ENN affiliate, MONGABAY.COM.

Speciment jars image via Shutterstock.

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