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Uploaded:2014-06-04
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The answer to the ever-burning question: why do we need so many dead things?

Avoiding (Re) Extinction:
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6181/260.summary

The response:
Specimen collection: An essential tool:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140522141315.htm

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Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Editor, Camera:
Tom McNamara

Theme music:
Michael Aranda

Created By:
Hank Green

Production Assistant:
Katie Kirby

Special thanks to:
Bill Stanley, John Bates, Derek Hennen and Morgan Jackson for their input on this episode.
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Filmed on Location and Supported by:
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL
(http://www.fieldmuseum.org)

Where did we get all those captions in different languages? From our fantastic team of translators, including Tony Chu, Barbara Velázquez, and Katerina Idrik!
(00:06)
Over the last year and a half on The Brain Scoop, you've all watched as I squeezed disgusting goo out of a squirrel's face, dismembered an anteater, taken apart a two-faced calf and dissected a wolf. While this has all been a disgusting adventure into animal anatomy, it's also served an underlying scientific purpose and that's not just to see me covered in animal guts.
(00:25)
Really these animals are all prepared for museums in a way that will inform future generations about changes in species over time. That wolf will be forever housed at the University of Montana and the information gathered from it radio collar, an invaluable tool that will be used to inform biologist and life managers of the whereabouts of the individual over the course of its entire life.
(0:45)
That's just one piece in a very large puzzle that biologist attempt to put together when trying to better understand biodiversity and ecosystems. The wolf getting hit by a car was not a natural death but it was one that most people can accept. We salvaged something that otherwise would have been thrown away and its value to science, a lost opportunity. So when a few Arizona State University scientist published an opinion piece in Science Magazine last month, stating that the collection of specimens by biologist in the field was contributing to overall species extinction worldwide, I felt a little bit conflicted. We haven't explicitly addressed the topic of biological collection here on The Brain Scoop, or the potential need for biologist to collect voucher specimens.
(1:25)
That means botanical or zoological specimens that are studied in the field and later placed in museums or research collections. Like all of the snakes that are in this room here. It is absolutely true that salvaged roadkill and birds that hit windows contribute to a large number of new specimens in museums, but relying on those new additions alone doesn't tell us enough about the bigger picture.
(01:45)
So what's the controversy? Well those few Arizona State University scientists are recommending that field biologist cease the collection of voucher specimens and instead rely on tissue sampling and photo documentation in lieu of collecting. That opinion resulted in a response paper co-authored by more than 100 biologist representing 59 of the top research institutions and museums across the world, who, politely disagree.
(02:08)
But the thing about a magazine like Science is that it's behind a paywall, meaning that the general public isn't even aware this conversation is happening. If a museum has hundreds of, let's say, bats, don't they have enough? Not exactly, museum specimens are like library books full of information that can be referred back to again and again. For example, a bat collected in the Montana territories in the early 1900s can tell us not only about that species' distribution, meaning where it was initially found, but by housing it in the museum collection it can be continuously studied to see change over time.
(02:40)
We can infer genetic information from the tissues that give us insight into what the climate was like in that region. By continuing to collect bats from the same area we can begin to see how that landscape is changing and this continuous monitoring can signal when those populations are in danger of things like disease, human impact or predation by invasive species.
(03:00)
Voucher specimens are compensatory, not additive to mortality rates of certain species. That means if you've got a detrimental epidemic, like the white nose syndrome, which is responsible for killing more than 5.7 million hibernating bats in the last seven years. Collecting a few hundred live bats to study how the disease spreads can prevent the extinction of entire populations by providing new knowledge on how to combat the disease. This type of biological study can also inform health professionals on the spread of infectious diseases, which as you know can have incredible impact on human populations.
(03:31)
Samples taken from the afflicted animals can then be compared to voucher specimens that were taken from the same area years, sometimes decades or even centuries before in order to identify the disease's origin. Take this for example, in the 1960s, eggs from museum collections were used to discover that high levels of chlorinated hydrocarbons in the pesticide DDT were resulting in the decline of bird species. Researchers on the project were able to look at eggs collected in the same area before the use of DDT and notice that egg shells were thinning in the DDT era.
(04:04)
This was causing incredibly high nesting failures and nearly led to the extinction of a number of raptors and other birds. Had biologist not been consistently collecting birds and eggs from North America since the 1880s, we may still be using DDT today without fully understanding its environmental impact. Let's also make it clear that biologist aren't just going out and setting traps for random animals willy-nilly. The collection of any plant or animal is informed by previous studies of that region and its ecosystems and regulated by state and national permits. Additionally biologists adhere to strict moral and ethical codes that are not unlike those taken by doctors when they vow to do everything in their power to facilitate the health and safety of their patients.
(04:46)
That same critical thinking applies before biologist even begin to consider taking specimens from a certain region. If the population of that species is discovered to be small or very uniquely distributed, then alternative methods for study are practiced, and if you're thinking, I'm not going to be affected by bats with nose fungus, then you're going to be singing a different tune when insect populations, some of which can carry diseases that are transferred to humans, blow out of control because their top predators are extinct.
(05:13)
We can't even begin to predict how museums and their collections are going to come in handy in the future, but one thing remains certain, if researchers are not allowed the resources necessary in order to make informed decisions about the health of our collective world, then we can't hope to preserve species of any type, including our own, and that effects everybody.