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Subject: Natural history specimen salvage

Natural history specimen salvage

From: Jim Croft <jrc>
Date: Thursday, February 18, 1993
Re: Beyond parataxonomy? ( paracollecting? )
The issue below emerged on the net and is relevant to several discussion
groups of a biological, curatorial, and collections management nature.

Like parataxonomy, and mass culling of museum and herbarium collections,
it is a suggestion that is likely to evoke a diversity of views and
opinion.  I would like to know what some of them are.

>Check out the sidebar article on P. 30 of the March 1993 issue of
>Scientific American. It describes an article by physicist and science
>fiction writer Gregory Benford, who, in last November's Proceedings of
>the National Academy of Sciences, is advocating the flash-freezing of
>samples of biota from endangered habitats.

Given only the above background, I find this proposal a little naive,
and if it is not naive, then it is disturbing: disturbing in that there
is a lack off appreciation of the need for mechanisms to voucher and
accurately identify the organisms on which we work and which we base
environmental and conservation management decisions.

It could be argued that if organisms are going extinct that rapidly, the
analysis of their DNA is of academic interest only, especially so if no
comparative specimen was collected on which to base an identification
and pass systematic judgement.

Perhaps the author was implying that at a later day biotechnicians could
use these undocumented, unidentified DNA samples to call species back
from extinction and recreate vanished biomes.  For many groups this is
still in the realm of science fiction (but then again, there have been
some remarkable successes in the cryogenic storage of some plant

I have no problem with the rapid sampling (cryopreservation or
whatever) of endangered habitats, but the samples must be identified,
or at least identifiable, and this means the collection of scientific
specimens prepared in the standard manner for the group, and their
lodgement and curation in museums and herbaria.

The importance of collecting data can not be overemphasized.  The
locality is not enough -- habitat, associated species, general
appearance, colours, local uses, etc., should all be accurately recorded
and tied to a scientific voucher specimen, not just a lump of plant or
animal tissue.

And the practical problems -- what institutions, especially in third
world countries where much of the habitat threat occurs, have, or can
afford, the capacity to store millions of frozen specimens?

Yes, the problem of vanishing taxa and habitats is serious, but I do not
believe this proposal (as I understand it) offers a practicable


Jim Croft                  [Herbarium CBG]
Australian National Botanic Gardens
GPO Box 1777, Canberra, ACT 2601, AUSTRALIA
+61-6-2509 490
fax:  +61-6-2509 599
Biodiversity Directorate
Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service

                  Conservation DistList Instance 6:46
                 Distributed: Friday, February 19, 1993
                        Message Id: cdl-6-46-002
Received on Thursday, 18 February, 1993

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