Monday, January 31, 2011

Monkey Business

This is one of those posts that you start and stop and start again, until you wonder whether it’s actually worth the bother. It may get me into trouble with some of you. But I'm going to do it anyway.

I'm not a huge fan of the BBC as an organization but I'd be the first to acknowledge the matchless quality of their programming, especially in the field of natural history. As an occasional taxonomist, however, I'm getting a bit leery of their involvement in high-profile efforts to catalog global biodiversity. This is important science, and it's good that the BBC is showing it to the public. But this recent piece, describing the possible discovery of a new species of lemur, got right on my wick.

As you’ll see from the article, the animal in question is a fork-marked lemur (genus Phaner). The process of collection involved darting the lemur, retrieving the tranquilized animal, taking some blood samples (and presumably some photos) and letting it go again. The “type specimen” of the lemur, assuming that it actually is a new species, will be the photos and the blood samples. There will be no voucher specimen.

This is the sort of thing that gets me quite exercised.

There are a number of reasons why the primatologist, Russ Mittermeier, may have chosen to go down this route. Many species of lemurs are rare, and killing one, even for scientific purposes, may have seemed unjustifiable for a Conservation International team. It may have sent the wrong message to local people working with the researchers (“it’s OK for us to hunt and kill them, but not you”). Given that the area where the lemur occurs is protected, they may not have had the necessary permits from the Malagasy government. But the cynic in me says that when you have a TV camera pointed at you, you don’t want to be seen euthanizing something that’s cute and cuddly with big eyes.

Here’s the flipside of this approach. First, any species whose long term viability can be significantly affected by the removal of one individual is already extinct. Natural mortality will far exceed this. Second, by pumping this small animal full of drugs and removing blood samples, you’ve already compromised its fitness. Studies of equivalent procedures in birds suggest that it increases mortality by up to 30%. Chances are that this little guy may have crawled off and died in a hole somewhere. Third, a blood sample and photograph can provide only a very limited amount of information about the species – a fraction of what could be obtained from a full body voucher specimen. No-one will be able to re-examine this type specimen to validate Mittermeier’s observations and if anyone has new questions they’ll have to go and collect another one – compromising the fitness of yet another individual.

The BBC piece notes breathlessly that “A strange structure under the lemur's tongue could also distinguish it from its closest relatives.” However, no-one will be able to investigate the anatomy of this structure, because they don’t have a specimen to dissect or scan. Even if they’d brought the thing back to a zoo and waited for it to die of old age, it would have been better. But no, we had to have the money shot of the sleepy lemur clambering back up the tree so that all those BBC watchers could feel warm and fuzzy in their living rooms.

I really hate to break this to people, but natural history museums are full of dead animals. And they didn’t get there by people going out and looking under bushes for ones that had died of old age. There are lively debates within the profession about the ethics of collecting; the ornithologists in particular have spent a considerable amount of time discussing the pros and cons as they relate to birds. But the fact remains that mortality due to scientific collection represents a tiny and non-additive fraction of natural mortality and is arguably the only form of death that has a positive outcome for the organism in terms of knowledge gained.

Perhaps I shouldn’t beat on the BBC about this. Fearing PETA-style direct action, many natural history museums are keen to soft-pedal the issue of what it is that we actually do behind those locked doors. I recall with amusement a discussion I had with a rather Orwellian public affairs office (of a museum that will remain nameless) over a press profile of one of my staff who worked in an osteology lab. Explaining why they wanted the piece spiked, our press officer informed me that “dead things and bones is not the message that we want to get across.” Safer to concentrate on things that are long dead (“Dinosaurs!”) or never alive (“Diamonds!”).

Compared to vivisection, the annual death toll from the activities of museums is vanishingly small and it's usually controlled by the same set of rigorous approval procedures for animal use; certainly there is no way that we could go out and collect vertebrates without having made a very strong justification first. But natural history museums are seen as “friendly” places, where kids go to marvel at nature, rather than scientific research institutions. Many of the best museums are both these things, but there is a major disconnect between what we show and what we do.

As we seek to break down the barriers between exhibits and collections – which, let’s remember, is a good thing – we will increasingly confront questions that make us uncomfortable. Is what we do cruel? How do our activities differ from lab-based animal research? How do we justify it? What mechanisms do we use to figure out if collection is justified? No-one wants to have to rehearse these issues in public, but we shouldn’t avoid them just for the sake of a quiet life. Or do weaker science because we don’t want to upset our audience.

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