“You work in a museum and you don’t collect? At all?” My officemate glanced up from labeling specimen tags to give me an incredulous look.
“Yep,” I said.
I work in a museum filled with hundreds of thousands of specimens, and I do not add to them. I do not collect: i.e., “sacrifice” (kill) birds in order to add them to the museum’s collections. Many researchers would consider this to be poor teamwork, even poor manners – here I am measuring bills, benefiting from others’ collecting work, and not contributing! What is my problem?
First, I am a behavioral ecologist. I want to know what animals do, and funnily enough, they don’t do much after they’re dead. You can study behavior and collect – a colleague of mine used to run experiments where he monitored birds’ reactions to song recordings, then shot them – but you can’t look at how behavior affects longevity, or lifetime fitness. You limit yourself. (Of course, by not collecting, I limit myself too. But the point is that both policies have limits.)
Second, I believe that it is as important to study specimens as it is to collect them. Collecting comes at the cost of a life. That can be justified only if the specimen subsequently adds considerably to our knowledge, and that means that we have to make sure to utilize our specimens in research. I consider that I am contributing to the museum community by using its resources.
Third, I do not need to take specimens for my work. I measure my birds in the hand, then release them. I can do genetic work from the small sample of blood I take. There are things I cannot do – examine stomach contents, do transcriptomics – but those costs do not, for me, outweigh the benefit of keeping the bird alive.
And finally, I am in this field because it inspires me. The experience of monitoring and interacting with the birds is constantly rewarding. I delight in the animals. If I had to collect them – if I had to kill them – I would not love this work, and I would not be as good at it.
There are many reasons for researchers to collect. Much good work has come from collecting – including some conservation work that probably saved many more individuals than were originally killed. This is just my own personal cost-benefit analysis. I work in a museum, I do not collect, and I am happy with that.