Why I don’t collect

“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?

Dark-eyed Junco specimens that I have measured

Dark-eyed Junco specimens that I have measured

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.

I'm sure GAEL appreciates my no-collecting policy

I’m sure GAEL appreciates my no-collecting policy

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7 thoughts on “Why I don’t collect

  1. Most non-scientists like me go to museums to look and learn, and never think about how many researchers might be in back rooms working with collections. Interesting to hear about this. I assume you need special permission to have access to the museum’s specimens?

    • Yep. You need to have a good reason for using the collections, get permission from the curators, and agree to handle the specimens in appropriate ways. But people outside the museum definitely use our specimens, and not only academics from other museums; I know our specimens have been used by a local non-profit bird conservation group for their research, and have been photographed for an arty coffee table book. The hope with specimens is that many people can use them for many things, for a long time.

    • I felt the same when I first started in the field – it seems sort of old-fashioned, somehow. At least researchers are a bit more self-aware about it now, and careful not to collect specimens from populations too small to handle losing an individual.

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