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American Association for the Advancement of Science

How to discover species (without killing them)

Atelopus varius was previously widespread and common in Costa Rica. It was last seen in 1991 during the mass amphibian declines, subsequently rediscovered more than ten years later. There are currently three small populations known in Costa Rica.
[Credit: Robert Puschendorf]

It's no surprise that newly discovered species (or even "rediscovered" species that researchers had thought were extinct) often come from small, isolated populations. This fact means that these new species are already at risk—but museums and private collectors can make these species' situation even worse, according to the authors of a Perspective article in this week's issue of Science.

Ben Minteer and colleagues discuss the traditional practice of collecting so-called "voucher" specimens, or samples of a newly discovered species—usually killed and stuffed—and how the practice has harmed populations of plants and animals over the years. They highlight the case of the great auk, which went extinct partly due to pressure from collectors, and Mexico's elf owl, which has lost much of its original range for the same reason.

Instead of continuing the practice of collecting voucher species, researchers should use high-resolution photography, audio recording and sampling techniques that don't hurt their specimens, like gently swabbing an organism's skin for their DNA, according to the authors.

These alternative methods can be just as detailed and accurate as voucher species without increasing the species' risk of extinction, they say. In fact, the authors say that these methods have already been used to identify species like the bird Bugun liocichla, which was discovered in India.