RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Cabinets of curiosities - that's what wealthy people in 18th and 19th centuries called the rooms they filled with everything from narwhal horns to preserved crocodiles. These collections became more formalized with biologists, like Charles Darwin, who brought back all kinds of crustaceans and insects and birds from distant lands. Even today, scientists collect specimens for study - it's routine. Too routine, some critics say. They believe scientific collection is helping drive some species towards extinction. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, this charge has provoked a strong reaction from universities and museums.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: To understand what a big deal specimen collecting is, I visited a vast warehouse-like room filled with dead birds - over half a million of them. They're stored inside tall stacks of metal cabinets. Helen James has pulled out some birds that are so colorful they almost seem to glow.
HELEN JAMES: The birds are showing their beautiful plumages, they're laid out like little soldiers in a row. We have some of the most amazing hummingbirds. Here's one with a long straight bill that's longer than the bird itself. Here is the smallest species of a reportorial bird - a tiny little falcon.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so how often does somebody, like, walk out here and open a cabinet and pull out a bird?
JAMES: Probably every hour.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: James is the curator in charge of birds at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. She says these specimens can help answer almost any question about birds you can think of - how these species evolved, how populations have changed over time, scientists can even take bits of specimens and use them to analyze the birds DNA or test for diseases or toxins. The oldest specimens date back to the 1840's but new ones are always arriving. James opens a big black case. It belongs to a colleague who just returned from Djibouti in Africa.
JAMES: So this is how it comes back from the field.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Underneath a layer of cotton is a tray of black and white birds pinned down so that they'll dry in the right position.
JAMES: And these three here are crab plovers. This is a very special addition to our collection because we do not have any modern genetic material of this family.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says this will help them finally figure out how this strange shorebird fits into the bird family tree. The Smithsonian doesn't just gather birds but also fish, insects, reptiles - the collections are huge. And James says, most of the world's species are still out there - unknown and waiting to be discovered. To her, the need for more collecting is obvious - so she was alarmed by a recent article. It appeared in the high profile journal "Science." Its message - collecting can sometimes be dangerous.
BEN MINTEER: There's a real concern here that there was an issue of scientific responsibility.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ben Minteer is an ethicist at Arizona State University and one of the article's authors. He argues that if an animal is rare and potentially threatened, scientists should think twice before they grab it and take it home.
MINTEER: You know, if we're dealing with very small populations where individuals really matter in these populations it doesn't take many researchers filling, you know, their specimen bags to have an impact.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Minteer started thinking about this because of a biologist named Robert Puschendorf. He works at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom. Last year, Puschendorf was doing fieldwork in the mountains of Costa Rica. When he heard that a tree frog that was once thought to be extinct had just been spotted.
ROBERT PUSCHENDORF: And a colleague of mine was telling us about it and he was really excited about it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That night they searched for this frog but had no luck. Then, in the morning, they heard that someone else had found one and collected it. That worried him.
PUSCHENDORF: I have collected lots of animals in the past and that's incredibly important but in this case I just thought, well this is just really not on because why do we actually need to take the animal right in this point in time when they're just starting to show up again, in our sight again, and you can actually be harming that population.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He and a colleague asked Minteer to help them sort out the ethics here. The group concluded that in this kind of situation biologists should leave the animals in the wild. They say, these days, there are alternatives for documenting a species - like sampling its DNA or taking photographs. To Minteer, this was a no-brainer.
MINTEER: The surprise for me was the degree to which some of the biologist community and the museum community felt that this was an all-out attack on what they do.
CAROLE BALDWIN: If we don't have the specimens then we can't obtain the data that we actually need to conserve the species.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Carole Baldwin is the curator in charge of the fish division at the Smithsonian. She studies life in coral reefs.
BALDWIN: Most of the organisms that I study, you're not just going to go out with a submersible or scuba gear or snorkel gear and get photographs. These things are living cryptically in reefs. It's not swimming out above the reef - it's down, deep inside.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says to study it you have to collect it.
BALDWIN: You're not going to come to me with photographs and DNA unless you've got a specimen.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Baldwin points out that laws and regulations already protect wildlife.
BALDWIN: It's getting harder and harder to get approval and permits to collect. And I think part of our concern is that articles, like the Minteer et al. article, sort of swing the balance in the wrong way in terms of public perception.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's why she joined over 100 other scientists from around the world to sign a letter that strongly defends the continued need for specimen collection. Helen James, the bird curator, also signed it.
JAMES: When it suggested that you should cease collecting because, maybe, there's a case when you don't know whether you might collect something rare - then that argues that we should cease collecting generally.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says scientific collection makes up just a tiny, tiny fraction of all the birds killed by people. Mostly, we destroy their habitat but that's not all.
JAMES: There are over a billion birds taken by domestic cats. There are half - over half a billion birds that fly into our buildings every year and die just in the U.S. And there, you know, a hundred million or more that are killed on our highways.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This kind of response makes Ben Minteer think that everyone is missing the point.
MINTEER: We're not claiming that scientific collection is a leading driver of extinction. That's a, sort of, absurd, sort of, hyperbolic interpretation of what we're saying.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They just wanted to raise awareness of a problem.
MINTEER: You know, it's one thing for a community to say, look we have a code of ethics, we abide by it, no responsible biologist would ever do this. You know, we think that those are all good things and good statements but it's harder to actually create a sort of ethical culture in the field when no one's looking - when no one's watching.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says biologist can't afford to be defensive. They need to have a real discussion about how to weigh the benefits of collecting a specimen with the risks. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.