Beyond parataxonomy? ( paracollecting? )

Jim Croft jrc at ANBG.GOV.AU
Thu Feb 18 08:23:01 CST 1993

The issue below emerged on the net and is relevant to several discussion
groups of a biological, curatorial, and collections management nature.

Like parataxonomy, and mass culling of museum and herbarium collections,
it is a suggestion that is likely to evoke a diversity of views and
opinion.  I would like to know what some of them are.

Included message follows:

> From: SShelton at
> Subject: scientific?
> Date: Wed, 17 Feb 93 10:25 CST
> Check out the sidebar article on P. 30 of the March 1993 issue of Scientific
> American. It describes an article by physicist and science fiction writer
> Gregory Benford, who, in last November's Proceedings of the National Academy
> of Sciences, is advocating the flash-freezing of samples of biota from
> endangered habitats. Gregory calls the process an "emergency salvaging
> operation" rather than a species inventory. According to the SA article,
> "Labels on the samples would state only their place of origin. No effort would
> be made to identify or describe the specimens. 'The main thing," he says, 'is
> to get the data and process them as soon as possible.'" (WHAT data?) "Benford
> argues that there are not enough taxonomists to catalogue a broad sample from
> the endangered regions. Yet nonspecialists could easily be trained to collect
> and freeze specimens."
> Later on, after discussing the need for DNA samples, the article quotes
> Benford as saying that "at the urging of the National Science Foundation...he
> plans to organize a small conference later this year to discuss the idea."
> I don't know how much clout Dr. Benford has, but I don't think he understands
> either collections or sampling, not to mention data capture. It seems to me
> that we need to respond professionally to this if we don't want to be seen as
> a group of incipient freezer technicians. I support the concern over
> maintaining samples of biodiversity as well as biodiversity itself, but this
> does not seem to me to be the way to build up a useful and meaningful
> collection. I have not yet seen the Proceedings article. Comments appreciated.
> Sally Shelton
Included message ends.

Given only the above background, I find this proposal a little naive,
and if it is not naive, then it is disturbing: disurbing in that there
is a lack off appreciation of the need for mechanisms to voucher and
accurately identify the organisms on which we work and which we base
environmental and conservation management decisions.

It could be argued that if organisms are going extinct that rapidly, the
analysis of their DNA is of academic interest only, especially so if no
comparative specimen was collected on which to base an indentification
and pass systematic judgement.

Perhaps the author was implying that at a later day biotechnicians could
use these undocumented, unidentified DNA samples to call species back
from extinction and recreate vanished biomes.  For many groups this is
still in the realm of science fiction (but then again, there have been
some remarkable successes in the cryogenic storage of some plant

I have no problem with the rapid sampling (cryopreservation or
whaterver) of endangered habitats, but the samples must be identified,
or at least identifiable, and this means the collection of scientific
specimens prepared in the standard manner for the group, and their
lodgement and curation in museums and herbaria.

The importance of collecting data can not be overemphasized.  The
locality is not enough - habitat, associated species, general
appearance, colours, local uses, etc., should all be accurately recorded
and tied to a scientific voucher specimen, not just a lump of plant or
animal tissue.

And the practical problems - what institutions, especially in third
world countries where much of the habitat threat occurs, have, or can
afford, the capacity to store millions of frozen specimens?

Yes, the problem of vanishing taxa and habitats is serious, but I do not
believe this proposal (as I understand it) offers a practicable

Jim Croft                  [Herbarium CBG]           internet: jrc at
Australian National Botanic Gardens                     voice:  +61-6-2509 490
GPO Box 1777, Canberra, ACT 2601, AUSTRALIA               fax:  +61-6-2509 599
____Biodiversity Directorate, Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service____

More information about the Taxacom mailing list